NFL Nation: Junior Galette

NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons eliminated them from playoff contention:

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'Feels like a funeral': The mood in the Saints' locker room was gloomy. Outside linebacker Junior Galette said he couldn't describe how he felt because he had never experienced this. Although the Saints had been up and down all season, Galette said he didn't see another disappointment coming Sunday.

"It sucks. We lost. Terrible year," Galette said. "I thought we'd be happy in the locker room right now, celebrating. Instead it feels like a funeral in here."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief said this loss didn't come down to a lack of energy like others the Saints had harped on before. But he said the execution clearly wasn't good enough.

And coach Sean Payton said the loss wasn't a head-scratcher. He said that once again, the Saints didn't consistently do the things they need to win -- although he pointed out it was a little different in that the defense played well for the most part and the offense wasn't good enough.

Falcons get last word: That funeral analogy was popular because Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis kicked off the week by saying he was hoping this game would become Atlanta's funeral. Those words obviously had an impact on the Falcons. Receiver Roddy White drew a personal foul by grabbing Lewis' face mask at one point, and after the game, White and Harry Douglas threw a few more jabs Lewis' way.

Lewis conceded afterward, saying, "They hate us, we hate them, but hats off to those guys. They came out here and fought. And they deserve to move on."

Brees on interception: Drew Brees said his interception with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by six was "about as bad a feeling as you can ever have as a quarterback."

Brees has had that feeling too many times this season. He has been very good at times, but his turnovers (14 picks, three lost fumbles) have killed the Saints in too many of these close games, which he called "frustrating and disappointing." Stay tuned for more on Brees and the offense.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said he expects to remain in a limited role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons as he continues to recover from a knee injury.

Although Galette never appeared on the injury report this week, he told reporters Friday that his knee still isn’t 100 percent and that he thinks it’s a “smart” approach to keep limiting his snaps. He played only 27 snaps on Monday night against the Chicago Bears in a pass-rushing role -- and still wound up with two sacks.

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“Probably the same thing going into this game. Kind of ease off the knee a little bit,” Galette said. “Right now my knee’s not 100 percent. So just being smart and making sure I’m not playing 60 snaps on half a knee.”

Three Saints players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game: Left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).

Of that group, Hicks seems to have the best chance of playing after he returned to practice on a limited basis Friday. Armstead and Sanford did not practice all week.

Armstead would be replaced in the starting lineup by Bryce Harris, who’s had some ups and downs in cameo appearances this season but played well in Armstead’s absence last week.

It’s unclear how the Saints will replace Sanford since he just replaced Kenny Vaccaro last week as the starting strong safety. Perhaps Vaccaro will return to that role in base packages and play his nickel/hybrid spot in nickel and dime packages. Other possibilities include Marcus Ball and Corey White.
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CHICAGO -- The New Orleans Saints shocked their season back to life once again Monday with a thorough 31-15 thrashing of a Chicago Bears team that was walking dead.

It was an impressive display of resilience from a team that had hit rock bottom just a week earlier with a 31-point loss at home to the Carolina Panthers.

But we've seen this act before from these Saints (6-8). Now the question is: Will they finally take advantage?

Will they finally build off a performance like this and come back with an even bigger win six days from now at home against the 5-9 Atlanta Falcons?

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast"Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Drew Brees said after passing for 375 yards and three TDs against the Bears.
Somehow, the Saints still control their own destiny in the pitiful NFC South. Now they need to prove they actually deserve it.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success, too," quarterback Drew Brees said after his 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions helped the Saints jump to a 21-0 lead before a lukewarm finish.

The last time the Saints took over sole possession of first place in the NFC South, in Week 9, they responded by losing their next three games -- all at home.

Then they had an apparent season-saving win at Pittsburgh in Week 13 -- and followed up with that epic fail against the Panthers.

"Oh, man, learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Brees said. "Typically when you lose a game, everybody's coming in and you're real hard on yourself, coaches are on you, that week of practice is amped up a little bit. But the tendency after success is to relax, and it's not time to relax.

"It's time to, man, hit the pedal to the metal and continue to get better."

The atmosphere around Saints camp last week was as intense as it's ever been in the Sean Payton regime, according to longtime running back Pierre Thomas. Veteran players demanded more maturity and professionalism out of the team. A couple of guys were demoted, another got cut and an increased sense of urgency was demanded from everyone.

And they delivered. Especially the defense, which had seemingly established itself as the worst in the NFL a week earlier (at least according to ESPN Stats & Information's efficiency ratings).

Sure, the abysmal Bears offense did everything but take a knee from the opening series. But the Saints pounced on quarterback Jay Cutler like a wounded animal with a season-high seven sacks and a season-high three interceptions.

At times, the performance was a bit sloppy on both sides of the ball. But it was fiery. Payton's opening statement after the game was, "I was pleased with the energy level" -- a complete 180 from the previous week, when he opened with the word "embarrassing."

"We had seven sacks today?" said Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks, who had his best individual play of the season when he sacked both Cutler and the offensive lineman who tried to get in between them. "I don't think anybody was counting. We were just trying to get in there and get some."

To a man, however, the Saints insisted that they can't be satisfied -- a problem that has plagued them too often this season.

Heck, it was probably the Saints' problem to start with, since so many people dumped Super Bowl expectations onto them.

"I'm proud of [the effort]," said Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who responded Monday night after being the one individual who was called out more publicly than any other. "At the same time, I shouldn't be proud of effort. It should be like that every game."

"We know how good we can be. We also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two sacks despite being limited by a knee injury.

"The message is always heard. We have the best coaches in the business," Galette said. "I just know on defense, we have a lot of young guys. It hasn't been as consistent as we usually are. Obviously, we have some growing pains.

"At the end of the day, we're still talented, and I still feel like we have a shot at this thing."

'The better Saints team showed up'

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
1:40
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CHICAGO -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears:

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Saints respond: The Saints (6-8) were challenged like never before -- both internally and externally -- after their "embarrassing" 41-10 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers last week. Coach Sean Payton made some roster changes, and he and veteran leaders demanded a sense of urgency. And they got it. Though it wasn't a perfect win, the first words out of Payton's mouth were, "I was pleased with the energy level."

"All year, you hear people saying that you don't know what team is gonna show up. The better Saints team showed up tonight," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two of the Saints' seven sacks. "We were hungrier and more desperate. ... When we play our A-game, we're hard to stop.

"We know how good we can be, but we also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year."

Vaccaro responds: No individual player was more publicly called out than safety Kenny Vaccaro, whose "demotion" turned out to be a switch back to the nickelback role he thrived in last year. Vaccaro wound up playing an estimated two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps -- and he played on all four special teams for the first time in his career. He came up with a huge run stuff when the Bears tried faking a punt.

Payton called Vaccaro's preparation and performance "outstanding." Vaccaro said it was easy for him to switch back to his familiar role, but he's still determined to develop as a true safety going forward. "This will probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally," Vaccaro said.

Upping the ante: Now the trick is bringing the same sense of urgency into next week's home date with the Atlanta Falcons (5-9), which could well decide the fate of the NFC South.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success too," quarterback Drew Brees said of a problem that has crept up often with the Saints this year. "Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Junior Galette said he didn’t get any "backlash" from teammates over comments he made about former players last week. But he said he did get feedback, as he gets after most interviews he does. And his most important takeaway was, "My teammates always have my back."

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"They always have my back regardless of what’s going on in the outside world. The locker room is always going to have my back, we’re gonna have each other’s back," said Galette, who caught some flak from former teammates after insisting the Saints’ defensive players were better than their predecessors.

Galette said it got blown up by the media, and he said he hasn’t really been on Twitter since then to hear the responses.

"I’m just here trying to get better each day and trying to be the best. So that’s all that really matters to me," Galette said.

Of course, there are other hurdles. Galette missed practice for the second straight day Friday with a knee injury that knocked him out of Sunday’s 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The exact nature of the injury is unknown, but it’s not believed to be serious since Galette returned to the game for a few snaps with the injury. And he was working off to the side with a trainer during Friday’s practice.

"It’s day to day right now, just taking it one day at a time," Galette said. "It felt better than it did yesterday."

And obviously the entire team is battling unprecedented on-field struggles, having lost four of the past five games -- all at home.

Galette, a first-year captain who is known for his passion and energy, said he doesn’t have a good explanation for what has been missing with the Saints this season after they came out flat once again.

"I don’t have the answers. I know that. I know for a fact I don’t have the answers," Galette said. "All I can do is go out there and give 100 percent, and if someone is down I’m gonna try to lift them up as much as I can and just be a leader on this team."

When asked if the team is "shell-shocked," Galette echoed the comments of veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief, who said this current team needs to learn just how hard it is to win in the NFL and that you can’t just show up.

"It’s the NFL, and if you don’t come out and play your A-game and [you] make mistakes, then I feel like if the opposing team is on their A-game then you can get exposed," Galette said. "I’ve seen teams -- I saw Oakland beat San Francisco the other day. So I’m not really shell-shocked. You have world-class athletes on both teams."
METAIRIE, La. -- There weren’t many names on the New Orleans Saints’ injury report – but they were big ones. Outside linebacker Junior Galette (knee) and left tackle Terron Armstead (neck) missed practice Thursday.

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Armstead said he expects to practice Friday and play on Monday night against the Chicago Bears, which is obviously welcome news for the Saints at such a key position.

Galette’s status is less certain, however. Galette wasn't present for the team stretch or individual drills that were open to the media.

Galette was able to return to the game after first suffering the unspecified injury last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. But he only played a handful of snaps in the third quarter before calling it a day.

Losing Galette would hurt since he has been the Saints’ top pass-rusher this season with a team-high seven sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Galette is also tied for the NFL lead with 43 QB hurries.

The Saints’ pass rush has been inconsistent this year even with Galette in the lineup, so they’d miss him. His primary backup is undrafted rookie Kasim Edebali, who has played well in small doses but lacks experience.

Only two players were listed as limited on the Saints’ injury report -- linebacker David Hawthorne (hip) and defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle).

That means cornerback Keenan Lewis, center Jonathan Goodwin and receiver Nick Toon bounced back after leaving last Sunday’s game early with injuries.
METAIRIE, La. -- With so much talk about the New Orleans Saints’ maturity and professionalism after their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, it’s natural to connect the dots to the controversial comments made by captain and outside linebacker Junior Galette late last week.

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Some current and former veterans chaffed at the way Galette belittled former leaders like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma by saying the current players are better than they were and, “it’s not even close.”

However, Saints offensive lineman and fellow captain Zach Strief -- one of the players who stood up for Smith and Vilma on Twitter -- insisted that the two issues aren’t related.

“I’m not talking about Junior [when talking about maturity and professionalism issues]. No, I’m talking about the way that this team plays, top to bottom,” said Strief, who had a great breakdown of the intensity that he feels is lacking from the team on game days, which I’ll post later today.

“I don’t think [Galette’s comments] are as big of an issue in the locker room as it is an issue for the guys that were here with those guys. My comment to that is in defense of teammates that I went through very special moments of my life with that I love and appreciate. … But I don’t feel like a rift in the locker room is the cause of our issues.”

Captain and veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton also said he doesn’t have any concern over fissures in the locker room.

“I think everybody’s on the same page. It’s just like any other team, you disagree, a lot of guys disagree with each other,” said Lofton, who had disagreed with safety Kenny Vaccaro’s decision to express some of his frustrations with the media last month. “But it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. I think we’ve been together and we’ll stay together. Either way we’re not gonna quit, we’re gonna keep going.”

Galette has not made himself available for comment since last Thursday.

From my outside view, it’s a tricky issue to pinpoint.

There’s no question that the leadership has changed drastically on the defensive side of the ball with younger, more outspoken and more brash players like Galette, Vaccaro, Cameron Jordan and Keenan Lewis joining Lofton as leaders in their respective position groups.

At the same time, I don’t know that anyone would question the work ethic or the intensity of those guys in particular. In fact, those appear to be strengths of all those players, even though they’re not getting the expected results on the field this year.

Clearly, though, the locker room dynamic has changed from years past and we’re seeing those growing pains play out on the football field.
METAIRIE, La. -- Lost in the aftermath of the New Orleans Saints' dreadful 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday were a handful of injuries to key players during the game.

Lewis
Cornerback Keenan Lewis (cramps), outside linebacker Junior Galette (leg), left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), center Jonathan Goodwin (leg) and receiver Nick Toon (unknown) all left the game at some point.

Goodwin said Monday morning that he'll be alright and just got kicked in the knee. We might not get any other updates on the injuries until the Saints return to practice on Thursday. But there is reason to hope that most of them are minor.

Galette returned to the game briefly in the third quarter, but he was noticeably hobbling down the field after running back Fozzy Whittaker during his 26-yard touchdown reception. And it didn’t appear as though Galette played again after that.

Lewis also did not appear to return after heading into the locker room in the third quarter, but if it was indeed just a cramping issue, he should be back for next Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears.

Armstead did not appear to play in the second half after he left the game early in the first half. But he was still suited up on the bench in the second half.

Meanwhile, running back Khiry Robinson played in only two offensive snaps in his return from an arm injury with no touches. It’s likely that Robinson would have seen more action if the game had played out differently. But their running backs only ran the ball 16 times in the blowout loss.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he thought it was “fairly silly” for outside linebacker Junior Galette to make comparisons between the Saints’ current and former defensive players on Thursday – especially the timing of it.

Galette drew the ire of some of those former players when he said the current players are “better than the guys we had. It’s not even close. Across the board.” Galette specifically mentioned former captains and Pro Bowl selections Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and referenced safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins.

“Listen, I read it,” Payton said. “And I’m guessing, A, it went five minutes too long, and I think that the focus should obviously be on our team. And let us when we’re 70 or 75 sit around a fire and debate who was what. But right now, this is still being in-season here, and currently we’re 5-7, and this is a big game, and we’ve been inconsistent. So obviously I think it’s not the right time or it’s fairly silly to try to make comparisons to teams of past or specifically to players of past. That’s my opinion. And look, like I said, it probably went five minutes too long.”

Galette didn’t make himself available to reporters on Friday to follow up on the comments.

Some current teammates also weighed in on Twitter by supporting the former veterans.

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

The New Orleans Saints (5-7) have had some extreme highs and lows this season. But they've got nothin' on the Carolina Panthers (3-8-1), who haven't won a game in two months.

The last time these NFC South rivals met in Carolina in Week 9, the Saints ran away with a 28-10 victory. New Orleans can't take anything for granted, however, as it lost three straight home games in Weeks 10-12 before bouncing back with an impressive win at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

It's a shame this rivalry turned out to be such a dud after they were two of the NFC's best teams in 2013. But then again, because of the sorry state of the NFC South this year, they're still both in the title hunt again.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Panthers haven't won since Week 5. Any reason to believe they can turn it around this week?

Newton: Has it been that long? Seems like only yesterday they beat the Chicago Bears on Oct. 5. Kidding, of course. As for your question, there are reasons the Saints shouldn't overlook the Panthers. The first game was 0-0 until late in the first quarter, when quarterback Cam Newton fumbled at his own 4. Then there was a 32-yard pass interference penalty late in the first half by cornerback Antoine Cason, who was cut on Tuesday, that led to a 14-0 Saints lead. If the Panthers can stop shooting themselves in the foot, they have a chance.

They held Minnesota to 210 yards on Sunday, but two first-half blocked punts returned for touchdowns never gave them a chance. The running game produced 178 yards against Minnesota. New Orleans still seems susceptible to the run. Do I believe the Panthers can put together a complete game and beat New Orleans? No. Particularly on the road. I also didn't see the Saints losing their last three home games, though.

Mike, it appears when Drew Brees isn't throwing to the other team, the Saints are a dangerous team, as we saw with his five-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh. Why has he been so inconsistent and how big a key is he to the Saints' success?

Triplett: You nailed his biggest issue -- and really his only major drawback this year. Brees is still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 36 touchdowns and a NFL-best 70.3 completion percentage. And you saw last week what he's still capable of. But he's had way too many turnovers (11 interceptions, two lost fumbles), and most of them have come in big moments in close games. Brees even was booed at home last month after an ugly interception before halftime.

I think the issue is that he's pressing too much. In so many weeks he has had to do it all by himself because the Saints' defense has been one of the worst in the NFL (along with the rest of the NFC South). We saw how much better he looked last Sunday because New Orleans' defense kept the game close early and gave Brees the ball back twice with two huge turnovers.

David, are we seeing a similar issue with Newton? From afar, it seems like he has really regressed this season.

Newton: It goes beyond Newton pressing because the defense has struggled. Much of it has to do with injuries to the offensive line and running backs, particularly the line. That group was inexperienced to start with, then injuries forced young players onto the field before they were ready. The Panthers will have the same five starting for the second straight week, which I don't believe has happened since early in the season.

But back to Newton, it appears he has gotten back into old habits of throwing off his back foot and running before going through his progressions. He has lost that swagger and confidence, and it seems to impact his decision-making and accuracy. He's still a threat because of his ability to run. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in the first meeting. But for Carolina to have a chance on Sunday he's going to have to find that swagger.

I saw where Jimmy Graham went without a catch against Pittsburgh. He has been a thorn in Carolina's side, catching seven passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. What did the Steelers do so well against him?

Triplett: Depends on your definition of "do well." The Steelers actually paid too much attention to Graham, shadowing him with an extra safety for most of the game, usually Troy Polamalu. It worked in the sense that Graham wasn't even targeted once for the first time since 2012. But it opened things up for everyone else with receiver Kenny Stills gaining 162 yards, running back Mark Ingram rushing for 122 yards and five different players catching TD passes.

Obviously the Saints want more from Graham, but it's pick your poison. Defenses have been more successful this year when they sit back in coverage and let Graham catch a lot of underneath stuff. The Saints have put up great offensive statistics all season (first in the NFL in completion percentage and third-down percentage, second in yards). But they've struggled with turnovers and red-zone stalls when they're forced to go on 12- and 15-play drives.

What do you expect from Carolina's defensive approach in this game? And what's their best bet against Graham?

Newton: It'll be interesting. There could be two rookie starters, cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston -- Benwikere for sure after the Panthers released Cason. But the key will be pressure. The Panthers sacked Brees four times in the first game and held him to one touchdown. They didn't do a great job against Graham. To bring pressure meant using linebacker Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly on some blitzes because the front four hasn't been able to do it alone, as was the case last season. Those two typically would be around Graham a lot more. But if Brees isn't under pressure, it won't matter how good the coverage is. It begins and ends there.

What did you learn from the Oct. 30 game between these teams that you expect to make an impact on this one?

Triplett: My lasting image from that game was how woefully off-target Newton was with his passing (10-of-28). He was airmailing guys left and right, which obviously gave the Saints plenty of time to get rolling. At the same time, Newton was able to hurt the Saints when he took off running (five runs of 8 yards or more, including a touchdown).

So to me, the obvious key for New Orleans is to keep Newton in the pocket and make him throw. The Saints' four-man pass rush has been spotty this season (just as you described with Carolina). But they were vastly improved last week at Pittsburgh, with bookends Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette leading the way. Those two have combined for a whopping 10 sacks in their last three meetings with Carolina. They need to keep it up.

PITTSBURGH -- I gave my game ball to QB Drew Brees. But the biggest play of the New Orleans Saints’ 35-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers came courtesy of defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Early in the third quarter, Jordan tipped up a pass at the line of scrimmage, intercepted it himself and returned it 6 yards to Pittsburgh’s 15-yard line.

It was just the second time all season that the Saints took possession inside the opponent's 20-yard line. And two plays later, New Orleans scored a touchdown to go ahead 21-6.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
AP Photo/Don WrightKenny Vaccaro sparked the Saints on Sunday with this interception that led to an 80-yard TD drive.
“That was the play of the game. I told him on the sideline, we needed that bad,” said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who then stood up for Jordan, who has been having a quiet season as a pass-rusher with just five sacks after making his Pro Bowl debut last year.

“I told you during the week, [Jordan is a] Pro Bowl-caliber player, and those plays are gonna come for him,” Galette said. “He balled out today.”

Earlier in the game, the Saints got a similar big play from another highly touted but underachieving defensive playmaker, safety Kenny Vaccaro, who snagged his second interception of the season. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger overthrew a deep ball in the end zone, and Vaccaro grabbed it and hung on before being tackled.

The momentum shift sparked an 80-yard touchdown drive and a 14-6 lead.

“I don’t know, just made a play, man. It’s about time,” Vaccaro said. “I couldn’t even get excited, man, because that’s what I expect from myself every game. So I really just went on to the next play, was glad I got a turnover for Drew.”

Those two plays were the type New Orleans’ defense has so sorely lacked this season. The Saints entered Sunday’s game ranked 29th in the NFL with just 11 takeaways. And they still have the longest drought in the NFL without a defensive touchdown (since 2012).

But they were incredibly clutch on this day. And even before those two takeaways, Vaccaro said he was even more proud of the way the Saints played “bend but don’t break” defense early in the game, holding Pittsburgh to just two field goals over its first four drives.

“We faced a little adversity, but we kept pressing,” Vaccaro said. “The D-line did a great job, Rob [Ryan] called it good and coach [Sean] Payton made sure our heads were in the game the whole time.”

Roethlisberger looked surprisingly off target through the first 35 minutes -- though a hand injury late in the first quarter exacerbated his problems.

Still, it was clear that New Orleans’ pass coverage held up much better than it had in recent weeks, with Roethlisberger repeatedly missing receivers or throwing the ball away out of frustration.

Roethlisberger started the game 9-of-24 passing for 126 yards, with two interceptions, in the first 35 minutes.

The only thing that would have made the Saints’ start better? More turnovers. Cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White each dropped possible interceptions -- with Robinson dropping a sure touchdown opportunity that bounced right off his stomach.

Robinson actually missed multiple interception opportunities in the game -- though he was credited with three passes defensed as a result.

“P-Rob should be NFL player of the week [if he had hung on to those picks],” Vaccaro said.

The Saints’ other lament was their poor finish, with Pittsburgh scoring 16 points over the final 2:34 to make the final score look closer than it appeared. Stay tuned for more on the Saints’ thoughts about still needing to finish.

W2W4: Saints at Steelers

November, 29, 2014
Nov 29
2:00
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METAIRIE, La. -- It’s not often that the New Orleans Saints enter a game as such clear underdogs.

But they haven’t won a game yet in November. They’re 0-3 against the AFC North this year. And they haven’t won at Pittsburgh since 1987.

So needless to say, the Saints (4-7) will have to clean up a lot of areas as they try to turn their season around Sunday on the road against the 7-4 Steelers.

Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

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Get to Roethlisberger: This is a daunting matchup for New Orleans’ struggling defense, to say the least. The Steelers feature one of the NFL’s hottest quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger), receivers (Antonio Brown) and dual-threat running backs (Le’Veon Bell). And Roethlisberger has been especially dangerous at home, where he’s averaging 361.2 yards per game this season with a total of 18 touchdowns and just one interception.

The good news for the Saints is that top cornerback Keenan Lewis is closer to 100 percent health -- which could make for some enticing showdowns against Brown. But the rest of the Saints’ embattled secondary will have its hands full with Pittsburgh’s other big-play threats.

So the key for New Orleans will be a vastly improved performance from its four-man pass rush, which has been too inconsistent. I agree with outside linebacker Junior Galette, who says it’s on New Orleans’ front four to lead them out of their funk.

“We have a lot of young guys playing [in the secondary]. Not to make excuses, but we have a lot of growing pains, that’s what you’re gonna get,” Galette said. “So when you have a lot of young guys, I’ll tell the guys up front, we have to play that much better. Now we’ve gotta exceed all expectations. And we haven’t done that up front. So I put that on us, because we know who we have on the back end, so we have to help our DBs. I still feel like we have the advantage up front with Cam [Jordan] and I.”

Protect Brees: On the flip side, the Saints have to take advantage of the fact that Pittsburgh’s pass rush has also been lackluster this season. The Saints’ offensive line arguably had its worst performance of the year this past Monday against Baltimore, with quarterback Drew Brees being sacked four times and being hit as he threw a pick-six. The Saints need to bounce back quickly -- especially in a louder road environment.

The Saints should have a little more success rushing the ball this week than they did against Baltimore’s stifling run front. But the Steelers aren’t shabby in that department, featuring the same type of big, physical 3-4 front. So once again, New Orleans will be relying on Brees to be Superman.

Handle the conditions: The Saints were able to quiet the incessant talk about how they can’t win on the road with a thorough 28-10 victory at Carolina in Week 9. But the fact remains that they’re 1-4 on the road this year and 3-10 over their past 13 road games. Temperatures are expected to be in the 50s, which isn’t bad. But as coach Sean Payton acknowledged, wind, possible rain and Pittsburgh’s thicker grass field will all add to the degree of difficulty.

“I think we kind of went through that in Carolina,” Payton said when asked about dealing with outdoor elements. “I think the surface here will probably be a little sloppier. It sounds like low 50s, good chance of rain. There’s always a wind there that you have to be mindful of. You pay extra attention to the footing, what type of cleats you’re wearing, and you’ll make sure you get acclimated pregame.”

W2W4: 49ers at Saints

November, 8, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers haven’t been in the same division since 2001. But it’s hard to tell, since they will be meeting for the fourth time in four years on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

San Francisco won the first two, but New Orleans finally found a way to win last season, scratching out a patient, come-from-behind 23-20 victory in the Superdome. Although the 49ers (4-4) are struggling a bit coming into this season's rematch, the Saints (4-4) aren’t about to take them lightly. They are prepared for a similar slugfest.

Here is What 2 Watch 4:

Brees
Patient offense: The 49ers' defense is light on star power (Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman aren’t playing and Patrick Willis is highly questionable). But they still cause major headaches for opposing offenses by forcing them to patiently churn out long drives. Saints coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer all pointed out this week how effective the 49ers are at preventing big passing plays by usually devoting both safeties to coverage.

The 49ers rank third in the NFL in pass defense (206.3 yards per game), they have allowed the fewest passing plays of 20 yards or more this season (18), and they are tied for ninth in the league in interceptions (9).

"They’re opportunistic. I’d say unlike other teams that take a bunch of chances in order to create turnovers and then become susceptible to big plays," Brees said. "They’re making offenses earn it all the way down the field, knowing that they play this physical brand of football and eventually they’re going to get one."

Jones
Kaepernick
Corralling Kaepernick in the pocket: The biggest stunner with the 49ers is that their elusive quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times over the past two games behind an offensive line that usually ranks among the NFL’s best.

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he’s not reading too much into that, saying "something was in the water that night" when Kaepernick was sacked eight times by the St. Louis Rams. But the Saints do consider their pass rush among their top priorities now that it has finally started to thrive after a poor start. The Saints have 12 sacks over the past 13 quarters.

"I feel like they’re gonna come in here and try to pound the rock on us. We gotta stop it so we can do what we do best," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who leads the Saints with six sacks. "I still believe that what we do best is we get after the quarterback with our four-man rush."

Corralling Kaepernick outside the pocket: Kaepernick is arguably the NFL’s most dynamic rushing threat among quarterbacks. The Saints need to be better at containing him than they were against the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton in last week’s otherwise-dominant 28-10 victory. Newton had five runs of 8 yards or more (three scrambles under pressure and two designed runs).

"It looks great on paper like, 'We got him.' But those talented players just seem to make plays. And unfortunately three of them were on third down," Ryan said of Newton. "We had the coverage real tight ... Junior beat the guard in a about a half a second, maybe faster. But you say one thing, but you gotta go out and do it. And I thought we did an excellent job on Cam most of the night. But those three (plays), those are three first downs, one was a critical run in the end zone. So we have to do better."
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The New Orleans Saints (4-4) and San Francisco 49ers (4-4) are meeting in the middle.

Both teams are .500, although they've been moving in opposite directions, with New Orleans winning two straight and San Francisco losing two straight en route to their showdown Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But the Saints will hardly take the 49ers lightly, since they've turned into one of their biggest nemeses in recent years.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Paul, I was stunned to see the 49ers had given up 14 sacks over the past two weeks. I've always considered that offensive line as their strength. I know you've dissected it quite a bit already this week, but what's the sense going forward? Is that a bit of an anomaly, or is it a genuine weakness as they head into the Superdome?

Gutierrez: Look at it this way: The projected line of LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis got to play together for all of one quarter this season. And now a rookie, Marcus Martin, is at center after Kilgore's season-ending broken left ankle suffered in Denver two games back. This is not an anomaly; this is a problem. Because while they have given up 14 sacks over the past two games, including a career-high eight of Colin Kaepernick to the Rams, the protection issues started well before Games 7 and 8.

Kaepernick has been sacked at least three times in five games. Only Jacksonville has taken at least three sacks more often, with six such games. And Niners quarterbacks have been sacked on 8.6 percent of their dropbacks this season, second only to those same Jaguars. That rate is the Niners' worst since 2008, when it was 9.3 percent. Staley raised eyebrows when he blamed "dumb schemes" along with "dumb blocks" and "dumb techniques" in the locker room following the loss to the Rams.

It seems like the Saints' offense is starting to show some semblance of its former high-powered self. Is this fool's gold, or have Drew Brees & Co. finally gotten their legs under themselves? If so, what's been the kick-starter there?

Triplett: It's legit. In fact, the Saints' offense was playing better than people realized when they started 2-4. They rank first in the NFL in yards per play and offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Their biggest problem has been turnovers: Brees has thrown eight interceptions, and they've lost a whopping seven fumbles.

Other than that, Brees has been sharp. He leads the NFL in completion percentage, and he has finally started to hit on deep balls over the past three weeks. More importantly, the Saints are as balanced as they've ever been in the Brees-Sean Payton era, with the run game turning into a real strength. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards two weeks ago against Green Bay and another 100 last week at Carolina. With other diverse weapons such as Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, they're as "pick your poison" as ever. The "kick-starter" has probably been the improved play of the defense, which has been forcing more turnovers and giving the Saints' offense even more opportunities.

How is Kaepernick playing specifically? Last week, the Saints defense was halfway successful against another dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton. He broke off five long runs -- but he did zip as a passer, which allowed New Orleans to dominate in a 28-10 win.

Gutierrez: Up and down. Down and up. In a word, inconsistent. I would not say he's regressed, per se, but he has not progressed as much as many observers thought he would by now, or as much as the 49ers hoped he would, so to speak. He put on a show on "Monday Night Football" at St. Louis last month, but then seemed out of it against the same team despite the Niners coming out of their bye week.

Early on, it seemed as though the 49ers were trying to make him more of a pure pocket-passer and wanted him to eschew the run, even as that's what made him such a dual-threat quarterback. He can throw a fastball like no other, but he is still showing a lack of touch on certain passes, especially the corner fade to Michael Crabtree. Hey, if he connects with him on that throw, the Niners are probably two-time defending Super Bowl champs.

But as mentioned earlier, it's tough for him to progress when he's on the run so often, if not already on his back. A number of drops by normally sure-handed receivers has hurt, too.

Such is the lot for an NFL quarterback, though -- too much credit when things are going well, too much blame when they're not. I asked him after Sunday's loss how hard it was to do his job when under such duress, and he said, "That's why I'm here, to make plays regardless of the situation. I have to be better back there."

The Saints don't seem to have a particularly fearsome pass rush -- 17 sacks in eight games -- but the Rams had only six coming into last week before sacking Kaepernick eight times. Is New Orleans' pass rush especially dependent on the coverage skills of the secondary, or do the Saints have playmakers who can get to the quarterback without gimmicks or blitzes?

Triplett: The Saints' pass rush has been the most improved aspect of their team over the past month. Twelve of those sacks have come over the past 13 quarters. That's how it was supposed to be, since the strength of New Orleans' defense last year was Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and their ability to generate pressure with just a four-man rush. They sacked Newton four times last week, including a game-changing sack-fumble by Galette in the second quarter.

Of course, it helps when the coverage is solid, but it was more of the opposite effect in the first month of the year, when the pass rush was giving quarterbacks too much time to pick apart a shaky secondary. The Saints have one outstanding corner in Keenan Lewis, while the other corners have steadily improved after a rough start.

What about the 49ers' defense? Their sack totals are down as well (only 13 all season). Has the defense overall taken a step back this year?

Gutierrez: If we're talking Q rating, then yes, the 49ers' defense is down. The unit is missing nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and three All-Pro linebackers in Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, whose suspension still has one game to go. As a result, the defense has not been as fearsome as in years past. But it has not been a dog, either. In fact, it's been more than admirable. The defense has not been the problem this season; the blame rests mainly with the offense. So even when the defense gets its three star linebackers back in the fold and another former starter on the line, that's not really going to help the offense.

Still, the thought of Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch, who could supplant Ahmad Brooks as a nickel rusher, teaming up could cause headaches for offensive coordinators. Maybe, just maybe, a fresh defense could be just what a conflicted Niners offense needs at this juncture.

Tough question, I know, but is the organization finally over the stigma of Bountygate, or is it a cross it loves to bear, so to speak, by using that whole "us against the world" mentality?

Triplett: That really feels like an afterthought, to be honest. I'm sure it will always exist on some level, but it's not the motivational tool that drives this team on a weekly basis anymore. Especially not this year, when the message after their 2-4 start was that they can't rely on any of their past successes, either.

In general, though, Payton's "maverick" mentality as a fiery motivator and aggressive offensive schemer will always shape this team's personality. So they will always be a team that plays with that edge, for a number of reasons.

 
METAIRIE, La. -- The latest sign of the New Orleans Saints' defensive resurgence? Outside linebacker Junior Galette was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Saints’ 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Thursday.

Galette
Galette had two sacks, including a critical forced fumble when the game was still scoreless in the second quarter -- though Galette was the first to admit teammates Cam Jordan and Tyrunn Walker helped set that one up on a day when the entire defensive front found its rhythm.

This is Galette’s first career Player of the Week award, adding to a banner season in which he was also named a team captain for the first time and signed a four-year contract extension worth between $41.5 million and $48 million.

Galette leads the Saints with six sacks.

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