NFL Nation: Junior Galette

METAIRIE, La. -- In their first meeting with the Seattle Seahawks last month, the New Orleans Saints essentially decided to take away Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch and force quarterback Russell Wilson to beat them.

And he did.
Wilson had one of the best games of his young NFL career in Seattle's 34-7 rout, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns and running for 47 yards. The Saints talked a lot before that matchup about how dangerous Wilson is outside of the pocket -- both running the ball and throwing the ball after he starts scrambling. But they've since admitted that he was even better than they expected at doing that against them.

This time around, containing Lynch and Wilson will be priorities 1A and 1B.

Here's what the Saints have been saying this week about Wilson:

S Malcolm Jenkins: “I would call him an elite quarterback. And the reason I say that is because he's not just -- him being mobile is not the only dimension. He actually goes through his reads. He changes protections. He can scramble. And then when he does scramble he's not just trying to run, he's trying to buy time to throw down the field. And that progression is unique. Most people who scramble usually read one or two receivers, then they're trying to get out of the pocket.

“He's reading, scrambling, and then going back to reading down the field. And that presents a huge problem for a secondary guy when you've got to cover him for four or five seconds. My grandmother can get open under that time. And I think that's what makes him elite. He's really the only person that has that whole package, I think, in the NFL. I think he does it better than anybody.”

OLB Junior Galette: “I think that was the first time we really played a quarterback like Russell. I personally didn't know that he was that small and really that elusive. ... You can get to him, but it's finishing the job. So right now, we're more concerned about just keeping him in that little pocket and making him play like he's 5-9 or however tall he is (actually 5-11).”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "He was exceptional. My previous experience against him was the second week he ever started (when Ryan was with Dallas in 2012). So obviously he's come a long way from there. I see him as a premier quarterback in this league. We all see it. And we have to be excellent and at the top of our game to slow this guy down.”

DE Cameron Jordan: “Of course, you have to be aware of Russell Wilson and his ability to make plays longer and really get out of the pocket and not even scramble for more yards, but make plays down the field. He's a great quarterback and we have to be aware of that. ... That's going to primarily be our job, not only keep pressure on him but keep him in the pocket.”

Ryan: “I think we have to get pressure on him. We've got to attack the pocket. And we have to do a better job of keeping him contained. A lot of that was on me, how we went through some three-man rush, and he definitely exploited that. And then when we came with all-out pressure, he made the throws, and we didn't quite execute the coverage. So it made for an awfully long evening out there. And we're looking to do better than that, and we will.”

Galette: “I feel like playing him the week before Carolina helped us, knowing that Cam (Newton) was just as explosive and elite (with his) running style, and we did a good job on him. So that boosts our confidence.”
METAIRIE, La. -- With receiver Percy Harvin back in the lineup, the Seattle Seahawks' offense is now even more versatile and dangerous than it was when the New Orleans Saints faced Seattle last month.

It is a scary thought, considering the Saints' defense already had more problems against the Seahawks in that 34-7 loss in Week 13 than it has had against any other offense all season. The teams meet again Saturday in the playoffs.

"I know he's an elite player when he's healthy, so absolutely [he adds a degree of difficulty]," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Harvin, a fast and elusive receiver who has played in only one game this season because of a lingering hip injury. "He's had a couple weeks to get healthy and get back with [offensive coordinator Darrell] Bevell and that offense, and they do a great job. And they do a hell of a job of using all of his talents. One time he's lining up at running back and at receiver. And hell, they'll put him at center, probably, and hike the ball. So he's all over the place.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints know they will have to keep track of versatile Seattle receiver Percy Harvin on Saturday.
"We know who he is, and we'll have him identified, and we'll do a great job."

Added Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins: "He definitely adds a lot of unknown to their offense. And he accounts for a lot of explosive plays when he's in there. So I'm sure we'll see something exotic with him."

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, however, insisted that he isn't worried about Harvin's presence, because he has so much faith in the way cornerback Keenan Lewis has performed against top receivers throughout this season. Lewis is expected to play Saturday, despite suffering a concussion last week.

"We have Keenan Lewis, who's been shutting guys down all year," Galette said. "So we probably won't see much of [Harvin]."

With or without Harvin, the Seahawks create some of the most unique challenges in the league for opposing defenses.

Quarterback Russell Wilson is elusive, and he is just as dangerous throwing outside of the pocket as he is running the ball -- a painful lesson the Saints learned time and time again in that first meeting, when he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and ran eight times for 47 yards.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks also feature one of the league's most punishing runners in Marshawn Lynch, who breaks a ton of tackles and becomes even harder to stop once he reaches the second level of the defense (another painful lesson the Saints learned, this time during the infamous "BeastQuake" run in their Jan. 8, 2011, playoff meeting).

The Saints admittedly focused too much on containing Lynch in the first meeting this season. They did hold him to 45 yards on 16 carries, but they overreacted to him at times and made more discipline errors than they have in any other game this season. A lot of the Seahawks' big plays came off play-action fakes or when the Saints overpursued in the backfield.

"We had aggressively planned on attacking their run game, which we did for the most part," Ryan said. "But anything other than that, we did not execute very well.”

When asked what the Saints learned from that first meeting, Ryan said, "Pretty much everything."

"We really didn't play our style of game at all," Ryan said. "I think that's really the only game that I just don't think we were ourselves at all. Whatever it was, we made mental mistakes, we made fundamental mistakes, some technique things. We pride ourselves on playing the game the right way. I don't think we really did that.

"Obviously the execution of their quarterback was something to be seen. Hopefully he doesn't have that type of game against us again, or we're in big trouble."

Galette said the Saints did learn from those mistakes. He said it was a confidence boost for the Saints when they played much more disciplined and effective against the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton in Weeks 14 and 16 (a 31-13 victory and a 17-13 loss).


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Just like it played out in the NFC South standings this season, it was a neck-and-neck battle for supremacy between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers when it came to ESPN.com’s All-NFC South team. Ultimately, the Panthers edged the Saints with 10 representatives, compared to New Orleans’ nine.

I don’t have many arguments with the list. The two Saints I would add are safety Kenny Vaccaro and guard Ben Grubbs, but I understand why it was a close call with both players. I think the safety position was the hardest to judge by far, with four candidates in a virtual deadlock for two spots (Vaccaro, Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell and Atlanta’s William Moore). The outside linebacker position was also ridiculously stacked, with the Saints’ Junior Galette missing out only because Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Carolina’s Thomas Davis were so sensational. Galette was easily a top-10 defensive player in the division, but he played the wrong position.

I was glad to see that Saints end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton received proper recognition for the Saints’ remarkable defensive performance this year -- especially since the defense overall was much more stacked than the offense in the NFC South this year (with a total of 12 players to account for various fronts).

I was pretty stunned at the lack of dominant skill-position players this season. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams was the division’s leading rusher with just 843 rushing yards. The Saints who made the list on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston, right tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans -- were all worthy selections. The same for punter Thomas Morstead.

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints were well represented with five Pro Bowl selections: quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Jordan is the only first-timer of the bunch, and his selection was well-deserved during a breakout season. The third-year pro has 12.5 sacks, which ranks fourth in the NFL. And he has arguably been the MVP of the defense, which has undergone a remarkable makeover this year.

Earlier Friday, Jordan admitted he was excited about the idea of being selected to his first Pro Bowl – but said he’d rather skip it in favor of a trip to his first Super Bowl.

“To make it would be a pretty good thing -- I can't lie. It'd be a nice thing to say I popped into Hawaii,” Jordan said. “But the ideal situation is I'd rather be freezing in New York than being lei'd in Hawaii."

The biggest snub on the list, in my opinion, is cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has been every bit as important to the defensive resurgence as Jordan. Lewis, who arrived as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been a true No. 1 corner, being matched up weekly against the opponent’s top receiver in man coverage. And he’s a huge reason why the Saints have gone from 31st in the NFL in pass defense last year to second this year.

As I wrote earlier, however, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Lewis left out since he hasn’t gotten much national recognition this year, and since there are so many big names at the position. The same goes for outside linebacker Junior Galette, who also missed the cut despite 10 sacks this year.

Brees and Graham are no-brainer selections, putting up monster numbers as usual this season.

Evans and Grubbs were bigger question marks heading into Friday’s announcement, since they both battled some inconsistency during the first half of the season for an offensive line that is having a down year overall. But they are both well-established veterans and former Pro Bowlers who get to flash a lot of versatility for one of the NFL’s top offenses. They’re excellent in pass protection, athletic enough to get out in front of screen passes and solid as run blockers.

This year’s Pro Bowl was the first under a new format where players are selected regardless of their conference. And teams will be picked via a “schoolyard” draft by team captains in January. That means Jordan might be trying to get past Evans and Grubbs to sack Brees in the game -- assuming they’re not all in New York together that week.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
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Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing – neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off a two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one – or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage – bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the 5 yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete – Vaccaro – who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day-to-day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

Exuberant Galette having breakout year

December, 12, 2013
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Junior GaletteDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsIt would be safe to say that fourth-year linebacker Junior Galette loves his job.
METAIRIE, La. -- I don't think I've ever covered a player who came into the NFL with more unbridled enthusiasm than New Orleans Saints linebacker Junior Galette did as an undrafted rookie out of Division II Stillman College in Alabama. Galette had passion that could be seen with his relentless effort on the practice field. And often heard -- with emotional reactions after both good and bad plays.

I vividly remember Galette talking a mile a minute the first time I interviewed him during that 2010 training camp.

"This is the dream. This is like a one-in-a-million shot. Man, I'm with the world champions, you understand? The first day I got here, I was like, 'Did I just break the huddle with Drew Brees? I was just playing with him in 'Madden,'" Galette, who spent one season at Stillman after running into trouble at Temple, said that summer.

"It's just the opportunity of a lifetime, and I'm living every day like it's my last day. That's why I'm out here every day, jumping around and spirited, and guys are like, 'What's wrong with him? It's 110 degrees out here.' And I'm just like, 'Man, you guys don't even know what I just went through to get here.'"

Four years into Galette's NFL career, not much has changed.

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan, Junior Galette, and Cam Newton
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPanthers quarterback Cam Newton couldn't escape Junior Galette and his buddy Cameron Jordan (94) on Sunday night.
Well, except for the fact that he's now a breakout starter who sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton three times this past Sunday night -- something most people can't even pull off on "Madden."

"Every year I go into it like, 'This is my year.' That's my mindset," said Galette, who grew up in Haiti before moving to New York around the age of 10. "Rookie year, I wasn't playing, I came in, 'This is my year I have to perform.' That has to be your mindset. It takes time. Everybody has the road that they walk on, and this is my road right now and I'm embracing it one day at a time."

This type of potential was always evident in Galette, who now has a career-high nine sacks for the Saints' revitalized defense. As a situational pass-rusher, the 6-foot-2, 258-pounder had 4.5 sacks in 2011 and five sacks last year. But as dynamic as he was, he was also still a little raw and one-dimensional.

When asked if he has gotten substantially better this year -- or if he has just gotten more of an opportunity -- Galette said, "I think it's a little bit of both."

One of the primary reasons for Galette's enhanced role was necessity after veteran pass-rushers Will Smith and Victor Butler suffered season-ending knee injuries during the summer. But even before those injuries, Saints coaches such as Sean Payton, Joe Vitt and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had all suggested both publicly and privately that they thought Galette might be ready to make this kind of leap.

"I came in a perfect situation, to come in when this young man's just finally hitting his stride," Ryan said this summer -- comparing Galette to former Oakland Raiders star Derrick Burgess, who had a breakout season under Ryan in 2005.

"When Rob got here, he actually called me," Galette said Wednesday. "He said he's looking at this film and didn't really know who I was before. And he was like, 'Wow, you can be special.'

"I'm like, 'Man, this guy's just building my confidence up.' Because I know I believed it. But then for him to actually act on it and put me out there and say, 'You're gonna be a starter, we want you to be a starter here,' it feels really good."

Galette and third-year end Cameron Jordan have played off each other brilliantly this season. Jordan, a former first-round draft pick who is more of a power rusher, is having an even bigger breakout in the national spotlight with a career-high 11.5 sacks. But they often work in tandem -- like on Galette's first sack last Sunday.

On that play, Galette flushed Newton out of the pocket. But when Newton ran into Jordan's path, he retreated back into Galette's grasp.

Both players are also quick to give credit to the consistent push the defensive line is getting this year -- as well as the standout coverage from the secondary that's buying them time up front.

"We spoke about it for quite a while now, ever since Cam [Jordan] got drafted," Galette said. "I used to speak with Cam his rookie year, I was like, man, I knew he was a beast. But obviously you have to wait for certain things to happen for us to be playing at the same time.

"We've been speaking about it for a while. But it's actually happening. So it's kind of a surreal feeling. But at the same time, it's like we knew it was gonna happen, like we called it. We really did. We knew that he has the power and all the skill set to beat any tackle in this league. And I come off the edge with speed and push the pocket. And then you got guys in the middle that can actually press the pocket better than any interior D-linemen that we've had here."

See what I mean about that unbridled enthusiasm?

Galette has matured over the past four years. In the past, he explained his trouble at Temple as a series of "boneheaded mistakes," including personality clashes with coaches and an incident in which his cousin was arrested for stealing laptop computers from the dorm while staying with Galette.

But as Galette has grown up, that passion has never wavered.

"He's obviously come a long way," Payton said when asked to think back to his early impressions of Galette. "He was a free agent we looked closely at. We saw speed and athleticism in the player. To his credit, he came into a real good locker room and really made this his No. 1 priority. That sounds like a given, but where he's at now is because he had a vision, and he worked extremely hard to put himself in that position.

"I think that each year he has gotten better. He's extremely focused on his position and on his job."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
11:38
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NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

What it means: This win was about as big as it could get for the Saints. At 10-3, they’re now in great position to win the NFC South and secure the conference's No. 2 seed. Just as important, they quickly got their mojo back after a humbling loss at Seattle six nights ago. Not that there was any concern that the Saints lacked confidence. But to come out and give such a dynamic performance on both sides of the ball on a short week spoke a lot about the Saints’ ability to respond to adversity.

The Saints will play at Carolina (9-4) again in two weeks. Even if they split the series, the Saints would win the tiebreaker if both teams finish 12-4. The Saints need to win any two of their final three games to clinch the NFC South (at St. Louis, at Carolina, vs. Tampa Bay).

Brees hits 50,000: Saints quarterback Drew Brees became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 50,000 yards in his career -- joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway. He also set an NFL record with his eighth consecutive 4,000-yard season. And he reached both thresholds with an exclamation point -- completing 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers.

The Saints have won 13 consecutive night games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, including the playoffs. In those games, Brees has thrown for 43 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Stock watch: Nobody was more clutch for the Saints than Marques Colston. He had a monster night, with nine catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. But his biggest catch was his first one -- a terrific, reaching grab for 21 yards on third-and-9 in the first quarter. The Saints were in danger of going three-and-out on their first two drives before Colston made that catch. From that point on, they took off.

Colston has had one of his quietest seasons this year, with only 596 yards and two touchdowns coming into the night. But he proved again that he’s available as a go-to guy for Brees when needed.

Racking up sacks: Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette had three sacks, and end Cameron Jordan had two. Jordan, who seems like a shoo-in for his first Pro Bowl, now has 11.5 sacks this season.

What’s next: The Rams (5-8), the Saints' next opponent, have lost two straight games, including 30-10 at Arizona on Sunday. But they've had some impressive wins in an up-and-down season. So the Saints can’t fall asleep at the wheel -- especially on the road, where they've been inconsistent this season.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
12:50
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Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' defense after reviewing the tape of their 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13:

Blown assignments: Basically, the Saints' struggles on Monday night boiled down to a horrible combination. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was sensational, throwing perfect strikes even when he was on the run or being blitzed (more on that below). The Saints' defense, meanwhile, was completely out of sorts at times.

It felt like the Saints blew more assignments in coverage and containment than we saw in the first 11 games combined. A lot of that had to do with the unique threat Seattle's offense poses. And Wilson took advantage of the fact that the Saints were focusing so heavily on stopping dangerous running back Marshawn Lynch.

Here are some of the lowlights:

  • [+] EnlargeZach Miller
    Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsTight end Zach Miller burned the Saints defense for a 60-yard gain in the first quarter.
    The first real sign that it was going to be a long night for the Saints' defense came when Seattle tight end Zach Miller broke wide open for a 60-yard catch on third-and-1 late in the first quarter. The Saints sent five rushers out of their five-linebacker formation, leaving only two defenders in coverage on Miller's side of the field -- cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker David Hawthorne. But both of them chased after running back Robert Turbin on a short passing route, leaving Miller uncovered (about 6 yards behind New Orleans' defense). My best guess is that Lewis should have followed him, but I don't know that for certain. … Wilson got the throw off just before being hit by outside linebacker Junior Galette.
  • In the second quarter, the Saints were again torched by a 52-yard pass from Wilson to receiver Doug Baldwin. This one wasn't as much of a blown assignment as it was a burned strategy. The Saints sent an all-out eight-man blitz, but no one got to Wilson immediately. And he had time to throw a gorgeous deep ball to Baldwin, who beat safety Malcolm Jenkins down the center of the field.
  • Later in the second quarter, Baldwin broke wide open for a 4-yard touchdown pass against another blown coverage while the Saints sent six pass-rushers. Baldwin and receiver Jermaine Kearse ran crisscrossing routes. But Lewis opted to follow Kearse, while cornerback Corey White opted to stay on his half of the field instead of following Baldwin. Again, it's unclear who blew the assignment -- but someone obviously did.
  • The Saints were just as flummoxed by several read-option plays. Wilson gained 10 yards on one keeper and 3 yards on another keeper on third-and-3. Both times, Galette crashed down too hard on Lynch, giving Wilson a wide open lane to run. Then later in the first half, Lynch gained 14 yards on a read-option run when Galette hesitated and spied on Wilson.
  • Even when the Saints tried to use a spy on Wilson in the second quarter, it didn't work. Late in the second quarter, Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks hovered back at the line of scrimmage instead of rushing the passer. But he couldn't catch Wilson when Wilson took off running to his right for a 15-yard gain.
Something new: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan rolled out another unique new package Monday night -- one with seven defensive backs -- to mixed results. It worked the first time the Saints used it, when Seattle had a third-and-12 inside the red zone. The Saints had only one player lined up at the line of scrimmage (Galette), while end Cameron Jordan was essentially lined up as a middle linebacker and Parys Haralson at outside linebacker. Wilson dumped off a short pass to Lynch -- who was immediately swarmed. And safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was the fifth player in on the tackle, forced a fumble with his helmet. The Seahawks recovered but had to settle for a field goal.

The package was less effective as the game went on, though. The Seahawks gained 17 yards on a wide receiver screen to Golden Tate on third-and-13 against that alignment. Lynch's 14-yard run also came against that defense, as did a 12-yard run by Turbin. In each case, the Seahawks were able to get their blockers out on the smaller defenders.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson has completed over 72 percent of his passes in each of his past four games, including Monday night's win over the Saints.
Wilson superb: This was one of the best performances I've seen from a quarterback since I began doing these film breakdowns last year. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has had a few similar days, and I believe Peyton Manning had a special day last year against the Saints if memory serves. But, man, Wilson was impressive.

It wasn't just the run plays, which were tough to stop. As a pure passer, Wilson was throwing darts, even while throwing on the run several times. As Saints defenders warned, he's terrific at scrambling to buy time and find a man open down the field.

Wilson's 52-yard pass to Baldwin was gorgeous -- even though he had to rush it against the heavy blitz and couldn't step fully into it. His 21-yard rollout pass to fullback Michael Robinson on the opening drive was a perfect strike. So was his deep comeback pass to Kearse for 19 yards on a third-and-9 play, a 14-yard rollout pass to Baldwin and a 33-yard deep ball to receiver Ricardo Lockette against Lewis that beat another blitz.

Wilson's first TD pass, a 2-yard TD to Miller, also came against a blitz. And he nearly pulled off his best play of the day in the second quarter when he scrambled away from a six-man rush and fired on the run into the end zone for Kearse. But Kearse couldn't hang on to make the diving catch.

Bad bounces: Maybe this game wouldn't have spiraled so far out of control if a few balls had bounced the Saints' way. First was the forced fumble by Vaccaro that was recovered by Seattle. Then on the first play of Seattle's second drive, White got both hands on an overthrown deep ball by Wilson, but he couldn't hang on for the interception.

Later in the second quarter, a replay showed that Wilson was sacked by defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley before he got off a shovel pass to Lynch (which lost 5 yards anyway). But the officials didn't see it, and the Saints didn't challenge. Perhaps those extra yards would have stopped Seattle from churning out a two-minute touchdown drive.

In the third quarter, Hicks pressured Wilson into an incomplete pass on third-and-2. But Hicks was flagged 10 yards for roughing the passer when his swinging arm came down on Wilson's helmet.

Then last but not least, the Seahawks scored a touchdown two plays later via a tipped ball on an 8-yard pass. Tight end Kellen Davis dropped the pass, popping it up into the air right over the head of Jenkins and into the arms of fullback Derrick Coleman.

Something good: The Saints did do a solid job against Lynch, which was their top priority heading into the day. He gained just 45 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for a total of 12 yards.

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton made a handful of nice stops on Lynch. Galette and Jenkins avoided blocks to help shut him down for a 2-yard loss on the opening drive, which helped force Seattle to settle for a field goal. Hawthorne and linebacker Ramon Humber each had a nice stop against Lynch, as well. And Jordan made a great tackle against Turbin for a 1-yard loss.

For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.

The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.

If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.

The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.

The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:

Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?

Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.

I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?

Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.

The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?

Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.

Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?

Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.

Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?

Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.

Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?

Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”

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NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."

Midseason Report: New Orleans Saints

November, 6, 2013
11/06/13
9:00
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If you're only as good as your last performance, the New Orleans Saints (6-2) are in trouble. They had their sloppiest game of the season in a 26-20 road loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday, with breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams.

Overall, however, there were many more positives than negatives during the first half of the season for New Orleans, which still leads the NFC South by a game over the Carolina Panthers.

If the Saints have any hopes of returning to New York for the Super Bowl in February, they need to prove that their first trip was an anomaly. But the schedule doesn't get any easier in the second half of the season -- including two more outdoor games, at Seattle and Carolina in December.

METAIRIE, La. -- Cameron Jordan is a great white shark, Malcolm Jenkins a black panther, Kenny Vaccaro a king cobra and Curtis Lofton a grizzly bear.

But not everyone on the New Orleans Saints defense got so lucky with the "inner animals" that were bestowed upon them by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at the beginning of the season.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan's fun, laid-back style and enthusiasm have endeared him to the Saints' defensive players.
"Everyone on defense has their own animal, and you don't get to have any input," Lofton said with a smug smile. "Some people like theirs, and some people don't."

Outside linebacker Junior Galette was dubbed a sakis -- a monkey that sports a full, bushy beard like Galette's, which teammates find hilarious. Rookie defensive end Glenn Foster got stuck with seahorse. Deep-thinking cornerback Jabari Greer is a morning dove. And linebacker Ramon Humber is a wombat.

"Fun fact. A wombat can run up to 23 miles per hour for a total of 90 seconds," Jenkins said -- something he and his teammates learned after a little research.

Clearly, everyone on the Saints defense has gotten a kick out of the concept -- one of many that Ryan has introduced this year to help keep things fun on and off the field.

Ryan also does things like introducing assistant coaches with their own theme music during team meetings. Assistant secondary coach Andre Curtis, for example, walks up to the sound of "Forgot About Dre" by Dr. Dre and Eminem -- a crowd pleaser.

And Ryan has endeared himself to players by naming certain plays after them or their family members or their alma maters, among other personal touches.

"He's been like the coolest guy," said Galette, one of many young players who have been thriving. "I don't even know how to explain it. I have respect for him as a coach, but I feel like I can talk to him like a player. I've never had a coach like that except for high school basketball.

"He's been cool and just very encouraging throughout this whole process. ... You can talk to him about whatever. He just wants to have fun and win. Anytime you have a guy like that with that type of charisma and just brings energy to work every day, you know, you want to be around him and you want to play harder for him."

That word "fun" is always one of the first things players bring up when they talk about why they love playing for Ryan so much.

They see how much fun the game is for Ryan himself, and how much passion and love he admittedly has for the sport. And that carries over to them as well.

Linebacker Victor Butler, who followed Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency this summer, said Ryan was the same way in Dallas.

"He's a real player's coach, and he brings the best out of his players," said Butler, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since June. "With Rob it's always exciting. You feel like you're learning new things. You're excited to get up and go to practice and apply the things you're learning. And as you can see, guys are full of energy, guys are ready to play, guys are running through walls for him."

Saints coach Sean Payton said he could see that level of mutual enthusiasm between Ryan and his players from afar even before he started researching him as a possible hire this offseason.

And it's not just the personality that endears Ryan to his players.

Probably even more important is the way Ryan values their input and tailors his defense to suit their individual strengths.

Ryan has evolved his 3-4 scheme this year to maximize the talents of guys like Jenkins, Jordan and Galette, among others. He was receptive when Jenkins told him he'd like to play more often as a nickel back. And Jordan has been put in a position to rush the passer more often than some 3-4 ends.

"I think the best thing [about Ryan] -- it's a couple things," Jenkins said. "Obviously personality. ... At the same time, he allows us to have input, and there's back and forth dialogue as to what we're doing and how we're playing. Players really feel like they have their fingerprints on this defense."

In many ways, Ryan is similar to former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- also a disciple of Ryan's legendary father, Buddy Ryan. They are both known as players' coaches and creative motivators (a strength of Williams', despite the bounty scandal). They are both versatile schemers, and they both brought out the best in the Saints' defensive players, getting them to play with a ton of confidence. Jenkins said the biggest difference is that Ryan is more laid back than Williams is.

The only drawback with Ryan, according to cornerback Keenan Lewis, is that he might go over an individual play "a million times" in the meeting rooms, in walk-throughs and on the practice field.

But, Lewis admitted, "It makes my job easy. If he watches it a hundred times, I only have to watch it once or twice."

Ryan was described this summer as a "mad scientist" by former Saints and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who said Ryan would stay up late into the night studying opponents' tendencies and finding ways to exploit them.

With the remarkable impact Ryan has made on the Saints in his first year, it's a wonder he hasn't had more success so far in his career as a defensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys. With the Saints, he's on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in 10 years as a defensive coordinator.

Clearly, though, Ryan has earned the respect of players who have played under him, past and present, as well as colleagues from around the league. None more so than his twin brother Rex, the head coach of Sunday's opponent, the New York Jets.

"I think we have respect from the league as being pretty decent on defense, both of us. And one day I think he'll be an outstanding head coach," Rex said. "I think he's a great motivator. He gets guys to play. He gets guys to believe in themselves, and I think that's a big part of it."

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 6

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
12:00
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An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints’ 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:

Graham silenced: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham didn’t catch a pass Sunday after racking up four consecutive 100-yard games previously. In a rare tactic, the Patriots used standout cornerback Aqib Talib to shadow Graham for much of the game, as well as frequent double teams. But Graham’s shutout was only a mild surprise, since it’s obvious that a defense would try to do whatever it could to contain him. The bigger surprise was that the Saints weren’t able to exploit their other options.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesJimmy Graham was held without a catch in Sunday's loss to the Patriots.
Receiver Marques Colston had just one catch for 11 yards. Quarterback Drew Brees completed just 17 of 36 passes overall (his biggest coming late when he nailed receiver Kenny Stills for a 34-yard touchdown in double coverage). The Patriots succeeded by getting physical with the Saints, chipping with big guys at the line of scrimmage and running a lot of bump-and-run coverage with their defensive backs.

The good news for the Saints is that such a game plan requires great execution across the board. Maybe other defenses will try to copy the plan, but that doesn’t mean they’ll pull it off.

Graham injured: The bigger concern going forward for the Saints is that Graham left the field late in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury. Graham briefly went back into the game after being taped up, but he eventually limped off the field. The team didn’t offer any postgame updates. Fortunately for the Saints, they have a bye in Week 7 to give him extra time to heal. Perhaps receiver Lance Moore will be close to returning from a hand injury in Week 8, too.

Second guessing? The Saints gave Patriots quarterback Tom Brady too many chances to win the game before he finally pulled it off with five seconds remaining. Since hindsight is 20-20, perhaps Saints coach Sean Payton wishes he was more aggressive in his play calling on New Orleans’ final two drives (the Saints attempted one pass on third-and-7 on the first drive and none on the second drive). But Payton didn’t want to throw incomplete passes and stop the clock. He also said he trusted his defense the way it was playing -- and rightly so.

“We can wrestle with that for a while, but they made the stops when they needed to, got the ball back and made plays,” Payton said.

Defense comes close: The Saints' defense ultimately folded with five seconds remaining when cornerback Jabari Greer let receiver Kenbrell Thompkins get behind him in the end zone. It’s a shame the game ended on that note, though, because New Orleans’ defense had been downright dominant for most of the final three quarters. It had held New England out of the end zone on eight previous possessions, including an interception by cornerback Keenan Lewis on the second-to-last drive. The Saints also sacked Brady five times.

Greer shouldered the blame for letting that final play get past him. But he wasn’t the only one.

“We know how to finish. And we never counted them out. They just finished, and we didn’t,” Saints pass-rusher Junior Galette said. “The end result was we didn’t finish, and we’re in the business of winning.”

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