NFL Nation: Keenan Lewis

METAIRIE, La. -- By Wednesday, the New Orleans Saints' defensive backs made it clear they were tired of hearing about and talking about their tackling woes in Sunday’s 37-34 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Lewis
As The Times-Picayune chronicled, at one point during interviews, cornerback Keenan Lewis just started blurting out the word, "Tackle," regardless of the question he faced.

But Lewis and his teammates certainly weren’t done trying to get their tackling issues fixed.

Lewis spent extra time on the field, working on his tackling technique against a blocking sled -- something he said he used to do in the past.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro called his tackling problems in Week 1 "ridiculous" and said (per The Advocate), "I had a hard time sleeping this week because of the film we put out there."

Everyone remained confident that tackling is a correctable problem. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require extra emphasis in practice -- especially as the Saints prepare to face a Cleveland Browns offense that stubbornly runs the ball with a pesky zone-blocking scheme in the Mike Shanahan style.

"Absolutely there is (an emphasis in practice)," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We have individual periods out here where it’s strictly fundamentals. You’re working location, landmarks, leverage, where you’re fitting. The No. 1 thing is population of the ball. All of those things we work on. And we have to."
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ATLANTA -- This is supposed to be the best defense the New Orleans Saints have fielded in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

So it was absolutely flabbergasting to see the Saints post one of the worst defensive performances in franchise history on Sunday.

The Saints allowed a franchise-record 445 passing yards and the second-most total yards in franchise history (568) in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

The only good news is the Saints won't have much problem identifying the biggest culprit: missed tackles.

The Falcons took turns bouncing through the Saints' defense like pinballs as they rallied from early deficits of 13-0 and 20-7.

"We had so many missed tackles. I had so many. I missed more in this game than I did all of last year," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who got burned on two of the Falcons' most back-breaking plays -- a 54-yard touchdown catch by Antone Smith on a short, dump-off pass late in the third quarter, and a 17-yard touchdown run by Jacquizz Rodgers in the fourth.

"We've just gotta finish, man," Vaccaro said. "I don't know how many yards they had, over 500. But that was ridiculous. It can't happen."

Of course, it's way too early to panic.

This was "only" Week 1. The Saints are still loaded with talent on a defense that was outstanding last season -- even more loaded now that they added safety Jairus Byrd, who forced a fumble in the first half Sunday. And the Falcons have one of the deepest passing attacks in the league after they showed off new weapon Devin Hester. Upcoming opponents such as Cleveland and Minnesota won't pose the same threat to New Orleans.

Plus, as both Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis insisted, missed tackles are a problem that can and will get corrected.

"That ain't gonna be the reason why we lose games again," Lewis said. "I'm pretty sure that we ain't gonna lose again because of missed tackles."

So hope still exists. But that doesn't erase how downright ugly things were Sunday -- and how quickly the Saints let the Falcons back into the NFC South picture.

This felt a lot more like 2012 -- when Atlanta was 13-3 and New Orleans' defense set a record for yards allowed in a season -- than 2013.

The Saints' ultimate problem turned out to be the Falcons' depth.

New Orleans was clearly intent on shutting down Atlanta's two biggest weapons, receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Lewis was mostly matched up in single coverage on White, and Jones was mostly bracketed by cornerback Patrick Robinson and Byrd.

And it mostly worked -- at least during the first 29 minutes. Jones and White really only had one deep catch apiece, a 39-yarder for White and a 27-yarder for Jones.

But where the Saints really fell short was just about everywhere else.

They didn't get nearly enough pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him only once while using mostly a four-man rush. As linebacker Junior Galette said, the Saints' pass rush was "almost non-existent."

And they didn't wrap up receivers and running backs on the underneath stuff because of all those missed tackles.

"We had perfect calls called, and we've just got to make plays," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "You've gotta get off the field on third down. You've gotta play great red-zone defense. And you've gotta tackle well.

"We didn't do that today, so we lost."
METAIRIE, La. -- Count Champ Bailey among those who believe New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is too under-appreciated.

When asked where he thinks Lewis fits in with other elite corners in the league, Bailey said, "He's up there. It just takes you guys to start talking about him now."

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Bill HaberVeteran cornerback Champ Bailey says he has high expectations for the Saints' defense this season.
"I don't understand why he wasn't in the Pro Bowl last year, why he wasn't an All-Pro," Bailey said. "He played like one. Matching up every week (against opponents' top receivers), he was the guy. He is a proven No. 1 corner. I just told him to keep his nose down, keep grinding, and people will start to take notice."

True to form, Lewis' best play of the preseason didn't even get proper credit last week, when he appeared to make a diving interception after tipping a deep ball away from Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. The pass was ruled incomplete, because coach Sean Payton said he figured it would be ruled inconclusive either way. But it sure looked like a pick from the end-zone camera angle.

When asked if he credited Lewis with an interception after watching the film of last week's game at Indianapolis, Bailey said, "I credited it that night."

"It looked pretty clean to me from where I was," Bailey said. "The ref was five feet away from him and didn't get it. I don't know what happened, but in our room he got a pick."

Bailey, who missed much of training camp with a minor foot injury, hadn't chatted with the media in a while. So the longtime former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins standout was peppered with questions on a number of topics Tuesday. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On whether his foot injury was related to the plantar fasciitis that kept him sidelined for much of the 2013 season: "Well not to get too specific, it was the same foot but it was a little bit different thing to deal with. It's encouraging, because I didn't want anything lingering from last year. I feel good about where I'm going."
  • On whether the injury has hurt his chances of being an opening-day starter: "I'm not really concerned about it. I haven't lost any sleep over it. The only thing that bothers me is being hurt, period. It has gotten in the way of me playing football. That's what I love to do. Regardless of how much I'm playing, I'm always out there competing like I'm the starter or going to be."
  • On his impressions of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, before he played for him and now: "All I knew was his brother, mostly. I've seen Rob before but never met him, never been around him. He's a character, but at the same time this guy knows football. It's proven; he's one of the best X's and O's guys I know in this league. He's going to make sure we're in the right places to make the right plays."
  • On how many defensive coordinators he's played for now: "Probably 13 maybe. Twelve, 13 something like that. I lost count. I had one of those guys twice in two different systems."
  • On safety Jairus Byrd: "I talked to him at the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago and I told him how much I wanted to play with him. Who would ever think we'd be playing here together? But we are, and I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
  • On cornerback Patrick Robinson: "Great football player. I've seen him do some things that some guys can't do. That guy is fast, quick, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls in practice. It's starting to pay off, all the work he's put in."
  • On whether the Saints are as good as last year's Broncos team: "I'm not sure. It's hard to compare. It's different. The thing is, last year we weren't good enough to win. I feel like we've got some pieces here to win it, we've just got to make sure we don't worry about too far ahead, just worry about what's in front of us. The rest will take care of itself."
METAIRIE, La. -- Second-year New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro came it at No. 55 on ESPN’s ranking of the top 100 defensive players in the NFL -- a very impressive debut for a young dynamo who is still just scratching the surface of his potential.

Obviously the 90-member panel of voters caught wind of the buzz that was generated by Vaccaro during his rookie year, when he finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. And based on early indications this preseason, he might well move himself further up the charts next year.

But more on Vaccaro in a minute. First, I want to talk about the biggest oversight on the list – Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis finishing at No. 101.

Actually, Lewis tied for 100th with Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron but lost out on the tiebreaker. And let’s be honest, what could be more fitting for Lewis, whose sensational 2013 season flew way too far under the radar.

If you asked me to name a defensive MVP for the Saints last year, I’d have a hard time deciding between Lewis and defensive end Cameron Jordan (who made his first trip to the Pro Bowl and will appear higher on the #NFLRank list next week). Lewis was a bona fide No. 1 cornerback last year after the Saints signed him away from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played at nearly a shutdown level on a weekly basis, even while being matched up against opponents’ top receivers.

Ironically, Lewis wasn’t fully appreciated until after a concussion knocked him out of the Saints’ playoff game at Philadelphia, and all of a sudden quarterback Nick Foles acted like he had just discovered that receiver DeSean Jackson was on the field.

So Lewis missed out on the Pro Bowl last year in a position group that, to be fair, is loaded with talented guys who have played at a high level for years. And such is life in the NFL when it comes to name recognition.

Guys like Lewis often have to wait a year or two too long before their skills are widely recognized.

Another guy like that is Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, whose 12 sacks last year weren’t enough to land him in the Pro Bowl or ESPN’s list of the top 100 defensive players.

Another thing I like about both Lewis and Galette is their blunt honesty. Neither is afraid to admit how much it means to them to break through and earn that wider respect. Both have been known to complain about things like analysts’ snubs or Madden ratings via Twitter.

“I want to be the best," Lewis said last week, per The Times-Picayune’s Larry Holder. "I respect those guys -- Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman and them. But it's time Keenan Lewis can be mentioned with those guys. I'm ready to go."

And when I asked Galette this week about missing out on the ESPN list, he said, “Here we go …”

“If I say I don’t [care], I’m lying,” Galette said. “I mean, everybody wants to be recognized. I love the game. I have Hall of Fame dreams all the time. So I’m not just playing this game to be mediocre. I want to be a top-tier [player] recognized by little kids growing up, saying, ‘I want to pass rush like Junior Galette. That’s what motivates me.

“So whatever number they throw out there, I’m gonna get low-balled regardless, I feel like. Because in my head, I’m top tier.”

That passion is prevalent throughout the Saints’ young defense. Despite the praise and accolades Vaccaro has already earned, he’s made the same admissions in the past about wanting to earn even more of them.

“Everybody thinks about it. I mean, guys are gonna lie and say that they don't look at that stuff. But you look at it, you want to be on ESPN, you want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety. And that's my goal," Vaccaro said this summer.

And sure enough, Vaccaro was the Saints’ best defensive player on the field last week in their preseason victory over the Tennessee Titans, forcing one fumble and nearly forcing another (which was questionably ruled an incomplete pass instead), among other plays.

I couldn’t help but think back to a funny exchange on Twitter early in training camp, when a fan asked me how Vaccaro was looking, whether he had lost a step or shown a renewed fire after recovering from the broken ankle that ended his rookie year in Week 16.

And before I could respond, Vaccaro himself chimed in with, “Gained a step.”

It sure looks that way so far.

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.

Saints Camp Report: Day 4

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:


  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis created his own no-fly zone during one set of team drills Monday, rejecting passes intended for Marques Colston, Andy Tanner and Joe Morgan (the last two on back-to-back plays). As I've written many times, Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler last year and was as important as anyone to the Saints’ defensive revival. So far, he looks primed for a repeat. … Overall, it was a good day for the secondary, with Pierre Warren diving for an interception and Kenny Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson also providing highlights.
  • The offensive highlight was a long run by tailback Khiry Robinson that included a sweet cutback – a play that coach Sean Payton later singled out. But just as impressive for Robinson was a terrific blitz pickup when he had to absorb a big impact from Vaccaro. Robinson said that’s one element of his game he’s really trying to improve in his second NFL season, which he called “night and day” compared to his rookie year out of West Texas A&M. … Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said as Robinson continues to add knowledge and confidence to his impressive ability, “You are kind of unleashing a lot of potential there.”
  • It was another physical practice in full pads Monday. The offensive line definitely got the better of the defense in early 9-on-7 run drills, though Strief admitted they’re at an advantage when the defense doesn’t have any safeties to help fill gaps. “There is good competition there. I tried to give (defensive end Akiem) Hicks a high-five after the period, and he told me no. There is definitely competitiveness, and that is part of training camp.” … Strief had another strong performance in one-on-one pass-rush drills. Others who stood out in that drill included center Jonathan Goodwin, defensive end Glenn Foster and outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson.
  • The Saints turned up the volume on Monday’s practice, blasting some music through the stretching period and a few drills – something they started doing before the playoffs last year when they mixed up the daily routine (along with the new Gatorade flavors and sweatsuits). It wasn’t just for entertainment purposes. Payton said it also helps players learn to focus through the noise.
  • Guard Ben Grubbs (undisclosed injury) and receiver Robert Meachem (back) remained sidelined Monday. Payton said both should be back within a day or so but declined to offer any specifics on the injuries. Safety Jairus Byrd, defensive tackle John Jenkins, receiver Kenny Stills and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks also remained sidelined.
Champ Bailey, Jairus ByrdGetty ImagesChamp Bailey, left, and Jairus Byrd further solidify an already talented Saints secondary.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' defensive backs stand out as a competitive bunch. So it should come as no surprise that they didn’t wait for organized team activities next week to find a way to start battling each other on the field.

Spearheaded by cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is from the west bank of New Orleans, the Saints’ DBs have been getting together this offseason for group workouts at local parks.

That group has included big-name newcomers Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd in a secondary that is now jam-packed with talent. But, as Bailey said, that won’t do the Saints any good if it doesn’t translate onto the field.

“It can look good on paper. I love our potential, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Bailey, a future Hall of Famer with 15 seasons and 12 Pro Bowls under his belt. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to find out how to work together and mesh and improve. Because that’s really what wins you games is playing together and being a great team.”

So far, though, Bailey said he likes what he has seen from his new teammates.

“A young group. Hungry. I haven’t met one guy that didn’t work hard or didn’t want to be great. So that spells some great things for us,” said Bailey, who said his belief in the Saints’ championship potential has been strengthened by his early impressions of his new teammates.

“Absolutely,” Bailey said. “Everybody carries themselves in a championship manner here. You know, I’ve been around some good teams. I was on a pretty good team last year [the Denver Broncos]. We came up short, and I just want another opportunity. And I think this is a great place for me.”

After spending the past 10 years with the Broncos, Bailey said it has been interesting to get to know a whole new group of guys and their personalities.

None has stood out more than Lewis -- again, not surprisingly.

Lewis himself admitted, “Those guys think I’m real funny because I talk a lot. But I just want everybody to feel comfortable in the locker room and, you know, as a family. And we’ve got one goal we’ve got to reach.”

Bailey laughed when he heard that and said, “He does [talk a lot]. He gets his share of words in. But it’s all good stuff. He’s a great, positive guy. He works harder than anybody on the team. So it’s great to be around a group of guys like that.”

Lewis is arguably the most competitive of the bunch, as he made clear last year when he didn’t hide his disappointment over being snubbed for his first Pro Bowl. This year, Lewis said he is aiming for his first All-Pro selection instead.

However, Lewis said he is keeping his goal of seven interceptions the same as last year, because he knows it will be tougher with interception-magnet Byrd now roaming the back of the secondary.

“I’m scared to have him back there. I hope he just don’t get in the way and take all the interceptions,” Lewis said. “That’s a ball-hawk type of guy, great to work with. I had the opportunity to play [against] him in college [when Lewis was at Oregon State and Byrd was at Oregon]. So I’m glad to have him as a teammate.”

Second-year cornerback Rod Sweeting -- who insists that he won’t step aside quietly in the competition with veteran corners like Lewis, Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson -- said the offseason workout sessions have brought out the competitiveness in everyone.

“We have [18] DBs here, so we’re all just competing, having a good time, enjoying each other,” Sweeting said. “You know, when somebody does something better than the other, then the other one tries to match that.”

Lewis said he has been playing the role of quarterback in many of those sessions. “I’m another Drew Brees,” he joked.

But he said the main focus has been working on those interceptions. Last year, forcing turnovers was the one area where the Saints defense fell short, despite ranking No. 2 in the NFL in pass defense and No. 4 overall.

“We definitely got better,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve added the pieces that we missed, because I didn’t feel like we had no pieces missing. But we got some guys who can help. ... I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready, competing to be one of the best in the league.”

Vaccaro healing: Safety Kenny Vaccaro -- another ultracompetitor in the Saints secondary -- was unavailable to the media during teammate Ben Grubbs’ charity softball game Wednesday night, when the other defensive backs spoke. But it was worth noting that Vaccaro didn’t have any covering over the ankle that he fractured late last season.

It is unclear if Vaccaro will be limited during OTAs next week, but he is expected to be fully healthy in plenty of time for the season.
One thing is for sure. Champ Bailey's new teammates with the New Orleans Saints are fired up about the arrival of the 12-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer.

Several of the Saints’ players expressed their excitement to play alongside one of the NFL’s all-time great defensive backs, via social media. Here’s a sampling:

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The Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft after adding three compensatory selections based on free-agent losses last year.

The Steelers were awarded third-round, fifth-round and sixth-round picks Monday by the NFL. They effectively recovered the pick they traded last year when they dealt their 2014 third-round selection for the Browns’ fourth-round pick.

The Steelers used the pick to draft safety Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers’ received the highest compensatory pick as their third-round selection is 97th overall. The other two picks they were awarded are 173rd and 215th overall, respectively.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall were among the players the Steelers lost via free agency last year.

The extra picks come at a good time for the Steelers.

General manager Kevin Colbert has said this is the deepest draft he has seen since he broke into the NFL, and the Steelers have to replenish a defense that is in transition. It's also a team that has needs on offense.

The Steelers have a pick in each of the seven rounds. They have two selections apiece in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft.

CB Chris Owens visited Steelers

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted veteran cornerback Chris Owens for a visit this week, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.

Owens played 13 games last season, recording 58 tackles and 2 sacks. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder also broke up three passes.

Owens played 12 games for the Browns before hurting his knee. The Dolphins signed the fifth-year veteran in December after the Browns released Owens following an injury settlement, and he played one game for Miami.

Owens has played for three NFL teams, including the Falcons, who took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, six picks ahead of former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers need to add depth at cornerback and Owens, 27, would fit the profile of the kind of player they are looking to sign.

In other Steelers’ news:
  • ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton reported that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery's two-year deal with Carolina could be worth as much as $5 million. Good for Cotchery, but that price proved to be too far out of the Steelers’ range. Team president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that despite the loss of Cotchery and other free agents he is “happy with the progress” the Steelers have made. “I’m satisfied with the progress we've made in general to this date, the signings we've made,” Rooney said. "We have more work to do. It's early in the game as far as preseason preparations. I'm happy with the progress we've made so far.”
  • The Steelers were well represented at Notre Dame Pro Day on Thursday. Both general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin attended the workout for Irish draft prospects, according to Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Truitt could be targets for the Steelers early in the draft.
The New Orleans Saints restructured cornerback Keenan Lewis' contract to save some salary-cap space. And they are $3.09 million under the salary cap after all of their latest moves, according to the NFL Players Association.

Lewis did not take a pay cut. He simply converted some of his base salary in 2014 and 2015 into bonus money -- a common procedure in the NFL that allows teams to push the salary-cap costs back into future years.

Lewis
Lewis’ base salaries dropped from $3.3 million to $1.1 million in 2014, and from $4.1 million to $1.8 million in 2015.

UPDATED: He received a $4.4 million signing bonus as part of the restructured deal, which essentially replaced the salary. He also added slightly to future roster bonuses. Here's the new year-by-year breakdown, according to ESPN Stats and Information:

Signing bonus: $4.4 million
2014: Base salary $1 million, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $3.35 million.
2015: Base salary $1.8 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $4.85 million.
2016: Base salary $4.25 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $7.3 million.
2017: Base salary $4.75 million, roster bonuses $700,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $7.8 million.

So far, Lewis is the only Saints veteran who has done one of these simple restructures this year. In recent years, the Saints have done them with a number of players to carve out cap space.

It’s unclear whether the Saints plan more of them. They could easily push some salary-cap costs back in some of their bigger contracts with players like Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs or Marques Colston. But perhaps the Saints figure they have already pushed back enough of the cap costs on those deals and wanted to spread it around the roster a little more.

The Saints also have not touched the contract of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who is to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses this season. That seems awfully high, considering Bunkley was used as a part-time player the past two seasons. It’s possible the Saints are still considering asking for a pay cut later in the offseason (like they did with safety Roman Harper last year). Or perhaps they envision a bigger role for Bunkley this year after he finished strong last season.

Thomas
Thomas' pay cut: Running back Pierre Thomas, meanwhile, did take a pay cut in 2014 when he signed his new three-year deal with the Saints this month. The details are now available after that three-year, $6.9 million contract was officially processed.

Thomas will now make $2.4 million in salary and bonuses this season instead of $2.9 million. But that $2.4 million is all guaranteed. The Saints saved $1.33 million off this year’s salary cap with Thomas’ new deal.

Here’s the breakdown of Thomas’ contract:

Signing bonus: $1.245 million
2014: Base salary $855,000, roster bonus $300,000. Salary-cap cost $1.57 million.
2015: Base salary $2.1 million, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $2.565 million.
2016: Base salary $2.2 million, roster bonus $100,000, workout bonus $50,000. Salary-cap cost $2.765 million.

Humber, Morgan deals: Also, the contract numbers are in on the Saints’ new one-year deals with receiver Joe Morgan and linebacker Ramon Humber. Morgan’s deal is for the minimum $495,000 with no bonuses. Humber’s deal is worth $795,000, including a $65,000 signing bonus. However, he will only count $635,000 against the Saints’ cap as part of the NFL rules regarding veteran salaries on minimum-level deals.
Mickey LoomisDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMickey Loomis hasn't been afraid to make tough personnel decisions as Saints GM.
No, this isn't a fire sale you're witnessing in New Orleans.

The New Orleans Saints aren't succumbing to the salary cap.

It wouldn't even be accurate to say they're in a rebuilding mode this offseason. Because much of the new foundation is already in place.

The Saints have remained perennial Super Bowl contenders because they haven't allowed themselves to be paralyzed by their salary-cap predicament.

Instead, they've continued to aggressively spend money in free agency in recent years on new core leaders such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and guard Ben Grubbs -- not to mention running back Darren Sproles when he arrived in 2011.

And they'll likely make one or two similar investments in free agency this year.

Of course it's difficult -- for the fan base and the organization alike -- to see the Saints part ways with so many of their all-time great players. The Saints' recent news releases have read more like the induction of a Ring of Honor class than a series of roster cuts: Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, with Sproles reportedly next.

But the Saints haven't been forced into any of these moves. They've been tough but calculated decisions, made when the Saints feel a player's value no longer matches his salary.

And if anything, the team should be applauded for the way it has planned ahead for these departures.

I'm not saying I love every move the Saints have made. I'm especially leery about the decision to part with Sproles, who will be much harder to replace than anyone else on the list, even if he is starting to slow down at age 30.

I was equally leery about the decision to let left tackle Jermon Bushrod get away last year, since New Orleans didn't have a proven alternative in-house. But I appreciate that those decisions were value-based.

It's also worth noting that Bushrod is the only example that comes close to the Saints being burned by a decision to let go of one of their core veteran players during the tenure of general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton.

"We're always trying to improve our team," Loomis said earlier this offseason, when I asked him about the way the Saints have stayed aggressive in free agency in recent years despite their cap limitations. "I think the biggest challenge of that is that you just can't afford to make many mistakes. That your margin for error is decreased."

Every year, people tend to determine the free agency "winners" and "losers" by the size of the haul.

But the Saints deserve credit for making so many choices that have panned out in recent years despite such a slim margin for error.

"It's exceptionally hard to do," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and a former longtime general manager who raved last month about the job that Loomis and Payton have done in recent years to continually reshape the roster.

"It is this kind of cap management when you're a good team, a contending team, that is most valuable. And in almost every case it goes unnoticed," Polian said. "[Teams like the Saints that] continue to add good players deserve a great deal of credit."

Polian knows of what he speaks, having previously managed the Indianapolis Colts with quarterback Peyton Manning as their high-priced centerpiece.

The Saints made quarterback Drew Brees the first NFL player to make $20 million per year in 2011. In turn, they entered each of the past two offseasons at more than $10 million over the salary cap.

And now they're poised to make free agent Jimmy Graham the highest-paid tight end in NFL history -- likely more than $10 million per year. But I still expect the Saints to keep an aggressive eye on the open market, as they have in recent years.

To do so, Loomis and his staff have had to become masters in mathematics, continually restructuring contracts and back-loading deals to push cap costs into future years.

Sure, the Saints are just delaying the inevitable. But they figure they can wait to pay those bills whenever Brees retires. Their window of opportunity to win titles is now.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints may have a difficult time replacing Darren Sproles if they decide to cut him.
Not all NFL teams like to approach the cap that way. The Green Bay Packers, especially, have never liked to spend big in free agency. And former Packers executive Andrew Brandt, currently an NFL business analyst, has pointed to the way the Saints back-loaded Brees' contract as a reason for all of these recent veteran cuts.

"I was, and am, much more conservative," Brandt said recently. "You know, having Brett Favre all those years, I never wanted to leave the team with a big hole based on pro-ration of an old contract. ... You're always going to be either releasing veteran players and/or doing these cap restructures that put more pressure on the future. They're gonna continue to have challenges. I don't think they can continue to be aggressive.

"But they've got this window. And if they keep deleting and pushing out cap, I guess they can."

One thing both Brandt and Polian agreed on is that the Saints, led by Loomis and Payton, have been successful with recent choices made in both free agency and the draft. Player personnel director Ryan Pace, college scouting director Rick Reiprish and football administration director Khai Harley -- as well as others in the front office -- also deserve plenty of credit for that.

The Saints' success with personnel decisions was never more evident than last month, when they bid farewell to longtime defensive greats Smith, Vilma, Greer and Harper. Those moves didn't hurt too much, because their replacements -- Lewis, Lofton and recent first-round draft picks Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro -- are already in-house.

Now the Saints are hoping that emerging young offense playmakers such as Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Kenny Stills can help fill the voids left by Sproles and Moore.

Perhaps they're playing with fire. But that's not the same thing as a fire sale.
There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints' defense in their 23-15 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They held Seattle to 277 yards, 103 passing yards and just 13 first downs. I was particularly impressed by defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Roman Harper (more on them later).

However, I have to start this season's final film study with what went wrong on Marshawn Lynch's two long touchdown runs -- which ultimately sealed the Saints' fate for the 2013 season:

Beast Quake, the Sequel: Lynch's 31-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game in the final minutes was awfully reminiscent of his legendary 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run against the Saints three years ago. The only differences were that this time Lynch cut back around the left end instead of cutting inside to the right, and this time he only made one defensive back (Keenan Lewis) look silly in the open field.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch, Keenan Lewis
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints weren't able to contain Marshawn Lynch when they had to in the fourth quarter.
In the Saints' defense, they couldn't afford to give up any more ground to Seattle in that situation (down by 8, 2:48 remaining, no timeouts left and the Seahawks entering field goal range). So they probably sold out more than they should have to try to stuff Lynch for a loss or no gain. The Seahawks were in a jumbo package, and the Saints had 10 men in the box. Jordan actually got great penetration up the middle, forcing Lynch to cut outside to the left. But Lynch's cutback was nasty, and it gave him tons of open space since linebacker David Hawthorne, safety Malcolm Jenkins and Lewis had all cheated toward the inside.

Seattle's blocking was huge, too. Tight end Zach Miller stood up outside linebacker Junior Galette at the line of scrimmage. And receiver Jermaine Kearse took out Jenkins with a perfectly executed crack-back block. Lewis eventually caught up with Lynch around the 14-yard line, but he didn't have a great angle, and Lynch didn't budge as he easily batted away Lewis with a stiff-arm.

More Lynch: The Saints did a nice job against Lynch at times, but he burned them often enough as he racked up 140 yards on 28 carries. Lynch's first big highlight was a 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. This time, the Seahawks were in more of a passing formation, and the Saints were in their nickel defense. But the result was the same when Lynch used another nasty cutback to the right side to make several Saints defenders over-pursue (including Hawthorne, cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush). Harper then missed a tackle from the side near the end of the run.

Lynch made just about every Saints defender look foolish at least once. He's known for his power, but his speed on those cutbacks was even more impressive in this game. Hawthorne, Jenkins, Galette and Akiem Hicks each whiffed on him once in the open field (Hicks and Galette on the same play in the fourth quarter).

Jump balls: The other play that stood out as an absolute killer for the Saints was receiver Doug Baldwin's 24-yard catch on third-and-3 on the play right before Lynch's last touchdown. The Saints' defense had been completely shutting down Seattle's offense throughout the entire second half. But on this play, Wilson essentially tossed one up for grabs, and Baldwin went up and got it over White. Baldwin then made a fantastic effort to hang on to the ball and stay in bounds as White tried to jar the ball loose.

White's coverage was decent, but he was a step behind after jamming Baldwin off the line of scrimmage. So Baldwin had the chance to turn and locate the ball, while White did not. Wilson completed an almost-identical jump-ball pass to receiver Percy Harvin against White for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first half, which led to a field goal.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Harry How/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin was shaken up after a collision with Rafael Bush. Harvin would eventually leave the game with a concussion after another rough hit.
Big shots: Another big passing play for the Seahawks came on their opening drive, when Saints safety Bush was flagged for unnecessary roughness against Harvin while breaking up a third-down pass. It was the right call, since their helmets collided at full speed. But it was a tough break since Bush was leading with his shoulder and Harvin appeared to crouch down into the hit as he braced for impact. That's the risk that safeties like Bush take in today's NFL, though, when they launch above the strike zone.

Harvin later had to leave the game after another brutal hit when his head struck the ground after an incomplete pass in the end zone. This time the Saints weren't penalized, though. Safety Jenkins came over and shoved Harvin as he was coming down, but Jenkins appeared to ease up a bit and led with his hands. Their helmets never made contact.

Wilson's best: Wilson didn't have a great game, but he showed off what makes him so dangerous on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On second-and-15, he scrambled away from pressure. And just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage, he tossed a pass to wide-open receiver Kearse for a 25-yard gain. It was exactly the kind of play that Saints defenders had warned about before both meetings with Seattle this year, but Lewis and Hawthorne both got burned by abandoning their coverage to run up toward Wilson.

It can be a no-win situation for a defense, though. Because on the next play Wilson appeared to be in even more trouble deep in the pocket, but he scrambled free and turned on the jets for a 7-yard gain.

Jordan sensational: Jordan had a lot of monster performances this year, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. But this one ranks up there with his best. He was outstanding all game long, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. At different points, he chased down both Wilson and Lynch in the open field (earning a 0-yard sack on the play against Wilson and stuffing Lynch for a 4-yard loss). He stood up tight end Miller to force no gain by running back Robert Turbin. He forced a holding penalty on another run play. And he pressured Wilson into at least two key incomplete passes, among other highlights.

Two of the plays mentioned above (a forced incompletion and the sack) came on back-to-back plays inside New Orleans' 10-yard line, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal.

Harper's best for last? Harper's future with the Saints is in doubt since the 31-year-old has become more of a part-time player, and he is due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses. But as I've written in the past, I wouldn't be shocked to see him come back at a reduced rate. And Saturday's performance against the Seahawks makes that possibility even more attractive. Harper had probably his best performance of the season, flying around as fast and aggressively as he did in his Pro Bowl prime.

Among his highlights: blowing up left tackle Russell Okung to disrupt Lynch and force a 2-yard loss on third-and-6 in the third quarter; chasing down Wilson in the open field and pulling him down by his shoulder (narrowly avoiding a horse-collar penalty) for an 8-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter; crashing down on Harvin after a quick out pass for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter; and sticking Baldwin in the open field for a 6-yard gain on third-and-9 in the first quarter.

Other highlights: That goal-line stand in the second quarter started with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But the entire Saints defense swallowed up Lynch for a 5-yard loss -- starting with safety Jenkins and followed by Hicks and Jordan. … Defensive tackle John Jenkins was credited with a sack when he snagged Wilson as he tried to scramble up the middle. … Lewis had a nice pass break-up against receiver Golden Tate on a third-and-2 stop in the fourth quarter. … Linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley also stood out on a handful of solid run stops and pressures.
SEATTLE -- There were no surprises on the New Orleans Saints' official injury report Friday. Running back Pierre Thomas (chest) and defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) are listed as questionable after participating in Friday’s walk-through practice on a limited basis.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis (head/neck), guard Jahri Evans (ankle) and offensive tackle Terron Armstead (knee) are listed as probable after practicing fully on Friday.

It’s hard to predict whether Thomas and Hicks will play Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis for the first time since he suffered an unspecified chest injury in Week 17. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Saints won't rush him back since they have so much depth at the running back position -- and since running backs Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Khiry Robinson performed so well in Thomas' absence last week at Philadelphia. But when healthy, Thomas is a central part of the Saints' offense as a runner, receiver and pass protector.

Hicks was new to the injury report this week after playing at Philadelphia, so the severity of his injury is unknown. He was limited in practice all week. Hicks is a lot like Thomas, in that he has been an underrated part of the Saints' resurgence in the middle of the defense. But the Saints do have some trusted depth at all their line positions if Hicks is out or limited.

All of the guys listed as probable should play. Lewis and Armstead practiced fully all week. Evans was limited Wednesday before practicing fully Thursday and Friday.

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