NFL Nation: Mike Bell

SaintsDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireAubrayo Franklin (left), Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram will all be role players to start the season.
What had been suspected for a month or so became official when the New Orleans Saints made their roster cuts last week. They now have the deepest roster in franchise history.

Deeper than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl?

By far. Let’s start with two prime examples -- Chris Reis and Pierson Prioleau -- and work our way back up to the top of the roster. On that 2009 team, they were bottom-of-the-roster guys, but they were still important. Both were backup safeties, but they made their real impact on special teams. Although Jonathan Casillas officially was credited with recovering the famous onside kick in the Super Bowl, Casillas and others involved in the play said Reis actually made the recovery. He and Prioleau made lots of other important plays on special teams that season and also helped last year when the Saints went 11-5.

They’re gone now. Both were released in moves that demonstrated the Saints have upgraded the bottom of their roster.

They’ve also upgraded the middle and the top by adding guys like running back Mark Ingram, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, running back Darren Sproles, center Olin Kreutz, defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Sproles was the franchise player for the Chargers last year, and Franklin held the same tag with the 49ers.

On the Saints, they’re going to be role players. Same with Ingram and Jordan, a pair of first-round picks, at least at first. This roster is jammed with talent that runs from established stars such as quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, to rising stars such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, and right on down to rookies Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Patrick
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere's so much depth in the New Orleans secondary that rookie cornerback Johnny Patrick may only see playing time with special teams.
Wilson and Patrick are third-round picks, and the Saints have high hopes for Wilson as a linebacker and Patrick as a cornerback. But that’s down the road. The Saints are so loaded at those positions -- and everywhere else -- that Wilson and Patrick will probably be nothing more than special-teams players this season.

Think of them for the moment as replacements for Reis and Prioleau. A pair of journeymen have been replaced by third-round picks with the possibility of big futures. That’s called upgrading.

“I’d like to think we’re a little deeper in our roster,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We were able to, during that brief free agency period, pick up a couple players. Each year is different, but I feel like we’re a little deeper right now.’’

Maybe that’s why observers repeatedly said Payton seemed slightly more relaxed during training camp than any of his five previous seasons. He’s still intense, like just about every head coach in the league, but those who’ve watched him throughout his tenure say he showed signs he knows he has the deepest team he’s had and one of the best rosters in the league.

Does that automatically translate into the Saints getting back to winning the Super Bowl? Of course not. The 2009 Saints were good, but, like most Super Bowl champions, they also were a bit lucky at various times throughout the season.

There’s also the matter of a very well-stocked NFC, with the Atlanta Falcons also loaded with talent in the same division, and the Philadelphia Eagles considered the conference favorite by many. Oh, and there are the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions whom the Saints open their season against Thursday night at Lambeau Field.

The last two Super Bowl champions kicking off the season in an historic venue -- it’s the stuff movie-script writers come up with, not NFL schedule makers. But the Packers might be carrying more of a burden than the Saints. They’ll carry the title of defending Super Bowl champions, a load the Saints toted last season.

“You’ve got to answer all the questions about the hangover and you feel like you’re being scrutinized every step of the way,’’ Brees said. “You lose a game and people are like waiting for something bad to happen to your team so they can say 'I told you so.' There’s pressure with that and obviously the expectation level after winning a Super Bowl.’’

The Saints don’t have to worry about that this year. And the fact their roster is so deep and talented could open the door for them to step right back into Super Bowl form. At least on paper, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Saints are so much better than they were in 2009 in many ways. Guys like Jenkins, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis were all very young players on that 2009 team. Now, they’re just hitting their primes.

The offensive backfield should be dramatically better. In 2009, the Saints used a combination of runners that included Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell. Thomas was the best of the bunch that year, but he should be just a role player this season.

Ingram might be better than the Saints have let on. He might be the most complete back this franchise has had since Deuce McAllister was young and healthy.

“He’s a really talented back,’’ Brees said. “He’s just got great instincts and he’s a pure runner. You watch him run and you say, 'Man, this guy was born to be a running back.'"

Throw in Sproles, who should be able to do everything Bush did, except get injured often, and the backfield should be much better. So should the run defense.

Rogers and Franklin are proven run-stoppers, and both made it clear they wanted to finally play on a team that has a chance to win big. That’s going to make life easier for Ellis, who was pretty good even when he was playing next to a very ordinary Remi Ayodele the last couple seasons.

[+] Enlarge Jonathan Casillas
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints got younger at outside linebacker by giving Jonathan Casillas increased playing time.
That’s also going to make things easier for Vilma and a linebacker corps that should be better than it was in 2009 and last season. The Saints won the Super Bowl with Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle as their starting outside linebackers. They were nice complementary players, but not big playmakers. It looks like the Saints will go with Casillas and Will Herring on the outside this year. They’re younger and fresh legs could lead to more big plays.

The secondary should be better than 2009. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are firmly established as the starting corners, and the Saints have high hopes for Patrick Robinson, a first-round pick last season, as the nickel back. I know free safety Darren Sharper was a fan favorite in 2009 and there’s no question he was an important part of that team’s success. But he wore down at the end of that season and is gone now. For those who don’t believe me when I say Jenkins now is better than Sharper was early in 2009, let’s talk at the end of the season.

The receiving corps -- Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem -- is pretty much the same as it was in 2009. But Graham has replaced Jeremy Shockey as the pass-catching tight end. Graham’s younger and more athletic than Shockey.

Consider that another upgrade on a team that has plenty of them. A lot of teams like to intentionally sell themselves short as they enter a season. The Saints aren’t doing that, and that’s probably because they’re looking at their roster and seeing what they have.

“We all know the potential here,’’ Brees said. “But we’re not going to take anything for granted and assume that we can walk out there with the talent that we have and we’re going to scare people away with our talent. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to go out and make plays and prove it every time out. I like what we have. I think we have the opportunity to be great. But we still have a lot of work to do.’’
The Detroit Lions are next up to the roster reduction plate. Among eight players released Monday morning were place-kicker Dave Rayner and running back Mike Bell.

Rayner's departure presumably returns the job to veteran Jason Hanson, who missed the second half of last season due to a knee injury. Hanson reported to training camp healthy and has converted both of his field goal attempts this preseason. And any concerns about his kickoffs at age 41 are mitigated by the NFL's offseason adjustment to the 35-yard line.

Rayner made some big kicks for the Lions last season and had converted two of three field goals during the preseason. But the Lions know that as long as Hanson is healthy, he is one of the NFL's top place-kickers.

In addition to Rayner and Bell, the Lions also released a fan favorite in receiver Demario Ballard. The full list is available on the team's website. The Lions must make two more cuts to comply with NFL guidelines by Tuesday.

Previewing preseason Week 3

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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In which we look ahead to NFC North preseason football over the next two days.

Green Bay Packers
Opponent:
Indianapolis Colts
Location: Lucas Oil Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Coach Mike McCarthy estimated that starters will play midway through the second quarter. Although they could see extra time, it's not expected that McCarthy will bring them out for the third quarter. ... Receiver/returner Randall Cobb (knees) and defensive end Mike Neal (knee) aren't expected to play. Receiver Greg Jennings (knee) could join them on the sideline. Running back James Starks (ankle) and linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) should return from a week off.
Focal point: I'm curious to track how the Packers' offense performs when it is not in the no-huddle. That alignment has given them most of their success in the preseason, but I'm assuming they won't be running it every play during the regular season. From a competition standpoint, it's worth keeping a close eye on how tailback Ryan Grant performs and if Starks picks up where he left off before the ankle injury. Could Starks lay claim to the starting job with a strong showing?

Chicago Bears
Opponent:
Tennessee Titans
Location: LP Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Most starters will play at least a half. ... Receiver Sam Hurd (ankle), linebacker Lance Briggs (knee) and defensive tackle Anthony Adams (calf) have been ruled out. Tight end Kellen Davis (back) could miss the game, while cornerback Zack Bowman (concussion) appears likely to resume playing.
Focal point: The Bears' current offensive line configuration could lock itself into a Week 1 assignment with a solid outing that builds off last week's performance against the New York Giants. On the other hand, receiver Roy Williams needs to make a few catches in order to assure the Bears he is worthy of the starting job they handed him in training camp. Like most NFL teams, the Bears would like to see their offense produce a few touchdown drives before the preseason is over. Finally, I would like to see the Bears' defensive line rotation start shaking itself out. It's not clear at this point if they have a legitimate backup defensive end or if any of their two reclamation projects, Vernon Gholston and Amobi Okoye, will provide any help.

Detroit Lions
Opponent:
New England Patriots
Location: Ford Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will play around half of the game... Running back Jahvid Best (concussion) and Maurice Morris (hand) aren't expected to play, so the Lions are likely to start Jerome Harrison. Mike Bell, Aaron Brown and Stefan Logan will be available to rotate in. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (shoulder) is a strong candidate to sit out as well.
Focal point: The Lions' uncertain depth at running back will be on full display. By the end of the night, we should have an idea if they have someone capable of carrying a significant load while sharing the job with Best. On the other hand, fans might get their first look at rookie receiver Titus Young. Meanwhile, the countdown continues for the first preseason hit on quarterback Matthew Stafford. He told reporters this week: "You guys can ask all you want. I don't think about it. I just play football and whatever happens, happens."

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent:
Dallas Cowboys
Location:
Metrodome
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Some starters are expected to play into the third quarter. ... The Vikings have a long injury list. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring), linebacker Heath Farwell (hamstring), linebacker Jasper Brinkley (hip), tailback Toby Gerhart (ankle), defensive tackle Kevin Williams (foot) and cornerback Asher Allen (toe) are among those who won't play.
Focal point: The Vikings' first-team offense has produced three points this preseason and isn't likely to be on the field much in the preseason finale. So Saturday night is their best and last chance to build some momentum for the regular season. The offense hasn't appeared disorganized or confused. It just hasn't had much punch yet and its personality is far from defined. It would also be helpful if rookie Christian Ponder can establish himself as the No. 2 quarterback so the Vikings can free up Joe Webb to focus on the Wildcat and other unique packages.

Is Jahvid Best a feature back?

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
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One of the first reactions I got to Wednesday's brawl on the future of tailback Ryan Grant was both informative and entertaining: Would he be a fit for the Detroit Lions?

We now know that Grant has a guaranteed contract for 2011, making it pretty unlikely (but not impossible) that he'll be changing teams anytime soon. Still, the Lions-centric reaction evoked an important question: Where are the Lions going with their running game and is it reasonable to trust Jahvid Best in the primary role?

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Eric P. Mull/US PresswireJahvid Best suffered a concussion against the Browns, raising fresh questions about his durability.
Best suffered a concussion in last week's preseason game against the Cleveland Browns and won't play Saturday night against the New England Patriots. All concussions are to be taken seriously, but with Best it's only fair to note the one that ended his college career in 2009.

When you combine the most recent concussion with his double turf toe injuries from a year ago, you realize there have been only a few windows in Best's pro career when he hasn't been limited by a significant injury. Obviously the Lions worked hard to fortify themselves by drafting Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure, but his ruptured Achilles tendon returned the Lions backfield to an unsettled state.

To me, the Lions have three questions they need to answer:

  1. Is Best going to be healthy enough to take, say, 250 carries this season?
  2. Does he have the kind of running style that makes sense for that kind of assignment?
  3. Are there any reasonable alternatives?

From the top, there really is no way to know if Best will get hurt in the future. Fortune tellers, we're not. The Lions studied his concussion case thoroughly before the draft, so presumably they're not encountering any surprises in that regard.

On the second point, all we can say at this point is that Best didn't produce last season the way you would hope a feature back would. The toe injuries limited him to some extent, and the fact that he appeared in all 16 games at least speaks to his toughness.

But let's look a little beyond the numbers of a rookie season that saw him average 3.2 yards on 171 carries, courtesy of KC Joyner's annual fantasy football draft guide. (Earlier: The Chicago Bears' short-range passing success.)

Joyner tracks two metrics that, through film study, determine the extent to which running backs capitalize on good blocking and whether they can make up for bad blocking. Obviously, blocking success is a subjective measure, but Joyner loosely defines it as plays when no blockers allow a defense to disrupt the play.

Last season, Best had 98 carries where he received good blocking under that measure. In them, he produced the seventh-lowest ranking (5.6 yards per good blocking attempt) among running backs with at least 100 or more carries.

And on the 73 plays in which Joyner judged him to have received poor blocking, Best averaged a net total of 0.0 yards. Most runners average 1-2 yards in similar situations.

Again, this is but one way to evaluate running backs. And I'm not discounting the role the turf toe injuries played. But generally speaking, you want to see a feature back maximize well-blocked plays and at least occasionally get some yards on his own when his blockers get beat.

On the third point: The Lions signed veteran running backs Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell immediately after LeShoure's injury. They've gotten veteran Maurice Morris (hand) back on the practice field as well. Obviously they're not intrigued with any of the bigger-name running backs still on the market, a list that includes Clinton Portis and Tiki Barber, but I think it's fair to say they'll have their eyes on the waiver wire early next month when teams make final cuts to their 53-man rosters.

The Lions figure to be a pass-first team no matter who is in the backfield. Still, Best remains a key figure here. At the very least we can agree that no one knows for sure what he can do -- and what he can't -- over a long period of time.

Depth could make Saints' RBs better

August, 23, 2011
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If you go back and look at the film of New Orleans playing Houston in Saturday’s preseason game, it quickly becomes apparent the Saints don’t have a featured running back. They have three.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireRookie Mark Ingram adds depth to a versatile group of running backs for the Saints.
Rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles all got work with the first-team offense. That’s not some sort of competition or preseason experiment. The Saints are likely to use all three in a similar rotation during the regular season.

“I think it’s a great trio,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “When you look at all their strengths and their abilities with the diverse group we have, it’s hard when you give a defense that 1-2-3 punch because all of them can do so many good things and you’re able to rotate them and keep them fresh, and that’s only going to help us and our offense and how complex we’re going to be and what we’re going to be with formations and personnel groups. It’s really becomes a great weapon for us.’’

Although the trade of Reggie Bush made headlines, I’ll make a case that the Saints are better off at running back now than at any time since the 2006 season. That’s the last real productive year the Saints had from Deuce McAllister before age and injuries caught up to the veteran. That also was Bush’s rookie year, and he might have had his best season as he was used in tandem with McAllister.

Since then, the Saints have used a committee of running backs that has included the likes of Bush, Thomas, Mike Bell and Chris Ivory. They’ve won a lot of games, but the play of the running backs has been decent, not great.

With Ingram, Thomas and Sproles, things should change for the better. Ingram might be the most complete back the Saints have had since McAllister. At 5-foot-9, he’s built low to the ground, but he’s powerful. He’s also shown good speed and was able to catch the ball out of the backfield in college. That skill could be utilized even more in New Orleans’ offense.

But the Saints don’t need Ingram to do everything. Thomas is similar in a lot of ways -- he can run inside and outside and catch passes. Thomas was limited to six games last season, but was the closest thing the Saints had to a consistent running threat in 2009 when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

Ingram and Thomas are likely to split most of the carries out of the backfield, but the Saints didn’t go all out in recruiting the free-agent Sproles to have him come in and be a decoration. He’s going to be part of the backfield rotation with Ingram and Thomas.

Sproles will take on many of the roles Bush had. He’ll be used as a change-of-pace back, often going in motion and being used as a receiver. Sproles has the same kind of dynamic speed Bush had, but he might be better in some ways. Bush had trouble staying healthy throughout his time in New Orleans.

In his past three seasons in San Diego, Sproles did not miss a game. He also handled return duties.

Tampa Bay (LeGarrette Blount), Atlanta (Michael Turner) and Carolina (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) might have better individual running backs than the Saints. But put Ingram, Thomas and Sproles together and the Saints have a triumvirate of running backs that could make their offense more complete than it’s been since the days when McAllister still was going strong.
Reviewing Friday's action at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

Detroit Lions 30, Cleveland Browns 28

Preseason record: 2-0

Of interest: Quarterback Matthew Stafford had another sharp night, completing six of 10 passes for 85 yards in four series. He now has a 138.7 passer rating in two preseason games. He threw two beautiful downfield passes, a 30-yard go route to receiver Nate Burleson and a 27-yard pass down the seam to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Under modest rush on back-to-back plays, Stafford scrambled to the left sideline and flipped the ball out of bounds twice. Unusual but effective, I guess. ... Burleson's 4-yard touchdown reception, on his 30th birthday, was an elite display of footwork at the back line. ... Tailback Jahvid Best took a hit on the first play that left him woozy, he said, and he didn't return after the first series, which ended with his fumble. The implication is that he suffered a concussion, but there was no confirmation Friday night. ... The first-team defense allowed two touchdowns but both were on short-field drives following a turnover and a long return. The drives started at the Lions' 34- and 21-yard lines, respectively. ... Receiver Calvin Johnson didn't play as a precaution against re-injuring his bruised left shoulder. ... I thought safety Amari Spievey again made a few nice tackles, including a 3-yard loss in the backfield against Brandon Jackson.

Local coverage: Lions coach Jim Schwartz was pleased with how backup running backs Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison played after Best's injury, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. In the end, the Lions rushed for 176 yards on 45 carries. The Lions committed "way too many" penalties, noted defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. Best on his injury, via Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: "It was nothing bad, but I just wasn't feeling right so they told me to sit down. I'm not concerned at all."

Up next: Next Saturday vs. the New England Patriots

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are once again navigating the loss of a significant player, and the dark irony is that their greatest asset in such pursuits is experience.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford was lost before halftime in Week 1 last season to a shoulder injury. The same thing happened to cornerback Aaron Berry, a surprise starter as a nickelback. In the wake of tailback Mikel LeShoure's torn Achilles tendon, receiver Nate Burleson reminded teammates that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1 of the 2008 season while playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch missed 13 games of his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals and all of his third season because of injuries.

So coach Jim Schwartz had an easy answer on Tuesday when I asked how he would combat the kind of "woe is us" response that could naturally result from LeShoure's injury.

"We've been though that with a lot of different players," Schwartz said, "and we have a lot of players on our team who have been through stuff like that."

If there was a silver lining to the timing of LeShoure's injury, it's that it came during the experimentation of the Lions' offensive scheme. We have all assumed the Lions planned some sort of one-two combination between LeShoure and starter Jahvid Best, but Schwartz said: "I don't know that we had mapped it out that much, anyway."

No doubt repeating the message he gave his team, Schwartz emphasized what we discussed Monday: While the loss will impact the offense, it's not as if the team has been left barren.

"That's one of the reasons you go through the preseason," Schwartz said. "It's to find things that guys can do and how you're going to use them and the best way to utilize that talent. It's not like we don't have other good players on offense and it's not like our plans have been dashed because of this.

"[LeShoure] was going to be an important part. He was doing very, very well, not just physically but mentally for a rookie. But we still have a lot of time and we still have a lot of good players."

At the same time, I think the Lions really missed out by not convincing free agent tailback Ricky Williams to sign Tuesday. Schwartz acknowledged the Lions had interest and said "there were other names, too," but in the end the Lions had veterans Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison on the field for practice.

Williams' hard-charging style would have complemented Best much in the way LeShoure was going to, but he chose to sign with the Baltimore Ravens instead. I wouldn't be surprised if the Lions continue to scan the market for other possibilities as the preseason rolls on.

A couple of notes from the Lions' indoor practice in helmets and shorts:
  • Offensive lineman Jason Fox returned with relatively good news from a visit with a North Carolina foot specialist. He does not have a fracture and won't need surgery. Instead, he will be immobilized in a cast for a period of time and then begin rehabilitation.
  • Receiver Titus Young (leg) was again held out of practice and was walking on the sideline with an obvious limp. There is no sense on speculating how long it will take him to recover, but it doesn't look like it will be anytime soon. For now, the Lions can't expect a contribution from any of their top three draft choices.
  • I spent some time watching Berry, especially after hearing so much about him despite very limited practice and game time last season. In one instance, at least, Berry covered receiver Calvin Johnson as well as could possibly be expected. He was physical, remained stride-for-stride and forced Johnson to make an extraordinarily difficult catch on the sideline.
  • In nickel packages that I saw, the Lions were inserting Brandon McDonald and removing linebacker Stephen Tulloch. While Tulloch was in the middle during first-team drills, Schwartz said it is likely he will rotate between the middle and the outside during the preseason. Tulloch made a nice play during positional drills to knock a pass away from Best.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Greetings from Detroit Lions training camp, where I arrived to find the team has responded aggressively to running back Mikel Leshoure's season-ending injury. The Lions signed free agent running backs Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell, and I believe both of them will be at the facility Tuesday.

At 225 pounds, Bell fits the profile of the type of back the Lions hoped to get from Leshoure this season. He has played for four other NFL teams, most recently the Cleveland Browns last season. Harrison, meanwhile, is a Kalamazoo, Mich., native who spent parts of five seasons with the Browns before he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles -- in return for Bell, as serendipity turns out.

Both players are 28 and have been looking for a job since the end of the lockout. Some of you might have hoped the Lions would seek out a higher-profile name, perhaps Clinton Portis or Tiki Barber. But I wouldn't necessarily think the Lions are done looking for replacements. It could be a month-long process before they find the player they want to pair with Jahvid Best.

And that, in all reality, is the key point to take from these moves. The Lions aren't prepared to move forward with Best as their sole running back, especially with Maurice Morris recovering from a fractured hand. This Lions built their offense around the idea of a 1-2 backfield punch, and I think they're going to spend at least some time this summer finding out if they can still do that. More in a bit.
Marshawn Lynch and Tracy PorterMike Nelson/US PresswireMarshawn Lynch pushed Tracy Porter and the Saints' defense around on his 67-yard score.
SEATTLE -- The memories of their Super Bowl season will last forever. The magic did not.

The feel-good story of last season -- or maybe the past decade or two -- is over. It ended unexpectedly and more than a little embarrassingly for the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions came into Qwest Field on Saturday to play the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

It ended with the Seattle Seahawks, a team that stumbled to the NFC West championship, defeating the Saints 41-36. Just like that, the magic and miracles that carried the Saints all the way to Miami and last year’s Super Bowl are over.

“After you experience raising that trophy, you don’t want to see anyone else lift it,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There wasn’t a person in this locker room that didn’t think we would be lifting that trophy again.’’

That’s not going to happen. Some other team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and it will come in a season in which the Saints generally looked like they were avoiding “the curse’’ that has dethroned so many recent Super Bowl champions.

They went 11-5 in the regular season, again riding the arm of Drew Brees and using a defense that looked better overall than it did a year ago. Then, against a team the Saints handled easily in the regular season, it all fell apart.

Instead of looking like the Saints of the regular season or the champion Saints of the 2009 season, the Saints looked a lot more like the New Orleans teams of 2007 and 2008. Those teams could move the ball, but didn’t play much defense. Those teams were mediocre, sort of like the Seahawks.

“We’ll have a chance to look at the film,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked to explain why his team suddenly collapsed.

Payton’s right. There will be no Super Bowl parades or even any more games this season. The Saints will have months to reflect on what happened.

There will be painful weeks to watch the film of Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a lot of time to see safety Darren Sharper looking like he waited too long to retire. Time to watch strong safety Roman Harper looking even worse than Sharper and time to watch rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson making a season’s worth of rookie mistakes.

That’s not going to look good on the résumé of Gregg Williams. He’s the defensive coordinator and the man many credit for putting the Saints over the top last season. He has been mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate in other places in recent weeks. He now will have time to interview. If Williams doesn’t get another job, he and Payton can watch the horror movie together.

[+] EnlargeSaints' Drew Brees
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA season after winning their first Super Bowl, Drew Brees and the Saints were ousted in the wild-card round.
“Our eyes were not very good in coverage,’’ Sharper said.

Throw in their legs and their minds too, and don’t limit the blame to the secondary. The front four and the linebackers also got destroyed. Hasselbeck, who couldn’t even play a week ago because of a hip injury, completed 22 of 35 passes and finished with a 113.0 passer rating. Marshawn Lynch ran over the New Orleans defense for 131 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

“I think we might have taken for granted the success they had throwing against us earlier in the season,’’ Sharper said.

That’s a reference to the Nov. 21 regular-season game in the Superdome. Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in that game, but the Saints won 34-19. So what changed between the regular-season game and now? And what happened between last year’s Super Bowl and now?

A team that took pride in saying the only real losses from the Super Bowl were linebacker Scott Fujita and backup running back Mike Bell somehow lost a lot more. Yes, injuries were a factor. The Saints were forced to play Sharper because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t play because of injuries and fellow running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones got so banged up in the second half that the Saints had to play DeShawn Wynn, who was signed last week.

But the problems started long before Bush and Jones got hurt. The Saints, who had to fly across the country and had only six days between games, started off playing like champions. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and Seattle was looking every bit the part of a 7-9 team. Then everything changed.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating [coach] Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,'' Payton said. “They played a real good game.’’

Yes, give the Seahawks credit, but the Saints gave them a whole lot of help. Although Brees threw for 404 yards on 60 attempts, any attempt at offensive balance was abandoned in the second and third quarters when the Seahawks outscored the Saints 27-10.

Lynch and the Seattle receivers ran all over Williams’ defense. Things got so bad that Payton had to call for a desperation onside kick near the end of the game instead of using it as a surprise as he did in the Super Bowl win.

The Saints, who danced their way out of Miami after the Super Bowl and posed for pictures on the Atlanta Falcons’ logo in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago, lost their swagger in Seattle.

The locker room was quiet.

“We knew we had a team we thought could repeat,’’ Sharper said.

“This stings a lot,’’ cornerback Jabari Greer said.

The silence and the sting will last the long flight back home and probably spill over into the coming weeks and months. The Saints lost more than just a playoff game.

They lost their chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions and they did it against a team that had a losing record in the regular season. Instead, they’re left to think about preventing a repeat of what happened in Seattle.

“If we’re ever in this position down the road, we have to remember this experience so it doesn’t happen again,’’ Shanle said.

Ravens-Browns halftime notes

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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PM ET
CLEVELAND -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Browns, 13-10, at intermission. Here are some notes at halftime:
  • There was some early trash-talking between these teams. Baltimore had talked all week about how it wasn't familiar with Browns tailback Peyton Hillis when he rushed for 144 yards in the first meeting and that it won't happen again. Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers obviously took exception and shared some words with several Ravens defenders in warm-ups. Browns guard Eric Steinbach also did the Ray Lewis dance during Cleveland's pregame introduction.
  • Speaking of Hillis, he hasn't been able to get on track for the Browns. He rushed for 18 yards on seven carries and might be banged up. He's been out of the game for long stretches and was dealing with a knee injury during the week. Cleveland backup tailback Mike Bell also rushed for 10 yards in the first half.
  • Conversely, there are more big holes in the run defense of the Browns this week. The Ravens are running heavily and are having success pounding Cleveland’s defense, which allowed 380 total rushing yards the previous two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills. Baltimore gained 78 yards rushing in the first half and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
  • The Browns came out early with a trick play that worked. On its second drive, Cleveland pitched the ball to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who then threw it 20 yards to receiver Brian Robiskie for a 20-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. It was the first time a non-quarterback threw a touchdown pass for Cleveland since 2002. Massaquoi later made a bad play in the second quarter by getting stripped by Ravens cornerback Chris Carr, a fumble which led to a Baltimore touchdown.
  • Ravens safety Ed Reed got his fifth interception of the season but also had an injury scare. Reed was shaken up after a 20-yard return and in pain on the sideline. The nature of the injury was unclear, but doctors re-taped Reed's left shoe and he went back in the game.

Where do Saints turn for big RB?

August, 12, 2010
8/12/10
9:23
AM ET
With Lynell Hamilton suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Wednesday’s workout with the Patriots, the New Orleans Saints are going to have to make some major decisions about their stable of running backs.

Hamilton
They had planned to use Hamilton in the spot in the rotation that Mike Bell held last year. In other words, Hamilton (6-foot and 235 pounds) was going to be the big back or the short-yardage guy. Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush would alternate as the top two running backs with Bush being the speed guy and Thomas the all-around back.

Bush and Thomas remain in place and I doubt the plan for them will change much. But the Saints now need a third man in that rotation and I’m not sure they’ve got the right candidate on their current roster. All indications are they like P.J. Hill and rookie Chris Ivory. But neither is as big as Hamilton. Ivory is a little closer than Hill, but they’re both within a few pounds of 220.

The Saints had veteran Ladell Betts in for a workout last week and he’s slightly heavier than Hill and Ivory. Plus, he’s got experience. I don’t know if the workout erased any concerns about Betts’ health. If it did, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints sign him quickly. If it didn’t, I’d look for them to go out and add another running back very soon.

There’s not much out there right now. This might be a situation where the Saints monitor running backs on other teams throughout the preseason and hope they can add a big back that gets released by someone else.

Another rough day for the Eagles

August, 1, 2010
8/01/10
8:20
PM ET
Samuel
Samuel
Bell
Bell
The Beast is currently operating out of our Albany, N.Y., bureau, but we're still keeping an eye on the rest of the division. The Philadelphia Eagles had two more players carted off the field Sunday, both due to hamstring injuries. Cornerback Asante Samuel and running back Mike Bell suffered hamstring injuries the day after Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson went down with a back injury.

By the time we make it to Lehigh on Tuesday, coach Andy Reid may have to shut things down. This is the second straight year the Eagles have battled injury problems early in camp. But I will say that Samuel provided one of his most memorable quotes when asked when he might return.

"I'm not a mad scientist," Samuel said after practice. "I might be out there tomorrow."

And for those of us who rushed to judgment about Samuel perhaps being a "mad scientist," I think an apology is in order. Samuel rarely addresses reporters, so it's helpful that he brought some clarity to the situation. In other injury news, guard Max Jean-Gilles (dehydration) and center A.Q. Shipley (ankle) also left practice with injuries. Without a mad scientist on hand, it's unclear how much time they will miss.

The Beast will continue to monitor this situation from Albany.

Camp Confidential: Saints

July, 31, 2010
7/31/10
12:27
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 2

METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints finished their first camp practice Friday morning, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known for holding back nothing on or off the field, unloaded. He wanted to get something off his chest. Heck, out of his body, out of his mouth and out into the open.

Without ever really being asked anything that would prompt the issue, Williams started talking about why the Saints can repeat as Super Bowl champions. He’s tired of hearing the reasons they can’t and the repeated reminders that the follow-up season hasn’t been good to many Super Bowl teams in recent history.

“I keep on hearing you guys talk about this Super Bowl hangover and it’s starting to chafe me a little bit,’’ Williams said. “It really is and I’m being real honest. The reason being is, if you could see behind the scenes of our offseason program from April 19 and to see every single practice we’ve had, I don’t have any qualms about the way our defense is because all they did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanted me to be a bigger jerk and get on their (butt) more. They begged for me to get on their (butt) more. So far, I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that we can’t make another run at this.’’

Williams may be one of the organization’s more vocal figures, but you quickly get the feeling he’s not alone on this idea. Sure, the Saints spent a good portion of the offseason celebrating the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Sure, recent history is stacked against them. No team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots.

Confidence -- some even have suggested arrogance -- was a big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season. That hasn’t changed. Unlike a lot of recent Super Bowl teams, the Saints really didn’t lose much in free agency and they didn’t have their coaching staff picked apart. There really hasn’t been much turnover of faces or attitude.

“There was a really good locker room here before I got here,’’ Williams said. “There’s a better locker room now. The guys that we brought in this year, they fit into that locker room because Jon Vilma and Drew Brees aren’t going to let the wrong kind of people be in that locker room. They’re just not going to do that.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJabari Greer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesA healthy Jabari Greer could help the defense be more consistent.
1. Can a defense that was opportunistic but far from dominant become more consistent? Sure, there is some bravado that comes with Williams. That’s part of his nature and it’s part of what makes him a good coach. But what he’s saying isn’t just bluster.

The Saints really should be much better on defense this season. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant. They showed Grant the door and probably upgraded the position by signing veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They’ll line up on the other side from Will Smith. Brown and Wilkerson aren’t dominant pass-rushers, but they’re consistent in that area and play the run very well. Fujita was a key contributor, but the Saints believe they have a group of promising linebackers (Troy Evans, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Stanley Arnoux) and believe one of them will rise up.

Plug in a healthy Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the defensive line and the Saints should have a solid front seven. But the defensive backfield is where the Saints really could be outstanding. They’ve assembled one of the best collections of secondary talent in the league. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter might be the best cornerbacks no one outside of New Orleans has heard of. When healthy, they both can be shut-down guys. Both were banged up last season, and that’s one of the reasons the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson. That move also has allowed them to move last year’s first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, to free safety, where he might get the chance to beat out Darren Sharper. If you can put Sharper, a possible future Hall of Famer on the bench, that’s a pretty big statement. People talk about New Orleans’ offense being explosive, but the defense has a chance to be every bit as dynamic.

2. Can the offense live up to last year’s standards? Brees remains the quarterback and, as long as that’s the case, this offense is going to be great. Brees clearly is in his prime and his pairing with head coach/offensive genius Sean Payton makes magic possible on every play.

This is an offense that can hit you from every angle -- Brees throwing short or long, Pierre Thomas running inside and Reggie Bush outside and an offensive line filled with Pro Bowlers. Keep in mind that the Saints had some injuries at the skill positions last year, but they still were phenomenal on offense. If they can keep Bush, Thomas, Marques Colston, Heath Evans and Jeremy Shockey healthy, last year’s production could be eclipsed.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Larry French/Getty ImagesJahri Evans is part of a dominant offensive line that makes up for any weakness at left tackle.
3. Is left tackle really that important? The Saints used to have a Pro Bowl left tackle. His name was Jammal Brown and they traded him to Washington in the offseason. That happened after Brown missed all last season with an injury and the Saints got by with Jermon Bushrod quite nicely.

The Saints aren’t touting Bushrod as a franchise left tackle, although he’s the favorite to be the starter. They also drafted Charles Brown, and Zach Strief, who filled in when Bushrod slumped a bit last season, also is in the mix. The Saints gave Bushrod plenty of help last season and they’re prepared to do it again for him -- or for Brown or Streif. But the lesson that came out of last year is, in this offense, it’s not a necessity to have a dominant left tackle.

But that’s partly because the Saints have the league’s best guard tandem (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Jonathan Stinchcomb) and an excellent center (Jonathan Goodwin). Throw anyone out there at left tackle and the rest of the line and Brees will make him look good.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what seemed like a bit of a leap when they drafted the tight end in the third round. He played basketball at the University of Miami before deciding to switch to football in his final year. The conventional wisdom was that Graham would be a bit of a project and would take a year or two to really have an impact. But there already is a buzz among the coaching staff and other offensive players about Graham. Everyone knew he had great athletic ability coming in, but he’s picked up things faster than anyone expected and he got some first-team work with Brees in June workouts. He might play a bigger role faster than anyone expected.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Clint Ingram. When the Saints signed Ingram, a lot of fans instantly thought he would be the automatic replacement for Fujita. Ingram had been a starter in Jacksonville, so the logic was solid. But Ingram was injured when the Saints signed him and he still hasn’t been on the practice field, except while riding a stationary bike. That has allowed Troy Evans, Dunbar and Arnoux time to make a good impression. Unless Ingram gets healthy very soon and makes a huge impression on the field, he might not even get a roster spot.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Darren Sharper
    James Lang/US PresswireDarren Sharper wore down toward the end of last season and had offseason microfracture surgery.
    I know this might sound like blasphemy to Saints fans because Sharper is very popular and had a huge impact last year. But the fact is he’s 34 and coming off micro-fracture knee surgery. I’ve suggested before I think there’s a good chance Jenkins takes his place in the starting lineup. But I’ll take it one step further here and say -- I’m not promising this will happen -- I can see a scenario where Sharper doesn’t even stay on the active roster. The Saints are high on Jenkins. They also like Usama Young and are hopeful about Chip Vaughn, who missed his rookie year with an injury. Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Sharper around for his leadership. But if his knee doesn’t come along, he could spend part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the injured-reserve list or maybe even be released or retired. Even with all his credentials, Sharper can’t contribute if his knee isn’t right. The Saints have a lot of other safeties with young legs.
  • The Saints used a three-headed backfield with Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell last season. Bell is gone, but the playing time division should be pretty similar this year. Just plug Lynell Hamilton into Bell’s place. The Saints wouldn’t have let Bell go if they didn’t think Hamilton was ready. I don’t want to tease you and say this is the year Bush shows he can run between the tackles. But remember how well he ran in the playoffs and how he was more physical than at any time in his career? That was because he was completely healthy. That seems to still be the case, so don’t be surprised if you see Bush’s numbers go up a bit. This guy can do a little bit of everything.
  • Shockey’s always been an easy target and there’s no doubt he’s brought some of that on himself. But he appears to be in very good physical shape. Shockey hasn’t really been a distraction in New Orleans like many thought he was when he was with the Giants. He’s just been banged up for much of his time with the Saints. Maybe –- and I’m just saying maybe -- Shockey might have matured and might be taking better care of himself in an effort to stay on the field.
  • It really didn’t get much attention, but the best move the Saints made in the offseason might have been signing Patrick Ramsey to serve as Brees’ backup. Veteran Mark Brunell was a good fit in that role for a couple of years, but the Saints needed to get a little younger. The Saints hope and pray nothing ever happens to Brees. But, if he were to miss some time, the New Orleans offense might not suddenly fall apart. Ramsey’s a guy who has bounced around the league. He got messed up by Steve Spurrier early in his career in Washington, but he still has some talent. This is a quarterback-friendly offense with all sorts of weapons and Ramsey could win games for the Saints -- if that ever becomes necessary.
  • For a couple years, special teams were a bit of a question. That has changed. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead were heroes in the Super Bowl. They’re still young and should only continue to get better.
  • It’s very early in camp, but one player who has intrigued the coaching staff is defensive end Junior Galette. He’s an undrafted rookie and very undersized at 258 pounds. But this guy is showing great speed and there’s a chance he could land a job as a pass-rush specialist. Yeah, Bobby McCray also is supposed to fit that description. But McCray had 1.5 sacks last season and actually was cut because of a high salary before he basically begged his way back (at a reduced salary). If the Saints cut McCray once, there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.
Thought I would take that list of 2009 playing time I mentioned yesterday and take it in another direction.

I just looked at how many snaps each running back in the NFC South got last year and the results were interesting. In the case of the most used running back in the division, the result was surprising.

[+] EnlargeCadillac Williams
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCadillac Williams was on the field for 593 offensive plays last season -- the most of any running back in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams, far and away, led NFC South running backs in playing time last season. He was on the field for almost 60 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive plays and was the only division running back to take part in more than 50 percent of his team’s offensive plays. Not bad for a guy who has endured two major knee injuries in his career.

Let’s take a look at last year’s numbers on playing time for the running backs on all four teams (we’ll only delve into the significant ones), translate what that meant in 2009 and analyze what it could mean in 2010.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs ran a division-low 999 offensive plays and Williams was on the field for 593 of them. Derrick Ward, who was signed as a free agent, was out there for 34.7 percent of the plays and Earnest Graham, who made the transition to fullback, participated on 23.1 percent of the snaps. Ward really didn’t have the impact the Bucs hoped for, but they haven’t given up on him. Williams is firmly established as Raheem Morris’ No. 1 back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs let Ward take away some of his snaps (but not carries) just to preserve Williams.

New Orleans: This might be the most interesting running back corps in the division because everyone talked so much about the three-headed backfield last year. That was true as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell got relatively equal playing time. Of New Orleans’ 1,067 offensive plays, Bush was on the field for 389. Thomas was out there for 372 and Bell got 262 snaps. Bell is gone and you might see playing time for Bush and Thomas go up a bit, but only slightly because Lynell Hamilton, who played 5.9 percent of last year’s snaps, is likely to take on some of Bell’s load. One other interesting note here is that fullback Heath Evans took part in 23.1 of the offensive plays, despite missing almost half the season with injury. Evans is healthy now and I’d look for him to be on the field about 40 percent of the time.

Carolina: The Panthers have one of the league’s most dynamic combination in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The playing time numbers pretty much back up coach John Fox’s view that these two guys are equal. Williams was on the field for 46.5 percent of Carolina’s 1,053 plays and Stewart participated in 40.3 percent. That breakdown should be pretty similar in 2010, barring injury. The Panthers let veteran fullback Brad Hoover go in the offseason and that’s significant because he took part in 31.2 percent of the plays. Tony Fiammetta took only 10.3 percent of the snaps as a rookie last year and he’s going to have to step into Hoover’s role.

Atlanta: The Falcons ran 1,093 offensive plays this past season and their participation got really out of whack because of injuries to Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. Jason Snelling wound up leading Atlanta’s backs with 497 (45.5 percent) plays. Turner was on the field for 335 (30.7 percent) and Norwood for 284 (26 percent). The Falcons don’t want to overuse Turner, who carried 385 times in 2008. But I think it’s a safe bet a healthy Turner will stay on the field for more than 30 percent of the plays in 2010. His mere presence brings a threat that should make things easier for the passing game. Snelling earned a role in this backfield, but if Turner and Norwood stay healthy, his playing time should dwindle. Turner and Norwood both are home run threats. Snelling is a big back, who is best suited as a blocker in passing situations and as a short-yardage runner.

Much fantasy love for Gore, 49ers

July, 20, 2010
7/20/10
12:59
PM ET
ESPN fantasy guru Matthew Berry is all over Frank Gore specifically and the 2010 San Francisco 49ers in general.

"Gore, (Michael) Crabtree, (Vernon) Davis, Josh Morgan and (Alex) Smith are all on my love list this year," Berry proclaims. "I think Davis might regress a little bit, but he'll still be an elite tight end."

Berry ranks Gore fourth overall among all NFL fantasy prospects. He likes the other San Francisco players largely in relation to where he thinks others will value them in fantasy drafts. Berry likes the Seattle Seahawks' Justin Forsett in the later rounds, but he doesn't like the team in general from a fantasy standpoint because too much remains unknown.

One thing I'm not sure about regarding the 49ers is to what degree Crabtree will get into the touchdown mix. Gore and Davis were the primary scorers for San Francisco last season. Crabtree scored only two receiving touchdowns. That number should climb, but by how much?

I'll be organizing a fantasy league on the blog again this season. It'll likely be a Gridiron Challenge league again. We'll have a hard salary cap and the ability to change rosters from week to week, with players' prices changing based on how they perform.

Back to Gore. He was a solid producer last season in terms of final numbers, but his week-to-week production was sporadic. The chart shows the top 30 touchdown scorers in the NFL last season. Three of the top four were in the mighty NFC West.

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