NFL Nation: Scott Shanle

Sean Payton, Drew BreesChris Graythen/Getty ImagesSean Payton and Drew Brees know they face a stiff challenge in the Seattle Seahawks Monday night.
Former New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said now that he’s just “a fan,” it’s easier for him to admit that there is no doubt the Saints are a different team at home than on the road.

However, both Shanle and former Saints safety Darren Sharper said they feel like New Orleans (9-2) is better equipped now than ever before to handle a difficult road challenge like tonight’s “Monday Night Football” game at the Seattle Seahawks (10-1).

“They’re the underdogs, but they have a chance,” said Sharper, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. “Primarily because of how their defense is playing. They have a top defense. They have never had that going into a game like this.”

I caught up with both former Saints defenders last week as part of ESPN.com’s look back on Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch’s legendary 67-yard playoff run against New Orleans three years ago. I also asked them for their thoughts on tonight’s rematch.

Shanle agreed with Sharper that the Saints are capable of overcoming all of tonight’s challenging elements -- a great opponent, an overwhelming Seattle crowd and possible nasty weather. But Shanle admitted that he would like their chances better if the game was being played in New Orleans.

“If I was still playing, I’d answer it differently than now,” Shanle said of the home versus road question. “But being a fan and being able to sit back, there is no doubt that the Saints are a different team at home than on the road. And I think more than anything, it speaks to just what the Superdome does to the players when we step inside the Superdome. They almost play superhuman. I mean, just flawless execution. And to me, we’ve had so much success inside that place, that as soon as you step on that field, your confidence is already sky high. And on the road there’s always doubt in your mind when you haven’t had the same success on the road.

“You can just tell, I’ve watched the games this year. I mean, if the Jets come into New Orleans they get spanked by 35 points in my mind [instead of New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at New York]. And then at Tampa was a close one [a 16-14 Saints win]. And even against a bad Atlanta team. I mean, I know it was Atlanta, but to only win 17-13 surprised me because I thought they would blow them out. But I think it speaks more volume about what the home field does to the confidence of the team.”

It’s not that the Saints lack confidence on the road. They actually have the best regular-season road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-13). They just don’t dominate those road games in the same fashion -- especially when weather or sloppy field conditions come into play.

The Saints are 2-6 in games when the temperature was below 40 degrees since 2006 and the starters played (2-2 since 2009).

And they are 0-3 on the road in the playoffs in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era -- including that infamous 41-36 loss at Seattle after the 2010 regular season, when the Seahawks snuck into the playoffs at 7-9. The Saints also lost the NFC Championship Game in frigid weather at Chicago after the 2006 season, 39-14. And they lost a divisional-round playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season (which evolved into a 36-32 shootout after five early turnovers by the Saints’ offense and special teams).

Sharper doesn’t think there was any common theme in those losses, though, that exposed any fatal flaw in the Saints.

“I think it’s just been three games, at Chicago, in San Francisco, in Seattle, I don’t think that’s really a trend. I think that’s just you played some tough teams,” Sharper said. “The San Francisco game, they should have won that one. If [former defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams makes some different calls [on the final drive], plays more conservative. ... In Seattle, ‘Beast Mode’ [Lynch] just got us. They’ve done well enough on the road.

“Chicago [where the Saints lost three straight games in cold weather from 2006-2008], that was before they kind of got used to playing outdoors. Now they’re built better for that and they understand how to win -- especially the way the defensive line is playing. I don’t think they’ve ever had a defensive line play that well. That’s the biggest difference, why they have a chance of beating Seattle. They have to stop Russell Wilson, they have to tackle Marshawn, Golden Tate. These guys do their best work after contact, so they have to tackle well.”

Shanle agreed with Sharper’s assessment of the Saints’ defense. He said watching the way new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has energized his players and maximized their talent through versatile schemes reminds him of the way things were under Williams from 2009-2011.

I think it’s a defensive philosophy that fits well with talented players,” Shanle said. “When you have a coordinator that’s aggressive on offense and a coordinator that’s aggressive on defense, and those types of personalities just mesh, there’s just confidence on the whole team. And that’s what we had for three years, and that’s what they have going this year.

“What I’m interested to see tonight is that defense, playing in it for three years, thrived in games where you could get a lead. You can blitz, you can give all sorts of different looks. And that defense becomes dynamic then. What really gave us trouble, and at certain times this year has given the Saints' defense trouble, is when you get into close ballgames where an offense can stay balanced. Can you stop the run equally as well as putting all those great blitz packages and pass defenses together? Because I don’t know if you’re gonna go up to Seattle and get a 14- or 21-point lead.”

Believe it or not, only one current Saints defensive player remains on the active roster from that playoff game at Seattle less than three years ago -- safety Roman Harper, who could hardly believe that fact himself the other day. “Really?!” he said.

That’s because current safety Malcolm Jenkins was out with an injury three years ago. And three other players from that defense (cornerback Jabari Greer, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith) are currently on injured reserve.

Still, Harper said he thinks this current team can benefit from the lessons the Saints learned in that game -- which was filled with defensive breakdowns against both the run and the pass.

Harper said the Seahawks deserved that game because “they outplayed us, they outhit us.” But he said Seattle also came into that game with nothing to lose and caused confusion early by doing some things offensively that the Saints hadn’t seen before.

“This is a different situation,” Harper said. “I think coaching-wise and player-wise, the ones that were there, I think we’re better from it, and we’ve learned some things from it. How we’ve gotta really try and hunker down. We understand how effective this crowd really is. So we’re not going in here blind.”

Reviewing NFC South free agents

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We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Geno Hayes, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Looking at New Orleans' free agents

February, 11, 2013
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Time to continue our look at the NFC South’s potential free agents with the New Orleans Saints.

Their list includes left tackle Jermon Bushrod, linebacker Jonathan Casillas, backup quarterback Chase Daniel, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, receiver Devery Henderson, linebacker Ramon Humber, cornerback Elbert Mack, defensive end Turk McBride, tackle Will Robinson, receiver Courtney Roby and linebacker Scott Shanle. Center Brian De La Puente, center Justin Drescher, defensive end Junior Galette and running back Chris Ivory can be restricted free agents. Safety Rafael Bush, guard Eric Olsen and tight end Michael Higgins can be exclusive-rights free agents.

The big names are Bushrod, who has made himself into a Pro Bowler, and Ellis, a former first-round pick. Although the Saints have major salary-cap issues, they are likely to at least make an attempt to keep Bushrod. But it’s important to remember the Saints aren’t like most other teams when it comes to their philosophy on paying offensive linemen. They have a history of paying more to guards (see Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs) than they do to tackles and Bushrod could get big money on the open market.

Ellis never has lived up to his draft status and, with the Saints switching to a 3-4 defense, I’m not sure he’s a good fit for the scheme.

Henderson and Shanle used to be key players. But age started to catch up to them last season and I don’t see the Saints making a big push to keep them.

Atlanta Falcons take a huge stride

November, 30, 2012
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ATLANTA -- Not even the New Orleans Saints, whose recent history shows a fondness for challenging everything, can appeal this one.

The Atlanta Falcons really are a good football team.

The signature win that every skeptic seemed to be waiting for came Thursday night in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Saints 23-13 in a game that was about much more than positioning themselves for the playoffs.

The Falcons (11-1) ended Drew Brees' streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54 games and also forced the New Orleans quarterback into a career-high five interceptions. The Falcons also probably ended the Saints’ playoff hopes as New Orleans tumbled to 5-7.

More important, the Falcons showed they can win a big game.

"We didn’t come out to break any streak," said Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson, who said he wasn’t aware Brees’ streak had ended until the media informed him. "We came out here to dominate and we did."

There’s truth and irony in the second part of Robinson’s statement. For one of the few times this season, the Falcons, who often seemed to be playing just well enough to win, did dominate -- at least on the defensive side.

"We never felt like we were going to lose this game," said veteran defensive end John Abraham.

That’s the irony of it all. Throughout most of the five seasons Mike Smith has been Atlanta’s coach and Matt Ryan has been the quarterback, the Saints had dominated the series. Entering Thursday night, the Falcons had won only twice against New Orleans in the Smith/Ryan era.

It got so bad after the Saints ended Atlanta’s unbeaten streak in New Orleans earlier this month, it seemed like the Falcons had some sort of inferiority complex about their division rivals. After that game, New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle referred to the Falcons as the Saints’ "little brother."

It got even worse that same day, and again on a Tuesday conference call, when New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton, who spent the first four seasons of his career with Atlanta, repeatedly questioned if the Saints and Falcons really had a rivalry.

His logic was simple -- it’s not a rivalry when one team dominates.

But there is no doubt the Saints and Falcons are bitter rivals. They’ve had some games where emotions spilled out on the field in recent years. And those emotions frequently have seeped off the field.

[+] EnlargeAtlanta's John Abraham
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJohn Abraham's sack of Drew Brees in the fourth quarter pushed the Saints out of field goal range.
The latest example came Wednesday evening when the Saints said their charter bus was egged by what appeared to be airport workers on the tarmac of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

But it was the Falcons who were serving Eggs Benedict (Arnold?) to Lofton, who was beaten in coverage by tight end Tony Gonzalez on a 17-yard touchdown pass that gave the Falcons a 14-0 lead with 14:08 left in the second quarter. A little more than five minutes later, the Falcons had a 17-0 lead and appeared to be on the verge of blowing the Saints out of the building.

But Brees, who finished the game with 341 passing yards, rallied his team and cut the lead to as little as 17-13 in the third quarter. That’s when the Falcons of past years -- even earlier this season -- might have panicked.

That didn’t happen.

"That’s a very good quarterback that’s normally very efficient," Smith said. "We did a nice job of taking the ball away."

The Falcons intercepted Brees, who completed 28 of 50 passes, three times in the second half, including third- and fourth-quarter interceptions by strong safety William Moore. With cornerback Asante Samuel aggravating a shoulder injury early in the game, the Falcons were forced to play backups Robert McClain and Christopher Owens extensively.

"We’re a big family and we feel like we have a lot of guys back there that can play," Robinson said. "We feel like we are one of the best secondaries in the league and I think this showed something."

Abraham, who put steady pressure on Brees most of the night, also ended a New Orleans drive with Atlanta’s only sack of the game. With a third-and-5 at the Atlanta 36 and the Falcons holding a 20-13 lead with 10:40 left in the game, the Saints had the momentum. They seemed poised to tie the game or at least kick a field goal. But Abraham sacked Brees to take the Saints out of field-goal range and force a punt.

But Abraham said this wasn’t about revenge. He wouldn’t reflect on the past and wouldn’t talk about an embarrassing loss in New Orleans last season, a game in which Brees broke the NFL record for passing yards in a season and some of the Falcons implied the Saints were running up the score.

"No question we’ve got the upper-hand right now," Abraham said when asked about the rivalry. "But I came here strictly to win this game. We’ve got a long year left and we still have a lot to do."

The Falcons, who have yet to win a playoff game in the Smith/Ryan era, have made it clear all season that simply getting to the playoffs is no longer good enough. They want to win in the postseason and they want to win the Super Bowl (which, by the way, will be played in New Orleans).

"Hopefully, as we move forward, we can start to play our best football collectively and I think we can," said Ryan, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 165 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

The performance wasn’t perfect. The passing offense was unspectacular and the running game went quiet after a fast start. The Falcons' defense won this game.

But this still was a huge win for the Falcons -- their most complete and satisfying so far this season. They got a rare victory against the Saints and also pretty much made sure their rivals won’t be joining them in the playoffs.

Now, it’s time for the Falcons to move onto bigger and better things.

 

Inactives for the New Orleans Saints

November, 29, 2012
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ATLANTA – It appears as if Zach Strief will start at right tackle for the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.

Strief, who had been out with a groin injury, is on the active list.

The inactives for the Saints are receiver Courtney Roby, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, linebacker Scott Shanle, tackle Charles Brown, tight end David Thomas, defensive end Junior Galette and defensive tackle Tom Johnson.

Falcons trying to clear big hurdle

November, 29, 2012
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Mike SmithKim Klement/US PresswireThe Falcons' Mike Smith will certainly be energetic Thursday night against the rival Saints.
Already deep into their third consecutive season of double-digit victories, the Atlanta Falcons might be wise to heed the words of a most unlikely source.

They should look to their biggest rival, perhaps the National Football League’s biggest rival.

They should follow the advice of Sean Payton.

In 2009, Payton and the New Orleans Saints were looking to get over a big hump. The coach repeatedly told his players that if they wanted to get to somewhere they’d never been before (winning the Super Bowl), they had to do things they’d never done before. The Saints listened. They hadn’t played a lot of defense in Payton’s first three seasons, but that unit suddenly started producing turnovers and New Orleans got its Super Bowl championship.

Payton is serving a seasonlong suspension and won’t be with the Saints when they come to the Georgia Dome on Thursday night. But if he hasn’t already, it’s time for Atlanta coach Mike Smith to deliver a similar message to his team.

If the Falcons really want to get to a Super Bowl, or even win in the postseason for the first time in the Smith era, it’s time to start shedding the labels. It’s time for the Falcons to do the things they’ve never done -- or in this case almost never done.

They need to get a victory against the Saints. That might send a signal to the world -- and, in the process, to themselves -- that the Falcons are ready for bigger and better things.

Yeah, beating a team with a 5-6 record usually doesn’t qualify as a big deal. But this situation is different.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/Mel EvansPerhaps a rare win over the Saints will give Matt Ryan a boost for playoff success.
On the tree of doing things they haven’t done in the Smith era, beating the Saints is just a few branches beneath winning a postseason game. Let’s be clear that the Falcons have won against the Saints in the Smith era -- just not very often.

In 2008, the year Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons won a Week 10 game at the Georgia Dome. In Week 3 of the 2010 season, the Falcons went to New Orleans and won in overtime.

Other than that, Smith and Ryan have been picked on by the Saints. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Falcons are 2-7 against the Saints, which includes a game a few weeks ago in New Orleans where Atlanta was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.

If you want to go back even before Smith and Ryan came along, the Saints have won 11 of their past 13 meetings with the Falcons.

No wonder New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle referred to the Falcons as the Saints’ little brother after New Orleans won the most recent meeting -- a game in which Shanle wasn’t even on the game-day active list.

No wonder New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was part of Smith’s first draft class and the leader of Atlanta’s defense the past four seasons, spoke out in the postgame locker room after his first meeting with his former team and said "rivalry" isn’t an accurate term to describe the relationship between the Saints and Falcons. Lofton sloughed it off as just another division game, pointing to the fact the Saints have dominated the series in recent years.

But sometimes the little brother grows up, becomes bigger than the older brother and starts dunking in the driveway basketball games or winning the wrestling matches. Sometimes the little brother grows bigger but, out of habit, continues to play second fiddle.

You can make a case that the second scenario applies to the last time the Falcons and Saints got together. The Falcons were a yard away from winning in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome but couldn’t punch in a late touchdown against the league’s worst defense.

Until the Falcons stand up and beat the Saints, it’s fair game to wonder if the Saints are in the Falcons' heads.

“We’re just going to go out there Thursday night and let our play do all the talking, and we’re just going to go out there and play hard," said Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who played on playoff teams in New England and Philadelphia.

The Falcons like to say this season's team is different than Smith’s previous teams. At times, it has looked like new coordinators Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan have brought different attitudes to both sides of the ball and Samuel has brought a swagger that seemed to be missing in the past. At other times, usually when the Falcons have won close games against bad teams, they look like the same old team that has lost three playoff games under Smith.

If the Falcons are going to win in the postseason this time around, a win against the Saints would be a step on the ladder. Beating the Saints has been a slippery step in the past, but if the Falcons finally put that rung behind them, the next steps could get easier.

Saints, Falcons without injured starters

November, 11, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS -- No surprises on the lists of inactive players for the Saints and Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

As expected, injured Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss his second straight game. Mike Peterson is expected to start in his place with Akeem Dent also picking up some of Weatherspoon’s snaps.

The other inactives for Atlanta are quarterback Dominique Davis, receiver Kevin Cone, safety Charles Mitchell, offensive lineman Phillipkeith Manley, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

The Saints also will be without several injured players. Running back Darren Sproles, receiver/return man Courtney Roby, linebacker Scott Shanle, offensive tackle Zach Strief and defensive end Junior Galette are inactive. The other inactives for the Saints are defensive back Elbert Mack and defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker.
There are some pretty significant injuries around the division as the NFC South teams prepare for Sunday’s games.

Let’s start with the Carolina Panthers. Cornerback Chris Gamble (shoulder) is listed as out for Sunday’s game with Dallas. More significantly, coach Ron Rivera said Gamble will have an MRI on his labrum. If the labrum is torn, Gamble will go on injured reserve.

Losing the team’s best cornerback would be a huge blow to a defense that already is struggling. In the short term, Captain Munnerlyn is expected to start in Gamble’s place. But Munnerlyn will slide to nickel back in certain packages, and rookie Josh Thomas is likely to get plenty of playing time.

The Panthers also are listing middle linebacker Jon Beason (knee) as doubtful. But Rivera took that one step further and said Beason is “very doubtful.’’ It seems likely rookie Luke Kuechly will start at middle linebacker.

The Saints also have some significant injuries heading into Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay. Linebacker David Hawthorne (hamstring) has been declared out, but linebacker Scott Shanle, who missed the past two days with an illness, returned to practice Friday and is listed as probable. The Saints also are listing tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) as questionable. He practiced on a limited basis Friday. If Graham can’t play, David Thomas likely would get the start with Daniel Graham getting playing time as the No. 2 tight end.

The Buccaneers appear relatively healthy. Receiver Vincent Jackson (calf) is listed as probable and practiced on a limited basis Friday. Guard Carl Nicks (foot) participated fully in practice and is listed as probable.
Click here for the complete list of New Orleans Saints roster moves.

Most significant move: The Saints have a history in recent years of finding obscure running backs (see Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory). They’ve done it again. Undrafted rookie Travaris Cadet made the roster. So did Thomas, Ivory, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. That leaves the Saints very heavy at running back, but that’s not a bad thing. Cadet almost forced the Saints to keep him by having a tremendous preseason. Now, the Saints have the upper hand on any team looking for a running back. Sproles is likely untouchable, and I don’t see the Saints parting with Ingram, who joined them as a first-round pick last year. But Thomas and Ivory have shown they can do a lot of good things, and the Saints could add a future draft pick if a team that’s desperate to add a quality runner is willing to make a trade.

Onward and upward: One of the best kicking battles in NFL history was won by Garrett Hartley, who spent the summer kicking against veteran John Kasay. Both have kicked in the Super Bowl and both kicked well this summer. I don’t think there really was a clear winner. Kasay and Hartley finished in a dead heat, and the Saints made the logical decision. They went with the homegrown guy, who still has four seasons remaining on his contract. As long as Kasay, 42, wants to keep playing, he should be able to find another place to kick because he showed no signs of slipping with his preseason performance.

What’s next: The linebacker corps remains a question mark. Starters Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have been injured, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be ready for the season opener. The only other linebackers on the roster are Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring and newly acquired Barrett Ruud. I’ve got a strong suspicion the Saints will bring in a linebacker (maybe two) from somewhere else in the next few days.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2012
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Some observations from the New Orleans Saints’ 34-27 preseason victory against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday night.

  • There’s no doubt the defense is a concern. But let’s keep a few things in mind. Houston is one of the league’s better offenses, the Saints were starting backup linebackers and, most importantly, the defense doesn’t have to be great when you’ve got Drew Brees and this offense. The Saints fell behind 14-0 quickly, but Brees put the Saints right back into the game. Brees and the offense are good enough to keep the Saints in any regular-season game.
  • With starting linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton sidelined by injuries, the Saints started Jonathan Casillas in the middle with Scott Shanle and Will Herring on the outside. Lofton has a high-ankle sprain and Hawthorne is recovering from knee surgery. There’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. At the start of training camp, I thought Herring wouldn’t be on the opening-day roster and Shanle would be pushed into a backup role. Casillas is an outside guy, who was forced into the middle because there really was no alternative. Veteran Barrett Ruud recently was brought in via trade and played in the second half, but I’m not sure he has much left. If the Saints have to go a few games into the regular season with that trio starting, they’ll have big problems. I’m thinking there’s a linebacker (or two) on another roster at the moment that could end up with the Saints shortly.
  • I did see some individual bright spots on the defense. Second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan produced an early sack, even though he blatantly was held. I really believe Jordan will prosper in the system of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is another guy I think is going to emerge in Spagnuolo’s system. Jenkins showed signs of that when he read a reverse perfectly and popped the ball out of Keshawn Martin’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by Will Smith.
  • I think it was pretty telling that rookie cornerback Corey White was getting some playing time in the first quarter. White knocked a ball out of Martin’s hands and Sedrick Ellis recovered. It’s looking more and more like White is going to get some playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
  • A couple of other young defensive players that I think are on the rise made big plays on special teams. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus forced a Trindon Holliday fumble on a kickoff return and defensive end Junior Galette scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
  • The competition for the fourth running back spot between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet continues to provide some drama. Ivory lost a fumble on the first drive. But Ivory might have redeemed himself with some nice running in the third quarter, although that came against Houston’s second-team defense. But Cadet also looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. This one is going to be a very close call.
  • Speaking of guys fighting for roster spots and fumbles, wide receiver Joseph Morgan put the ball on the ground once. He made a nice catch, but kept fighting too long after his forward progress was stopped by three guys and one of them popped the ball loose. Morgan’s fumble led to a quick and easy touchdown for Houston. But Morgan might have redeemed himself a bit with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
  • Tight end Jimmy Graham won’t say if he bulked up in the offseason, but he sure looks like he did. If so, it hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Graham looks even better than he did last season, when he had 99 catches.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.

Sun finally shines on Saints

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
9:05
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. – If you believe in omens, you might be able to view what happened to the New Orleans Saints on their first day of training practice as a wonderful thing. It just didn’t start off that way.

Almost fittingly, it all began with heavy clouds, rain, lightning and thunder. The afternoon storm got so bad that at one point, the metal guards surrounding the ceiling sprinklers in the media room fell to the floor. Consider all that a synopsis of what might have been the worst (or at least most challenging) offseason an NFL team ever has faced.

You know the story. In March, the NFL said the Saints had been running a bounty program for three years. Suspensions of coaches and players followed and it seemed like the Saints were in the news every day -- and for all the wrong reasons.

It got so bad that even die-hard Saints’ fans started taking shots at franchise quarterback Drew Brees, who’s been the most beloved figure in New Orleans in recent years, maybe ever. Brees signed his contract almost two weeks ago and all the clouds were supposed to be gone Thursday when the Saints hit the practice field. They weren’t.

“We were looking forward to getting out in front of our fans today,’’ assistant coach Joe Vitt said. ”Those are people that carry us through times.’’

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Joe Vitt
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDrew Brees and Joe Vitt are making sure that things are running smoothly at Saints camp.
The fans didn’t get to see practice. The storm was so bad that the Saints had to move practice indoors and close it to the public. Even indoors, you could still hear some thunder. And you could see some figurative clouds as safety Roman Harper, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and linebackers Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas rolled into practice about 45 minutes after it started.

They had been excused. Each of them spent part of the day at a courthouse testifying on behalf of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is fighting to get an injunction that would stop his season-long suspension. Vitt also testified, but he arrived back at the facility about two hours before practice.

“This was planned,’’ Vitt said. “They missed none of what we call teaching situations.’’

Harper, Shanle and Ellis were working with the first-team defense before practice was over and Casillas was getting work as a backup.

About the time they returned to practice, things started looking a little more normal. The Saints ran some nine-on-seven drills and Brees started to hook up with receivers on some spectacular long passes.

“He’s got a lot of pent-up frustration,’’ Vitt said. “This is the first time he’s played since (a playoff loss at) San Francisco.’’

The offense started looking sharp and the defense had its moments.

“We’ve been together a long time,’’ All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. “Everything is fluent with us. Everything is smooth motion.’’

Yeah, but coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season. Vitt’s running the team -- for now.

“He knows how this machine runs,’’ tight end Jimmy Graham said.

But Vitt’s going to have to step aside (and hand the top spot off to someone else) at the start of the season, because he’ll be suspended for the first six games. You can’t, in any objective way, say the Saints are in for a normal season.

“I think we go along here and just keep adjusting,’’ Brees said.

Maybe the Saints already are adjusting and maybe, as Vitt said, they’ve done everything they can to prepare for all the unique circumstances they’ve faced and will continue to face.

The opening practice was far from normal for many reasons. But, when all was said and done, the Saints looked as sharp as a team can on its first day of training camp. That’s why we’re going back to omens.

As the Saints walked out of their indoor facility and into their locker room, the storm was gone. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be hitting the field for their first practice of training camp late Thursday afternoon.

I’ll be out there gathering information for my Camp Confidential profile on the Saints, which is scheduled to run Monday, as well as stuff for our season preview that will be running late in the preseason. I’ll also be providing some live updates after practice and interviews.

This will be one of the more unique seasons in NFL history, because coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season and other members of the organization will serve suspensions at various times. So let’s run through a quick preview of some of the things I’ll be watching.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vitt
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesJoe Vitt will be the Saints' acting head coach in training camp, but will serve a six-game suspension to start the regular season.
The chemistry of the coaches: Assistant head coach Joe Vitt has been running things during the offseason, and will continue to do so during training camp. But Vitt will have to serve his suspension during the first six games of the regular season. It has been reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will take over for Vitt, but the team hasn’t made any official announcement. Putting Kromer in the top spot makes sense, because it allows coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Pete Carmichael to focus on the defense and the offense. Vitt has been Payton’s right-hand man since their arrival in New Orleans in 2006, so training camp is likely to look like business as usual for the players. But it’s going to be different for the coaches. After a bizarre offseason, the coaches have to use training camp to prepare for what will be a major change at the start of camp.

Running back Mark Ingram: He didn’t have a huge impact as a rookie because of injuries and a steady rotation in the backfield. But Ingram was a first-round pick, and the expectations are high. We’ll first find out if he’s healthy. If he is, then we’ll start to see how he will fit into a backfield that’s crowded with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory.

Junior Galette: New Orleans fans have had a fascination with this guy since he arrived in 2010. It’s understandable, because the defensive end has a unique combination of size and speed, and has shown flashes of promise in the past two training camps. That didn’t translate into much in Galette’s rookie season, but there were some signs last season, that he could be an impact player. Galette produced 4.5 sacks as a part-time player. With Will Smith expected to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints are looking for a pass-rusher. Galette and second-year pro Martez Wilson, who is making the transition from linebacker to defensive end, have the most upside of the younger players in camp. If they continue to develop, they could take on major roles in the regular season.

The young cornerbacks: Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick are a lot like Galette and Wilson. They’re young, have a lot of potential, and likely will get a lot more playing time than they have in the past. With Tracy Porter departing as a free agent, the Saints are expecting Robinson to step into the starting role opposite Jabari Greer, and Patrick to become the nickel back. This is all part of a master plan. The Saints were preparing for Porter’s departure when they drafted Robinson and Patrick.

The changes at linebacker: No position received more attention in the offseason. Knowing Jonathan Vilma could face suspension, and realizing that the linebacker play wasn’t great last season, the Saints added Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain as free agents. They still have veterans like Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas. Other than Lofton in the middle, no one is guaranteed a starting job. The Saints are going to throw all the other linebackers out there in camp, let them compete and see who steps up to earn starting jobs.
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Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

There’s a perception out there that Jonathan Vilma’s suspension will be devastating to the Saints. There’s some truth to that, especially from a leadership standpoint because Vilma has run this defense since the moment he arrived in New Orleans. But the reality is free-agent pickup Curtis Lofton will be a major upgrade over Vilma at middle linebacker.

Age started to catch up to Vilma the past two seasons and he was less than ordinary last season while dealing with a knee injury. Lofton is younger, he’s healthy and he should be able to make a lot more plays than Vilma did in recent years. The leadership void will be minimal. Lofton was an excellent leader in Atlanta and he already is establishing himself in that role in New Orleans.

But Lofton wasn’t the only offseason addition at linebacker. The Saints knew they had to upgrade that area and they did. They also went out and signed David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Hawthorne is penciled in as a starter and Chamberlain is competing with incumbent Scott Shanle for the other starting job. Even if Shanle wins, Chamberlain will provide the Saints with some quality depth at linebacker.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints went through two minicamp practices Tuesday. I'm working on several columns and other items for the future, but let me share some quick notes and observations from the first day of minicamp.
  • At times, quarterback Chase Daniel looked very good while working with the first team. Same for Sean Canfield, but it’s pretty obvious these guys aren’t quite on Drew Brees’ level. I’m pretty sure Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen the Saints practice and witnessed back-to-back incompletions. That basically doesn’t happen with Brees.
  • Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said it’s too early to talk about defensive linemen because they’re not hitting and they’re not in pads. But it’s pretty obvious Vitt is high on young defensive ends Greg Romeus, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson.
  • Vitt said he’s not ready to say that Wilson’s move from linebacker to defensive end is permanent. But Vitt said Wilson’s past as a linebacker gives him an advantage on the other defensive ends as they sometimes are being asked to drop into pass coverage in the new defensive scheme.
  • Although the Saints had only five draft picks this year, Vitt said he views the class as having six members. Romeus had to sit out his rookie season with a knee injury and Vitt said he’s being treated as a rookie.
  • Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo expressed the same precaution about judging defensive linemen before full contact, but he sounded very high on defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who joined the Saints during the offseason. Spagnuolo raved about Bunkley’s fundamentals and attention to detail.
  • Tight end Jimmy Graham appears to have added some muscle in the offseason. I asked him about it and Graham said his weight is still 265, but said he’s spent a little more time in the weight room and has added some muscle.
  • The Saints added a little secondary depth just before minicamp. They signed former Tampa Bay cornerback Elbert Mack.
  • The Saints lost guard Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency, but quickly replaced him with Ben Grubbs. Nicks may be the best guard in the NFL, but Grubbs isn’t bad. In fact, he may be better than Nicks in some ways. “I think that he is probably a little better communicator on the line of scrimmage than Carl Nicks,’’ Vitt said.
  • The Saints clearly are in the experimental stages at linebacker. They opened the morning session with Curtis Lofton, Scott Shanle and David Hawthorne working with the first team. In the afternoon session, they shook things up and had free-agent pickup Chris Chamberlain working with the first team in Shanle's spot.
  • Zach Strief worked with the first team at right tackle in the morning session, but Strief wasn’t on the field in the afternoon. It wasn’t clear if Strief was injured or if there was another reason for his absence. Rookie Marcel Jones worked with the first team in the afternoon. I’m not sure that bodes well for the future of Charles Brown, who Vitt previously said was competing for a starting job.
  • Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was rehabbing an injury through the early part of organized team activities, was back on the field and practicing with the first team Tuesday.
  • Former Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson, now the head coach at Tulane, brought his staff out to watch practice. Vitt said Johnson offered a critique after the morning session.
  • I know a lot of New Orleans fans like to criticize strong safety Roman Harper’s pass- coverage skills. But I did see Haprer coming through with a nice breakup on a deep pass in the morning session.

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