NFL Nation: Sean Payton

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints defense found a new way to struggle in last Sunday's 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. It was really the first time all season their run defense got beat so badly at the point off attack. (Most of the big gains by the Cowboys, 49ers and Bengals had come around the edges).

Both end Akiem Hicks and nose tackle John Jenkins got shoved back at least three times by 1-on-1 blocks on big run plays.

[+] EnlargeRavens
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsEclipsing 95 yards or more rushing in four games this season, Ravens RB Justin Forsett has at least earned his way into Pro Bowl consideration.
Clearly the Saints didn't adjust well to the Ravens' zone-blocking scheme and stretch-run plays. Jenkins, who was singled out by ESPN analyst Jon Gruden for getting blown up three times in the second quarter, said that was the case for him.

"I was trying to get the feel of that whole scheme, it's not often we go against a zone team like that," Jenkins said. "So trying to get the feel, trying to find a fit and being able to make plays was on my mind."

Jenkins did respond with a big-time run stuff right after Gruden's comments. And he settled in better in the second half. The Saints will need that type of continued improvement from the second-year big man going forward since veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley will miss time with a quadriceps injury -- possibly the remainder of the season.

"Honestly, just whatever they need me to do, that's what I'm gonna do. So it's unfortunate that Brodrick went down and so late in the season, but I guess I gotta do what I gotta do," said Jenkins, who's had a roller-coaster season with a torn pectoral muscle in the summer, followed by inconsistent play on the field that left him inactive for three games.

The 6-foot-3, 359-pounder said he feels like he's been making progress, though.

"Being able to overcome that injury and then trying to find my fit back on the team and being able to play the schemes that I'm playing, it was a growth period for me this whole season," Jenkins said.

Those interior linemen were hardly the Saints' only problem against Baltimore, though, as the Saints gave up a season-high 215 rushing yards. Running back Justin Forsett ran for 182 of them and two touchdowns. He and backup Bernard Pierce combined for five runs of 20-plus.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro whiffed once when Forsett came around the corner. Linebacker Curtis Lofton missed one potential tackle. He and linebacker David Hawthorne each ran into blocks at least once when Forsett made some sharp cutbacks.

And the Ravens' linemen and fullback did a consistently good job of sealing off the edges and moving up into the second level to take out New Orleans' linebackers (sometimes a result of the Saints' linemen not being able to occupy multiple blockers).

"If we went through some of the breakdowns in the runs last week, it's just gap integrity and fitting it correctly," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Especially when you're playing some down-safety defense, understanding your alignment to begin with, and then your gap to fit it correctly. I think that's the No. 1 thing when you look at the runs."

"A lot of different reasons," Vaccaro said. "It kind of goes back to the first of the season, a guy's out of his gap on this play, then another guy's out of his gap on this play. ‘Cuz it only takes one person out of your 11 to get creased, especially with these schemes like the Ravens run. We've just gotta be more clutch all together."

Put even more succinctly, Lofton said, "It's guys not doing their job."

As Payton also pointed out, when the Saints are forced to add an additional safety into run defense, it puts even more stress on the secondary. So it can be a domino effect.

The good news is this hasn't been a consistent problem for New Orleans' defense all season. Their struggles against Cincinnati a week earlier came mostly from four big runs, but the Saints actually stuffed the Bengals for two yards or less on 17 of their 31 carries.

The bad news is that the task doesn't get any easier as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road this week. Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is second in the NFL with 951 rushing yards (not to mention 484 receiving yards).

"It surprises me a little bit," Vaccaro said of the recent breakdowns. "I thought after that Lions game [in Week 7], our run defense was going uphill. And then to have something like this these last two weeks, it's just kinda like, ‘Alright man, let's get this handled.'

"We've gotta get it fixed because the Steelers are a big running team. Le'Veon Bell to me is the most complete back in the league."
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints (4-7) helped two divisions make history Monday night with their 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens (7-4).

The NFC South is now the only division in NFL history with every team at least three games below .500 at any point in the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And the AFC North is now the only division to ever have every team at least three games above .500.

Remarkably, New Orleans is still tied for first with the Atlanta Falcons (4-7), despite having lost three straight games -- all at home.

Obviously, that’s a great incentive to keep plugging away. In any other division or any other season, New Orleans would just be playing out the string at this point.

But it should come as no surprise that Monday night, the Saints weren’t taking any comfort or motivation from the rest of the division’s failures when their own are so prevalent.

“I ain’t even worried about no hunt. There ain’t no hunt when you’re 4-7,” Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said when asked about still being in the playoff hunt. “You gotta worry about winning the next game. There’s no such thing as a hunt when you’re 4-7.”

“You don’t really take a lot of solace right now after a loss,” coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, to be playing for something is important. And yet we’ve gotta make sure that some of the things we did better tonight we continue to build on, and then some of the things we didn’t do well, we get corrected. … I completely see -- and our players completely see -- ‘Hey, these are some things we’ve gotta be better at. And if we’re not, then it’s not gonna matter.’”

The Falcons currently hold tiebreakers based on head-to-head record and division record. But the Saints could erase those tiebreakers by winning their final three games within the division (vs. Carolina in Week 14, vs. Atlanta in Week 16, at Tampa Bay in Week 17).

That alone might be enough to win the division at 7-9.

Heck, the Saints might even still be considered the front-runners -- as NBC analyst Rodney Harrison suggested.

But as offensive tackle Zach Strief pointed out, the Saints still have to figure out how to actually start winning games for any scenario to play out.

“The reality is this team needs to fix itself, because it’s not gonna matter. Because we have to win games,” Strief said. “So if it wasn’t that scenario, it shouldn’t change what guys are playing for in here. If you can’t elevate yourself to care enough based on pride and based on responsibility to each other to your fans to your coaches, then you’re not a professional. So it shouldn’t matter.

“The reality is all we have to worry about is fixing ourselves, because everything’s gonna come from that. If we don’t fix ourselves, nothing else matters.”
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints got one thing right in Monday night's 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- the offensive aggressiveness and sense of urgency that was so blatantly lacking a week earlier.

The Saints' first play of the game was an empty-backfield pass, with Drew Brees hitting Jimmy Graham for 11 yards.

Their second: a 67-yard gain on an end-around run by seldom-used dynamic receiver Joe Morgan.

Of course, that drive ended with a failure to punch it in, despite having first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. But we've established by now that this team is far from perfect.

At least the Saints looked more like their usual selves on offense while failing to get the job done.

"Last week was real tough the way we looked, but I thought we had energy tonight," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who had admitted his team was too "flat" after a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. "I felt like our guys had the energy and were ready to go. It's a game that comes down to opportunities, and we weren't able to capitalize on them."

That aggressive approach backfired when Payton said he went with a "gut feeling" to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the Saints' opening drive because he thought it was an important time in the game to send a message. Saints running back Mark Ingram wound up getting stuffed for the third time on that goal-line stand.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanDrew Brees threw for 420 yards and three TDs, but he also had a costly interception against Baltimore.
But it was the execution that failed -- not the mindset, especially considering the Saints need their offense to lead the way with their defense struggling so mightily.

"Our approach going in, and our players knew it, was that we were going to be aggressive in this game," Payton said. "And we obviously could look back and [have] kicked it. But it's something I decided."

Brees' performance was also aggressive but imperfect.

His stat line was a pretty good summation of what kind of night it was, for better and for worse: 420 yards, three touchdowns and one colossally-costly interception that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Brees admittedly missed a couple of throws in the red zone -- where the Saints scored only 20 points on five trips inside the 16-yard line. However, he seemed to be too generous on himself for a poor decision to throw the interception while under pressure.

Brees described it as "really just bad luck -- you get wrapped up just as the ball's coming out of your hand and it kind of deviates the throw a little bit."

The offensive line did earn its share of the blame, too -- on that play and many others. The Saints couldn't run a lick in the first half, and Brees was sacked four times overall.

In a bit of a role reversal, the unit that played the best was the receiving corps, which had been sagging for much of the season. Morgan also had a 62-yard catch in the first quarter. Marques Colston and Kenny Stills also had big nights. Even Nick Toon got in on the action.

Another positive spin for the Saints: Baltimore's defense was probably the best remaining on their schedule. New Orleans will certainly have better opportunities for success against the other three struggling members of the NFC South later this season (vs. Carolina in Week 14, vs. Atlanta in Week 16, at Tampa Bay in Week 17).

And, yeah, that's grasping at a consolation prize at this point. But, hey, someone has to win the embarrassing division. And an aggressive, attacking Saints offense offers their only hope to be that team.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Ravens' first offensive snap on Monday night was a 38-yard run by Justin Forsett.

Their last meaningful snap was a 20-yard touchdown run by Forsett.

And in between was a whole bunch of other ugly stuff for a New Orleans Saints defense that has somehow managed to regress during the Saints' current three-game losing streak.

New Orleans' defensive performance in Monday night's 34-27 loss to the Ravens might have been its worst yet this season. And the only reason I say "might" is because there are so many other worthy candidates.

"I think every game we come off, it's something new. Sometimes we have problems with the pass, sometimes we have a problem with the run, sometimes we have a problem with both," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis admitted bluntly. "So we gotta fix everything."

Of course there's plenty of blame to go around after this loss -- and for the Saints' pitiful 4-7 season, in general.

And of course quarterback Drew Brees deserves a large share of it after he threw yet another game-killing interception in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown.

But Brees' sin is that he hasn't been able to handle the burden of needing to be almost perfect every week. He's pressing too much because he's all the Saints have -- and it's not working out.

It's 2012 all over again.

At least the Saints had an excuse that year, when they went 7-9 and set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season while coach Sean Payton was serving a year-long suspension.

This year has been a much more startling disappointment because the Saints' up-and-coming young defense under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan was actually supposed to alleviate that pressure on Brees and the offense more than ever.

Last year was a breakout year for the Saints' defense. This year, it has been nothing but breakdowns.

"This year has been kind of funny, just the way we find a way to lose the game," veteran linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "We gotta quit finding a way to lose the game and find a way to win a game."

The Saints' defensive sins were too many to count Monday night. They couldn't get off the field again on third downs (Baltimore was 9-of-13). They allowed five plays of 35 yards or more. They forced one turnover and one sack -- but it wasn't nearly enough to make up that big-play deficit.

More than anything, though, the Saints couldn't stop the run, which has recently emerged as their biggest problem in a series of rotating biggest problems this year.

Forsett ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. He set the tone on the Raven's opening drive, which ended in a touchdown. And he put the game out of reach late with that final touchdown that put Baltimore up by 14 with 2:53 remaining.

"I think tonight it was apparent we struggled just consistently stopping the run. That happens, and there are a lot of things that become more challenging," Payton said. "Your third downs become more challenging. Your pass rush becomes more challenging. The pressure on the back end becomes more challenging."

The Saints did try to make a couple of lineup tweaks this week -- moving cornerback Patrick Robinson back into the starting lineup ahead of struggling Corey White and thrusting recently-signed rookie Pierre Warren into the starting free safety job vacated by Rafael Bush's season-ending leg injury.

Those moves actually paid off a little, with those two combining to force a fumble near the goal line.

But not much else panned out. Ryan dialed up more blitzes than usual on third-and-longs, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fired off quick passes that burned the secondary just as much as when the Saints weren't getting any pressure.

When asked if it's frustrating that the Saints are still trying to figure out so many issues this late in the season, Payton said, "We're not trying to figure it out. We're trying to correct it."

"Obviously our margin for error is not good enough to win close games," Payton said -- a realization that's even more disturbing. "We have to play better and coach better."
NEW ORLEANS – Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:

Brees on pick-six: After throwing for 420 yards, three touchdowns and one extremely costly interception that was returned for a touchdown, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, "There's just not a large margin for error ... and we're just not doing quite enough to get the job done right now."

Brees said his throws in the red-zone weren't good enough on the drives that fell short, and he said his pick-six was "really just bad luck -- you're getting wrapped up just as the ball's coming out of your hands, and it kind of deviates the throws a little bit. ...

"This is a game of inches and split seconds. Unfortunately a lot of those haven't gone our way this year."

Brees later added, "It's the team that makes the least amount of bad plays that wins, not necessarily the team that makes the most amount of good plays."

Saints vow to keep working: The Saints didn't try to sugarcoat their performance, but there were also no signs of frustration boiling over in the locker room. Coach Sean Payton said the team remains "together" and "tough-minded." Cornerback Keenan Lewis said, "If you're down at this point, you find a way to fix it, not walk out." And offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "If there's one good thing I can say about this team is there's been a constant elevation in work."

Payton, who took an extra-long time addressing the team before meeting the media, kept his message in-house. Brees' message was that they just need that one win to start turning things around. "Winning cures a lot of things," Brees said.

Vaccaro on personal foul: Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro got the raw end of the deal on a personal-foul penalty after he retaliated against Ravens receiver Steve Smith for shoving his helmet off after a tackle in the third quarter. The penalty had Payton incensed on the sideline for several minutes. Neither dwelled on the penalty after the game, though.

"He's just a competitive player. I made a tackle, he stiff-armed my helmet off, and that was it," Vaccaro said. "I mean, I'm not gonna back down. At the same time, I can't get stupid penalties."
METAIRIE, La. -- Say this for New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson: He’s resilient.

The former first-round draft pick’s entire career has been a non-stop roller-coaster ride because of his highs and lows on the field and injury issues off the field.

But Robinson has continued to battle back each time -- something he has again been doing quietly over the past month after losing his starting job early in the year.

And this week, Robinson was honored by teammates as the 2014 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for the way he came back from the major knee injury he suffered last year.

“I'd say in the nine years that I've been here, [Robinson won by] the largest margin of votes. It wasn’t even close,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “With the injury he suffered and the rehab, he was here every day in the offseason. It was just like he was a fixture in the building. I think it was an easy decision for his teammates and certainly well deserving.”

More recently, Robinson has shown his resilience on the field, playing noticeably more decisive and aggressive in his nickelback role. He was officially credited with a total of three passes defensed in Weeks 9-10, and he easily could have been credited with two more this past Sunday against Cincinnati.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer made a point to stress the improvement he’s been seeing from Robinson when he broke down the Saints earlier this week. And Greer suggested that Robinson’s speed could make him a good matchup against the Baltimore Ravens’ speedy deep threat, Torrey Smith, on Monday night.

Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan both praised Robinson on Saturday for his improved play -- and his improved confidence, which Robinson himself admits has always been one of his biggest issues. Ryan said he’s seen the game start to “slow down” for Robinson.

“It was pretty tough. But I think it was all on me,” Robinson said of being demoted while he was struggling early in the year. “[I was] not being as fundamentally sound on my technique. And I think I was playing a little … like I don’t want to get beat instead of just playing football, pretty much.

“Right now, I’m just trying to do my job and that’s it. If I get beat, oh well. On to the next play.”
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is well aware that third-and-long has become his unit’s biggest nemesis.

“We gotta fix it. Hell, it’s everybody [trying to find the solution],” said Ryan, who said that includes meeting with coach Sean Payton to discuss the philosophy in those situations. “We have to fix this. So it can’t be just, ‘Oh, we played good, then we blow this or did this.’ It’s costing us games, and we have to fix it.”

The Saints allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to convert six first downs on third-and-8 or longer last week. And they’ve allowed more first downs than any team in the NFL this year on plays of third-and-8 or fourth-and-8 or longer (23, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

Some of the breakdowns have been more notorious than others (Golden Tate’s 73-yard touchdown on third-and-14 at Detroit and Michael Crabtree’s 51-yard catch on fourth-and-10 versus San Francisco immediately spring to mind).

Unfortunately, the specific solution is hard to identify since the Saints' defense has been burned in a variety of ways in those situations -- whether they blitz or not, whether they keep the quarterback in the pocket or not.

“There’s been a lot of different games where this situation has come up, and they’ve been a little bit different every time,” Ryan said. “We lose contain, we misplay a ball in the air, we have the wrong leverage on a play. There’s a lot of different things. But at the end of the game we have to be more aware of the situation, we gotta be better technique-wise, and we've gotta do a better job of coaching. That’s just the way it is.”

The Film Don’t Lie: Saints

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

In order for the Saints (4-6) to get back on track against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, their defense must figure out how to get off the field on third-and-long.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Saints have given up more first downs on plays of third-and-8 or fourth-and-8 or more (23, including six this past Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals) than any team in the NFL this season.

New Orleans’ percentage of first downs allowed in such situations (33.8) ranks 30th in the NFL and ahead of only Carolina and Tampa Bay. Some of those breakdowns have been colossal (a 73-yard TD pass to Detroit's Golden Tate on third-and-14, a 51-yard pass to San Francisco's Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-10, a 38-yard pass to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green on third-and-18).

The problems have been widespread, from poor coverage to missed tackles to a lack of pass rush, and often in conjunction. On the Crabtree pass, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had about seven seconds to throw before he found his receiver wide-open deep. On the Tate play, cornerback Corey White tried to jump the route on a short pass, then the Saints’ entire secondary seemed to whiff on Tate the rest of the way. On the Green play, QB Andy Dalton threw the ball almost instantly when Green beat rookie cornerback Brian Dixon off the line.

“We do have a young group, and we have to train them and push them to grow and study the game to be better in those situations,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said when asked if there’s a general philosophy in those situations. “You would like for a guy to back up, be at a reasonable distance, so if it’s third-and-18, you probably want to have a 10-yard cushion. Then hopefully ... the pass rush has to come into effect to affect the quarterback and don’t let him have all day to throw the ball.”

The Saints didn’t blitz in any of the above-mentioned situations. That’s fine, as long as the pass rush can still speed up the quarterback’s clock or, at the very least, keep him contained in the pocket. That’s another area where the Saints struggled on third-and-long against Kaepernick, Cam Newton and even Dalton.

Saints coach Sean Payton mentioned that first when he said, “There were a handful of breakdowns that I think we can clean up.”
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints failed in just about every area Sunday. But the one that stood out above all others in their 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was third-down defense.

“Hey, listen, our third-down defense was awful. It wasn’t good,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who correctly pointed out that the Saints have had persistent problems in third-and-long situations throughout the year.

The Bengals opened their rout Sunday with three third-and-8 conversions on their first touchdown drive. Then they drove the final nail in the coffin with a third-and-18 conversion early in the fourth quarter when New Orleans had closed the gap to 20-10.

New Orleans' problems ranged from the obvious secondary breakdowns to missed tackles in the middle of the field to the lack of a consistent pass rush – sometimes two or three of them working in conjunction. Just like last week’s colossal fourth-and-10 failure, when the Saints gave up a 51-yard pass to the San Francisco 49ers.

“It’s deflating, but it’s been happening all year. … It’s just one little guy gets out of a gap,” lamented Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who pointed out that it was the exact opposite last season when every unit worked together to make each other look good. “Last year, our pass rush was amazing. It didn’t matter if we blew a coverage. Man, they had two seconds to get that ball off. It’s just different.

“It just sucks that we put bad tape out there. That’s what I get down about. ‘That’s the Saints, undisciplined, don’t know what they’re doing.’ Even if we do, it looks like that. That’s what makes me get down. Everybody can watch that. It’s embarrassing.”

Vaccaro also theorized that the Saints’ secondary is having chemistry problems after losing so many veterans in the offseason.

Cincinnati started out 9-of-11 on third-down tries overall Sunday and finished 9-of-13 (one was a kneel-down). The Bengals converted six of its first 7 plays of third-and-8 or longer.

Not only did that keep the Bengals’ offense alive to score points – it kept the Saints’ offense off the field. The Saints wound up with just three offensive possessions in the first half – one that ended in a field goal, one that ended with a goal-line stand on the Bengals’ 1-yard line, and one that ended with a punt.

So what went wrong for the Saints on third-and-long? You name it.

On the opening drive: A tight sideline throw over hobbled Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis for 8 yards; a shovel pass to running back Jeremy Hill, who broke at least two tackles to gain 13 yards; then an epic finish when tight end Jermaine Gresham fought forward for the first down, fumbled, kicked the ball to himself and recovered in the end zone.

Later came a 15-yard pass from Andy Dalton to running back Rex Burkhead, when Dalton was on the run after being flushed from the pocket. Then a gorgeous 38-yard pass to A.J. Green over cornerback Brian Dixon on the third-and-18 play. And finally, an 11-yard run by Hill.

At least the Saints didn’t allow any 51-yard passes this week. But they did cough up a 62-yard run by Hill to set up a last-second field goal before halftime – on a play when it appeared that the Bengals were content to run out the clock.

“It’s poor football,” Payton said – again pulling no punches. “It’s situational football. It’s like stealing three points.”
NEW ORLEANS -- For the record, yes, Drew Brees insisted he remains "annoyingly optimistic" about the New Orleans Saints' ability to turn their season around.

But Brees' words have never rung more hollow than they did after New Orleans' most disturbing loss of the season -- a 27-10 drubbing by the Cincinnati Bengals -- at home, no less.

If the Saints (4-6) can play this uninspiringly at home against a team they should've been able to match up against, when exactly is that turnaround going to take place?

The only thing that kept the Saints from hitting rock-bottom Sunday was the pile of other woeful NFC South teams that keep cushioning their fall. Amazingly, New Orleans is still tied for first place.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsQB Drew Brees believes there's a chance for redemption in Week 12 against Baltimore.
But this loss felt different. For the first time, the Saints looked like a team that just might not be good enough to take advantage of playing in the NFL's worst division.

"We've gotta look closely at everything we're doing, or else we'll find ourselves in this up-and-down swing we seem to be in," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who said he told players after the game that he's obviously not doing his job well enough either.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said Payton suggested he'll make some unspecified changes this week. Whether that's to the routine or personnel is unknown, but clearly the message was different than the more encouraging messages Payton sent after the Saints had played very well in parts of recent losses to Detroit and San Francisco.

The mood was also a little different this time in the postgame locker room. There weren't any significant meltdowns or cases of finger-pointing. But some players expressed more frustration than usual over how their relentless confidence and hard work haven't translated to success on the field.

"When you're turning over every leaf, what do you do? I don't know," Vaccaro said. "I mean, does the film really matter? Why'd I watch all that? What's the point in doing all that if you're gonna lose anyway?

"But at the same time, like Drew said [in a postgame speech to the team], that's always been the formula to winning. So you've gotta keep doing it, and eventually something will click. ... He's a Hall of Fame quarterback, so whatever he says, obviously, it works. But I think you've gotta have 22, 23 guys all doing that. You know what I'm saying? We're not good enough to just slap something out there and win."

Vaccaro suggested there has just been a "different vibe" with the Saints' defense this season, and he wondered if it's because they let go of so many veteran players in the offseason who had played together for so long.

Vaccaro stressed he doesn't blame the coaching, though, and called Payton the "best coach in this league."

"At some point as players, you just take over a team," Vaccaro said. "If I did have a solution -- just as players, you've gotta take over a team and just refuse to lose."

Vaccaro, Payton and Brees all agreed the Saints didn't come out "flat" and lacking desire or energy. They all put the onus of blame on their execution.

"Everybody's hyped up, ready to roll, there's always energy [to start]," said Brees, who explained the Saints just didn't produce any of those big moments that guys "feed off of" as the game went on.

The biggest killer was the Saints third-down defense, which Payton called "awful." The Bengals converted nine of their first 11 third-down attempts, including a third-and-18, a third-and-11 and three third-and-8s on their opening touchdown drive.

The Saints offense also couldn't close the deal. They marched into the red zone on their first two drives. They first settled for a field goal, then got stuffed on a goal-line stand.

Brees actually completed 33 of 41 passes without a turnover, but the Saints didn't have a single play of more than 17 yards.

True to his nature, though, Brees kept insisting he believes in the Saints team that produced so many of those big moments over the past month, including big wins against Green Bay and Carolina.

Brees said he's confident the Saints will use the "Monday Night Football" stage at home next week against the Baltimore Ravens "to come out and make a statement as to how we see the rest of our season going."

They have to. Otherwise, even Brees might start to lose confidence in this team.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:

Different vibe: Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro expressed his frustration about the "embarrassing" performances the defense has put out there too often this season -- mostly because he said he can't put his finger on exactly what's missing because the players have "turned over every leaf."

"I came in as a rookie [last year and] the team was different. It was a different vibe. I don't know if it's when you lose guys that have been together. Just something's changed," said Vaccaro, who referenced the veteran departures of players such as Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Jabari Greer. "You've gotta think that just because you've got great players on paper, not everybody's always gonna mesh together right away. ... So eventually -- shoot, at this rate, if we all stay together -- we've gotta get that chemistry."

Still 'annoyingly optimistic': Saints quarterback Drew Brees shared some of that frustration but insisted he's still "annoyingly optimistic" -- especially because the Saints remain tied for first place in the woeful NFC South. Brees addressed his teammates after the game and said they have to stick with what they know works -- working hard and preparing during the week.

"I'm confident we're gonna be able to come out this week with an extra day ... and because it's 'Monday Night Football,' really have the opportunity to come out and make a statement as to how we see the rest of our season going," Brees said of next Monday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Payton blames self: Coach Sean Payton said he told players after the game that he's obviously not doing a good enough job if the Saints keep swinging up and down as much as they have this season. Vaccaro said Payton promised to make some changes this week, without specifying. Payton made it clear that the offense, defense and special teams all deserved blame.
METAIRIE, La. – Less than two years into his NFL career, New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro has already experienced the full spectrum of love and hate from NFL analysts.

He was widely praised for his breakout rookie season, finishing third in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and sending expectations for this year through the roof.

But this year, Vaccaro has taken a lot more heat for what could best be described as too many “aggressive mistakes” – especially his decision to crash down on San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis last week before a 51-yard pass to receiver Michael Crabtree sailed over his head.

Vaccaro has also been credited for missing a league-high 15 tackles by the statistical service Pro Football Focus this year – many of which he admits are accurate, but most of which he says are the result of him trying to chase down tackles everywhere on the field.

As a result, Pro Football Focus has Vaccaro rated dead last among 158 safeties in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertSaints safety Kenny Vaccaro is having a rough second season statistically.
“I read a lot of stuff, and people are saying, ‘Oh, he’s not doing what he did his rookie year.’ But people don’t understand I’m playing a completely different position,” said Vaccaro, who has switched to a more traditional strong safety role this year after playing mostly in the slot as a rookie and in college at Texas. “And people don’t realize the first four or five games I was hurt (still recovering from last year’s dislocated ankle and a nagging hamstring injury). …

“I don’t think I’m playing up to my potential this year. But I don’t think I’m playing bad. I think the last four or five games I had stretches where I was dominant, honestly.”

Coaches Sean Payton and Rob Ryan backed up that assessment Friday, both suggesting that Vaccaro’s early struggles fell in line with the entire defense’s early struggles. And that they’ve all improved together.

“I think he’s playing really well,” Ryan said. “I think we all started terrible. Out of the gate, we all stunk. So that’s just the way it is. And I stunk. And they weren’t as bad as me, but sometimes they weren’t very good.”

Vaccaro's struggles were both a cause and effect of the team’s struggles. It was the same deal with fellow safety Jairus Byrd.

Most of their missed tackles came in the open field against teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys, who were running free through the Saints' defense while tearing up the middle of the field.

“I think I’ve missed entirely too many tackles. But at the same time, you’ve gotta watch the film to see how I’m missing these things,” said Vaccaro, who whiffed on 49ers running back Carlos Hyde during a touchdown run last week – but only after Hyde had slipped through the first two levels of the defense and Vaccaro came over from the other side of the field. “I expect to make every tackle. But at the same time, before you’re gonna criticize me, watch the tape.”

My other theory on Vaccaro is that he’s guilty of trying to do too much at times.

Earlier this year, when Vaccaro admitted that “undisciplined” was “the perfect word” for the Saints’ defense, he explained that, “You almost have to get selfish. ‘I’m going to do my job, I’m going to be in this gap, and I don’t care what happens after that.’ And once you have that corrected, you can start having guys fly around and you make the unexpected play.”

It sounded like Vaccaro could have been describing exactly what happened on the 51-yard pass by San Francisco last week.

But Payton shot down that notion, specifically choosing the word “disciplined” to describe Vaccaro when asked if he’s trying to do too much at times.

And Vaccaro only half-agreed when asked the same question.

“A little bit. But at the same time, a lot of it’s just when you’re playing hard, those chances (at tackles or missed tackles) are gonna go highly up," said Vaccaro, who explained that now that he’s playing back more as a strong safety, he’s “playing 10 times harder than I played last year” because he’s running to the ball on every play instead of covering his man.

“And I don’t have any fear of failure this year. I’ve talked to certain people and they say, ‘When you start second-guessing yourself …’ But I’m not really worried about that,” Vaccaro said. “When I get there [to the ball], I need to make these plays. But at the same time, I’m just trying to do what I can.

“I’ve watched safeties around the league that just sit back there and let everybody else make the play. I’m not like that. I refuse to be like that.”

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has been asked the burning question about Mark Ingram's playing time repeatedly over the past three weeks, both directly and indirectly.

So when the New Orleans Saints coach started to hear the latest version of it Thursday, he cut off the reporter and cut to the chase:

"Look, it's the hot topic. Philosophically, when [all of the Saints' running] backs are healthy, 'Is he gonna go back to rotating all three runners or is he gonna keep giving Mark the ball?' I get it," Payton said -- though he wasn't as direct when it came to revealing his own hand.

"Look, each week we'll come up with the best plan. Obviously we pay close attention to what Mark's doing right now. And he's doing real well," Payton said of Ingram, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games since fellow backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson went down with injuries. "Shoot, a year ago there were a ton of people crying for [Ingram's] head -- a handful of you here [in the media]. So I think this, obviously it's good to see him playing well and healthy. He's been real important in light of some of the injuries we've had. And I think that's something that is real encouraging.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMark Ingram has proven that he can be a consistent contributor over the past three weeks.
"We notice and pay attention to all that stuff. We're gonna make sure we try to do the best thing that helps us win that week."

Payton doesn't have to stress out too much over the answer. For one thing, Thomas (shoulder/rib) and Robinson (arm) aren't ready to come back yet. For another, this is the classic, textbook example of the clichéd "good problem to have."

The main reason that Payton has always used a timeshare rotation at running back is because his Saints teams have always been loaded with talent at the position -- from Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush to Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell to Thomas, Ingram, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory to now.

But Payton doesn't just go with a timeshare as a rule -- which is why Ingram has carried the ball 24, 30 and 27 times over the past three games instead of Payton forcing guys like Travaris Cadet and Edwin Baker into the mix.

"I've said this before, it's important to have numbers at that position," Payton said. "And this current time frame that we are in is a good case in point for that."

At the same time, Payton's eyes have clearly been opened to how well Ingram is running. Payton (who once coached Marshall Faulk in college, among other greats along the way) has never completely dismissed the notion that backs can get into a better rhythm with more carries and more steady playing time.

It's impossible to think Payton's philosophy hasn't been altered in any way by what he's seen from the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft choice.

When asked if he feels like Ingram is performing like a top-tier back in the NFL right now, Payton said, "Yeah, shoot, he's playing well. So how to qualify that, I mean, I love the way he's playing. He's running hard. Absolutely. He's physical. He's been durable. ...

"He's prepared for this opportunity. He's doing a good job with it."

As for Ingram, he has been about as graceful off the field as he has been on it -- toeing the line between admitting that he loves the opportunity to get this many carries and get into that rhythm, while still not demanding anything permanent.

Ingram's career was mostly waylaid by injuries during his first three seasons, but it was absolutely stalled by his lack of opportunities, as well -- especially when he was pigeonholed as the Saints' base-package and short-yardage runner.

But while Ingram has always shown a great deal of passion and glimpses of frustration on the field or the sideline when he's not had consistent success over the years, he's always said all the right things publicly. And teammates have always raved about his attitude and work ethic.

"I know what type of system we have. I know we have backs that are real good, and all the guys are deserving of touches," Ingram said. "So I just go into each game preparing like I'm gonna be a workhorse, preparing like I'm gonna get a lot of carries. And unfortunately, some guys went down and it just presented an opportunity for me to step up and be the best I can to help the team.

"So I've just been trying to seize the opportunity."

It's also come just in time, since Ingram is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this season -- and he has almost certainly added millions to his earning power over the past three weeks by opening eyes throughout the NFL.

But that's another area that Ingram insists he isn't dwelling on.

"Man, I just take it one day at a time," Ingram said. "I'm not really worried about my contract situation or anything like that. I'm just trying to improve every single day and prepare myself to play the best game I can possibly play every Sunday.

"If I just do that, handle my business, just keep doing what I'm doing, everything will take care of itself."
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals don’t see much of each other, but they have a lot in common.

Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, a Cincinnati native who grew up as a Bengals season-ticket holder, even pointed out that they spent years running into the same red and gold wall.

“There’s actually a pretty strong parallel to Cincinnati and here in terms of the teams and their successes and the chants ('Who Dat' vs. 'Who Dey') and the team that was the cause of all the woes in the years that we were good and had a chance, and who took that away from us,” Strief said. “The Saints played in the division with the 49ers when they had Joe Montana and Steve Young, and they could never get over that hump. And we went to the Super Bowl twice and lost to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. So there’s a lot of parallels there.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer also wrote a detailed behind-the-scenes piece on how the two cities battled to land the 16th NFL franchise back in the 1960s, with the Saints beating out the Bengals.

Brees and Dalton: One parallel that hasn’t quite come to fruition yet is the development of fourth-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) was compared by some to Saints quarterback Drew Brees coming out of college because he’s a smaller, cerebral quarterback. But so far Dalton has been hit or miss, with three playoff appearances and zero playoff wins.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis mentioned when talking about Brees this week that he tries “to get Andy to emulate Drew all the time.”

When asked how specifically, Lewis said, “The way Drew goes about it as the leader, the leader of the offense, the leader of the team, working through his progressions, how hard he works in practice, even how he enters the huddle and the things he does. It’s what you want from the leader of your team.”

Brees said he has met Dalton only once, during a past Pro Bowl. But he said he admires what he’s seen and heard about the fellow Texas native, saying they have somewhat of a shared background because of their paths through big-time Texas high schools and less high-profile colleges (Brees at Purdue, Dalton at TCU).

“I have a lot of respect of what he’s been able to accomplish and what his team’s been able to accomplish,” Brees said. “I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with him, but from everything I hear, he’s a great young man.”

Payton and Still: Saints coach Sean Payton also established a new bond between the franchises this season when he was moved to buy 100 jerseys in support of Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, whose daughter is battling pediatric cancer. The two will meet in person for the first time Sunday.

“I think players in our league, people in our league, in a time like that when someone needs help, they really rally around their own people,” Payton said this week of why he was moved by the way the Bengals supported Still through a charitable promotion with his jersey sales. “That was good to see, and it’s still good to see because I’m sure it’s a long fight.”

Bengals news: For all your info on the Bengals this week, check out their team page on and follow ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey on Twitter @ColeyHarvey.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he understood why the officials made the pass interference call against tight end Jimmy Graham that wiped away a potential Hail Mary touchdown Sunday -- whether it was definitely a push-off or just the “illusion” of a push-off because Graham’s arms were extended.

But Payton quickly stressed that there were so many other pivotal plays during the Saints’ 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers that, “That was like the last thing on my mind when I got in here this morning was to look at that play.”

Graham wasn’t in the locker room Monday to discuss whether his opinion had changed. But he was adamant Sunday night that it wasn’t a push-off and that a flag shouldn’t have been thrown.

"It's interesting how guys grab me everywhere on the field, and I put literally two fingers on somebody and you make that kind of call," said Graham, who added, “That’s why I left basketball, so I could stop being penalized for hitting people.”

Saints cornerback Corey White, however, admitted that he thought it was “clearly pass interference” when asked his opinion from a defensive back’s perspective.

When told of Graham’s comments, White said, “Oh, he’s crazy. It was definitely pass interference. … As much as I like to defend my own teammates, I don’t want to lie either.”

White did acknowledge that cornerback Perrish Cox “did some acting, too. He sold it pretty well." But White said the fact Graham got his hands on Cox and extended his arms made it interference.

Payton was more noncommittal, agreeing that the arm extension is probably what made the officials throw the flag. And Payton said he thinks officials have started to look at contact on those plays more closely in recent years.

“Generally when you get down to those Hail Marys, there’s a lot of little pushing and shoving. And that one, the eyes were drawn specifically there. That one was a little bit clearer -- or the illusion of it was clearer -- for the officials to call,” Payton said. “Whether [Cox] went down on his own, it’s hard to say looking at it. I think the second hand out [with Graham], just the extension, can give that illusion. But they’re calling it tighter and, hey, we’ve gotta be able to adjust.”

Cox told Fox Sports on Sunday night that “it wasn’t a flop at all.”

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert analyzed just how rare such an offensive pass interference call is in those situations. According to ESPN Stats and Info, since the start of the 2001 season, there have been seven offensive pass interference calls in the final 10 seconds of either half when Hail Marys are likely to have occurred.