NFL Nation: Sean Payton

Colston's shutout both rare and normal

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t seem too surprised or concerned over the fact that receiver Marques Colston was held without a catch for the first time in 87 games played during Sunday’s 26-24 loss at the Cleveland Browns.

As rare as that was, Payton indicated that a receiver having a quiet day -- even Colston -- is pretty normal in a Saints offense that spreads the ball around so much.

And Payton is right.

The way the Cleveland Browns made it their mission to devote heavy coverage to the Saints’ receivers downfield reminded me of a handful of games from last season (at Chicago, at New England and at Philadelphia in the playoffs). In those three games combined, Colston caught a total of five passes for 42 yards.

And just like the Saints did in those three games last season, they eventually adjusted to the Browns’ defensive plan. The Saints’ offense finally started rolling late in the second quarter and through the second half with a heavy dose of tight end Jimmy Graham and the run game.

“We got a lot of sub-packages, but I thought by and large we threw it pretty well. The targets sometimes are going to be different,” Payton said. “Jimmy ended up having one of his better games. That happens with our offense. I thought Kenny Stills was able to have an impact coming back. [Robert] Meachem had some big plays for us.

“I thought as that game went on Drew [Brees] did a good job of finding the matchups that were advantageous to us.”

The Saints’ four receivers combined for a total of nine catches, 79 yards and no touchdowns -- with three catches apiece for Brandin Cooks, Stills and Meachem.

It’s still a bit surprising that Colston couldn’t even match that type of output. And it's worth noting that Colston’s snaps were cut down from 64 in Week 1 to 41 in Week 2 (second behind Cooks’ 55 snaps, but still ahead of 29 apiece for Stills and Meachem).

“We felt he played too many the week prior,” Payton explained. “Managing the amount of snaps these guys get and trying to keep them from getting north of 50, for instance. We have depth there. Obviously Brandin received more snaps yesterday. That’s something that we will pay attention to each week.”

Still, there’s no reason to expect that Colston will be scaled back in the Saints’ offense on a weekly basis.

After all, Colston had five catches for 110 yards in Week 1, though his late fumble proved costly. And Colston has talked all summer about feeling healthier than he has in two years.

But Sunday’s game was a reminder that even the greatest pass catcher in Saints history isn’t immune to being passed over in this deep, diverse offense.
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan pointed the blame for the New Orleans Saints' 0-2 start squarely toward himself and the defense during an interview on the WWL Radio coaches' show on Monday night.

Like Sean Payton did earlier in the day, Ryan pointed to the defense's inability to finish and to assignment errors that have plagued the team in certain situations.

"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Ryan said, pointing to the end of both halves in Week 1 at Atlanta and the final drive in Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We want to be a great defense, and great defenses always finish. And that's something you just have to point the finger at us, and we have to get corrected."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
(Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.
Ryan said the defense has to do a better job of communicating. Obviously the most egregious example was a coverage breakdown on Cleveland's final offensive play, when cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White both covered the same receiver, leaving another wide open.

"These communication errors can't keep happening. Or we're just killing the team right now," Ryan said. "We know we're solely responsible for the two losses that we have. Our offense has been doing great, our special teams have been doing great.

"Hey, we have some good effort in places, and we've got some guys playing well. But as a unit that we take pride in, we've definitely failed us two weeks in a row."

When asked if the lack of practice time in the preseason for injured defensive backs like Jairus Byrd and Patrick Robinson is part of the problem, Ryan said nobody is saying that at all.

"We've limited our checks, and we still busted some things. So we can't have that. And that's not our style of play," Ryan said. "Right now, we need to develop our style of play and prove who we are. Right now we're not very good.

"We're gonna be great, we're gonna work at it. We've got the players, I know we've got the coaches here too. So together we've gotta do better quickly."

Some of the plays that irked both Payton and Ryan were obvious -- that final play and two pre-snap offside penalties (on Robinson in the first quarter and on Kenny Vaccaro on the final drive). It was Vaccaro's offside penalty that led to the moment when TV cameras captured Payton shouting and pointing at Ryan on the sideline.

Interestingly, both coaches also brought up a specific reference during their coaches' show interviews to a third-and-4 or third-and-3 play where the defense backed up and gave a receiver too much cushion.

Payton called it a "common sense thing we've got to correct." And Ryan said it was an "awareness issue you can't have," calling it "inexcusable" and "all on me."

Reviewing the tape, it appears that they might have been referencing a third-quarter play in which the Saints' defensive backs were still communicating right up until the snap as the Browns receivers motioned into a different formation, and Robinson backed up at the last moment before an easy 6-yard pass to Miles Austin.

Ryan was also asked about needing to get more of a pass rush out of the front four. He said that's absolutely needed, but he insisted he's confident the Saints can do that going forward.

And Ryan pointed out that the Saints defense wasn't exactly "gangbusters" in its first two games last year, despite a 2-0 start after two close victories.

Loomis' take: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis also spoke Monday at the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club. Loomis said, "There's no way to sugarcoat being 0-2," but he stressed that they have been total team losses and can't be pinned on any one unit, as chronicled by The Times-Picayune.

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
METAIRIE, La. -- A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

The Saints have had a handful of costly errors from every unit during their 0-2 start. The one common bond: They have to be smarter in their home debut Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.

Sean Payton said his biggest disappointment has been the struggles in "situational football," whether it be the blown coverage at the end of Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the missed blocking assignment on a sack or an offsides penalty on a field-goal attempt.

"That's the one thing that's stood out now, two weeks in a row," Payton said.

The most maddening yet was the blown coverage in the final seconds, when Cleveland receiver Andrew Hawkins broke wide open out of a bunch formation. Cornerbacks Corey White and Keenan Lewis both covered the same player, while Patrick Robinson was flagged for holding another receiver across the field.

“You gotta be able to handle bunch. You gotta be able to handle receiver motion,” Payton said. “I mean, shoot, when you play man-to-man like we do, you’re gonna get that.”

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro agreed, saying, “We’ve got smart players. It’s just disappointing that we're not playing up to our abilities. I put that on us.”

Patrick Robinson's struggles continue

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, cornerback Patrick Robinson was hardly the only one with "muddy hands."

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
David Richard/AP PhotoSaints CB Patrick Robinson breaks up a pass to Browns receiver Travis Benjamin in the second quarter during Sunday's Week 2 game.
But no individual player will be more under the microscope going forward than the Saints' No. 2 cornerback, who was demoted to the role of nickel cornerback after two blown coverages in the first quarter Sunday.

"He's an easy target. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff he'll want to clean up. But there's a lot of muddy hands just to be singling out one player," Payton said. "He's gonna work to improve, and we've gotta look overall at how we're helping not just him, but the rest of those guys."

Payton later added he understands why the media had questions about Robinson. And the mid-game switch was reminiscent of Payton yanking left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup late last season.

But when asked if he might make a permanent switch, Payton said, "I'm not gonna discuss changes on Sunday after a game."

The Saints have other options -- but no sure things at a position that has become a much bigger concern than hoped this summer, when Robinson, Champ Bailey and Corey White were fighting for the role.

White was the one who replaced Robinson in base defense Sunday -- which could potentially become a permanent switch. And Bailey remains unsigned on the open market, so he can't be ruled out as a possibility.

The Saints have two rookie corners on the roster in Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, though both are still developing players. Jean-Baptiste has been inactive for both games so far, while Dixon has been used on special teams.

Or the Saints could continue to show the faith in Robinson that they showed in him when he beat out Bailey for the starting job in the first place this summer.

Robinson, a first-round draft pick in 2010, has had a roller-coaster career because of inconsistent play and injuries. But players and coaches have always raved about his raw talent and athleticism.

It's Robinson's confidence and consistency that need work. And it's hard to imagine these first two weeks have helped with Robinson's confidence. He also got beat for two deep balls last week at Atlanta.

"Just got to keep working," Robinson said Sunday, according to The Advocate. "You've got to keep working to get it right. Well, I'm not sure it's going to come overnight -- just have to keep working on my assignments, my technique. Simple as that."

Robinson's struggles began on the Browns' second series, when he was flagged for a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a third-and-7 play, even though the pass intended for receiver Taylor Gabriel was overthrown. Then, five plays later, Robinson got beat by a double move on a 3-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin.

On the next series, after he had been demoted to nickelback, Robinson was flagged for a neutral zone infraction, which nullified a missed field goal by Cleveland.

Robinson did settle in better for the rest of the game -- at one point making a great play to bat away a deep pass. But he added one more defensive holding penalty on the Browns' final offensive penalty (which would have been more egregious if the Browns hadn't declined the penalty because of an even worse coverage breakdown across the field).
Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns:

Unfinished product: The word “finish” was uttered by just about every player in the Saints’ locker room after they let another lead slip away in the final seconds. Yes, they had a lot of problems throughout Sunday’s loss. But as quarterback Drew Brees pointed out, they are “literally” one play away in each game from being 2-0. And last season, they started 2-0 in the exact opposite fashion with last-minute wins. … That didn’t help erase anybody’s frustration, but it hasn’t sapped this team’s confidence yet. Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted any "crisis" will only come from the outside.

Payton-Ryan exchange: The TV cameras caught Saints coach Sean Payton shouting and pointing at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sideline early in the Browns’ game-winning field goal drive. When asked afterward if that was normal, Payton responded, “Every game. Yeah, every game.” … Obviously we don’t see (or notice) that exact type of exchange on a weekly basis. But it certainly matches with Payton’s animated, emotional persona on game days -- especially considering the circumstances of the game.

Dansby’s secret info: According to Browns reporter Pat McManamon, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said he heard the Saints’ line call on a crucial third-and-5 play at Cleveland’s 31-yard line late in the fourth quarter (that they were going to protect outside right). So Dansby said he knew he could get a free lane up the middle for a sack against Brees. Indeed, Dansby flew in untouched and knocked the Saints out of field goal range.

Greer: No compassion for Goodell

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11

METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer offered strong opinions on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell while serving as a guest analyst Thursday on ESPN. Greer described Goodell's handling of the Ray Rice investigation as "ignorant," and he said he believes that players around the league have "no compassion at all" for Goodell's plight.

Greer echoed the sentiment of former teammates Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle in saying that Goodell's credibility with players was already tarnished in the past through incidents like the Saints' bounty investigation, the 2011 lockout and the way the commissioner has been "overwhelmingly harsh" in handing out penalties and fines.

Greer recalled when Goodell came to speak to players from each of the 32 teams at the time of the 2011 lockout. Greer said, "The consensus was, 'This guy has nothing to do with us.' He was taking heat from all 32 teams. There was a big rift in players and ownership, and we saw that Roger Goodell was on ownership's side."

"There is no compassion from players for Roger Goodell in this moment. No compassion at all," Greer said.

Goodell's handling of the Rice investigation has received increasing scrutiny, with questions about whether the commissioner had access -- or should have had access -- to a tape showing Rice punching his then-fiancee in an elevator.

Asked later for his thoughts on how Goodell has handled the Rice investigation, Greer said, "It's went from negligent to downright ignorant. I don't want to be harsh with my words, but it seems now that it is becoming a circus. Although we don't know whether he saw the tape or not, just the way the whole situation is developing, I don't agree with."

Greer said he knows from experience how thorough Goodell's investigation was into the Saints' bounty allegations in 2012, when coach Sean Payton was suspended for a full season, among other severe punishments. And Greer said he believes players such as Vilma and Will Smith were unfairly "vilified."

Some in the media have begun to make a similar comparison, saying that Goodell should be held to the same harsh standard to which he held Saints leaders in 2012. At the time, Goodell said of Payton, "Even if you aren't aware of something, you should be aware of something like that in your organization. That is his direct responsibility as the supervisor of players and coaches, and he should have known what was going on in his organization."

Current Saints players have been more measured with their words when asked to make that comparison, though, and Payton reiterated Thursday that he hasn't given it much thought.

"Our focus really has been on Cleveland [New Orleans' Week 2 opponent]," Payton said. "Yesterday I said it, and I'll say it again today: When you look at our work week and our work days, our time and energy from morning 'til evening is on the opponent. I understand the question, but that's what I would say."

Asked if it feels good that people seem to be coming to his defense, in a way, Payton said, "It's immaterial. In other words, we said at the time what we had to say, and we'll leave it at that."
METAIRIE, La. -- By Wednesday, the New Orleans Saints' defensive backs made it clear they were tired of hearing about and talking about their tackling woes in Sunday’s 37-34 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

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

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

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

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

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

"Absolutely there is (an emphasis in practice)," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We have individual periods out here where it’s strictly fundamentals. You’re working location, landmarks, leverage, where you’re fitting. The No. 1 thing is population of the ball. All of those things we work on. And we have to."
METAIRIE, La. -- The feel-good story of the day from New Orleans Saints camp comes courtesy of an awesome gesture by coach Sean Payton.

Payton purchased 100 jerseys of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still on Wednesday after the team announced that proceeds of his jersey sales would go toward pediatric cancer research. Still’s 4-year-old daughter is battling Stage 4 pediatric cancer.

Payton was moved by the story after he heard about it on the radio during his drive home on Tuesday night, according to a source, and he decided to purchase the jerseys out of his own pocket.

According to Bengals director of sales and public affairs Jeff Berding, Still's jersey sold more in the first 24 hours of the donation drive than any other Bengals player's jersey ever has in a single day.

Earlier this year, the Saints also reached out to support another member of their NFL fraternity. The entire team signed a giant get-well card for former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who also was battling cancer (and since has been declared cancer-free).

Saints' thoughts on Goodell scrutiny

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
METAIRIE, La. -- With NFL commissioner Roger Goodell facing increased scrutiny over his handling of the Ray Rice investigation, some, including former New Orleans Saints linebackers Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, have begun to point out the contradiction in how Goodell handled the Saints' bounty investigation two years ago.

At the time, Goodell punished the Saints at the highest level, from ownership to the general manager to the coaching staff, claiming ignorance was not a defense if they weren't aware of the defense's alleged pay-for-performance bounty program.

Saints players and coaches were asked about that parallel on Wednesday. Everyone gave a similar response, saying they didn't know enough about the specific details in this case to pass judgment. But as Drew Brees said, Goodell does deserve to be held accountable for his actions as much as any player.

"We're all held accountable for our actions as players. Certainly every owner should be held accountable for their actions. The commissioner should be held accountable for his actions," Brees said. "I don't know the full story. I don't know who all does, but I think that's what is trying to be found out here. But everyone deserves to be held accountable for their actions, because certainly that's the expectation for players."

Coach Sean Payton said he hasn't given it much thought.

"With where we're at today and coming off a tough loss, that's like 150th on my priorities right now," Payton said. "Obviously I've seen the video [of Rice punching his then-fiancée in an elevator], and it’s disturbing. What else can you say? In regards to the league office, that's their issue to handle. For me there's too many other things right now that we're having to take care of."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief, who also spoke frankly about how disturbing the video was earlier this week, said he doesn't know how much fault belongs to Goodell in this case. But he still believes Goodell was wrong in the bounty case, when he handed out unprecedented punishments to Saints players and coaches. The player suspensions (including Vilma's season-long ban) were later overturned by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by Goodell to handle the appeals.

"I don’t know what he should be held accountable for and what he shouldn't. I don't know what he knew," Strief said of Goodell. "Am I defensive of our situation here? Absolutely? Do I think he was wrong? One hundred percent. I think it was proven he was wrong. I think they went back and they got another commissioner that looked at the situation and said, 'This was handled incorrectly.' And I will always feel that way. Coach Payton lost a season, and it wasn't fair. That's what I know. But we've moved on from it, it's over.

"I don't know who even holds [Goodell] responsible, to be honest with you. That’s up to somebody else, not me."

Meanwhile, Saints guard Ben Grubbs spoke about Rice on a more personal level, since the two were teammates with the Baltimore Ravens before Grubbs signed with the Saints in 2012.

"I'm definitely disappointed in Ray. I love Ray. He was a great teammate to me. And he's a guy that is very lovable. But to see that, I immediately said, 'That’s not the Ray that I know,'" Grubbs said. "So I just hope the best for them, being married [myself] over a year now, and they are newlyweds. It's going to be tough. It's a road they can travel, but they're gonna need definitely the good lord with them. And I'm praying for them. And I just hope everything works out in their best interest."
METAIRIE, La. -- The video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in the face had a dramatic effect on those who saw it for the first time Monday, when it was released by TMZ. The Baltimore Ravens released Rice on Monday afternoon, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said he was disturbed by the video -- as he imagines every one of his teammates would be.

"That's an upsetting video. For any man, that's a difficult thing to see and to watch," Strief said. "I don't know Ray Rice, but I know that video is disturbing. It's tough to see. It's unacceptable. ... I know there's no one in this locker room that sees that video and is not disturbed by it."

Strief was asked his opinion Monday morning -- before news broke of Rice's release and indefinite suspension -- primarily because he is the Saints' NFL Players Association representative.

He was asked if he believes the NFL should be allowed to increase its punishment of Rice (previously a two-game suspension) based on the new evidence. Strief said he wasn't familiar enough with the rules to comment on that, and he spoke instead on how he viewed the video from a personal level.

Saints coach Sean Payton said he hadn't seen the video as of Monday morning, so he didn't speak specifically about Rice. But Payton did field questions about what he has told players in the wake of the NFL's increased domestic violence punishments.

The NFL revamped its policy after the Rice issue, decreeing that from now on first-time offenders will be suspended six games and players will receive a lifetime ban for a second offense.

"The No. 1 thing we are aware of is the policy change. I think it's pretty crystal clear. And we're always educating our guys [on league policies]," Payton said. "There's really zero tolerance for it, and I think it's the right thing ... absolutely.

"I think it's maybe a little surprising that it hadn't been identified more clearly, 'This is what we're doing.' But I think it's definitely the right thing."

Saints tight end Benjamin Watson later weighed in on Twitter with three thoughts:

METAIRIE, La. -- When your defense gives up a total of 392 yards over the final 30:20 of regulation, there’s obviously a long list of issues that need to be fixed.

First and foremost, the New Orleans Saints need to tackle better – as everyone was quick to point out after their 37-34 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints missed a total of 23 tackles Sunday, the most in the NFL. And players Monday blamed both effort and technique.

The Saints also need to get more pressure on the quarterback. According to Sean Payton, they had just one sack and one hurry – an unacceptable stat, even though they mostly stuck with a four-man rush.

“We can’t let Matt Ryan throw for over 400 yards. It’s ridiculous,” linebacker Junior Galette said. “We’ve gotta do a way better job. Especially if (defensive coordinator Rob Ryan) is gonna trust our four-man rush to get there. That’s just not gonna happen again. …

“Me and Cam (Jordan) spoke about it last night, and we just weren’t ourselves. That feeling I had last night, in five years, I’ve never had that feeling.”

The Saints' defense also needs to hold up better in coverage, play with more effort, communicate better. You name it, and it was mentioned Monday by either Payton or players.

However, the one thing the Saints don’t need to do – and won’t do – is panic.

They have good players. They have a good coordinator. They have a proven track record.

The biggest long-term concern (from my viewpoint) is probably the depth at cornerback. But then again, the Saints won’t face many offenses as deep and diverse as the Falcons, who were able to exploit that.

Just as Galette did, defensive backs like Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis vowed both Sunday and Monday that the Week 1 performance won’t be tolerated or repeated.

The most valuable lesson they all learned Sunday, however, is that believing isn’t enough.

It’s a new year and they’ve got to start proving themselves all over again.

“That’s not who we are,” Galette said. “We’re usually running to the ball way harder than that. There’s usually about six, seven guys on the tackle each play. That was non-existent. ... As far as game-planning, schemes, it’s not about that. It’s high effort and tackling better.

“We’re definitely focused. But we’ve gotta get on it now. These guys ain’t just gonna roll over and let us have it. We’ve gotta go out there and take it.”
ATLANTA -- For the second straight game, one of the New Orleans Saints' all-time greats played the role of both hero and goat.

Receiver Marques Colston's fumble in overtime Sunday allowed the Atlanta Falcons to kick the game-winning field goal for a 37-34 victory in the season opener.

It was reminiscent of the Saints' season-ending playoff loss at Seattle in January, when Colston's forward pass on a botched lateral ended the Saints' furious rally.

And in both cases, Colston had more than 100 yards before the costly miscues.

As coach Sean Payton was quick to point out afterward, "He's won a lot of games for us."

Colston declined to talk in the postgame locker room -- which is typical of Colston, who often shies away from media attention both in situations like these and when he's breaking franchise records.

Colston rarely shows emotion in front of the media. But make no mistake, it's there. And a play like this must have torn him up inside.

Colston slammed his helmet down in frustration after the play. And Payton recently shared a revealing story about Colston's reaction in Seattle.

"He's one of the more competitive guys. He's quiet, and obviously when you get to know him and you see him, you recognize how important it is to him," Payton said. "Walking off the field last year in Seattle after the playoff loss, I just happened to be behind him as we were filing into the locker room and I will just never forget him taking his fist and hitting the cinderblock wall with a square punch. I don't know how much damage he did to his fingers at that time -- he would probably be able to tell you -- but it wasn't an open hand.

"It matters a lot to him. You wouldn't get necessarily a communication. He's not someone that's going to come out and speak a lot. But as far as dependability, reliability ... coming up in games where he's got to make a play over the middle and extend himself, he's been outstanding, and I don't take it for granted."

Colston caught five passes for 110 yards Sunday, extending his Saints franchise records in both categories.

His history has also included some nagging fumbles over the years. He's now lost 10 of them in his career, including the playoffs. And Sunday's fumble was reminiscent of one he lost in a similar shootout loss at Green Bay to open the 2011 season.

But Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and the entire locker room won't think twice about counting on him in big moments again and again in the future.

"He's the mentally toughest player in the locker room," offensive tackle Zach Strief said.
ATLANTA -- It seemed impossible that New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks could live up to the lofty hype that surrounded him heading into his NFL debut.

And he didn't. He exceeded it.

The Saints' dynamic new weapon did a little bit of everything -- at least during the first half -- of New Orleans' 37-34 overtime loss at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Cooks finished with seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, plus one run for 18 yards and two forced penalties against the defense for holding or interference.

However, Cooks was the first to point out that it felt a little hollow.

"To be honest, I had an all right day. But at the end of the day you want the win," Cooks said. "I would rather have zero catches with a 'W' than what I did."

Cooks was especially down after he had only one catch for nine yards in the second half. And quarterback Drew Brees threw just slightly behind Cooks in the end zone for a costly interception in the third quarter.

“That’s the one that really bugs me,” Brees said after the game. “If I put that thing one more foot in front of Cooks, it’s a touchdown.”

However, Brees has to be feeling very good about the possibilities with his new weapon -- who is as diverse as he is dynamic.

The Saints found about a half-dozen different ways to put the ball in Cooks' hands -- continuing the trend we saw in training camp. He caught a deep ball in traffic for 32 yards on the second play of the game. He later had the end-around run, a screen pass and a slant, showing off his combination of blazing speed, impressive hands and toughness.

As advertised, the 5-foot-10, 189-pounder gives the Saints yet another unique matchup problem that coach Sean Payton and Brees can exploit.

“He looked sharp,” Payton said. “I thought he made some good plays in space, hung onto the football. And the thing with him is he’s prepared. And it's nothing we haven’t seen and that you (in the media) have seen in practice. He looked very comfortable.”

Because the Saints spread the ball around so much to so many different weapons, it’s hard to predict whether Cooks can put up similar numbers on a weekly basis.

But he is obviously a big play waiting to happen. And he is more than ready to burn defenses when they pay too much attention to tight end Jimmy Graham or receiver Marques Colston or the run game.

“Guys were doubling Jimmy, Colston. The run game was (working),” Cooks said. “In an offense like this, someone’s gonna be open.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The Atlanta Falcons' offense took on another dimension when they traded up 21 spots to draft receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2011. It's one of the main reasons why the Falcons won 23 games over the next two seasons.

Julio Jones, Bernard Pollard
John Bazemore/Associated PressThe Saints will aim to stop a healthy Julio Jones in their season opener against the Falcons.
And when they lost Jones to a foot injury over the final 11 games last year, it was perhaps the main reason why Atlanta fell to 4-12.

Now Jones is back healthy, and he'll be the main focus of the New Orleans Saints' defense when they open the season Sunday at Atlanta. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has a rare combination of size, physicality and dynamic speed. He's had an 80-yard touchdown in every one of his three NFL seasons so far.

The Saints have actually had success keeping Jones quiet during their five meetings. But he did manage seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 at New Orleans last year. And he did burn them for 128 yards and a score once as a rookie.

Here's what the Saints had to say about Jones this week:

Coach Sean Payton: "He's someone that you have to be aware of where he's at on the field every play. He has great size, great athleticism, he can run, he has fabulous hands. He's the type of player that on draft day, [when] you see Atlanta moving up, he's the type of player that merits that. It can appear from the outside as, 'Man, they are giving up a lot' but I think everyone who was involved in the process of scouting him, you recognize what kind of player he was."

S Kenny Vaccaro: "Great hands, explosive, good route runner. I mean, he just has everything you want in a receiver. I think if you're gonna build a receiver, you'd build Julio Jones. Kind of like Megatron [Calvin Johnson]."

CB Corey White: "An all-around just great receiver. Anything you can ask for in a receiver, you've got it. Speed, size, everything. He can run good routes, beat you over the top, he can do it all. We get a scouting report every week, and you've got colored dots on people, and a blue dot is the highest you can be. And he's like dark black. ... He's rare. He's up there top three [in the NFL] in my opinion, hands down."

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "He really is a fantastic football player. I think he caught seven balls on us on the first game last year, and we had him doubled every time. He's a terrific football player. He looks like he's at full speed on the four minutes I saw on 'Hard Knocks.' He looked really good on it."

CB Keenan Lewis: "That's a guy you don't want to get in a tussling match with, you just keep your distance and play your game."

S Jairus Byrd: "He's really cool to watch on film. Obviously you're studying for him, but there's definitely a level of respect for what he's able to bring to the game, just with his speed, his size, the plays that he makes."
METAIRIE, La. – Much was made of the success the New England Patriots had last year against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham when they used physical cornerback Aqib Talib against Graham in press coverage.

In fact, probably too much was made of it, as few NFL teams have cornerbacks with that ability and no other teams copied the Patriots’ blueprint after that Week 6 matchup.

But one way or another – whether he’s being pressed by cornerbacks, jammed by defensive ends or harassed by linebackers – Graham knows he’ll keep seeing new wrinkles in the way teams cover him this season.

He always does.

Luckily, as Graham pointed out, the Saints have one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds in coach Sean Payton.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and Jimmy Graham's chemistry gives them a big advantage, no matter the wrinkles defenses throw at them.
So they certainly talked this offseason about the possibility of seeing coverages like they saw in New England, among others.

And they’ll be ready to throw out some new wrinkles themselves.

“Sean’s great with that in the offseason. Always does something new, implements new wrinkles,” said Graham, who offered some good detail Friday on what worked for the Patriots last year.

“I wouldn’t say New England covered me with a corner. I would say they were jamming me on the line with someone who can jam well, and then playing zone behind it,” Graham explained. “When you have help over the top and then you’ve got a linebacker scraping to help and you’re getting jammed man to man, it makes the picture cloudy of what you’re supposed to do. Especially when you run a lot of routes like me and (receiver Marques) Colston, where you have a lot of options. So when teams do that, it just kind of clouds that picture up.

“But it’s something that we’ve worked on this camp, shoring up some of those things and being ready for when teams do that. And Drew [Brees] being the quarterback he is, he finds the open guy. He doesn’t key on one guy or two guys, he finds the open man.”

Graham did stress, however, that he and Brees have a great chemistry that has allowed them to have immense success even when Graham isn’t so wide open.

“I think I definitely have a chapter in his book. I’m definitely on his page … or whatever you want to call it,” Graham said when asked if they’ve built a rapport similar to the one between Brees and Colston. “He looks for me, and he understands my body language. That’s a very important thing when you’re in between the linebackers and safeties.”

Typically, Graham said he doesn’t mind when defenses go to great lengths to try and take himself or Colston out of the game – as long as the Saints win. Last season's playoff victory at Philadelphia was a perfect example, when the Eagles sold out to harass both of them, even using defensive ends to chip them at the line.

“But that means that our running game just opened up. We were smashing people in that game,” Graham said.

The Saints weren't so fortunate against the Seattle Seahawks the next week. They also put a heavy focus on stopping Graham -- with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas shadowing him often in bracket coverage. But the Seahawks' defense is deep enough that they were also able to match up against the Saints' other receivers and runners (at least until a furious fourth-quarter rally).

The good news this year is that neither the Seahawks, the Patriots nor Talib are on New Orleans' regular-season schedule.

Two other positives for Graham – he’s healthy again to start the season after battling through a torn plantar fasciitis throughout the second half of last season; and the Saints’ receivers are loaded in terms of speed.

Graham said he thinks it will be even harder for defenses to take any one element away from the Saints’ offense this year now that they’ve added dynamic rookie Brandin Cooks and gotten downfield threat Joe Morgan back from injury.

“Having Joe Morgan healthy, that’s a big deal. In my opinion, he’s one of the fastest guys that I’ve ever met,” Graham said. “And Meach [Robert Meachem]. We just have a lot of speed now that’s gonna put a lot of pressure on these safeties. So you can’t cheat coverage, and you can’t have the safeties in the box. You have to respect that speed on the outside. And that’s one of the things we had in 2011 and one of the things they had in 2009. It makes teams have to play honest.”

Graham had a monster season in 2011, when he temporarily set some all-time receiving records for a tight end before New England’s Rob Gronkowski passed him up in the final minutes. That season, Graham finished with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But Graham wasn’t far off that pace last year, finishing with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. And as’s Pete Prisco pointed out in this historical film study, Graham has always caused particular nightmares for Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.