NFL Nation: Shayne Graham

Saints Camp Report: Day 15

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The defense dominated a set of live goal-line drills Wednesday -- easily one of the most physical and spirited sessions to date throughout all of training camp. The first-string offense scored only twice on six attempts inside the 3-yard line (or maybe only once; see below). And the second-string offense got shut out on all four of its attempts, including a fumbled snap between center Tim Lelito and quarterback Luke McCown. The two running backs who scored were Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet -- both times around the left side. It's hard to pinpoint too many individual standouts in that type of drill without the benefit of replay. But among those who came up big at least twice were defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley with the first-string defense, end Glenn Foster and cornerback Corey White with the second-string defense and left tackle Terron Armstead with the first-string offense.
  • The players themselves wish they had a replay challenge at their disposal since no one could agree whether Cadet scored. Players debated on the field, in postgame interviews and even on Twitter after's Lyons Yellin posted a video of the play from an inconclusive angle. What was conclusive on that video is that Armstead laid a great block on linebacker Kyle Knox -- who then recovered to make an outstanding hit on Cadet just as he approached the goal line. For what it's worth, I was watching from a direct sideline angle and thought the ball crossed the plane.
  • Nobody needed replay to see rookie receiver Brandin Cooks put on another dazzling display later in team drills. Cooks reeled in a touchdown pass of more than 50 yards from McCown by leaping up and outdueling safety Pierre Warren for the ball. He later ran free behind the third-string defense to catch another deep ball from QB Logan Kilgore. As I've said many times, we really aren't overhyping Cooks. He simply keeps makes the biggest highlights on an almost-daily basis. I didn't think he'd be in a position to catch the deep ball against Warren, but sure enough, he rose to the challenge.
  • The secondary had a few highlights of its own in team drills. Safety Rafael Bush intercepted quarterback Ryan Griffin after linebacker Kevin Reddick popped the ball up (Reddick should've caught it himself). Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Stanley Jean-Baptiste each had nice pass break-ups in the end zone during a red-zone drill.
  • Kicker Derek Dimke had a rough day, missing two of his three field-goal attempts. Shayne Graham was a little better, going 3-of-4, including one from 50-plus. But Graham did doink one off the right upright. I still say Graham has the edge if he can show stability throughout the rest of the preseason. The Saints just need to have faith that he can be a solid 80-percent kicker. But Graham hasn't locked down the job yet, and he's competing with both Dimke and kickers who will get cut around the league.
  • The Saints are now done with training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. They won't practice Thursday as they fly home to New Orleans before Friday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Then they'll remain home for the rest of camp.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees took one small step closer to getting back to work on Tuesday when he dressed in full pads for the New Orleans Saints' practice.

Brees didn’t participate in any drills, though, as he continued to throw and exercise off to the side with the training staff as he recovers from a strained oblique.

Once again, it appears extremely unlikely that Brees will play in Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. But he still appears on schedule to be back in plenty of time for the regular season.

“He's progressing well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after practice. “So all those things are good signs. Each day he does a little bit more with the training room and then out here. And we just keep working on the rehab and making sure, functionally, that we're not stressing it where it sets him back."

When asked if it’s difficult to keep Brees patient, Payton said: “Well, he has that nature in him. But I also think he’s smart and he understands that the type of strain he has is something that can reoccur if you’re not careful and you don’t let it heal properly.”

The Saints had a number of positive developments Tuesday with their injury list.

Cornerback Champ Bailey returned to the practice field for the first time in nearly two weeks after suffering an undisclosed injury -- though he was limited to walk-through and individual work.

“He’s progressing well, feeling better, and it’s encouraging,” Payton said.

And guard Jahri Evans was spotted on the sideline for the first time in a week, although he wasn’t dressed in pads and only did some light exercises with the trainers off to the side as he recovers from an undisclosed injury.

Other injury updates:
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees remained sidelined by a strained oblique during Monday’s practice, increasing the odds that he will sit out the New Orleans Saints' second preseason game on Friday night against the Tennessee Titans.

However, Brees continued to show signs that he won’t be out for too long. He threw passes to receiver Kenny Stills and ran with cornerback Champ Bailey, among other exercises on an adjacent practice field.

Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t bother with another daily status update calling Brees "day to day" and adding that Brees is "getting there."

Payton did, however, elaborate slightly when asked about the injuries to cornerbacks Bailey and Patrick Robinson and how they’ll affect the Saints' evaluation of that No. 2 cornerback battle. Although Payton didn’t specify either player's injury, he predicted both will return to practice soon.

Bailey, who has been sidelined since July 31, did more running on the side Monday than we have seen to date. Robinson, who left Sunday’s practice early, spent some time on the stationary bike Monday.

"I think (Bailey) is making progress, and I think sooner than later he’s gonna be back out here," Payton said. "Champ’s someone that’s smart enough to know his body and obviously wants to make sure he’s 100 percent. ...

"I think with regards to Patrick, I don’t anticipate him being out a whole lot of time. He’s in good shape and he was smart enough yesterday, he just felt it get tight and he pulled off."

In another bit of good news, running back Pierre Thomas returned to practice in full pads and participated in some full-team drills after being held out of last Friday’s preseason opener and Sunday’s practice with an undisclosed injury.

Meanwhile, guard Jahri Evans, linebacker Victor Butler, fullback Erik Lorig, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman remained absent from practice.

Kicker Shayne Graham was present but did not participate in practice after suffering an undisclosed injury during Friday’s game. Stills, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe and tight end Je'Ron Hamm were also present but didn’t participate.

Safety Jairus Byrd and guard Ben Grubbs were dressed in full pads and did some individual work, but they did not participate in full-team drills.

UPDATE: Center Jonathan Goodwin and linebackers David Hawthorne and Kyle Knox were not present at the Saints’ afternoon walk-through. It’s unknown if their absences were injury-related.

No Drew Brees? No problem.

The New Orleans Saints found plenty of offensive firepower Friday in their 26-24 victory over the St. Louis Rams -- most of it provided by running back Mark Ingram and receiver Brandin Cooks.

It wasn't a perfect night by any stretch. Both first-string units had a few hiccups. But the Saints will feel especially good about the way they ran the ball, even without Brees and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup.

Here are some other thoughts on the Saints' first preseason game of the year:
  • I couldn't help but think of the way Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief compared the speed of these playmakers Ingram and Cooks the other day. Strief said Ingram has the kind of speed where you know he's running hard, like a freight train once he gets going. Meanwhile, Cooks has smooth, natural speed that barely looks like it requires any effort.

    Well, both methods made the Rams defense miss Friday night. Ingram broke several tackles en route to 83 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. And Cooks torched a pair of defensive backs with a nasty cut in the open field on a 25-yard touchdown. Cooks finished with five catches for 55 yards.

    Fellow Saints running back Khiry Robinson also ran well, with five carries for 23 yards and a touchdown. Among the guys who provided standout blocks were linemen Tim Lelito, Jonathan Goodwin, Senio Kelemete, Jason Weaver, Thomas Welch and tight end Benjamin Watson.
  • Ryan Griffin won the first round of the backup-QB battle by a landslide. Veteran Luke McCown started the game and did OK, but his night was marred by an ill-advised interception into the arms of blitzing defensive end Chris Long.

    Griffin, meanwhile, continued to show the poise and maturity he's been displaying all summer while completing 16 of 23 passes for 179 yards, a touchdown and no picks. Although Cooks got deserved credit for that touchdown catch, Griffin deserves just as much for absorbing a huge hit as he threw the ball under pressure.
  • Thumbs up: Backup defensive end Tyrunn Walker was outstanding with one sack and at least three other tackles for loss. At one point he made back-to-back run stuffs on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. ... Glenn Foster, Brodrick Bunkley, Akiem Hicks, Ramon Humber, Rufus Johnson Jr. and rookie linebackers Ronald Powell and Khairi Fortt all stood out for at least one sack or tackle for loss. ... Don't sleep on linebacker Kyle Knox as a roster hopeful. He started on all four special teams, along with tight end Josh Hill and linebacker Kevin Reddick. ... Hill had a big night on offense, too, doing his best Jimmy Graham impression with two catches for 67 yards.
  • Thumbs down: Kicker Shayne Graham isn't a fan of the NFL's 33-yard extra point experiment. He missed one, bouncing it off the left upright. Both Graham and Derek Dimke made matching 37-yard field goals, though. ... Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste got burned for a 24-yard touchdown pass. He's better in bump-and-run, but he never jammed the receiver and never turned to locate the ball. ... The entire Saints defense got burned on a 16-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter when no one covered tight end Cory Harkey. ... Cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and Brian Dixon also got beat for big plays in the fourth quarter. ... Rookie receiver Brandon Coleman dropped two passes, one of which was intercepted. ... The Saints' third-string offensive line struggled, especially rookie tackle Tavon Rooks.

Saints Camp Report: Day 7

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The action will pick up considerably Saturday when the Saints hold their intrasquad scrimmage. It won't be a true game simulation, but the offensive and defensive units will take turns squaring off with a running clock, down markers, officials and live tackling (everyone but the quarterbacks, that is). It will be the best opportunity yet to evaluate the linemen, pass rushers, run game and run defense. So some young guys could flash. But I'm most looking forward to watching the high-end starters because this will be the most competitive, high-intensity session to date -- especially when the starting offense faces the starting defense (typically for only one or two drives). That's when we'll see matchups like Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham vs. Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro, Junior Galette vs. Terron Armstead, etc. "We'll limit the amount of calls we have and try to get to the nuts and bolts ... so the players can play fast," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And then we will look real close at the tape."
  • Not that we've been lacking intensity so far. For the second straight day, a couple of brief skirmishes broke out during Friday's practice -- including swings exchanged between right tackle Zach Strief and defensive end Tyrunn Walker. At the end of a physical rushing drill, defensive end Akiem Hicks was still jawing at the offense. You get the sense Hicks lives for moments like that. As teammate Cameron Jordan described Hicks, he's both a monster and a monstrosity.
  • Undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman had a number of nice catches Friday, including at least two touchdowns in team drills (and possibly a third, depending on whether he kept his toes in bounds). Coleman has easily been the Saints' most improved player since OTAs, when he was struggling with dropped passes. It's far too early to predict whether he has a chance to crack the 53-man roster at a deep position group (fellow undrafted rookie Seantavius Jones and longtime practice squadder Andy Tanner have also looked good at times). But Coleman's impressive 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame makes him worth watching. "I think he is stronger in his lower body," Payton said when asked about Coleman's improvement. "He is a little bit further removed from the injury he had his last year at Rutgers. I see him carrying his weight a little bit better in this fall training camp then he was able to in the spring."
  • We had our first missed field-goal attempt of camp in full-team drills. Veteran Shayne Graham went 2 of 3, while young hopeful Derek Dimke went 3 of 3. I still consider Graham the front-runner, but the preseason games will be especially important.
  • Saturday's scrimmage is schedule for 8:50 a.m. eastern time. After that, players will get a long break. There is no afternoon walk-through scheduled, and the Saints don't return to the practice field until 4 p.m. Monday.

Saints Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints held their first padded practice -- which always has a bit of that Christmas-morning feel for the linemen. Not surprisingly, no one was more exuberant than linebacker Junior Galette, who made several big plays. The first came just two plays into the first 9-on-7 contact drill, when Galette blew up a run play then trash-talked fullback Erik Lorig by yelling, "Block me!" Right tackle Zach Strief then gave Galette a shove as they walked back to the line. But that was the only time any real feistiness broke out.
  • Sunday also marked the debut of my favorite individual drill in camp -- 1-on-1 pass-rush. The drill is designed to favor pass-rushers, so it's often a "win" for the blockers just to hold their man at bay. The guys who stood out most to me were Strief (for holding strong against Cameron Jordan), end Akiem Hicks (for his raw power), linebacker Keyunta Dawson (who beat tackle Bryce Harris twice) and end Glenn Foster. But obviously that's a small sample size. … The battles between Strief-Jordan, Jahri Evans-Hicks and Terron Armstead-Galette were all pretty even.
  • The "old" guys stood out Sunday in a number of the most competitive roster battles: I wrote earlier about how cornerback Champ Bailey made the play of the day. … Quarterback Luke McCown outshined Ryan Griffin. That battle is still wide open, but it was worth pointing out since Griffin has gotten more attention so far. … Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke both made all their field-goal attempts, but coach Sean Payton gave Graham a vote of confidence by saying he'll be "tough to beat out." … Payton also singled out an intecerption made by backup linebacker Ramon Humber in 7-on-7 drills as "exceptional." … And center Jonathan Goodwin got his first snaps with the first team ahead of Tim Lelito this camp. Then Lelito and McCown fumbled an exchange during team drills.
  • Payton was right. The Saints don't get bad weather. They had beautiful conditions for most of Sunday's practice, squeezing it in before a downpour started. Everyone got drenched, however, during post-practice interviews.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem missed practice after his back locked up Sunday morning, but he shouldn't be out long. Meachem tweeted that he went to the hospital to get checked out but hopes to be back on the field soon. Jairus Byrd, John Jenkins, Kenny Stills and Tavon Rooks remained sidelined. And guard Ben Grubbs sat out for part of practice, but he's been getting a lot of scheduled rest throughout the summer.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys did not know what they had when they signed Dan Bailey as an undrafted free agent.

They did not know what they had in him with a week to go in the preseason, either. By that time the Cowboys had five kickers on the roster: David Buehler, who held the kicking job in 2010, Bailey, Shayne Graham, Kai Forbath, an undrafted free agent like Bailey but injured, and veteran Dave Rayner.

[+] EnlargeDan Bailey
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDan Bailey has made 88 of 98 field goal attempts in his three seasons.
The Cowboys missed three out of four field goal attempts in the final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins; one from Buehler and two from Rayner.

By not kicking that night, Bailey elevated himself.

About to enter his fourth season, the Cowboys rewarded Bailey last week with a seven-year, $22.5 million deal that makes him among the top 10 highest-paid kickers in the NFL. And for those believing the Cowboys made more of a mess of their salary cap with the signing, Bailey’s cap number in 2014 is less than what it would have been if they had given him the second-round tender as a restricted free agent.

“That was a huge advantage looking back at it now, to go up against guys like Shayne and they brought in Dave Rayner, guys that have been kicking in the league a while and been real successful,” Bailey said. “At the time, I was just trying to keep my head down and do my own things. I think it was invaluable to get that competition early on to nail down the job.”

It taught Bailey that every kick is a new chance. A previous make does not guarantee success. A previous miss does not guarantee failure.

Bailey has made 89 of 98 field goal attempts in his career. He has missed just two kicks in each of the last two seasons. The pressure of winning the job out of a lockout as an undrafted rookie helped prepare Bailey for end-of-game moments. His eight game-winning kicks in three seasons are a franchise record.

“I don’t think it changes too much,” Bailey said of any added pressure because of the contract. “You’re only as good as your last kick. That’s the nature of the league. You have to bring your ‘A’ game every day to practice, to the game, even off the field. You’ve got to do the right things. I don’t think it’ll have too much of an impact. I think I take pride on being mentally strong enough to put that on the back burner and focus on the task at hand.”

Bailey’s leg strength was a question when he arrived, but he had a career-high 52 touchbacks in 2013 after just 54 in his first two seasons. He also made 6 of 7 attempts from 50 yards or more after making only 5 of 9 tries in his first two years from 50 yards or more.

“A lot of it had to do with just improving my leg strength and explosiveness, that stuff I did in the offseason, but just as much as that it was just a mentality,” Bailey said. “We practice a lot of those in camp and in practice and even in the offseason. Just getting back there and kicking long field goals, it was creating more of a comfort level for myself to know those kicks do come up in games.”

For the first time in his career, Bailey will not have Chris Boniol as a kicking coach. Boniol and the Cowboys agreed to part ways in the offseason, leaving Bailey and punter Chris Jones to improve without the watchful eye of an NFL veteran.

“He was a great asset to have,” Bailey said. “He was a guy I looked up to because he’d been literally in the same shoes I’ve been in.”
Drew BreesJoe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints trailed 16-0 through three quarters on Saturday in Seattle.
SEATTLE -- The story of the New Orleans Saints' 2013 season can be told in one succinct sentence: They couldn't win at Seattle.

They call this place the Emerald City. But it might as well be made of Kryptonite as far as the Saints are concerned. Their season came to a screeching halt here Saturday with a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.

And really, there could not have been a more fitting place for the Saints' season to end.

For the second time in six weeks, the Saints were done in by the two elements that caused them the most problems all season long: a stifling pass defense and some nasty weather conditions.

Drew Brees and New Orleans' prolific passing offense were nonexistent in the first half. And by the time they finally showed up in the second half, they were already down 16-0. Their late rally was exciting -- but ultimately, too little, too late.

"In the end, against a team like this, in their place, in this situation, you gotta play closer to perfect than we did," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said.

So now the Seahawks move on to the NFC Championship Game. And the Saints move into the 2014 offseason, where their top priority has to be figuring out a way to make sure they play more of these January games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next year.

That's where the Saints make opponents look this hapless and hopeless. That's where the Saints force their opponents to play perfect -- just like Seattle does in this stadium that looked like a life-sized snow globe for much of the first half, with sheets of rain blackening the sky.

Brees didn't love the notion that the Saints need to play at home to reach the Super Bowl. But he also couldn't deny the basic truth of the situation.

"If you're saying what's the difference between being on the road here today versus had we been back in New Orleans in the Dome, obviously it's quite a bit different," said Brees, who threw for 34 yards in the first half and 275 in the second half. "I think we can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It just hasn't happened for us the times that we've come here. But, yeah, obviously there's a huge advantage to home-field advantage. I mean, we were 8-0 at home this year."

I've covered this Saints team since the beginning of the Brees-Sean Payton era, and I don't think I've seen a combination of opponent and elements that have caused more fits than the Seahawks inside of CenturyLink Field.

"I'd say it is [the biggest challenge we've faced]," Brees said. "The conditions have a lot to do with that. And they're a very stout defense, in all regards -- front four, linebackers, secondary. As complete a defense as there is in the league. I mean, there's a reason that they were top-ranked in so many categories.

"And playing here at home, with that crowd, there's a lot of reasons why they're one of the best."

Last week at Philadelphia, the Saints finally proved they could indeed win a playoff game on the road.

But winning at Seattle proved to be a whole other challenge that they couldn't overcome this year. This one wasn't quite as ugly as the 34-7 shellacking on "Monday Night Football" last month. But it was awfully close for the first 30 minutes.

The Saints were actually happy with their game plan afterward, and I don't really disagree. They stayed patient throughout the first quarter, when the weather was at its nastiest and the wind was in their face. And they were down only 6-0 in the second quarter when they had the ball with the wind at their back.

But then running back Mark Ingram fumbled on the first play of the second quarter -- the game's only turnover and by far the costliest moment of the night. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored on a 15-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 lead two plays later.

"Every time I carry that football, I'm carrying the team's dreams and aspirations. And I let them down at a critical moment in the game. And that's unfortunate," Ingram said. "But I worked my butt off, fought hard, and it just wasn't enough today."

That's kind of how the whole team felt. They just weren't good enough on this day.

The Saints' offensive performance was ugly at times. Brees' first pass attempt down the field to a receiver in the second quarter sailed about 10 yards over Lance Moore's head; Brees said it got "caught up in the jet stream." A few of his other early passes were off target while the ball was slick and he was wearing gloves. Receivers dropped several passes.

Brees eventually started getting the ball downfield, but the Seahawks' defense took away both tight end Jimmy Graham (no catches until the final minute) and the Saints' screen passing game throughout the day.

The Saints deserve credit for their resilience, though. The defense was outstanding for most of the second half, forcing five consecutive punts, which allowed the offense to creep within 16-8 and actually get down to Seattle's 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining.

But then those imperfections crept up again. A delay-of-game penalty. A missed 48-yard field goal attempt by Shayne Graham (his second miss of the day). A breakdown by the defense on Lynch's 31-yard touchdown run.

Even when the Saints had one last miracle chance left after an onside kick in the final seconds, receiver Marques Colston threw a forward lateral instead of just running out of bounds to stop the clock.

A fitting finish on a day when the Saints were so far out of their comfort zone.

"Obviously, we planned on playing it differently. At the end of it, we weren't able to make enough plays," Payton said. "But I'm proud of the way our guys competed. We weren't able to get it done, and we just go from here. It's tough. It's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish.

"Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do."
SEATTLE -- History has been repeating itself so far in the first half at Seattle. The Seattle Seahawks are dominating the New Orleans Saints on both sides of the ball, just like they did six weeks ago. Seattle is leading the game 16-0 and winning the turnover battle 1-0.

Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Costly fumble: The biggest moment of the game was Saints running back Mark Ingram’s fumble on the first play of the second quarter (forced and recovered by Seattle end Michael Bennett). It was a momentum-killer in more ways than one. For one thing, it gave Seattle the ball at New Orleans’ 24-yard line and set up a 15-yard TD run by Marshawn Lynch two plays later that put Seattle up 13-0.

For another thing, that was the moment the Saints had been waiting for. After patiently running the ball throughout the first quarter, waiting to get the heavy wind at their back in the second quarter, they wasted the opportunity immediately. ...The Saints’ run game has been effective for most of the day (15 carries for 79 yards). But that fumble nullified all the positives. And the passing game has been non-existent.

Weather a factor: The rain and wind (not to mention Seattle’s defense) has conspired to completely shut down New Orleans’ passing offense. Drew Brees completed just 5 of 12 passes for 34 yards -- and only one of them to a non-running back. When Brees finally started airing it out with the wind behind him in the second quarter, his first pass sailed out of his hand, way over the head of receiver Lance Moore. Two other passes were slightly off target, and one was dropped by tight end Josh Hill. Ingram also dropped a screen pass in the first quarter.

Saints kicker Shayne Graham also missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, slightly off to the left -- which could have been weather-related (though video showed the laces were turned in). And both punters have hit poor punts into the wind (once after Saints punter Thomas Morstead dropped the snap).

The weather isn’t expected to let up in the second half.

Defense decent: The defense broke down once -- on Lynch's 15-yard touchdown run through at least three missed tackles. Other than that, they’ve tried their best to keep New Orleans in this game, forcing Seattle to settle for field goals despite some good field position.

They haven’t made the kind of game-changing big play, however, that New Orleans desperately needs in this matchup. Quarterback Russell Wilson is 7 of 9 passing for 68 yards. He has been sacked twice. Lynch has 69 yards on 15 carries.

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 26-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Saturday's NFC playoff opener, which sends them to Seattle for the divisional round next week.

What it means: Can't win a big game on the road? Can't win out in the cold? The Saints finally made their counter-argument, making this one of the biggest victories in franchise history. It was their first road playoff win of all time, snapping an 0-5 skid. They also snapped a three-game losing streak on the road this year.

However, it won't be any easier to repeat that feat next Saturday at Seattle against the top-seeded Seahawks. The Saints' ugliest performance of the year came at Seattle on a Monday night last month, when they were routed 34-7. They'll need to bring the same run game and defensive effort with them next week that they brought to Philadelphia.

Stock watch: Saints running back Mark Ingram improved his stock about as much as anyone possibly could in one game. After three somewhat disappointing seasons in New Orleans, the former Heisman Trophy winner delivered with a huge performance in one of the biggest games of his NFL career to date -- 18 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown. Fellow running back Khiry Robinson also ran eight times for 45 yards as the Saints relied on their run game as much as ever. Fittingly, they even ran out the final four-plus minutes to set up the game-winning field goal by Shayne Graham.

Game balls all around: Who doesn't deserve credit for this win? The run game was huge. The defense was huge. Graham was huge. And Drew Brees was huge after bouncing back from two ugly interceptions in the first half. Last but not least, coach Sean Payton was huge for pushing all the right buttons all week long. (The Gatorade, Popeyes and sweatsuits worked! So did the game plan.)

Up next: Obviously the Saints (12-5) will remain underdogs at Seattle next week. It would be huge for them to get cornerback Keenan Lewis back from the concussion he suffered in the second half at Philadelphia. The Eagles started picking on the Saints' secondary after that.

I absolutely think the Saints can play a much cleaner game at Seattle than they did the first time around. But whether that will be enough against the NFC's top team remains to be seen.
Most significant move. One of the major storylines this summer was the kicking battle between Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay. Who won? Nobody. The Cleveland Browns will continue their search for a kicker after cutting both on their roster, which makes not re-signing Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson even more questionable. Graham was 3-of-3 on field goals this preseason, even making a 50-yarder, but sat out the preseason finale with a stiff back. The Browns could take a look at Dan Carpenter or Billy Cundiff. "We gauged the preseason games and weren’t completely satisfied," coach Rob Chudzinski said after the cuts were announced.

The Browns only have four wide receivers because Josh Gordon is suspended for the first two games. Cleveland chose Josh Cooper, a former teammate of Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, over David Nelson. It wasn't a surprising decision because Nelson was rarely on the field. He was coming back from an ACL injury suffered last season. The Browns also kept all three quarterbacks: Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer.

Going the undrafted route. Nearly 10 percent of the Browns' roster right now is made up of undrafted rookies. Five survived the final cutdown: safety Josh Aubrey; offensive linemen Caylin Hauptmann and Martin Wallace; and linebackers Paul Hazel and Eric Martin. Aubrey beat out sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter, who was cut, for one of the final spots on the roster. One reason why the Browns kept so many undrafted rookies is because they only had five draft picks this year. Slaughter was the only draft pick to get waived. Hauptmann and Wallace are two of 12 offensive linemen to make the team. The Browns have 25 players who have two years of experience or less.

What's next. The top priority, of course, is signing a kicker. The Browns are light at cornerback with only four (Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, Chris Owens and Leon McFadden). That could be one area of focus when looking at the waiver wire. The Browns also may want to upgrade at backup running back. They lost Dion Lewis and Montario Hardesty to injuries this month, which leaves Brandon Jackson as the No. 2 running back.

Here are the moves the Browns made to get down to the league limit of 53 players:

Contract terminated: K Shayne Graham.

Waived: TE Dan Gronkowski, OL Aaron Adams, DB Akeem Auguste, K Brandon Bogotay, LB Justin Cole, RB Jamaine Cook, DL Hall Davis, WR Tori Gurley, LB James-Michael Johnson, WR David Nelson, WR Naaman Roosevelt, DL Brian Sanford, DB Jamoris Slaughter, LB Justin Staples, OL Braxston Cave, WR Mike Edwards, DB Abdul Kanneh, RB Miguel Maysonet, DB Kent Richardson and P/K Colton Schmidt.
You might not agree with it, but one can understand if the Cleveland Browns wanted to draft a kicker and go young at that position. Phil Dawson, the longtime kicker of the expansion era Browns, is 38 years old.

What's hard to rationalize is the Browns signing veteran kicker Shayne Graham on Monday. Over the past four seasons, Dawson has topped Graham in field-goal percentage, touchback percentage and accuracy on long kicks.

The Browns really didn't get much younger. Graham, who is now the front-runner to beat out Brandon Bogotay for the job, is 35 and just three years younger than Dawson. The biggest difference between the two is salary. Graham signed for the veteran minimum of $940,000, which is $1.41 million less than what Dawson got in San Francisco. But money shouldn't be a problem for the Browns, who have more than $25 million in salary-cap room.

This isn't a horrible move by the Browns. Graham set a Texans’ scoring record last season with 138 points. He has experience dealing with the weather of the AFC North after seven seasons with the Bengals and a short stint with the Ravens. He is the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history. He also has converted 93.4 percent of his career field goals inside 40 yards.

But this is a questionable move by the Browns. Cleveland had a Pro Bowl kicker in Dawson. He knew how to succeed at Cleveland Browns Stadium despite the challenges of the lakefront winds, and was nearly automatic over 50 yards the past couple of seasons. It would've cost less to keep him this year than last (the Browns paid Dawson $3.81 million in 2012). And, as I pointed out earlier, it's hard to debate value when a team has more cap room than nearly every other team in the league.

So, the Browns go from the one constant they have had since returning to the league to a journeyman. Graham has played for five teams (the New York Giants, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans) since a seven-year run with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003-09. A kicker who once received the franchise tag from the Bengals, Graham wasn't re-signed in 2010 after missing two field goals in a playoff loss to the Jets, including a 28-yard attempt late in the fourth quarter. Some Bengals fans nicknamed him "Shank" Graham.

It was expected that the Browns would undergo change with the new regime headed by chief executive officer Joe Banner. But it's hard to argue that the change at kicker makes a lot of sense.
The Cincinnati Bengals announced that defensive end Michael Johnson signed his $11.175 million franchise tag tender, which guarantees his salary for 2013 as well as his participation in the team's offseason workouts and training camp.

If Johnson didn't sign his tender, he could've skipped practices this spring and summer because he wouldn't technically be under contract. But, with defensive ends signing for less than expected in free agency, it was wise for Johnson to sign and make sure he will get his franchise tender, which was the most expensive one in the NFL this year. Johnson is also the highest-paid player on the Bengals.

"We are glad to have this accomplished and to know we’ll have Mike with us for all of our offseason work,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement. “As I’ve said, making Mike our franchise player was part of the process to keep our defense together. It’s been a good defense the last couple years, and with the right work it can be better. Mike has worked hard to improve himself every year during his time as a Bengal, and we have every reason to believe he will continue to grow as a leader and productive player. And we will stay in contact with Mike’s representatives about possibly doing a longer deal.”

The Bengals will look to start a new streak with Johnson. In the past, players who received the franchise tag from Cincinnati rarely stayed with the team. There was a stretch where three straight players who had been tagged by the Bengals -- defensive lineman Justin Smith, offensive lineman Stacy Andrews and kicker Shayne Graham -- left the following season.

That trend stopped when kicker Mike Nugent, last year's franchise player, re-signed with the team this year. The Bengals could make it two in a row if they can come to a deal with Johnson. If the sides can't reach an agreement by July 15, Johnson will play this season under the tag.

A third-round draft pick by the Bengals in 2009, Johnson enjoyed his best season in the NFL last year, finishing second on the Bengals with 11.5 sacks and ninth in the league. He also recorded 34 quarterback hurries and eight quarterback hits.

“This guy has come up in our system, he plays about 85 percent of our snaps, and he’s the kind of guy we love to have around,” defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “He’s hard-working and a great team player. He’s an outstanding run defender in addition to his pass-rush production. He’s got great length and size, and great speed off the edge.”
Rookie kickers have made 86.7 percent of field goal attempts over the past five seasons. Veteran kickers have made 83 percent over the same period.

That is something to keep in mind when wondering what veteran kicker the San Francisco 49ers might pursue after releasing David Akers this week.

While the 49ers likely will sign a veteran, they should consider using one of their league-high 12 draft choices -- a total expected to rise when the NFL distributes compensatory selections -- for the best rookie kicker they can find.

Those percentages for rookies versus veterans say as much.

Of course, field goal percentages aren't everything because all attempts aren't created equal, even when from the same distance. It's also possible an aversion to trusting rookie kickers has removed from the pool all but the exceptional ones, distorting comparisons to a broader field of veteran kickers.

But that 86.7 percent success rate should get the 49ers' attention as they seek low-cost alternatives to an acclaimed veteran such as Akers, whose 69 percent success rate ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying kickers last season.

Minnesota's Blair Walsh (92.1 percent), Baltimore's Justin Tucker (90.9) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (74.2) combined to make 86.3 percent as the only rookies to attempt field goals last season.

Filtering for venue and distance, I noticed that rookies made 29 of 42 (69 percent) field goal tries since 2008 when kicking outdoors on natural grass from longer than 40 yards. Veterans made 621 of 913 (68 percent).

The results cited here are far from conclusive, which is the point. A rookie kicker might not be a bad option for the 49ers.

Phil Dawson, Rob Bironas, Nate Kaeding, Lawrence Tynes, Nick Folk, Josh Brown, Mike Nugent, Jason Hanson, Ryan Longwell, Shayne Graham, Olindo Mare and Nick Novak are among the veterans without contracts for 2013. Check out our Free Agent Tracker Insider for ranks of kickers Insider and all free agents.
Arian Foster Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster became the first running back to break 100 yards in his first three playoff games.
HOUSTON -- Don’t fast-forward too quickly. Wade Phillips won’t. The Houston Texans' defensive coordinator asked for a day before he starts to figure out how to improve on the Texans’ terrible showing in New England five weeks ago.

That’s not unreasonable.

After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.

“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”

“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”

The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.

Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.

“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.

A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:

The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.

But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.

It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.

The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.

It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.

He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.

Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.

“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNine-year veteran Matt Schaub was a winner in his first playoff game, if not without a pick-six hiccup.
Foster rarely went right, where a rotation at guard (rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and tackle (Derek Newton and Ryan Harris) has been an issue, but wasn’t anything the Bengals were able to exploit in this game.

When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.

“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.

Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.

But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.

Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.

“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”

A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.

That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.

Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.

“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.

Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.

Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.




Thursday, 8/21
Friday, 8/22
Saturday, 8/23
Sunday, 8/24