NFL Nation: Victor Butler

Most significant move: Releasing linebacker Victor Butler was a small surprise, but a huge shame. I was one of many analysts who thought the pass-rush specialist could have a huge impact when he joined the New Orleans Saints last year, following defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from Dallas. Unfortunately, Butler missed all of last season with a torn ACL, then he missed three weeks of training camp this year with an ankle injury. In the meantime, the Saints continued to develop two other breakout pass-rushers in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Hopefully Butler can get healthy and get another opportunity somewhere, because he’s an energetic, well-liked guy who showed a ton of promise before the injuries.

One-year wonders: I was equally surprised to see the Saints release second-year linebacker Kevin Reddick, who had been a mainstay on all of their special teams units last season and this preseason. But it goes to show how much depth the Saints have at linebacker. This probably guarantees that guys such as Keyunta Dawson and Kyle Knox will make the team and maybe open up a spot for undrafted rookie Kasim Edebali. ... Cornerback Rod Sweeting also got cut after spending all of last season on the roster as an undrafted rookie. And 2013 sixth-round pick Rufus Johnson Jr. got waived as well -- less surprising after both had fallen behind in the pecking order throughout the summer.

What’s next: Two of the most compelling battles that will be decided by week’s end are at backup quarterback (Luke McCown vs. Ryan Griffin) and kicker (Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke). It’s starting to look more and more like McCown will win the backup job. If that happens, the Saints will probably keep three quarterbacks since they like Griffin’s long-term potential. ... I don’t anticipate any more veteran surprises, but you can never rule them out. If I had to make my final roster projection right now, I’d have four guys battling for the last three spots (McCown, Edebali, safety Marcus Ball and defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick).

Saints' cuts: LB Victor Butler, LB Kevin Reddick, DE Rufus Johnson Jr., CB Rod Sweeting, S Ty Zimmerman, DE George Uko, WR Andy Tanner (injured), QB Logan Kilgore, TE Travis Beckum, OT Manase Foketi, OT Ty Nsekhe (injured).
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees took yet another small step toward returning to action Wednesday when he participated in some individual passing drills with the quarterbacks and receivers for the first time. But it still seems extremely unlikely that the New Orleans Saints quarterback will play in Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

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Saints coach Sean Payton declined to say whether Brees will play. But Payton has consistently said the team will be smart and cautious with Brees, who strained his oblique on Aug. 1.

Either way, Brees definitely appears as though he’ll be healthy in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He has increased his workload on a daily basis, including a return to the lineup during the team’s afternoon walk-through on Tuesday, followed by his appearance in individual drills on Wednesday.

Plus, Brees showed some impressive agility while sliding across a makeshift slip-and-slide during his ALS ice-bucket challenge Tuesday.

In other Saints injury news:
  • Guard Ben Grubbs returned to live team drills for the first time Wednesday -- and he dove right in during a spirited set of live goal-line drills. Grubbs said it was a lower back issue that caused him to miss more than a week of training camp practices, but he feels good now and is blessed to have enough time to fully recover before the regular season.
  • Rookie linebacker Ronald Powell left the field with the trainers after hobbling off the field during a play. The details of his apparent injury are unknown. UPDATE: Powell reportedly returned to the field Wednesday afternoon and participated in walkthrough.
  • There was still no sign of fullback Erik Lorig or linebacker Victor Butler at practice. Both players have been sidelined for nearly two weeks, though the Saints have not offered any details on the severity of their injuries.
  • Guard Jahri Evans and cornerback Patrick Robinson made brief appearances on the sideline Wednesday but did not participate in practice. Also not practicing Wednesday: receiver Kenny Stills, linebacker David Hawthorne, tight end Je’Ron Hamm, offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, cornerback Rod Sweeting and safety Ty Zimmerman.
  • UPDATE: Cornerback Champ Bailey participated in individual drills and the morning walk-through during Wednesday's practice but was reportedly absent from the afternoon walk-through.
METAIRIE, La. -- It was one year ago at this time that we were first introduced to the New Orleans Saints' animated new outside linebacker, Victor Butler, a pass-rush specialist who followed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency.

Butler was more fired up than anyone on the Saints' roster to kick off organized team activities (OTAs) last year. He raved about the defense's potential and even drew chuckles from the media as he proclaimed, "I wouldn't be surprised if we were the No. 1 defense in all categories next year."

We shouldn't have laughed. The Saints went from the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense in 2012 to the No. 4-ranked defense last year in both yards allowed and points allowed.

[+] EnlargeVictor Butler
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter missing last season due to injury, Victor Butler has to prove he belongs back out on the field.
However, they did it without Butler, who suffered a torn ACL during the final week of OTAs last summer.

So you can imagine how amped Butler is now that he's back on the field again.

"It's tremendous," Butler said Thursday. "First of all I'm just happy to be out there with a helmet playing football again. Missing a whole year was heartbreaking. It's like an alcoholic not being able to drink. A fish out of water. I was feeling horrible.

"But the great thing is you get to watch great guys out there make a playoff run, and now coming back you get to be a part of that."

Butler joked that he was doing anything he could to simulate football back home before the Saints' offseason conditioning program kicked off last month.

"I've been doing OTAs personally," Butler said. "I have a brother that I've been working out with. He's 360 pounds, so there wasn't much coverage, but I've been doing OTAs since I've been able to run again."

And when asked about his bold prediction that came true last offseason, Butler said, "Last year wasn't even really a prediction. It was just you get in here and you look at these guys, just like when you go outside and you know the sky is blue.

"When you get in this locker room and you look at these guys, I knew they were going to be a top-10 defense, period. You just know," Butler continued. "This year is the same thing."

Butler was working with the second-string defense on Thursday during the practice that was open to the media.

It will probably take him a little while to get back in the groove. But eventually, he should have a good opportunity to play a prominent role this season as a second edge rusher to complement outside linebacker Junior Galette.

It's probably not accurate to say that Butler is competing with veteran Parys Haralson for a starting job since they'll likely rotate based on situations. Butler is more of a pass-rush specialist, while Haralson is more of an asset in run packages.

"It's great to get him back out there. He looks healthy; I can't wait," Ryan said. "Right now, our tempo is that we're working on our scheme, our communication on our scheme, and how we operate. This isn't a full-contact camp. So that's when I think Victor will really show up where he's off his injury and things."

Last year, I figured Butler would be the Saints' top pass-rusher after he had shown glimpses of his athletic potential as a backup with the Cowboys for four years behind studs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.

But now Butler will have to prove he belongs on the field. Last year, the Saints essentially played a 4-2 front for most of the season, and it worked great with Galette (12 sacks) and defensive end Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) both having breakout seasons.

Both of those guys should be full-time players. So Butler will need to prove to Ryan that he needs to either switch back to more of a regular 3-4 alignment or find creative ways to rotate Butler into the mix.

Butler, who turns 27 in July, will also have to fend off younger athletes like Rufus Johnson, Khairi Fortt, Ronald Powell and Kyle Knox for playing time.

"My role is to get out there and make this defense, which was to me the No. 1 defense in the league, even better," Butler said. "Whether that's coming off the bench or coming out the tunnel first, you feel like you get out there in OTAS and minicamps and training camp and let your play do the talking for you. You go out there and make plays, make mistakes and you earn the trust and confidence of your teammates. And the rest of it just starts to follow."

METAIRIE, La. -- It's hard to picture any back surgery being "minor." Especially when the guy going under the knife is such a major part of the New Orleans Saints' plans.

But Saints coach Sean Payton sounded confident that safety Jairus Byrd will be fully healed in time for training camp and the start of the regular season -- stressing that they wouldn't have done the surgery if they didn't think the timetable made sense.

Hopefully that's the case, for the Saints' sake. Because Byrd is the centerpiece of their biggest push on defense this offseason -- to force more turnovers.

The Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal on the first day of free agency because of his prowess as a ball hawk. Byrd's 22 interceptions over the past five years with the Buffalo Bills ranked second in the NFL. And the three-time Pro Bowler also forced 11 fumbles during that stretch.

The Saints' defense was outstanding last year under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, ranking fourth in the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed and second in pass defense. However, they came up virtually empty when it came to forcing turnovers.

The Saints forced only four turnovers over the final 11 games of last season, including zero in two playoff games.

"That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense," Ryan said. "I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding, we did pretty decent as a unit. But we want to be great. And to be great, you have to take the ball away."

It's been a huge priority for the Saints this offseason -- starting with the acquisition of players like Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey. And it has clearly carried over to the practice field.

Defensive players were constantly trying to strip the ball away during Thursday's OTA session that was open to the media. Safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste each forced a fumble by knocking the ball away from receivers during full-team drills. And Bailey forced an interception by batting the ball free from receiver Kenny Stills and into the arms of linebacker Kyle Knox.

Ryan said coaches have been showing players highlight reels of longtime Chicago Bears standout defensive back Charles "Peanut" Tillman -- one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers over the past decade.

"He was a Ragin' Cajun, wasn't he [at Louisiana-Lafayette]? I like that there," Ryan said of Tillman. "He's great to watch, so we've been trying to imitate him. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

"So we enjoy doing that. We're working hard on that. We know we have to improve on that. Seattle won the Super Bowl; they took the ball away more than anybody. They raised the bar, so we have to match it."

Saints outside linebacker Victor Butler -- another new weapon at their disposal now that he has returned from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season -- said players are fired up about forcing turnovers.

"That's the great thing about Coach Ryan and about the guys here," said Butler, who followed Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys to New Orleans. "When Coach Ryan says something is important, guys take it to heart. We've had guys attacking the ball, punching the ball out, ripping the ball out, stripping it, going up for interceptions, picking up loose balls on the ground.

"If you emphasize it that much in OTAs and camps and stuff like that, when it gets to the season, now it's second nature. Guys are going for the ball, guys are creating those turnovers and getting Drew Brees and that offense as many opportunities to score points as we can."
METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send 'em my way anytime @MikeTriplett:
 
METAIRIE, La. -- By almost every possible measure, the New Orleans Saints defense was outstanding in 2013. It wasn't just a complement to the offense but a driving force behind the team's success, from Week 1 all the way through the playoffs.

However, there is one area where there is still glaring room for improvement heading into 2014: Turnovers.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsThe future looks bright for the Saints defense, but Rob Ryan's unit needs to work on takeaways.
For whatever reason, the Saints' takeaways virtually disappeared during the second half of the season. They forced only four over their final nine regular-season games (the lowest total in the NFL over that span) and none during their two playoff games.

It was at the forefront of players' minds after last week's season-ending 23-15 loss at Seattle -- even though the defense had fought hard to keep New Orleans alive in the game.

"The one thing we lacked was just getting that turnover," safety Malcolm Jenkins said in the postgame locker room. "And I think we were one turnover away from really tying this game up or giving our offense field position."

Jenkins said he felt like he had that same regret over the course of the past two or three months.

"From a defensive standpoint, the stats were great. And everything looks good, but what we were terrible at was getting turnovers," Jenkins said. "And that's huge, especially when you're talking about postseason football and taking it all the way."

The turnovers didn't become an issue until Week 9. Through the Saints' first seven games, they were tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 takeaways (a big reason why they were 6-1 at the time). But then they went quiet and wound up finishing 29th in the league with 19 takeaways.

There was no obvious statistical reason for the drop off. They continued to put pressure on quarterbacks, finishing fourth in the league with 49 sacks. They continued to shut down team's total yardage and passing yardage (finishing fourth and second in the NFL in those two categories).

Asked about the surprising trend, players were never quite able to put their finger on it. Linebacker Curtis Lofton was still at a loss this week when he quickly listed the takeaways as the Saints' No. 1 area for improvement on defense going forward.

"You know, there's no rhyme or reason," Lofton said. "I took a look at myself to see if, 'Could I have forced this? Could I have done that?' But looking back at the tape, I just didn't see an opportunity. And it's not like we were out there dropping interceptions or the ball's out and we're not jumping on it.

"It's just one of those things that you get 'em when you get 'em, and we didn't get 'em. So we've got to find a way to get more of 'em."

Other than that, the future for the Saints' defense looks bright.

New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is obviously an outstanding fit for this young unit. And almost all of the guys who had breakout performances for New Orleans (ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette, cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro) are young players who should only continue to develop. The only two starters scheduled to become unrestricted free agents are Jenkins and linebacker Parys Haralson.

And at least one key player will be added back into the mix after missing the entire season with a knee injury. That's promising young outside linebacker Victor Butler, who was almost correct when he made the seemingly-outlandish prediction last summer that the Saints would finish ranked No. 1 in the NFL in defense this season.

This week Butler joked that since they finished fourth, it still allows him to help them improve a little next year.

"I'm excited. ... I'm foaming at the mouth," Butler said. I've taken a couple of DVDs home with me -- I say a couple -- 15 just to watch film from this and watch the guys, so next year when I get back it's like I never missed a beat. I want to play football, and I want to play with this group."

But even with so much young talent to build around, the Saints don't plan to sit on their hands this offseason.

When coach Sean Payton was asked if there is less need to add defensive help than there has been in years past, he pointed to the two teams still playing in the NFC championship game this weekend as inspiration to keep getting stronger on that side of the ball.

"I think you study the San Franciscos and the Seattles and you recognize that, hey, there's still this formula that's won in our league for a long time," Payton said. "I think we are younger on that side of the ball than we have been in a while, and yet there is that balance of, 'Are you drafting need or are you drafting value?' I think we try to create that separation. If there is some strong value sitting there, I think you have to pay attention to it. ... But I think we are younger over there than we have been in probably the seven years I have been here."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Victor Butler returned to practice on what he described as a "super limited" basis Tuesday for the first time since he tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in June.

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Butler remains a long shot to return to the Saints' active roster this season. But Tuesday was the deadline for players on the physically unable to perform list to begin practicing this season. The Saints now have a 21-day window to decide if they want to activate Butler or place him on season-ending injured reserve.

"I know where I hope to be [in three weeks]. But 21 days feels like a lifetime away from now," said Butler, who said he is physically able to do everything now -- but still in moderation.

"I feel like in moderation I can do anything anybody else can do -- and maybe [more]. But football is not played in cone drills and bag drills. It's played when you put a helmet and some shoulder pads on and you go out there and make football plays. And right now I don't know if I'm there yet, not having had the chance to go out there and make football plays. So it all comes down to if I'm ready to do that."

As optimistic as Butler is, he admits that he isn't aware of any players who have successfully returned from a torn ACL within six months. Even in this new era of remarkable ACL recoveries, it still took players like Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III nine months before they returned to game action.

"We've got some pretty good nine-month guys. But I don't know of any six-month guys. You know, I'm pushing so I can be that guy," said Butler, who joined the Saints as a free agent this summer after spending his first four years with the Dallas Cowboys.

Butler said his rehab has been going well from all indications, but he couldn't specify whether he is ahead of schedule. He said his biggest hurdle over the next three weeks will be trying not to go "above and beyond" to try and speed up the recovery pace.

Coach Sean Payton said the team will just monitor Butler day by day, adding that "it was good to see him out there."

Butler said it was good to be seen.

"It was fun. I was super limited, but just to get out there and get in the linebacker individuals and feel like you're a part of a team again, it felt real good," said Butler, who said he's excited his teammates have been having so much success -- not that it makes things easier. "If we were 16-0 or 0-16, not playing football really just makes me sick to my stomach."
METAIRIE, La. – Even in this new era of remarkable recoveries from torn knee ligaments, it still took players like Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III nine months before they returned to game action. So New Orleans Saints linebacker Victor Butler knows the odds are stacked against him returning to the field by the end of the season, in what would be just six months after he tore his ACL in June.

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Still, Butler insisted Friday that he’s going to give it his best shot. Butler said he has been running, cutting and working to get himself back in football shape for a few weeks now – “everything but hitting.” And the NFL’s new rules regarding the physically unable to perform list could work in his favor. Beginning this year, players on the PUP list can now wait until Week 12 to begin practicing. Then teams have a three-week window to decide whether to activate players, release them or place them on season-ending injured reserve.

In the meantime, the exuberant fifth-year pro has been enjoying the camaraderie with his teammates and the success of the Saints’ defense as much as possible. Butler, who signed as a free agent from Dallas this offseason, has been a regular presence in the locker room and said he’s proud to be a part of the team even though he can’t be on the field.

Fellow linebacker Jonathan Vilma, meanwhile, is much closer to returning to the Saints’ roster after having a less-serious clean-up surgery on his knee during the preseason. Vilma practiced every day this week after beginning the season on the short-term injured reserve list. And he is eligible to return to the 53-man roster as soon as next week.

The Saints don’t have to rush things with Vilma since his replacement, David Hawthorne, has played well in his absence. But Vilma said he feels like he’ll be ready whenever the Saints are ready to activate him.

“I’m feeling good, holding up well. I’ll tell Sean [Payton], ‘Hey, I had a good week, I’m ready to go.’ And we’ll go from there,” said Vilma, who said he would have been healthy enough to return even sooner if the Saints hadn’t used the short-term I.R. designation, which required him to sit for six weeks.

“But it was great that I didn’t have to rush or push the rehab process along,” Vilma said. “So it’s really been getting a good rest and strengthening.”
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints didn't plan to start a youth movement or some kind of extreme roster makeover on their defense this season. In fact, they worked hard to restructure the contracts of core veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper because they wanted them to be part of their revitalized defense.

But the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been forced to continually adapt as six projected starters have gone down with injuries.

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette and Cameron Jordan
AP Photo/Bill FeigYoung players such as Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, with five sacks between them, have emerged to help turn around the Saints defense.
The result? The Saints are 3-0, and a defense that last season set the NFL record for most yards allowed now ranks as the fourth-toughest in the league (295.7 yards allowed per game).

Although no one around Saints camp is claiming they’re better off without those missing veterans, there is obviously some sort of mojo that has developed while dynamic young playmakers such as linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro have started to emerge.

“I gotta start by saying it’s very unfortunate that we had so many pivotal parts of our defense go down. One guy that sits right next to me in this locker is Will Smith, and that’s something that can’t be replaced,” Hicks said. “But there’s definitely an energy, and we can use that. So it’s been working out.”

The Saints lost three projected starters to season-ending injuries this summer – outside linebackers Smith and Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman. Then inside linebacker Vilma was placed on short-term injured reserve after he had minor knee surgery in training camp (he could return at midseason). And in recent weeks, safety Harper and tackle Brodrick Bunkley have been sidelined by injuries, and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Yet none of those injuries has seemed to faze the Saints. If anything, the circumstances have empowered some of the young players who are stepping into more prominent roles.

Coach Sean Payton said that kind of injection of youth and energy can benefit a team – but only if the players “earned those positions.”

“In other words, I don’t think by design you go out and say, ‘We’re going to keep all these young players and cut the veterans,’” Payton said. “One thing that we try to do is just keep the best players. And the young players that earned spots we felt like were players that earned spots. And the veteran players that made the roster we felt like earned those spots. So, like you said [when the question was posed], it wasn’t by design.”

It hasn't just been young players stepping up to fill the void. Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne has played well as a replacement for Vilma. And the Saints traded for veteran linebacker Parys Haralson to help replace Smith.

And the most important change the Saints made to their defense this offseason came on the coaching staff -- which was by design. Payton fired former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one year on the job and replaced him with Ryan -- whose versatile schemes and energetic personality clearly have resonated much better with Saints players.

“Anything but the old defense, I would have got excited regardless,” said Galette, who has never been shy about voicing his displeasure with Spagnuolo’s system, which he felt was too rigid and reactive rather than unpredictable and aggressive. “But Rob, just meeting him as a person off the field, his character and his personality just kind of sinks in with everybody else, and he still feels like he’s young and he brings a lot of energy himself.

“Anything but Spags would’ve been great. But Rob is just a plus.”

The players have been feeding off of each other as well. As veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said, that amped-up energy level is especially noticeable along the defensive front, where young guys such as Jordan, Galette, Hicks, Martez Wilson, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Glenn Foster have taken turns rising to the challenge – and cranking up friendly rivalries among themselves.

For instance, when Galette (two sacks) was asked who’s having the better season so far between him and Jordan (three sacks), he said, “C’mon, are you serious right now? That’s not a serious question. Who do you think?”

“There’s no days off. We get to the film room, and it’s like, 'OK, I got off the ball faster than you.' You’re competing. And that’s that competitive nature that I feel like we lacked in past years,” Galette said – though he was quick to point out that he doesn't think the Saints are better off without their injured veterans.

“Obviously it would help if Will and Victor were here. But we can’t worry about that right now,” Galette said. “This is who we have right now, and this is what we’re gonna keep rolling with.”

It may not be how the Saints drew it up in the playbook, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is call an audible.

Saints' surging defense is the truth

September, 22, 2013
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Cameron JordanStacy Revere/Getty ImagesCameron Jordan notched two of the Saints' four sacks Sunday versus Arizona.
NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, we've got to stop asking whether or not what we're seeing from the New Orleans Saints' defense is for real.

The defense has been the driving force behind all three victories by the unbeaten Saints, including a dominant 31-7 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. New Orleans has already blown open a two-game lead in the NFC South.

How much more real does it have to get?

"It's nothing to get super excited about, other than the fact that we show a lot of promise, and that's what we've got to keep doing," cautioned defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been the breakout individual player of the bunch with a team-high three sacks so far, including two on Sunday.

"You always want to have that hungry attitude of just straight grinding and building on each game," Jordan added. "I don't ever want to be like, 'This is the defense that we are.' I just want to keep going and keep getting better."

After a disastrous defensive performance last season, in which they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season (7,042), the idea was that the Saints could get back to being playoff contenders if they could just find some way to get their defense back to being a "middle-of-the-pack" unit.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer and Junior Galette
AP Photo/Bill FeigJunior Galette and the Saints kept pressure on Carson Palmer all game long.
Consider that goal already surpassed.

Of course, the Saints' defense is still a work in progress after making drastic changes this offseason -- both intended (hiring coordinator Rob Ryan, signing free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro) and unintended (losing veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to summer injuries).

But they've been thriving behind a youth movement, especially on the defensive front. Jordan, 24, and pass-rush specialist Junior Galette, 25, have been terrific on the edges, while Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster and John Jenkins -- all first- or second-year pros -- have taken turns doing damage up the middle.

Their performance up front has gone hand in hand with improved play on the back end, where veteran cornerbacks Lewis and Jabari Greer have done an outstanding job against top receivers like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

"I think that's the bright side of our defense is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys. We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.

"Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."

The Saints had a total of four sacks Sunday (two by Jordan and one each by Galette and Foster). Everyone on the Saints' defensive front took turns abusing a suspect offensive line to hit and hurry Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the afternoon. They eventually forced interceptions by Vaccaro and Lewis in the fourth quarter.

After the Cardinals opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, they punted on their next eight possessions and threw interceptions on the final two.

"They can rush the passer," Palmer said. "There's two very good pass-rushers that people don't know a whole lot about. You hear a lot [about] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They're physical guys. They stop the run, and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed."

Jordan is starting to get that respect around the country. Pro Football Focus highlighted him this past week, pointing out that his 12 quarterback disruptions led all 3-4 ends through two weeks (though, to be fair, the versatile Jordan is lining up as a traditional 4-3 end in many pass-rushing situations).

More importantly, Jordan is making his mom proud. He said she gave him grief after he went sackless in Week 1.

She wasn't the only one, though. The Saints' defensive line is clearly a competitive group.

While Jordan was talking to a group of reporters Sunday, Walker yelled over that he stole one of his sacks. After Week 1, Jordan was beside himself that he didn't have any sacks against the Falcons while Hicks already had one.

And while crediting Galette for having tremendous speed on Sunday, Jordan admitted that he is more of a "power" guy. But he said that makes for an interesting race between the two to get to the quarterback.

"I've been claiming the strength of our D-line is just how much youth and talent is on the D-line. It definitely showed today," Jordan said Sunday. "From the outside to the interior, I was highly pleased. Whether it be Tyrunn Walker or big Akiem or Glenn Foster, it was all just pressure everywhere. You couldn't really locate just one spot where we were getting pressure.

"And when you're part of a D-line like that, it's a party."

Observation deck: Saints-Dolphins

August, 29, 2013
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints24-21 loss to Miami on Thursday night:

What it means: The Saints came up a little short of a perfect preseason, finishing 3-1. But they are far from a perfect team. They head into the regular season needing to replace three guys (defensive end Kenyon Coleman and linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith) who were expected to be starters but have been lost to injuries.

Ingram’s role? Running back Mark Ingram had a nice 8-yard touchdown run. But the mere fact Ingram was getting nine carries in the final preseason game makes me wonder if he’s bound to spend another year buried on the depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Rookie running back Khiry Robinson got mop-up duty, but finished with 165 yards of total offense. Robinson isn’t a lock to make the roster, though, because he fumbled twice.

What’s next: The Saints open the regular season against Atlanta on Sept. 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Saints make roster moves

August, 27, 2013
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The New Orleans Saints apparently are holding out hope that outside linebacker Victor Butler might be able to return later this season.

They placed Butler on the physically unable to perform list. That means Butler, who tore his ACL in the offseason program, could be eligible to return after Week 6. That still seems like a long shot, but the Saints know Butler’s medical situation better than we do.

In addition to placing Butler on PUP, the Saints placed linebacker Will Smith, receiver Joe Morgan and linebacker Chris Chamberlain on injured reserve. The Saints also waived linebacker Eric Martin, safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and receiver Tim Toone.

The Saints also claimed cornerback Jumal Rolle off waivers from Buffalo. That leaves the roster at 75. Teams have to get down to 53 players by Saturday evening.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints got a double dose of bad news Wednesday.

Receiver Joe Morgan will miss the season with a knee injury, coach Sean Payton said. Payton also said it’s likely defensive end Kenyon Coleman will miss the season with a pectoral injury. Payton said Morgan was scheduled for surgery Wednesday, and Coleman likely will have surgery Thursday.

The loss of Coleman is substantial. He was expected to start at defensive end. Coleman is the second projected starter to suffer a season-ending injury. Outside linebacker Victor Butler suffered a season-ending injury during offseason workouts.

With Coleman out, the Saints are likely to take a long look at second-year pro Akiem Hicks, who has been working at both defensive end spots and defensive tackle.

Morgan had appeared to be the leader in the competition for the No. 3 receiver spot. Veteran Steve Breaston and second-year pro Nick Toon are likely to be next in line to compete for the third spot.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC South needed to make but didn't.

Atlanta Falcons: There still is time to sign a veteran like Richard Seymour, but I’m surprised the Falcons didn’t do more at defensive tackle during the offseason. The team invested two draft picks in defensive ends but didn’t touch the middle of a defensive line that isn’t exactly a strength. Jonathan Babineaux is aging and heading into the final year of his contract. Corey Peters and Peria Jerry also are headed into the last year of their contracts. The Falcons stayed away from quick fixes this offseason, but they might get to training camp and realize they need another defensive tackle.

Carolina Panthers: This one is almost too easy. The Panthers went into the offseason with a glaring need at cornerback. They signed some midlevel players and have hopes for some of their young corners. But this team doesn’t have anything close to a No. 1 cornerback. In a division in which you’re going up against the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, that’s a scary proposition. The Panthers did put a lot of emphasis on their defensive line, which better generate a tremendous pass rush to compensate for the lack of elite talent at cornerback.

New Orleans Saints: General manager Mickey Loomis worked some minor miracles to get out of a nightmare salary-cap situation in the offseason. But the Saints, who are converting to a 3-4 defensive scheme, didn’t bring in any elite pass-rushers. They thought free agent pickup Victor Butler could blossom into something, but Butler will miss the season after suffering a knee injury during an offseason workout. That leaves the Saints looking to Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson as their outside linebackers. Smith is aging and converting from defensive end to linebacker. Wilson and Galette have shown some potential, but neither is a proven pass-rusher.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sources have told me the Buccaneers would have given strong consideration to drafting tight end Tyler Eifert with their first-round pick if they hadn’t traded it away in the deal for cornerback Darrelle Revis. That tells me the Bucs realized they had a significant need at tight end. The shocking thing is they didn’t make some other dramatic move to improve the situation at the position. Instead, they’re going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree. There are indications that the Bucs think Crabtree can be a productive pass-catcher. But I wouldn’t count on the tight ends being a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing game this season.

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