NFL Nation: Zach Strief

Saints pin bad start on bad finishes

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
7:30
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video
CLEVELAND -- "Finish Strong."

It's one of the most famous expressions in the history of the New Orleans Saints -- the slogan for their 2009 Super Bowl season.

Well, it might be time to dust off those old T-shirts again. Because the Saints are a stunning 0-2 after losing each of their first two games in the final seconds.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and the Saints couldn't quite get a handle on the Browns and fell to 0-2.
That word, "finish," was practically the first one out of every player's and coach's lips Sunday after the Cleveland Browns kicked a game-winning field goal with three seconds left to cap a 26-24 victory over New Orleans. As quarterback Drew Brees said, the Saints are "literally" two plays away from being 2-0.

Yes, everyone recognized that the game was filled with plenty of ugly moments, including cornerback Patrick Robinson's early struggles and Brees' interception that was returned for a touchdown and an early 16-3 Cleveland lead.

But for the second straight week, the Saints were leading the game when the clock was down to single digits.

And there were no bigger regrets than the blown coverage that set up Cleveland's game-winning field goal or the sack that knocked the Saints out of field-goal range three minutes earlier.

"There's a fine line between winning and losing. A fine line," said Brees, who pointed out that last year, the Saints also had two up-and-down games to start the season but they made those plays in the final seconds and started 2-0.

"The challenge in this locker room this week is going to be to stay together, to be tight, to understand that the difference between us being 2-0 and 0-2 is making plays at the end. And that's both sides of the ball," insisted veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief, who pinned the loss as much on the offense as the defense. "We had opportunities two weeks in a row to close that game out. And we didn't do it either time."

There were no innocents in the Saints' loss Sunday. As coach Sean Payton said when asked specifically about Robinson's series of costly mistakes in the first quarter, "There's a lot of muddy hands to just to be singling out one player."

But in the spirit of not being able to finish, most of the blame from this one will fall on the secondary, which saved its ugliest miscue for last.

Cleveland won the game with a 14-play, 85-yard field goal drive after starting on its own 4-yard line. The dagger was the final pass -- a 28-yarder to wide-open receiver Andrew Hawkins with six seconds left at the Saints' 11-yard line.

The Saints went with a blitz and man coverage on the play, which Browns players said surprised them. And at least one Saints defender missed his assignment. Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White both went to cover receiver Miles Austin out of a trips formation on the right side.

No one covered Hawkins.

To make matters worse, Robinson was also flagged for defensive holding across the field on the play -- a penalty the Browns declined.

"Little things like that are troubling," Payton said in the understatement of the day.

White said after the game that the Saints were still "trying to figure out" what went wrong on that play, but he didn't shy away from the responsibility.

"When it comes down to the last play, you've got to make it," White said. "It doesn't matter what happens before that. We always talk about, 'Next play.'"

There were some positives for the Saints' defense. Those missed tackles that plagued them last week at Atlanta were cleaned up quickly. And the Saints gave up a total of only 202 passing yards on Sunday.

But 76 of those yards came on the final drive.

"Obviously we've gotta fix something. That's two losses where we didn't finish," Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "We've just got to get together and do more, man."

Know the enemy: Saints on Joe Thomas

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
10:00
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas is a rarity.

Offensive linemen usually fly under the radar. For that matter, so do Cleveland Browns players.

But Thomas has managed to be widely recognized and respected as arguably the NFL's best lineman for more than a half-decade. The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons, and he has never missed a game or a start -- 113 games and counting.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherLeft tackle Joe Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons with Cleveland.
The former No. 3 overall pick out of Wisconsin was by far the highest-rated lineman on both ESPN’s #NFLRank project this summer and the NFL Network's top 100 list. He was ranked by ESPN as the 10th best offensive player in the league and finished 18th among all players on the NFL list.

Here is what the New Orleans Saints had to say about Thomas this week:

Right tackle Zach Strief: "Consistency. Look, there’s positions in this league that you need to show a flash to be recognized, and there’s positions where you need to never show a flash. And Joe Thomas, certainly from a pass-protection standpoint, they just kind of leave him out there. He’s had a carousel of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators and all those things. That's a tough position to be in. And yet, no matter what, he seems to be holding up.

"He’s been there a long time, never missed a start, never missed a game. There’s a lot of reasons why Joe Thomas gets the respect that he does. And he deserves all of it. ... He’s certainly an admirable guy to watch. I don’t get much out of him, because I can’t do a lot of the stuff that he does. We’re pretty different. But good player, good all-around player."

Tight end Benjamin Watson (a former Browns player): "We always joked that, 'Hey Joe, you’re walking right down to the Hall of Fame [in nearby Canton, Ohio].' And he very well may be. ... He’s a guy that prepares very well. He’s very technically sound. And the thing with Joe when you watch him is, he does everything the same, all the time. He gets in his stance the same way, he blocks guys the same way. And they just can’t seem to get off the block."

Outside linebacker Junior Galette: "He’s legit. He’s the real deal. I can’t think of another tackle that’s better than him. ... His athleticism, how smart and savvy he is, how patient he is. Everything, he has all of it. Whatever you’re looking for in a left tackle. He can stop whatever moves, speed, bull [rush]. But we’ll see this week. ...

"I feel like I’m up there, as well. You know, [Michael] Jordan always wanted to go against the best guys. The same mentality I have. I’m hungry, I want to challenge the best guys and see exactly where I’m at."

Coach Sean Payton: "They have a real good offensive line. Their left tackle and center [Alex Mack] are guys that are Pro Bowl players. Joe’s someone who’s very consistent in his pass sets and pass protection. He’s been a very, very durable and reliable player for them, as well. So when you go against someone like him, you’ve gotta have obviously your rush moves in place, you’ve gotta really play with good leverage. He’s an outstanding player."

Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick: "Smart player. He’s a seasoned vet, so he knows all the tricks. He’s just a solid guy, moves his feet well, can set down, sink his hips, moves really well. Just knows what he’s doing."

Defensive end Cameron Jordan: "Knowledgeable. Has good feet. Able to settle down and be calm. So it’ll be fun going against him."
METAIRIE, La. -- The video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in the face had a dramatic effect on those who saw it for the first time Monday, when it was released by TMZ. The Baltimore Ravens released Rice on Monday afternoon, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior GaletteDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJunior Galette may be "an absolute pain" to deal with on the practice field, but his teammates respect him enough to call him captain.

METAIRIE, La. -- As a pass-rusher, Junior Galette's playlist is constantly set to "shuffle."

The New Orleans Saints outside linebacker mixes up his moves so often that right tackle Zach Strief is convinced even Galette doesn't know what he's going to do when the ball is snapped.

"Yeah, it's unorthodox," Galette said of his repertoire -- beaming with pride.

But it's an organized chaos. The 6-foot-2, 258-pounder, who had a breakout season with 12 sacks last year, relentlessly studies film of other similarly built pass-rushers. And he'll happily borrow bits and pieces from them.

"It's not stealing," Galette said. "It's like Jordan and then Kobe. It's a copycat league, obviously, but I just add my stuff into the game."

In fact, Galette will also borrow moves from guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and their NBA peers.

One of Galette's favorite moves is his own version of the "Euro step" normally seen on the basketball court -- something he said he came up with while "messing around" and realizing that it worked.

That's how a lot of Galette's moves came about. When I asked for some of his other favorites, Galette said, "I have every. Any one you can think of."

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said, "He's got more variety than probably any rusher in the league." And when asked if all the different things Galette tries out can be hit and miss, Ryan said, "I think with Junior, it's a lot of hit and hit."

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan, Junior Galette, and Cam Newton
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Junior Galette had 12 sacks in his fourth season with the Saints last year.
Strief said Galette's unconventional approach makes him unpredictable.

Which makes him, "an absolute pain" to deal with on the practice field.

"I think it is complete free-flow. So it's very hard to have a plan against him," Strief said. "I'm a big game-plan guy. I like to have an idea of what I'm gonna see and have a way to stop what I think the guy is good at. I couldn't tell you what you take away from him. I mean, he takes one giant step up the field, he takes three lateral steps and then picks one of three moves. And I really think he makes it up on the fly.

"I'm very glad he's on our team, because I don't like blocking him particularly. I think he's made a lot of very good tackles look uncomfortable."

In other words, Atlanta Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews might have a hard time getting settled in his NFL debut on Sunday.

What's made the biggest difference in Galette's career, according to Strief, is the way the Saints have embraced that unconventional approach.

The more they realized it worked for Galette, the more acceptable it became.

"They just kinda let me do my thing and trusted me, which I'm thankful for," Galette said. "They trusted me to get to the quarterback, and that gave me more confidence in myself, that, ‘OK I can tweak a lot of things and keep getting better.'"

Defensive line coach Bill Johnson agreed with that assessment, saying, "I might have a way in my mind that I want to see him play, but as I study him, I've got to find what he does good and try to not take that away from him."

"Then I've gotta find what he doesn't do as efficiently and try to help him with it," continued Johnson, who praised Galette for having "natural" ability and repeatedly mentioned his natural instincts.

Then there is the incredible passion and work ethic and desire that has always defined Galette.

His unbridled pass-rush technique mirrors his unbridled enthusiasm for the game. Everyone who talks about Galette always makes a point to stress those qualities -- from Johnson and Ryan and coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to teammates like Strief and end Cameron Jordan.

"We get his best every day," Loomis said.

And that has existed with Galette from the time he was a rookie coming out of Stillman all the way through this past week, when he was selected by teammates as one of two defensive captains for the first time.

"It means a lot to him," said Strief, who reference one training camp practice when, "they pulled him out for some reps just to give him a break, and he's over there complaining to me. You know, ‘They took me out, man. They took me out.' And I'm saying, I wish they would take me out for a couple plays."

Another of Galette's most endearing qualities is the way he playfully but honestly admits that he wants to earn more national recognition.

You'll often find him complaining about his Madden rating on Twitter or campaigning for a spot on top-100 rankings lists.

"I have Hall of Fame dreams all the time," Galette said. "I'm not just playing this game to be mediocre. I want to be a top-tier [player] recognized by little kids growing up, saying, ‘I want to pass rush like Junior Galette.' That's what motivates me."

That's what drives Galette to do things like watch film for six hours after he gets home some nights. He calls himself an "extremist" when it comes to film study. He said when he feels like he messed up, he might watch the same play over and over 30 times on film.

Or when he's feeling creative, he'll turn to some of his favorite pass-rushers like Robert Mathis or Tamba Hali or Trent Cole, looking for the next move to add to his playlist.
As long as the training camp injuries are minor enough, teams can always find a silver lining to them. They mean more opportunities for the backups to develop and be evaluated.

That’s been the case with the New Orleans Saints this summer at a few positions -- namely quarterback, guard and safety. With Drew Brees missing the past two weeks with a strained oblique, the Saints have been able to see how backups Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown fit in with the first-string offense against the first-string defense.

[+] EnlargeSenio Kelemete and Marcel Jones
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMarcel Jones, No. 70, and Senio Kelemete have benefited from getting first-team reps in camp.
Likewise, they’ve gotten a long look at backup guards Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones, who by all accounts have stepped up big-time while starting guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have been nursing injuries. And young safeties like Vinnie Sunseri, Marcus Ball and Pierre Warren have all taken advantage of increased opportunities while starter Jairus Byrd is recovering from back surgery.

“That can only help us,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said, specifically referring to the situation at guard. “Look, Jahri’s gonna need some reps to get ready and play, and we’ve got time to get him healthy. [In the meantime], I still can’t say ‘Cel or Marcel.’ I’m still calling him Jah. Me and Jah kind of have our own language that we speak, and it’s not in our playbook. And yet it’s hard for me not to speak that language. So I think the cohesiveness between us will be there, and the same on the other side.

“But to get these guys in, give them a chance, you talk about guys that have grown in this camp, Marcel Jones, Senio Kelemete, really tons of growth. I mean, they really have played well and have gotten a lot of good reps against good players.”

Saints coach Sean Payton pointed out that the same thing happened at the receiver position last year when Kenny Stills and Nick Toon got a ton of experience with the first-string offense because of injuries -- something that obviously gave Stills a huge boost in his rookie season.

“You don’t know what position group it is going to be, but it’s somewhat typical of training camp,” Payton said. “And it’s important for the next guy up to know what to do and take advantage of the opportunity.”

The starting units should play a little more in Friday’s second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans -- possibly into the second quarter, or longer at thinner positions. Here’s a look at how the snap counts were divided in the Saints’ preseason opener last week at the St. Louis Rams:

OFFENSE (67 Snaps)
Quarterback – Ryan Griffin 38, Luke McCown 17, Logan Kilgore 12
Receiver – Brandin Cooks 37, Joe Morgan 36, Nick Toon 23, Robert Meachem 18, Marques Colston 14, Seantavius Jones 13, Brandon Coleman 12, Charles Hawkins 4
Tight end – Josh Hill 32, Nic Jacobs 21, Jimmy Graham 17, Benjamin Watson 12
Running back – Travaris Cadet 25, Mark Ingram 15, Khiry Robinson 14, Derrick Strozier 10, Timothy Flanders 4
Fullback – Austin Johnson 28
Center – Tim Lelito 39, Jonathan Goodwin 16, Matt Armstrong 12
Tackle – Bryce Harris 44, Thomas Welch 44, Zach Strief 17, Terron Armstead 17, Tavon Rooks 12
Guard – Jason Weaver 50, Senio Kelemete 40, Marcel Jones 32, Manase Foketi 12

DEFENSE (75 snaps)
Safety – Marcus Ball 43, Vinnie Sunseri 35, Pierre Warren 35, Ty Zimmerman 27, Rafael Bush 13, Kenny Vaccaro 13
Cornerback – Corey White 40, Stanley Jean-Baptiste 35, Trevin Wade 35, Brian Dixon 27, Derrius Brooks 20, Patrick Robinson 13, Keenan Lewis 13, Rod Sweeting 10
Outside linebacker – Keyunta Dawson 27, Khairi Fortt 26, Kasim Edebali 25, Ronald Powell 21, Junior Galette 13, Chidera Uzo-Diribe 10, Parys Haralson 6
Inside linebacker – Kevin Reddick 39, Todd Davis 27, Ramon Humber 23, Kyle Knox 21, David Hawthorne 13, Curtis Lofton 13
Defensive end – Glenn Foster 35, Tyrunn Walker 32, Rufus Jonson 24, George Uko 21, Akiem Hicks 13, Cameron Jordan 13
Defensive tackle – Lawrence Virgil 27, Brandon Deaderick 26, Brodrick Bunkley 11

SPECIAL TEAMS (31 snaps)
Ball 14, Sunseri 14, Dawson 13, Reddick 13, Edebali 12, Fortt 12, Jean-Baptiste 12, Knox 12, Powell 12, Davis 11, Hill 11, Zimmerman 11, R.Johnson 10, Wade 10, Justin Drescher 9, S.Jones 9, Cadet 8, Bush 7, Derek Dimke 7, Dixon 7, Humber 7, Thomas Morstead 7, Uzo-Diribe 7, Coleman 6, Harris 6, Jacobs 6, Sweeting 6, White 5, Cooks 4, Shayne Graham 4, Hawthorne 4, Warren 4, Armstead 3, Bunkley 3, Goodwin 3, Hicks 3, Jordan 3, Kelemete 3, Lelito 3, K.Robinson 3, P.Robinson 3, Strief 3, Vaccaro 3, Virgil 3, Watson 3, Welch 3, Armstrong 2, Brooks 2, Foketi 2, Griffin 2, M.Jones 2, Robert Quinn 2, Rooks 2, Weaver 2, Flanders 1, Lofton 1, Strozier 1
The New Orleans Saints are packing up and shipping out Thursday after three weeks of training camp at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. And the universal response among players, coaches and everyone else in the organization is that they can't wait to come back next year.

The Saints' first year of camp at the new custom-built site carved into the Allegheny Mountains was a rousing success, from the cool temperatures to the enclosed environment that had just about every amenity an NFL team could ask for in a home away from home.

The Saints are currently scheduled to return for the next two years. But coach Sean Payton said, "Really, honestly, with the experience that we've had ... we'd like to be back here for a lot longer than just that.

"The setup is outstanding. And the ability to kind of stay in an enclosed environment, I think the people here have been great, I think everything about it," Payton said. "We start putting down notes as to maybe changes for next year, and it's less than a page. There isn't a whole lot."

Payton said there are no plans in place to add an indoor practice facility or bubble at this time. The Saints were fortunate that it only rained twice during 15 practices this year. But Payton said their schedule would have been flexible enough to move practices around if necessary -- and only lightning would have forced that.

Players have been equally enthusiastic about the setup at The Greenbrier.

"Oh my gosh, yeah. I already told Coach Payton, 'If you move from here, I don't know if I'm coming back," offensive tackle Zach Strief said -- though he quickly added that he's also looking forward to returning home.

"Look, we still want to be home. For a lot of us, myself included, New Orleans is our all-year-round home. And there's nothing like home," Strief said. "Camp is what it is, it's this kind of bonding experience when you go away. And it's good to go away for building your team. But it's not home."

Many other players expressed similar sentiments -- especially the ones with families. And many said they're excited to play in front of the hometown fans again -- especially in Friday night's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

But no one is excited about a return to the humidity.

"The challenge from 62 to 92 degrees will be significant," Payton said -- and he wasn't exaggerating after a cool, cloudy Wednesday practice in the low '60s.

Saints’ Camp Report Day 14

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
7:58
PM ET
A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • Coaches and players were much more pleased with the effort and energy during Tuesday’s practice after Sean Payton called the team out for having its flattest performance to date on Monday. The Saints held another physical short-yardage session, and you could hear the pads popping and players shouting throughout. “I thought it was better from both sides. When they are arguing over whether you made it or not (it’s a good sign),” Payton said. “We’ll look at it on tape and try to grade each one. But I thought it was more competitive. Definitely more lively.” Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan felt the same way -- also a good sign when both sides are happy. “This was much more like it,” Ryan said. “We liked the hitting there.”
  • Unfortunately we didn’t have a great angle during that session, so it’s hard to point out which individuals stood out. But the first-string defense started strong with two run stuffs, followed by a first-down conversion by the offense on the third try. ... Later in practice, the defensive line appeared to load up on would-be sacks (if they were live-tackling quarterbacks), with Cameron Jordan, Parys Haralson, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster, Rufus Johnson and Kasim Edebali among those bringing pressure. So all in all, it was a standout day for the defensive front seven.
  • The offensive star of the day was probably wide receiver Nick Toon, who made a couple nice catches, including a deep ball from Ryan Griffin against tight coverage by cornerback Stan Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste ran stride for stride down the field with Toon but wasn’t able to locate the ball in the air -- similar to what happened in the preseason opener. Jean-Baptiste is still maturing, though, and he rallied back with two pass break-ups, including one against Toon.
  • The Saints were visited by another golf superstar Thursday, when Sir Nick Faldo watched practice and broke down the team afterward. Whatever he said had the team cracking up, and offensive tackle Zach Strief said they tried to invite him to the rookie talent show later that night. Like previous training camp guest Bubba Watson, Faldo has a home in The Greenbrier area in West Virginia where the Saints are training. “That was a pretty cool deal,” Strief said. “I’ve never met a knight before, so that was pretty awesome. He wasn’t dressed exactly how I thought my first knight would be dressed. But you talk about a guy who won six majors, (40) tournaments, that’s a pretty impressive pedigree.”
  • Wednesday will be a bittersweet day for the Saints -- their last day of practices at The Greenbrier. A full practice is scheduled for 8:50 a.m. ET, followed by a 4:30 p.m. walkthrough. The cool temperatures and top-notch facilities have been widely praised by everyone in the organization, and they’re excited about returning in future years. But players said they’re also eager to return home, starting with their debut in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief made a bold proclamation Monday, saying, "I think we can be as good as a running team as we have ever been."

And running back Pierre Thomas talked in a similar excited fashion about the run game the other day, saying among other things that, "We are putting in more time on the running game than I have ever seen before."

It would be natural to hear comments like that and be a little skeptical. The Saints seem to talk every summer about putting more emphasis on the run game -- but then the results have been decidedly hit and miss each season.

However, I've begun to sense one big difference while hearing folks talk about the run game this summer: Confidence.

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints found their running groove late in the 2013 season and during their playoff win at Philadelphia.
Both Strief and coach Sean Payton sounded Monday like they were very encouraged and energized by the success the Saints started to have in the run game late last season -- especially in their playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

And they seem to genuinely expect that progress to continue in the second year under offensive line coach Bret Ingalls, who introduced more of a zone-running scheme last year.

"I think that Pierre is right," Strief said after the Saints' run blocking was particularly impressive during Monday's practice session. "I think that last year there was kind of a renewed focus, and yet there was a big change that happened last year. I think going into this year there is a lot more understanding, a much better consistent understanding from linemen, tight ends, backs, on what exactly we are doing.

"There's that same emphasis that we had last year. (But) there's a little bit of success early, and I think there is a lot more confidence in it right now. And I think guys are really excited in that part of the practice."

Payton, meanwhile, has consistently talked about how he wants to do a better job of "controlling" the final four minutes of close games -- whether that's running the ball or stopping the run. The Saints struggled at times in both areas last year before improving late in the season.

When asked if the Saints need to counteract the dominant teams in the NFC like Seattle and San Francisco, Payton said, "Well, we think we're one of those teams."

"We played that way in our first playoff game against Philadelphia and really approached the second playoff game (at Seattle) much the same way," Payton said. "Now, do we want to improve in that area? Yes. But we feel like that's going to be important for us, and we feel like we're one of those teams."

The Saints certainly have the talent to do it. They have a deep running back corps led by Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson (who continued to impress in Monday's practice). And they have proven veteran blockers like Strief, Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and tight end Benjamin Watson, among others.

The Saints also have shown an ability to run the ball efficiently in the past, especially in their two most prolific offensive seasons of 2009 and 2011 (when they twice had the No. 6-ranked rushing attack in the NFL).

And that's the blueprint here. Nobody is talking about the Saints changing their offensive identity.

They're talking about being more efficient when they run -- and being able to consistently make teams pay for trying to sit back in coverage like Philadelphia or New England did last year.

The Saints would have no problem with a repeat of 2011, when they threw for more than 5,300 yards and still ran for more than 2,100.

"We have one of the best quarterbacks (Drew Brees) in the history of the NFL, and we are going to throw the football," Strief said. "But when we get a chance to run it, I know we want five (yards) a carry. I know that we want to be efficient. And if you look back at the years that we have been successful, I think that is really where the importance is. ...

"I don't think that we need to be the 49ers where we are running the ball 50 times a game, because I think that we have different pieces in place to be effective in the passing game. But I think the mindset of this camp is that we have to be a lot more efficient than we have been. I think we are off to a good start with it."

Saints Camp Report: Day 4

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
6:30
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:


  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis created his own no-fly zone during one set of team drills Monday, rejecting passes intended for Marques Colston, Andy Tanner and Joe Morgan (the last two on back-to-back plays). As I've written many times, Lewis should have been a Pro Bowler last year and was as important as anyone to the Saints’ defensive revival. So far, he looks primed for a repeat. … Overall, it was a good day for the secondary, with Pierre Warren diving for an interception and Kenny Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson also providing highlights.
  • The offensive highlight was a long run by tailback Khiry Robinson that included a sweet cutback – a play that coach Sean Payton later singled out. But just as impressive for Robinson was a terrific blitz pickup when he had to absorb a big impact from Vaccaro. Robinson said that’s one element of his game he’s really trying to improve in his second NFL season, which he called “night and day” compared to his rookie year out of West Texas A&M. … Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said as Robinson continues to add knowledge and confidence to his impressive ability, “You are kind of unleashing a lot of potential there.”
  • It was another physical practice in full pads Monday. The offensive line definitely got the better of the defense in early 9-on-7 run drills, though Strief admitted they’re at an advantage when the defense doesn’t have any safeties to help fill gaps. “There is good competition there. I tried to give (defensive end Akiem) Hicks a high-five after the period, and he told me no. There is definitely competitiveness, and that is part of training camp.” … Strief had another strong performance in one-on-one pass-rush drills. Others who stood out in that drill included center Jonathan Goodwin, defensive end Glenn Foster and outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson.
  • The Saints turned up the volume on Monday’s practice, blasting some music through the stretching period and a few drills – something they started doing before the playoffs last year when they mixed up the daily routine (along with the new Gatorade flavors and sweatsuits). It wasn’t just for entertainment purposes. Payton said it also helps players learn to focus through the noise.
  • Guard Ben Grubbs (undisclosed injury) and receiver Robert Meachem (back) remained sidelined Monday. Payton said both should be back within a day or so but declined to offer any specifics on the injuries. Safety Jairus Byrd, defensive tackle John Jenkins, receiver Kenny Stills and offensive tackle Tavon Rooks also remained sidelined.
The New Orleans Saints have been making some tough decisions to part ways with veteran players throughout their roster this offseason. But longtime right tackle Zach Strief is one they didn’t want to let get away.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSigning offensive lineman Zach Strief was a priority for the Saints.
The Saints agreed to a five-year deal with Strief on Monday, which a league source confirmed is worth up to $20.5 million, with $8.4 million guaranteed. That’s pretty good value compared to the other right tackles in free agency this year. And it keeps some stability on the Saints’ offensive line.

The Saints have already made one change to their line, with 2013 rookie Terron Armstead taking over the left tackle job late last season. And they may make another change, depending on whether they re-sign free-agent center Brian de la Puente.

But the transition shouldn’t be too harsh either way, with Strief and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs serving as veteran leaders.

Strief, 30, arguably had his best season to date in 2013 (though he was also excellent when he first took over as the Saints’ starter in 2011). Strief was the Saints’ most consistent lineman throughout the 2013 season, especially in pass protection. He was named the first-team right tackle on ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton’s All-Pro team. And he was the highest-rated right tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.

As I wrote when I broke down New Orleans’ free agents last month, Strief is one of those rare examples of a player who seems to get more credit from national analysts than the Saints’ fan base. Some of that is the nature of the right tackle position, in general. And some of that is because Strief struggled in 2012 -- in part because of a nagging groin injury.

Strief (6-7, 320) isn’t a “mauler” at the line. But he’s about as solid as they come in every area of the game. With his size, he’s naturally a strong run blocker. And he’s also athletic enough to be a very good pass protector and to get out in front of the screen passes the Saints like to run so often. Strief allowed only three sacks last season (though he also committed a costly holding penalty late in the playoff loss at Seattle).

Strief is also a highly-respected leader in the locker room. He was voted as an offensive captain the last two years and as a union representative for the Saints. He’s also been a media “good guy” award winner.

Strief, who joined the team as a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 2006, is one of only six players still under contract from the Saints’ Super Bowl roster. Another, receiver Robert Meachem, is still unsigned as a free agent.

The deal seems to be a win-win for the Saints and Strief, who clearly wanted to stay in New Orleans if things worked out. Strief didn’t take any other free-agent visits, though his agent Ralph Cindrich spoke with other teams while continuing to negotiate with the Saints.

Strief’s deal is slightly below the reported average value of other veteran right tackles who left their teams to sign elsewhere this offseason (Michael Oher, four years, $20 million with the Tennessee Titans; and Breno Giacomini, four years, $18 million with the New York Jets). Younger right tackles Austin Howard and Anthony Collins reportedly signed five-year deals worth $30 million.

Strief’s signing bonus is $5.5 million. And a league source indicated it is salary-cap friendly in Year 1.
Chances appear high that the New Orleans Saints could re-sign right tackle Zach Strief. His agent Ralph Cindrich said Friday that he’s continued to talk with the Saints among other teams, and it “looks like we’re moving” toward a possible deal. Nothing, however, has been finalized.

Strief
There were reports out of Miami that the Dolphins wanted Strief to come for a visit, but Strief declined. Cindrich responded only that no visit has ever been scheduled with the Dolphins or any other team. Strief was back in his hometown of Cincinnati for a charity event this week.

There have been no recent updates available on any of the Saints’ other unsigned free agents -- including center Brian De La Puente, fullback Jed Collins, receivers Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan, and linebacker Parys Haralson.

There also haven’t been any developments with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner. ESPN’s John Clayton and Adam Schefter both reported that Browner will likely visit with the Saints. He also visited with the New England Patriots and has been talking with the Oakland Raiders, as well.
Two of the New Orleans Saints' starting offensive linemen will become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday -- right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De la Puente. It's still possible the Saints could re-sign one or both of them. But they're content to see how the market shapes up before making any decisions.

If Strief and De la Puente leave, the Saints have young backups who could compete for their roles with third-year right tackle Bryce Harris and second-year guard/center Tim Lelito. They could also add potential starters at either spot in the draft. But they would probably want to add some veteran options in free agency as insurance.

The most obvious candidate for that type of role would be former Saints center Jonathan Goodwin, who is now a free agent again after three years as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin, 35, would be a natural stopgap while the Saints develop a young future replacement.

There aren't many top-notch centers available in their primes right now. Most analysts rank either De la Puente or the Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith as the top available options. Maybe Dietrich-Smith is slightly better, but the Saints would probably prefer to keep the guy they know at that price range.

Among the cheaper options at center would be the Atlanta Falcons' Joe Hawley, who was decent when he stepped into a starting role last year.

There are many more options available at right tackle, where the Saints could attempt to upgrade or at least get younger if they want to move on from Strief. The Cincinnati Bengals' Anthony Collins (28) and the New York Jets' Austin Howard (27 later this month) both had their best seasons to date in 2014 after beginning their careers as backups. Seattle Seahawks starter Breno Giacomini is another strong option in that same range.

The Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher, 28, is a big name and a big, powerful run-blocker. But he has been inconsistent as a pass-protector throughout his career.

Older options who might be considered on short-term deals include the Arizona Cardinals' Eric Winston and the Tennessee Titans' David Stewart.

ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both said they didn't see many options the Saints should aggressively pursue -- though they did both mention Giacomini.

"With the offensive line, I keep coming back to their guys already," Williamson said of Strief and de la Puente. "Anthony Collins, to me, is about the same player as Strief but can also play left tackle. Giacomini is a mauler, you can run behind him on early downs. Austin Howard came out of nowhere and has exceeded expectations. His arrow is up, but he probably won't ever be 'great.' "
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

Free-agency primer: Saints

March, 7, 2014
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11:00
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

.Key free agents: TE Jimmy Graham (franchised), RT Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, S Malcolm Jenkins, OLB Parys Haralson, WR Robert Meachem

Where they stand: The New Orleans Saints have a limited amount of cap space. But they should be able to make room to re-sign one or two of their own starters (in addition to Graham) and add one or two newcomers. The secondary should be a top priority after they released veterans Jabari Greer and Roman Harper last month. The Saints should be in the market for a cornerback who can come in right away and start -- and maybe a safety, too, if they don’t re-sign Jenkins. The offensive line will become a priority if they don’t re-sign Strief or de la Puente -- although they could address that in the draft. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker, although those spots also could be addressed in the draft.

What to expect: First and foremost, I ultimately expect the Saints to keep Graham on a long-term deal, although it could be a drawn-out negotiation. Beyond that, I expect a very similar approach to last year, when the Saints lost one key free agent (left tackle Jermon Bushrod), signed one high-priced free agent (cornerback Keenan Lewis) and added some nice depth at value prices (linebacker Victor Butler and tight end Benjamin Watson). My best guess is they keep one of their two starting linemen and add a starting-caliber cornerback (maybe in the range of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown or the Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn).

Saints, Strief show mutual interest

February, 24, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints had some early discussions with free agent Zach Strief's agent, Ralph Cindrich, during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. But the key word is "early."

"There is a mutual interest to get something done on both sides, and we had a good meeting and discussions," Cindrich said.

It's still too early to predict whether Strief will remain with the Saints. But I think it's a good sign that they've had some early discussions. I got the impression in previous years that the Saints were resigned to letting linemen like Carl Nicks and Jermon Bushrod get away -- without really having any substantial talks with them before the start of free agency.

As I've written before, I think the Saints will definitely be interested in keeping Strief, who arguably just had his best season in his third year as the team's starter at right tackle. However, money will be a big issue since the Saints are slammed tight against the salary cap. It's possible another team would be willing to pay more for the steady 30-year-old on the open market.

I feel the same way about center Brian de la Puente and safety Malcolm Jenkins -- two of the Saints' other full-time starters who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 11. I could see one or both of them coming back, but only at the right price.

The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas also reported over the weekend that the Saints have had preliminary discussions about possibly re-signing backup receiver Robert Meachem. That would also make sense, as long as Meachem's deal is cap-friendly.

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