NFL Nation: Curtis Lofton
METAIRIE, La. -- When it comes to salary-cap management in the NFL, there's no bigger killer than "dead money."
And this year, the New Orleans Saints are carrying an unhealthy amount of it -- $21.65 million, which ranks second most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
That's the price the Saints paid for trading away tight end Jimmy Graham, guard Ben Grubbs and receiver Kenny Stills, and releasing linebacker Curtis Lofton and running back Pierre Thomas, among others, before their contracts were up. The Saints still have to count the remaining portions of all those players' original signing bonuses against their salary cap, even though they aren't on the roster anymore.
That dead money is eating up roughly 15 percent of New Orleans' salary cap this year. (As of Friday morning, the Saints were about $1.75 million under their adjusted cap limit of $145 million. They will likely need at least a million more to fit in their draft picks.)
The good news for New Orleans is that by wiping all those deals off the books this year, the Saints' salary cap is shaping up to be more manageable in 2016 than it has been in the recent past. (More on that below).
Also, most of the Saints' dead money this year came from trading players -- so it's not like they threw it all away with nothing in return.
How it works: The Saints' biggest dead-money hit this year comes from Graham ($9 million). That's three-fourths of the $12 million signing bonus Graham received last year as part of his four-year, $40 million contract. For salary-cap purposes, that bonus was originally scheduled to count $3 million per year against the Saints' cap over the life of the deal. However, since Graham was traded after just one year, the Saints now have to count the remaining $9 million against this year's cap.
But the Saints got a pretty good return for Graham from the Seattle Seahawks (center Max Unger and a first-round pick). And the Seahawks had to eat the remaining $2.2 million in dead money from Unger's contract.
Likewise, the Miami Dolphins agreed to eat a whopping $7.8 million in dead money from linebacker Dannell Ellerbe's contract when they traded him to the Saints for Stills, which makes Ellerbe a bargain for New Orleans. That's also part of the reason why Miami ranks No. 1 in the NFL in dead money this year at $23.7 million.
It's worse when a team has to absorb a big chunk of dead money for flat-out releasing a player who didn't live out the full life of his contract. For instance, Lofton is counting $5 million against New Orleans' cap this year, and the Saints got nothing in return. Grubbs falls somewhere in between, since he's counting $6 million against the Saints' cap, and they only received a fifth-round draft pick in return.
Those three (Graham, Grubbs and Lofton) are by far the three biggest dead-money hits for New Orleans this year. Thomas is next at $830,000, followed by Khairi Fortt at $309,000 and Champ Bailey at $250,000. Stills only counts for $97,000 in dead money.
I've never been particularly critical about the way the Saints have managed their salary cap in recent years -- repeatedly pushing cap costs into the future by back-loading the cap costs in players' contracts. I'm fine with that as long as the Saints are signing guys in their prime that they expect to play out the entire life of their contracts. I don't even have a problem with the way they structured Drew Brees' $100 million deal since they needed the cap space earlier in his contract and had time to prepare for his big hits of $26.4 million this year and $27.4 million next year.
However, general manager Mickey Loomis has often admitted that New Orleans' limited cap space reduces the margin for error. And it really hurts a team like the Saints when they miss on their big contracts.
The Saints signed Lofton, Grubbs, Brodrick Bunkley, and David Hawthorne and re-signed Marques Colston to big deals in 2012. None of those guys wound up earning the full value of their contracts, with two being dumped this year and the other three agreeing to pay cuts to stay.
Brighter future: The best asset for the Saints' business model is that the salary cap has started to soar throughout the NFL over the past two years -- and should only continue to rise.
The way things are shaping up for 2016, the Saints might actually start next offseason under the salary cap for a change.
As of now, the Saints have a total of 35 players under contract for 2016 at a total of $132 million in salary-cap costs, according to ESPN Stats and Info. That's the highest in the NFL. But the NFL's cap should rise above $150 million next year, and the Saints should be able to stay under that even when their top 51 salaries are factored in before the start of free agency.
The Saints only have 16 players under contract for 2017, with a total cap cost of $67 million. That doesn't include Brees or left tackle Terron Armstead, among others whose contracts expire that year.
I’m not shocked that the Saints decided to release Thomas. After all, he’s 30 years old and missed five games last year with rib and shoulder injuries, His role has been diminishing in recent years and he had to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans last year.
What I’m wondering, though, is what exactly the Saints plan to do now at running back.
No, he's not a high-end starter, but he's an ideal security blanket -- still an excellent third-down back who is also capable of filling in as an every-down guy if needed.
To me, this signals that the Saints might be planning to pony up and re-sign free agent Mark Ingram – something I was speculating as a possibility even before Thomas got released. If the Saints bring back Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet or a mid-round draft pick next year, then sure, Thomas is expendable.
Or if they lose Ingram, maybe they like another mid-level free agent such as Shane Vereen or C.J. Spiller. Or even Reggie Bush. There are bargains to be had all over the flooded free-agent running back market right now.
One way or another, I have to imagine the Saints have a plan in place for filling up a running back cupboard that is suddenly going bare for the first time in the Sean Payton-Mickey Loomis era.
It’s also worth noting that this move wasn’t purely forced by the salary cap. As I’ve dissected many times, the Saints have several ways they can trim the necessary $22 million-plus off their salary cap by March 10 (mostly through simple bonus restructures). Any move they make – Thomas included – will be for football reasons as much as financial ones.
I was more surprised to hear the NFL Network report that the Saints are shopping middle linebacker Curtis Lofton as possible trade bait. Lofton was one of the few defensive players who didn’t disappoint last year, and he’s the type of veteran leader New Orleans needs more of in the locker room.
Other moves I'd rank as more likely: the departures of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and linebacker David Hawthorne; the possible departures of linebacker Junior Galette, guard Ben Grubbs and cornerback Corey White; and likely pay cuts for receiver Marques Colston and guard Jahri Evans.
But no moves will shock me. Everything’s on the table after a disappointing 7-9 season – which will be an even bigger factor with the Saints’ pending moves than their salary-cap figure.
Last but not least, Thomas deserves to be celebrated as one of the Saints’ all-time greats. He was never as underrated in New Orleans as he was on a national level. He was popular with the fans and was a vital part of their Super Bowl championship team. Quarterback Drew Brees called him the “best all-purpose back in the league” last summer.
Thomas ranks fourth in Saints history with 3,745 rushing yards, has the most receptions ever by a Saints running back (327) and ranks among the top seven in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. He became so prolific at running the screen pass in New Orleans' offense that it should be officially renamed in his honor.
Thomas will be in the Saints Hall of Fame the moment he’s eligible. He’s just not in the Saints’ plans on the field anymore.
However, Saints offensive lineman and fellow captain Zach Strief -- one of the players who stood up for Smith and Vilma on Twitter -- insisted that the two issues aren’t related.
“I’m not talking about Junior [when talking about maturity and professionalism issues]. No, I’m talking about the way that this team plays, top to bottom,” said Strief, who had a great breakdown of the intensity that he feels is lacking from the team on game days, which I’ll post later today.
“I don’t think [Galette’s comments] are as big of an issue in the locker room as it is an issue for the guys that were here with those guys. My comment to that is in defense of teammates that I went through very special moments of my life with that I love and appreciate. … But I don’t feel like a rift in the locker room is the cause of our issues.”
Captain and veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton also said he doesn’t have any concern over fissures in the locker room.
“I think everybody’s on the same page. It’s just like any other team, you disagree, a lot of guys disagree with each other,” said Lofton, who had disagreed with safety Kenny Vaccaro’s decision to express some of his frustrations with the media last month. “But it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. I think we’ve been together and we’ll stay together. Either way we’re not gonna quit, we’re gonna keep going.”
Galette has not made himself available for comment since last Thursday.
From my outside view, it’s a tricky issue to pinpoint.
There’s no question that the leadership has changed drastically on the defensive side of the ball with younger, more outspoken and more brash players like Galette, Vaccaro, Cameron Jordan and Keenan Lewis joining Lofton as leaders in their respective position groups.
At the same time, I don’t know that anyone would question the work ethic or the intensity of those guys in particular. In fact, those appear to be strengths of all those players, even though they’re not getting the expected results on the field this year.
Clearly, though, the locker room dynamic has changed from years past and we’re seeing those growing pains play out on the football field.
It also seems impossible to decide where to begin.
The offense and defense both managed to have their worst performance of the year in the same game. The Saints were down 17-0 after a total of just three offensive plays -- one a fumble by Mark Ingram and one an interception on an underthrown deep ball by Drew Brees.
Through three quarters, the Panthers led 38-3 and outgained the Saints 485 yards to 110.
Saints coach Sean Payton said part of his message to the team afterward was that there shouldn’t be anyone who is “befuddled” or “puzzled” as to what went wrong.
“It’s not a question of, 'What do you think ...?'" Payton said. “There’s no question as to why. It’s right out there, we just saw it. We have to look closely at everything: preparation, who we're asking to do it, starting with me. It isn't a giant mystery. To win in this league ... we did all the things that keep you from winning.”
He later identified a number of problem areas.
“I thought it was sloppy,” Payton said. “I don’t know how many balls we dropped. We’re jumping to catch passes we don’t need to jump to catch, we should be catching them in our hands. We fumbled the ball, interception. Defensively, our tackling was awful. They were almost near 300 yards rushing. It was awful. On top of that, you can’t make dumb mistakes like jump offside when a team is getting ready to punt or kick a field goal.”
“Those are things that are painfully obvious before you put the tape on. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind.”
Payton hit on a lot of the major errors that stood out to me.
Obviously you start with the turnovers on offense. But then there was a whole lot of nothing in the passing game after that. Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas all appeared to drop passes. Several others were technically broken up, though they may have been caught with better throws or better effort.
On defense, there was virtually zero pass rush -- which was stunning against a young, inexperienced Panthers offensive line that had been getting beat up pretty good this year. The Saints sacked Cam Newton 13 times in three previous games, but they got zero sacks Sunday.
At one point, Newton fumbled the ball, picked it up and still ran for 9 yards.
I will say this -- Newton was outstanding early in the game, completing all five of his passes on the opening touchdown drive and looking sharper than I’ve seen him in at least two years. But the Saints made it easy on him as he threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 83 yards and one touchdown.
Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said a player like Newton forces you to be disciplined -- and the Saints weren’t.
“It’s bad football. We played bad football today,” Lofton said. “When you can’t stop the run, you miss tackles, you have turnovers, you jump offside on special teams, which is bad football, you get the outcome you get.”
When asked if he felt like anyone on defense quit in the second half, Lofton paused for a few seconds.
“You know, I can’t speak to anyone else. I was just trying to take care of my job,” Lofton said. “The film will say it all. If someone did quit, the film will say it.”
Quarterback Drew Brees and offensive tackle Zach Strief also mentioned professionalism. When asked what he meant, Brees explained that the team obviously isn't doing a good enough job of handling the ebbs and flows.
"I think one of our problems is we don't appreciate how difficult it is to win in this league," Strief said. "I think guys on this team feel that you can show up, and it'll happen. And that's on us [veteran leaders] for not teaching that."
Effort to be scrutinized: Payton shot down the notion that the coaches may have "lost" the players, saying that wouldn't explain the ups and downs, including a big win last week at Pittsburgh. But he said it's fair to ask whether the team has relaxed too much after big wins.
"We're not that good [to do that]. That's painfully obvious," said Payton, who added that the players should be concerned about how coaches see them more than the other way around.
When asked if it's too late in the season to consider personnel changes, Payton said, "Absolutely not" and said the film will show who was putting forth the proper effort.
Lofton on shoving Newton: Curtis Lofton said he had no regrets about shoving Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to spark the end-zone brawl that spilled into the tunnel in the first quarter. Newton was taunting Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan at the time, and Lofton said, "I don't take kindly to that. I saw it as straight disrespectful. ... I'd do it 100 times out of 100."
Both end Akiem Hicks and nose tackle John Jenkins got shoved back at least three times by 1-on-1 blocks on big run plays.
"I was trying to get the feel of that whole scheme, it's not often we go against a zone team like that," Jenkins said. "So trying to get the feel, trying to find a fit and being able to make plays was on my mind."
Jenkins did respond with a big-time run stuff right after Gruden's comments. And he settled in better in the second half. The Saints will need that type of continued improvement from the second-year big man going forward since veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley will miss time with a quadriceps injury -- possibly the remainder of the season.
"Honestly, just whatever they need me to do, that's what I'm gonna do. So it's unfortunate that Brodrick went down and so late in the season, but I guess I gotta do what I gotta do," said Jenkins, who's had a roller-coaster season with a torn pectoral muscle in the summer, followed by inconsistent play on the field that left him inactive for three games.
The 6-foot-3, 359-pounder said he feels like he's been making progress, though.
"Being able to overcome that injury and then trying to find my fit back on the team and being able to play the schemes that I'm playing, it was a growth period for me this whole season," Jenkins said.
Those interior linemen were hardly the Saints' only problem against Baltimore, though, as the Saints gave up a season-high 215 rushing yards. Running back Justin Forsett ran for 182 of them and two touchdowns. He and backup Bernard Pierce combined for five runs of 20-plus.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro whiffed once when Forsett came around the corner. Linebacker Curtis Lofton missed one potential tackle. He and linebacker David Hawthorne each ran into blocks at least once when Forsett made some sharp cutbacks.
And the Ravens' linemen and fullback did a consistently good job of sealing off the edges and moving up into the second level to take out New Orleans' linebackers (sometimes a result of the Saints' linemen not being able to occupy multiple blockers).
"If we went through some of the breakdowns in the runs last week, it's just gap integrity and fitting it correctly," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Especially when you're playing some down-safety defense, understanding your alignment to begin with, and then your gap to fit it correctly. I think that's the No. 1 thing when you look at the runs."
"A lot of different reasons," Vaccaro said. "It kind of goes back to the first of the season, a guy's out of his gap on this play, then another guy's out of his gap on this play. ‘Cuz it only takes one person out of your 11 to get creased, especially with these schemes like the Ravens run. We've just gotta be more clutch all together."
Put even more succinctly, Lofton said, "It's guys not doing their job."
As Payton also pointed out, when the Saints are forced to add an additional safety into run defense, it puts even more stress on the secondary. So it can be a domino effect.
The good news is this hasn't been a consistent problem for New Orleans' defense all season. Their struggles against Cincinnati a week earlier came mostly from four big runs, but the Saints actually stuffed the Bengals for two yards or less on 17 of their 31 carries.
The bad news is that the task doesn't get any easier as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road this week. Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is second in the NFL with 951 rushing yards (not to mention 484 receiving yards).
"It surprises me a little bit," Vaccaro said of the recent breakdowns. "I thought after that Lions game [in Week 7], our run defense was going uphill. And then to have something like this these last two weeks, it's just kinda like, ‘Alright man, let's get this handled.'
"We've gotta get it fixed because the Steelers are a big running team. Le'Veon Bell to me is the most complete back in the league."
NEW ORLEANS -- The Baltimore Ravens' first offensive snap on Monday night was a 38-yard run by Justin Forsett.
Their last meaningful snap was a 20-yard touchdown run by Forsett.
And in between was a whole bunch of other ugly stuff for a New Orleans Saints defense that has somehow managed to regress during the Saints' current three-game losing streak.
New Orleans' defensive performance in Monday night's 34-27 loss to the Ravens might have been its worst yet this season. And the only reason I say "might" is because there are so many other worthy candidates.
"I think every game we come off, it's something new. Sometimes we have problems with the pass, sometimes we have a problem with the run, sometimes we have a problem with both," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis admitted bluntly. "So we gotta fix everything."
Of course there's plenty of blame to go around after this loss -- and for the Saints' pitiful 4-7 season, in general.
And of course quarterback Drew Brees deserves a large share of it after he threw yet another game-killing interception in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown.
But Brees' sin is that he hasn't been able to handle the burden of needing to be almost perfect every week. He's pressing too much because he's all the Saints have -- and it's not working out.
It's 2012 all over again.
At least the Saints had an excuse that year, when they went 7-9 and set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season while coach Sean Payton was serving a year-long suspension.
This year has been a much more startling disappointment because the Saints' up-and-coming young defense under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan was actually supposed to alleviate that pressure on Brees and the offense more than ever.
Last year was a breakout year for the Saints' defense. This year, it has been nothing but breakdowns.
"This year has been kind of funny, just the way we find a way to lose the game," veteran linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "We gotta quit finding a way to lose the game and find a way to win a game."
The Saints' defensive sins were too many to count Monday night. They couldn't get off the field again on third downs (Baltimore was 9-of-13). They allowed five plays of 35 yards or more. They forced one turnover and one sack -- but it wasn't nearly enough to make up that big-play deficit.
More than anything, though, the Saints couldn't stop the run, which has recently emerged as their biggest problem in a series of rotating biggest problems this year.
Forsett ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. He set the tone on the Raven's opening drive, which ended in a touchdown. And he put the game out of reach late with that final touchdown that put Baltimore up by 14 with 2:53 remaining.
"I think tonight it was apparent we struggled just consistently stopping the run. That happens, and there are a lot of things that become more challenging," Payton said. "Your third downs become more challenging. Your pass rush becomes more challenging. The pressure on the back end becomes more challenging."
The Saints did try to make a couple of lineup tweaks this week -- moving cornerback Patrick Robinson back into the starting lineup ahead of struggling Corey White and thrusting recently-signed rookie Pierre Warren into the starting free safety job vacated by Rafael Bush's season-ending leg injury.
Those moves actually paid off a little, with those two combining to force a fumble near the goal line.
But not much else panned out. Ryan dialed up more blitzes than usual on third-and-longs, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fired off quick passes that burned the secondary just as much as when the Saints weren't getting any pressure.
When asked if it's frustrating that the Saints are still trying to figure out so many issues this late in the season, Payton said, "We're not trying to figure it out. We're trying to correct it."
"Obviously our margin for error is not good enough to win close games," Payton said -- a realization that's even more disturbing. "We have to play better and coach better."
"'Monday Night Football.' I’ll be there," Lewis said. "I definitely feel like it’s getting better every day. I’ve got two more days. And 'Monday Night Football,' here we come."
It remains unclear if Lewis will be limited, as he was last week when he only played 10 snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals. But chances are his workload will increase well past that total. He was able to practice on a limited basis both Friday and Saturday this week after practicing only once last week. The extra day of rest before a Monday game didn’t hurt.
It also remains unclear if Thomas will be limited, since he missed the past four games with shoulder and rib injuries. But the "probable" designation is a promising sign. And Thomas has been able to practice on a limited basis all week. He was in very high spirits when he met with the media Thursday -- though he refused to reveal whether he’s officially playing or not.
I addressed Saturday morning how Thomas’ return might affect running back Mark Ingram's touches. I think Ingram will still get a heavy dose of the carries and goal-line looks, with Thomas spelling him at times and playing a bigger role in the passing game. Cadet’s touches could diminish, even if he is healthy enough to play. And running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) has officially been ruled out for Monday, as expected.
Lofton was expected to play all along, so his "probable" designation comes as no surprise.
Receiver Robert Meachem remains questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis with his ankle injury. The Saints don’t need to rush him back, even after losing Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury this week, since they have experienced backups Joe Morgan and Nick Toon on the roster.
Linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) has also been ruled out. Ingram (shoulder) and offensive tackle Zach Strief (chest) are listed as probable, but they should be fine after both practiced fully all week.
Lewis is arguably as important as any player on the roster outside of quarterback Drew Brees. And the Saints were noticeably impaired when Lewis was limited to just 10 snaps last week because of a lingering knee injury.
For the second straight season, the underrated Lewis was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering the injury two weeks ago. He routinely matches up against the opponent's top receiver. And FOX analyst John Lynch said on a recent broadcast that no cornerback is playing better in the entire NFL this season.
Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said this week in a scouting breakdown of the Saints that Lewis would be a good matchup against dynamic Ravens receiver Steve Smith. But even if Lewis’ role is limited, it’s clear that having him close to 100 percent would be huge against a Baltimore team that also features speedy threat Torrey Smith.
The rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have struggled with inconsistency this season, and now they will be making a switch at free safety, too, in the wake of veteran Rafael Bush's season-ending broken leg.
In other Saints’ injury news:
- Running back Pierre Thomas (shoulder, rib) and receiver Robert Meachem (ankle) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. It appears both could be on track to return from lingering injuries this week. But it’s hard to say definitively if and how much they will play (which means fantasy owners should proceed with caution heading into a Monday night game).
- Fellow running back Travaris Cadet returned to practice on a limited basis Friday after being held out Thursday with a hamstring injury.
- Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) also returned to practice on a limited basis. He has been playing through the injury and playing at a high level, so there doesn’t appear to be much concern about his status.
- Running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) and linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) remained out.
Thomas was in great spirits while talking with the media, but he playfully refused to reveal whether he expects to play Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I did not think it was gonna take this long,” Thomas added. “But, hey, I had to make sure it was right, and I still have to make sure it’s right before I step out on that field so I don’t have any setbacks. Because I don’t want to put myself out here and play one game and get hit and then that’s it.
“No, I want to finish this season out and then continue on into the playoffs, too. So I want to help out my team and help myself as much as possible. I gotta be smart about my decision. That’s what I’m doing.”
Thomas’ return would be a huge lift for a Saints offense that just lost dynamic rookie receiver Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury. Thomas has always been a big part of the Saints’ passing game, especially on screen passes – an element of their offense that they’ll miss with Cooks out.
Plus, fellow pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet was held out of team drills Thursday with a hamstring injury, the severity of which was unknown.
Thomas can also help relieve running back Mark Ingram, who has carried a heavy load with 26 carries per game in the past four weeks.
Fellow running back Khiry Robinson also has been sidelined since Week 7 with an unspecified arm injury. Robinson remained absent from practice Thursday. His timetable remains unclear.
“Oh, man, he’s been holding it down. He’s been holding it down, seriously,” Thomas said when asked about Ingram, who had three straight 100-yard games before the run game was shut down last week against Cincinnati. “I mean, Mark’s been doing a job we all knew he could do; he’s just getting more reps.
“With this organization, with this team, we rotate, and it’s hard to get on a rhythm. And he was on a rhythm. He was moving the ball; he was holding it down for some of us running backs that was down. He was doing the job that he needed to do. Everybody knows that he can do the job. Everybody knows that he can step up to the challenge, and he answered. I’m proud of him.”
Other injury notes:
- Keenan Lewis was absent from practice Thursday as he continues to rehab a lingering knee injury. Lewis also missed two days of practice last week before practicing on Friday and playing 10 snaps – although he admitted he wasn’t as healthy as hoped. Lewis said Thursday that he’s still optimistic and getting better each day, and the extra day of rest before a Monday night game should help. Cornerback
- Linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) was held out of team drills, though he also was limited last week in a similar fashion before playing a full game. Linebacker Kyle Knox was held out of team drills with a hand injury.
- Receiver Robert Meachem returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His role in the Saints’ offense could also increase if he’s healthy enough to play Monday, as he has proven ability as a deep threat (another area where they’ll miss Cooks).
- Right tackle Zach Strief practiced fully after leaving last Sunday with a concussion – a great sign for the Saints, who will be facing two of the league’s best pass rushers Monday in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
In order for the Saints (4-6) to get back on track against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, their defense must figure out how to get off the field on third-and-long.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Saints have given up more first downs on plays of third-and-8 or fourth-and-8 or more (23, including six this past Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals) than any team in the NFL this season.
New Orleans’ percentage of first downs allowed in such situations (33.8) ranks 30th in the NFL and ahead of only Carolina and Tampa Bay. Some of those breakdowns have been colossal (a 73-yard TD pass to Detroit's Golden Tate on third-and-14, a 51-yard pass to San Francisco's Michael Crabtree on fourth-and-10, a 38-yard pass to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green on third-and-18).
The problems have been widespread, from poor coverage to missed tackles to a lack of pass rush, and often in conjunction. On the Crabtree pass, quarterback Colin Kaepernick had about seven seconds to throw before he found his receiver wide-open deep. On the Tate play, cornerback Corey White tried to jump the route on a short pass, then the Saints’ entire secondary seemed to whiff on Tate the rest of the way. On the Green play, QB Andy Dalton threw the ball almost instantly when Green beat rookie cornerback Brian Dixon off the line.
“We do have a young group, and we have to train them and push them to grow and study the game to be better in those situations,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said when asked if there’s a general philosophy in those situations. “You would like for a guy to back up, be at a reasonable distance, so if it’s third-and-18, you probably want to have a 10-yard cushion. Then hopefully ... the pass rush has to come into effect to affect the quarterback and don’t let him have all day to throw the ball.”
The Saints didn’t blitz in any of the above-mentioned situations. That’s fine, as long as the pass rush can still speed up the quarterback’s clock or, at the very least, keep him contained in the pocket. That’s another area where the Saints struggled on third-and-long against Kaepernick, Cam Newton and even Dalton.
Saints coach Sean Payton mentioned that first when he said, “There were a handful of breakdowns that I think we can clean up.”
Lewis’ status will probably be uncertain right up until kickoff since he has insisted (and showed last week) that, "If I can walk, I’m going."
However, running backs Pierre Thomas (shoulder/rib), Khiry Robinson (arm) and Edwin Baker (concussion), and receiver Robert Meachem were absent from Saints’ practice Thursday. They are significant long shots to play Sunday. Thomas had done some individual work on Wednesday, but was not present when the media was in attendance Thursday.
Running back Mark Ingram (shoulder) continues to be limited in practice, but his status doesn’t appear to be in any doubt. He has carried the ball 57 times over the past two games while dealing with the shoulder injury. And if anything, Ingram said Thursday that his body is getting more used to the heavier workload.
Linebacker David Hawthorne was also limited for the second straight day Thursday as he tries to return from a hand injury.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made it clear Friday that he would endorse both.
When asked if Lofton is playing better this season or just being recognized more, Ryan said, "I think he played really well last year, but I think he’s exceptional this season. I think he and Keenan Lewis, these two guys are really dominating."
Sure enough, PFF quickly made the fix, taking that 70-yarder away from Lewis’ tally.
Still, Ryan’s point is accurate that Lewis deserves more credit for his play over the past two seasons.
"You guys (in the New Orleans media) see it every week because you follow the team. Nationally, they probably don’t know this guy like they should," Ryan said of Lewis, who received some of that national attention for his shut-down performance against Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin last Thursday night. "There’s nobody that works harder than he does. From the day we lost to Seattle last season, he was in the office right away that next morning. We’ve got a few like that, and he’s really special."
The Saints have started to get more and more standout performances from their defense in recent weeks -- namely from the pass rush and the rest of the secondary, both of which had been disappointing in the first month of the season.
Pass-rushers Junior Galette, Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks have really started to come on strong, flashing the kind of play up front that was so critical to New Orleans' success last season. The Saints have 12 sacks over the past 13 quarters.
Still, Ryan stressed that "we’re not satisfied by any stretch."
"We know we’ve gotta get better," Ryan said. "Obviously we started slow. I think in the preseason we were slow. Coming out of the gate we were slow. But we’re getting better. Our guys are buying in. They’ve got good leadership with Curtis and Kenny (Vaccaro). These guys are really taking control.
"And I think our defense looks different because we know how it looks when it’s not right. We’re better than that. And we need to be better than that. And we’re working as hard as we can to get everything right. And we’re all in it together."
NEW ORLEANS -- The rest of the NFC South left the door open too long, and the New Orleans Saints might have just stormed through it Sunday night with a dominant 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Of course, it comes with plenty of qualifiers. The Saints (3-4) still need to prove they can do this consistently, and they absolutely need to prove they can do it on the road, where they're 0-4 this season -- especially since they have to turn around and play at the Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) on Thursday night with the division lead hanging in the balance.
But the Saints made a pretty dramatic statement Sunday night about both their potential and their resilience.
That should put a fright into the other teams in the shaky division. If they couldn't put New Orleans away when it was stumbling all over itself, what are they gonna do now that the Saints have their mojo back?
Brees' performance was especially promising. It was easily his most dominant game of the year (311 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions). And it came on the heels of what Brees called one of the "five worst feelings" he's ever had after a football game when his late interception keyed a collapse at the Detroit Lions.
The list of folks either criticizing Brees or at least questioning whether he was starting to slow down at age 35 had been growing this season. I personally suggested he and the team had lost their killer instinct last week after they let their third lead in the final two minutes this year slip away.
Brees' response? He stepped on the Packers' throat once Aaron Rodgers blinked first -- and was slowed by a third-quarter hamstring injury -- in what was supposed to be a back-and-forth shootout.
"He was outstanding tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said forcefully -- almost defiantly -- after dismissing the notion that Brees has been off this year. "He was magnificent. He was spot-on."
But Brees was hardly alone. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards (the most by a Saints back since Deuce McAllister in 2003). Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks had a breakout game with 94 receiving yards, a receiving touchdown and a rushing touchdown. Tight end Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone after being shut out in the first half.
And the defense found a whole other level of resilience, not only bouncing back from the 2-4 start, but also bouncing back from a 70-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Randall Cobb on the opening possession and a 67-yard pass from Rodgers to Eddie Lacy on the second possession.
The game changed in the third quarter when it was still tied at 16 and, three plays after Rodgers was hurt on a scramble, Saints cornerback Corey White tipped away a Rodgers pass in the end zone that was intercepted by linebacker David Hawthorne. Later in the half, the embattled White intercepted one of his own. Prior to Sunday, Rodgers had thrown just one pick all year.
There were a lot of people asking in the Saints' locker room whether this was the kind of victory that could give them a confidence boost.
On the contrary -- it was the kind of victory that proved they never lost it.
"I don't think we ever lost our confidence," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We've been having some bad breaks. We haven't been playing complete games. And when we play a complete game, this is what it's about.
"Last week, we played 56 minutes and didn't finish. This week we played 60 minutes and finished."
Here’s What 2 Watch 4:
Containing big plays: Green Bay’s offense seems like the worst possible matchup for a Saints defense that has struggled with too many assignment breakdowns and missed tackles. The Saints had their two worst performances against versatile offenses that stretched them thin (Atlanta in Week 1 and Dallas in Week 4).
In those games, the Saints were able to mute the big-play threats of receivers Julio Jones and Dez Bryant, respectively. But they got torn up in the middle of the field. Now they have to find a way to corral big-play receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and solid running back Eddie Lacy. They're among the NFL's best at gaining yards after contact. And worse yet, Rodgers has a great ability to scramble and keep plays alive until he can find a hole in the defense.
“I think as a defense, you gotta stop the explosive plays and you want to have 'em check the ball down, and that’s where tackling comes in,” said middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been the Saints’ best open-field tackler in a standout season that has gone under the radar because of the defense’s overall struggles. “You know, he checks the ball down and you stop 'em, it could go for a 3- or 4-yard gain. But you miss a tackle, it can go for 20 yards. And that can be an explosive play.
“So we’re definitely gonna have to be sound tackling. You know they’ve got weapons, you’re not gonna shut those guys down. But you’ve gotta make 'em earn everything, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Obviously it would be a huge equalizer for the Saints’ defense if they could force a turnover or two.
Just as importantly, though, the Saints can’t afford to give Green Bay any free possessions. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown seven interceptions this season, including three that were poor decisions under pressure in the past two games. He needs to be a lot closer to perfect Sunday night. The Saints have also lost five fumbles this year.
“We have to find a way to win the turnover battle,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We have to make sure that that statistic is in our favor when the game is over.”
Trouble with the dismount: The Saints also have to make sure they play better at the end of the game after coughing up three leads in the final two minutes of regulation this season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have the worst point differential in the NFL in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter this year (minus-24). They’ve allowed a league-high 34 points in that span. Last year, they allowed only 22 points all season in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter.
It’s not just the defense, though. The Saints have committed four turnovers in those final four minutes, tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the most in the league and twice as many as they had all last season.
Brees has also had uncharacteristic struggles late in games. During the fourth quarter and overtime this season, his yards per attempt (6.3) rank 25th in the NFL, his completion percentage (58 percent) ranks 21st and his Total QBR (58.3) ranks 15th. From 2006-2013, Brees ranked in the top four in all three categories in the fourth quarter and overtime.