Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2009 [Print without images]

Thursday, February 4, 2010
Healthy diet helps Saints' WRs emerge

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Robert Meachem/Devery Henderson
Robert Meachem, left, and Devery Henderson have bolstered the Saints' vertical passing game.

MIAMI -- If you really are what you eat -- or, more accurately, what you don't eat -- then the New Orleans Saints wide receivers are a hungry bunch.

Especially youngsters Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, two one-time high-round draft choices whose careers had been collectively disappointing entering 2009, but whose rapid development this season fueled the big-play nature of the New Orleans offense.

Henderson and Meachem, both speedy deep threats whose inconsistencies were often maddening to the Saints' coaching staff, weren't quite starved for success. But they have succeeded in lifting the New Orleans passing game to new heights in 2009, and to an appearance in Super Bowl XLIV, by starving.

Sort of.

"To me, the improvement is mostly [attributable] to my diet," said Meachem, a first-round choice in 2007 who essentially missed his entire rookie season because of knee problems, then had only a dozen receptions in 2008. "I eat a lot better now than I ever did before. I train better. I've got a deep-tissue guy and a chiropractor, but really the biggest [change] is the way I eat. Too many guys come into the league and feel like it's going to be easy. They take it for granted. But I found out that you've got to take care of your body."

The Saints boasted the top-rated offense in the NFL during the regular season, and they were No. 4 in passing offense.

Along with other Saints wide receivers, including Henderson, Meachem is an advocate of the Sonic Boom program, a regimen designed by Metairie, La.-based trainer Wyatt Harris that features many facets, including diet. Those who subscribe to Harris' program participate in what Henderson described as a "five-two" dietary style: five straight days with no carbohydrates (no bread, white rice, etc.) followed by two days of virtually anything they want to eat, within limits.

Said Henderson, a second-round pick in 2004 who had also been short-circuited by injuries: "I feel stronger and have more stamina than ever before. I can definitely see the difference."

So can opposition secondaries.

Both Henderson (51 catches for 804 yards and two touchdowns) and Meachem (45 receptions, 722 yards, nine touchdowns) enjoyed career seasons in 2009. Their twin breakout years were key for a Saints passing attack that could already count on fourth-year veteran wide receiver Marques Colston and standout tight end Jeremy Shockey. The progression of Henderson and Meachem, who together averaged 15.9 yards per catch and whose speed was finally realized, added a vertical dimension for quarterback Drew Brees that was previously missing from the offense.

"Those guys," Colston said, "really stepped up big-time."

Henderson, 27, averaged over 20 yards per reception the past three seasons and a combined 23.2 yards over that stretch. Although his average dropped to 15.8 yards this season, his lowest since 2005, the former LSU star posted career bests in catches and receiving yards, after five seasons in which he never caught more than 32 balls and never registered more than 793 yards.

The 25-year-old Meachem also saw his average drop by about one-third (from 24.1 yards in 2008 to 16.0 yards in '09), but the former University of Tennessee sprinter gained consistency, speed and, he claimed, improved health.

The pair combined with Colston -- a seventh-round steal from Hofstra in 2006 who averaged 71.1 catches, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns over his first three seasons -- gives the Saints one of only eight wide receiver trios in the league in which all three players caught 45 or more passes. The Saints' trifecta totaled 166 receptions, and only 10 combinations had more.

Overall, the Saints had five players with 40-plus receptions: the three wide receivers, Shockey and dangerous third-down tailback Reggie Bush, a matchup nightmare for those forced to cover him in space.

Colston -- whose 168 combined receptions in 2006-07 were the most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons -- bounced back after an injury-marred (thumb) 2008 campaign to ring up 70 receptions for 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns, all team highs or tied for club bests. But despite a 15.3-yard average in 2009 and a career average of 14.3 yards, and three seasons of 1,000-plus yards, Colston is regarded as an intermediate possession receiver who plays faster than his stopwatch time but still isn't a blazer.

Colston -- who has been mistaken at times for a tight end because of his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) -- has had only one season in which a complementary wide receiver posted more than 54 catches. That was in 2008, when Lance Moore -- who was injured for much of '09 and limited to just seven appearances -- had 79. But Meachem and Henderson more than compensated this year.

Under coach Sean Payton, New Orleans in the past typically ran even its basic routes a yard or two deeper than most. The progress of Henderson and Meachem has allowed Payton -- an uncanny playcaller who uses a lot of motion to create favorable matchups -- to run more patterns up the seams and deep into the secondary.

The combination of two speed receivers who could stretch a defense north and south, coupled with Colston's physical presence in the middle of the field, could be a problem Sunday for the Indianapolis safeties.

"I think you see our confidence growing," Meachem said. "We feel we can make not only plays, but big plays. "If they feed us the ball, we'll deliver."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.