NFC South: New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. – Patrick Robinson said being pulled from the starting lineup last week is a big thing. But the New Orleans Saints cornerback said there’s only one way to respond to it.

“That’s something big, but you still gotta deal with it, no matter if it’s hard to deal with or not,” Robinson said. “You know, you mess up, you gotta own up to it. And try to get better from there.”

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
David Richard/AP PhotoSaints cornerback Patrick Robinson has had plenty of misses in the first two weeks of the season.
The Saints haven’t given any indication yet this week if they plan to make a permanent change at the No. 2 cornerback job.

Robinson was replaced in the Saints’ base defense by cornerback Corey White last week at Cleveland after a handful of early miscues. Robinson came back onto the field in nickel packages and had a couple more highs and lows in the 26-24 loss to the Browns.

The most costly error was Robinson’s 19-yard pass interference penalty on a third-down play in the first quarter when he didn’t turn back to locate the ball in the air. Also in the first quarter, Robinson also allowed a short touchdown pass and was penalized for jumping offsides on a field goal attempt (though safety Kenny Vaccaro actually jumped first).

Late in the game, Robinson was also penalized for defensive holding, which was declined during the Browns’ final 28-yard pass play that was loaded with defensive breakdowns.

Robinson echoed the thoughts of teammates and coaches throughout the week that all of those things are big issues – but small details that can be corrected.

“As far as me not playing, that’s a lot of motivation for me, pretty much. You know, to fine-tune my small details, like my eyes. And instead of turning to the receiver, turn back to the quarterback and look up, and not look back,” Robinson said. “Small things like that, you know, that make a big difference if I make the play or if it’s pass interference.”

Robinson said the message sent to the entire team this week has been, “We’ve just gotta play fast and smart.”

“You know, we made some dumb mistakes that cost us games, plain and simple,” said Robinson, who also was beaten on two mid-range passes in a Week 1 overtime loss at Atlanta. “We’ve gotta play smart, and we’ve gotta play faster than we are. … It’s as simple as that, to be honest.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Among the newcomers to the New Orleans Saints' injury report this week, running back Mark Ingram (hand) is definitely out for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings; linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) seems unlikely to play after missing practice again Thursday; and center Jonathan Goodwin (elbow) is on the right track after returning to practice on a limited basis Thursday.

Hawthorne
Hawthorne has been out all week after leaving last Sunday's game early with the injury. Coach Sean Payton said Thursday that he doesn't expect him to be out long term, listing him as "day to day." But Payton said the Saints added practice squad linebacker Todd Davis to help fill out the depth while Hawthorne is out.

The Saints should be able to absorb Hawthorne's loss in the short term. They replaced him with experienced backup Ramon Humber last week. Veteran outside linebacker Parys Haralson is also capable of moving inside in certain situations to help fill the void.

Fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) and safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) also remained out during Thursday's practice.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton (shoulder) remained limited. And backup linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle) was added to the injury report after practicing on a limited basis.
METAIRIE, La. –- The New Orleans Saints remain confident after their 0-2 start. But they aren’t ignoring the very real problems that need to be corrected.

Coach Sean Payton highlighted on Wednesday the Saints' last 15 games (including playoffs), in which they are 7-8 (and 2-8 on the road). And the biggest problem has been their inability to finish.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardDrew Brees and the Saints look for their first win of the season on Sunday against Minnesota.
 During that stretch, the Saints have surrendered late leads to the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers in 2012, as well as the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns in the first two weeks this year. They also had late rallies fall short last season at the New York Jets and at the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs.

“Sean put up a statistic today, going back to last year, we started 5-0. And looking at the rest of the games since then, we haven’t been finishing in the fourth quarter, whether it’s on offense or defense,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He kind of came at us in the team meeting like, ‘Look at this guys, this is our last 15 games.’”

Payton also mentioned Wednesday that turnovers were a “major topic” in Wednesday’s morning meeting.

After making that a huge emphasis this offseason, the Saints’ defense has only forced one takeaway during the first two games, giving them a turnover ratio of minus-3 on the season.

The Saints have now forced only five turnovers over their past 13 games.

Although Payton preached that the Saints need to keep an even keel and not fall into the “crisis” that will be created from the outside, he also stressed that they can’t overlook the specific reasons for their losses.

“I think you have to pay attention. There’s a way we lost those two games,” Payton said. “It’s in the details and the preparation. It’s on us as coaches, everyone collectively, the players. I thought our practice [Wednesday] was outstanding.

“I think you can’t bury them under the rug and pretend it never happened. You have to look at it. I think we’re trying to make sure we uncover every stone and look closely at how we can find ways to make the corrections, and hopefully we can get that done this weekend.”

As Payton and players pointed out after last Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Browns, the areas that most need to be corrected are “situational” errors -- like the missed assignments that plagued them on both sides of the ball late in the game and some costly penalties.

In some ways, the defensive performance was encouraging in Week 2 because the Saints’ defense proved they were able to clean up the issues that cost them in Week 1 (namely missed tackles and a few big plays over the top).

But as Vaccaro said, “That’s encouraging. But when you fix one problem, you can’t let other problems [replace them]. You can’t let communication become the next problem.”

“I don’t know, man, we’ve just gotta put a game together,” Vaccaro said – though when asked what his message would be to Saints fans, he said, “We’re working, and just ride with us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees was among several others who expressed that combination of frustration and confidence.

“For us right now, despite the fact that we have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys who have been here for a long time and won a lot of games, this is a new team. So it’s kind of reestablishing and recreating your identity and it’s like ‘Ok, who are we, who are we trying to be?’” Brees said. “We’re certainly a lot better than what we’ve shown. But you are what your record says you are. So we have to go out and get a win so we can start feeling better about ourselves so that we can start gaining some momentum.”
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton confirmed Wednesday that running back Mark Ingram won’t play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings after having surgery to repair a displaced fracture above his thumb.

Payton, however, said he’s optimistic Ingram won’t be out for long and called it a “week to week” situation.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Tony DejakThe Saints' Mark Ingram shined last Sunday despite suffering a serious thumb injury in the first quarter.
“The procedure went well. It’s just a matter of the swelling, the wound and the bone healing,” said Payton, explaining that Ingram couldn’t just play with a cast because the fracture was displaced. He said Ingram had two screws placed right above his thumb.

The injury occurred during the first quarter of Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. It was unclear if Ingram was injured when cornerback Joe Haden’s helmet hit his left hand during a tackle, or if it occurred as Ingram braced himself with the hand on the ground. Either way, Ingram popped right back up, briefly pulled his hand inward and jogged back into the huddle.

Ingram had the hand taped on the sideline soon after but played the remainder of the game, thriving with a total of 104 yards from scrimmage. Fellow running back Pierre Thomas called him “a warrior.”

“It’s obviously impressive that he played that long with it,” Payton said. “You could see on film that his exchanges were a little different and how he was taking the ball. But he’s a tough player.”

As for how the Saints will fare without Ingram, players and coaches expressed confidence even though Ingram was playing the best football of his career.

Payton, Thomas and quarterback Drew Brees said they all expect fellow running backs like Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet to step up.

"It's nothing new. We've all been through it,” Thomas said. “You always expect something like this is going to happen, and we'll be ready for it. We're going to make sure we know what to do. We're going to make sure we didn't lose a beat. We lost a good running back, but he's going to get better and get back quick.”

Payton agreed that Ingram has been especially “sharp” this season while running for a total of 143 yards, three touchdowns and 6.0 yards per carry. But he said the Saints have always preached the importance of depth.

Robinson has run for 59 yards and a touchdown this year on 14 carries (4.2 yard average). Thomas has run for 47 yards on 10 carries (4.7 average) and has nine receptions for 74 yards.

“Khiry’s a guy, shoot, he’s another back we feel like is young [but] is someone that’ll be ready for the workload,” said Payton, who proved his faith in Robinson by increasing his workload during the Saints’ playoff run last year, even though he was an inexperienced undrafted rookie.

And Brees said he is “very confident” that Robinson can handle things like pass protection as he has continued to develop in his second year.

“From the first time he stepped foot in our building until now, he’s light years in improvement in every facet of the game,” Brees said, “but I’d say especially in nickel, where you’re required to be a little more headsy in regards to protection and getting out and running outside of the backfield.”

Other injuries: Linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) and center Jonathan Goodwin (elbow) were also new additions to the Saints' injury report this week. Neither player participated in team drills Wednesday. The severity of the injuries is unknown. Hawthorne left last Sunday's game early with the injury, while Goodwin played the entire time.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton was limited with a shoulder injury (which also limited him in practice last week). Safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) and fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) remained out with lingering injuries.

Colston's shutout both rare and normal

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
10:00
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t seem too surprised or concerned over the fact that receiver Marques Colston was held without a catch for the first time in 87 games played during Sunday’s 26-24 loss at the Cleveland Browns.

As rare as that was, Payton indicated that a receiver having a quiet day -- even Colston -- is pretty normal in a Saints offense that spreads the ball around so much.

And Payton is right.

Colston
The way the Cleveland Browns made it their mission to devote heavy coverage to the Saints’ receivers downfield reminded me of a handful of games from last season (at Chicago, at New England and at Philadelphia in the playoffs). In those three games combined, Colston caught a total of five passes for 42 yards.

And just like the Saints did in those three games last season, they eventually adjusted to the Browns’ defensive plan. The Saints’ offense finally started rolling late in the second quarter and through the second half with a heavy dose of tight end Jimmy Graham and the run game.

“We got a lot of sub-packages, but I thought by and large we threw it pretty well. The targets sometimes are going to be different,” Payton said. “Jimmy ended up having one of his better games. That happens with our offense. I thought Kenny Stills was able to have an impact coming back. [Robert] Meachem had some big plays for us.

“I thought as that game went on Drew [Brees] did a good job of finding the matchups that were advantageous to us.”

The Saints’ four receivers combined for a total of nine catches, 79 yards and no touchdowns -- with three catches apiece for Brandin Cooks, Stills and Meachem.

It’s still a bit surprising that Colston couldn’t even match that type of output. And it's worth noting that Colston’s snaps were cut down from 64 in Week 1 to 41 in Week 2 (second behind Cooks’ 55 snaps, but still ahead of 29 apiece for Stills and Meachem).

“We felt he played too many the week prior,” Payton explained. “Managing the amount of snaps these guys get and trying to keep them from getting north of 50, for instance. We have depth there. Obviously Brandin received more snaps yesterday. That’s something that we will pay attention to each week.”

Still, there’s no reason to expect that Colston will be scaled back in the Saints’ offense on a weekly basis.

After all, Colston had five catches for 110 yards in Week 1, though his late fumble proved costly. And Colston has talked all summer about feeling healthier than he has in two years.

But Sunday’s game was a reminder that even the greatest pass catcher in Saints history isn’t immune to being passed over in this deep, diverse offense.
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan pointed the blame for the New Orleans Saints' 0-2 start squarely toward himself and the defense during an interview on the WWL Radio coaches' show on Monday night.

Like Sean Payton did earlier in the day, Ryan pointed to the defense's inability to finish and to assignment errors that have plagued the team in certain situations.

"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Ryan said, pointing to the end of both halves in Week 1 at Atlanta and the final drive in Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We want to be a great defense, and great defenses always finish. And that's something you just have to point the finger at us, and we have to get corrected."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
(Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.
Ryan said the defense has to do a better job of communicating. Obviously the most egregious example was a coverage breakdown on Cleveland's final offensive play, when cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White both covered the same receiver, leaving another wide open.

"These communication errors can't keep happening. Or we're just killing the team right now," Ryan said. "We know we're solely responsible for the two losses that we have. Our offense has been doing great, our special teams have been doing great.

"Hey, we have some good effort in places, and we've got some guys playing well. But as a unit that we take pride in, we've definitely failed us two weeks in a row."

When asked if the lack of practice time in the preseason for injured defensive backs like Jairus Byrd and Patrick Robinson is part of the problem, Ryan said nobody is saying that at all.

"We've limited our checks, and we still busted some things. So we can't have that. And that's not our style of play," Ryan said. "Right now, we need to develop our style of play and prove who we are. Right now we're not very good.

"We're gonna be great, we're gonna work at it. We've got the players, I know we've got the coaches here too. So together we've gotta do better quickly."

Some of the plays that irked both Payton and Ryan were obvious -- that final play and two pre-snap offside penalties (on Robinson in the first quarter and on Kenny Vaccaro on the final drive). It was Vaccaro's offside penalty that led to the moment when TV cameras captured Payton shouting and pointing at Ryan on the sideline.

Interestingly, both coaches also brought up a specific reference during their coaches' show interviews to a third-and-4 or third-and-3 play where the defense backed up and gave a receiver too much cushion.

Payton called it a "common sense thing we've got to correct." And Ryan said it was an "awareness issue you can't have," calling it "inexcusable" and "all on me."

Reviewing the tape, it appears that they might have been referencing a third-quarter play in which the Saints' defensive backs were still communicating right up until the snap as the Browns receivers motioned into a different formation, and Robinson backed up at the last moment before an easy 6-yard pass to Miles Austin.

Ryan was also asked about needing to get more of a pass rush out of the front four. He said that's absolutely needed, but he insisted he's confident the Saints can do that going forward.

And Ryan pointed out that the Saints defense wasn't exactly "gangbusters" in its first two games last year, despite a 2-0 start after two close victories.

Loomis' take: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis also spoke Monday at the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club. Loomis said, "There's no way to sugarcoat being 0-2," but he stressed that they have been total team losses and can't be pinned on any one unit, as chronicled by The Times-Picayune.
Peterson
Peterson
METAIRIE, La. -- Adrian Peterson's return to the football field will come Sunday against the New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Minnesota Vikings announced Monday that Peterson will return to work after he was held out of last Sunday's game following a grand jury indictment on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

"We're gonna have to prepare to play him, along with the rest of the team. That's the only thing," Payton said, keeping the focus strictly on football when asked Monday about the news of Peterson's return to the lineup.

"Obviously from a scheme standpoint, it's significant because of his ability," Payton said of the six-time Pro Bowl running back, who was named the NFL's MVP in 2012. "It's probably better to know that now than later in the week and try to prepare for all the different scenarios."

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

The Saints have had a handful of costly errors from every unit during their 0-2 start. The one common bond: They have to be smarter in their home debut Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.

Sean Payton said his biggest disappointment has been the struggles in "situational football," whether it be the blown coverage at the end of Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the missed blocking assignment on a sack or an offsides penalty on a field-goal attempt.

"That's the one thing that's stood out now, two weeks in a row," Payton said.

The most maddening yet was the blown coverage in the final seconds, when Cleveland receiver Andrew Hawkins broke wide open out of a bunch formation. Cornerbacks Corey White and Keenan Lewis both covered the same player, while Patrick Robinson was flagged for holding another receiver across the field.

“You gotta be able to handle bunch. You gotta be able to handle receiver motion,” Payton said. “I mean, shoot, when you play man-to-man like we do, you’re gonna get that.”

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro agreed, saying, “We’ve got smart players. It’s just disappointing that we're not playing up to our abilities. I put that on us.”
video
METAIRIE, La. -- Two thoughts immediately spring to mind following the news that New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram will be out for at least a month with a broken hand:

The negative: Geez, it sure feels like the Saints are in "anything that can go wrong" mode right now. They're 0-2, and they just lost arguably their most consistent player from the first two weeks.

The positive: If any team is equipped to handle such a loss, it's the Saints. They have great depth with both Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson available. Both guys are more than capable of filling the void. And because the Saints were in a running back timeshare anyway, Ingram was averaging only 14 touches per game.

Ingram
It seems like a huge disservice to Ingram, however, to suggest the Saints will be OK without him.

After three turbulent years filled with injuries and inconsistency, things were finally coming together for the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick this season.

Not only was Ingram healthy and running great -- did you see some of those cuts he made Sunday at Cleveland? -- he was finally playing the versatile role he has yearned for.

Since the Saints traded Darren Sproles in the offseason, Ingram was freed up to play in more versatile packages instead of the base and short-yardage packages to which he was mostly relegated in years past. Both of Ingram's touchdown runs at Atlanta in Week 1 came out of a shotgun formation with four receivers and tight ends split wide.

Ideally, the Saints will have similar success with Thomas and Robinson, both of whom also have played very well in less predictable roles this season.

The Saints' entire run game has been thriving since late last season, when Ingram and Robinson had breakout performances in the playoffs. And coach Sean Payton has shown faith in the run game during the first two weeks. So there's no reason to expect a significant drop-off now.

But hopefully for Ingram, the broken hand doesn't set him back much.

He has been passionate about finally breaking through over the past two seasons. His emotional, competitive nature was on display last year on the field against the Dallas Cowboys and last week on the sideline against the Atlanta Falcons.

And on top of everything else, this is a contract year for Ingram, who's hoping to prove to the Saints and any other prospective employers that he's capable of carrying the load for a team.

Patrick Robinson's struggles continue

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
10:00
PM ET
CLEVELAND -- As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, cornerback Patrick Robinson was hardly the only one with "muddy hands."

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
David Richard/AP PhotoSaints CB Patrick Robinson breaks up a pass to Browns receiver Travis Benjamin in the second quarter during Sunday's Week 2 game.
But no individual player will be more under the microscope going forward than the Saints' No. 2 cornerback, who was demoted to the role of nickel cornerback after two blown coverages in the first quarter Sunday.

"He's an easy target. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff he'll want to clean up. But there's a lot of muddy hands just to be singling out one player," Payton said. "He's gonna work to improve, and we've gotta look overall at how we're helping not just him, but the rest of those guys."

Payton later added he understands why the media had questions about Robinson. And the mid-game switch was reminiscent of Payton yanking left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup late last season.

But when asked if he might make a permanent switch, Payton said, "I'm not gonna discuss changes on Sunday after a game."

The Saints have other options -- but no sure things at a position that has become a much bigger concern than hoped this summer, when Robinson, Champ Bailey and Corey White were fighting for the role.

White was the one who replaced Robinson in base defense Sunday -- which could potentially become a permanent switch. And Bailey remains unsigned on the open market, so he can't be ruled out as a possibility.

The Saints have two rookie corners on the roster in Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, though both are still developing players. Jean-Baptiste has been inactive for both games so far, while Dixon has been used on special teams.

Or the Saints could continue to show the faith in Robinson that they showed in him when he beat out Bailey for the starting job in the first place this summer.

Robinson, a first-round draft pick in 2010, has had a roller-coaster career because of inconsistent play and injuries. But players and coaches have always raved about his raw talent and athleticism.

It's Robinson's confidence and consistency that need work. And it's hard to imagine these first two weeks have helped with Robinson's confidence. He also got beat for two deep balls last week at Atlanta.

"Just got to keep working," Robinson said Sunday, according to The Advocate. "You've got to keep working to get it right. Well, I'm not sure it's going to come overnight -- just have to keep working on my assignments, my technique. Simple as that."

Robinson's struggles began on the Browns' second series, when he was flagged for a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a third-and-7 play, even though the pass intended for receiver Taylor Gabriel was overthrown. Then, five plays later, Robinson got beat by a double move on a 3-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin.

On the next series, after he had been demoted to nickelback, Robinson was flagged for a neutral zone infraction, which nullified a missed field goal by Cleveland.

Robinson did settle in better for the rest of the game -- at one point making a great play to bat away a deep pass. But he added one more defensive holding penalty on the Browns' final offensive penalty (which would have been more egregious if the Browns hadn't declined the penalty because of an even worse coverage breakdown across the field).

Jimmy Graham shows his worth

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:15
PM ET
CLEVELAND -- Maybe Jimmy Graham has had more impressive days. But the New Orleans Saints tight end was never more important than Sunday.

It may seem like a moot point, since the Saints ultimately lost 26-24 to the Cleveland Browns in the final seconds. But Graham was the single biggest reason why the Saints were in a position to win after starting in a 16-3 hole.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Tony DejakJimmy Graham tied a career high with 10 receptions against the Browns.
Graham didn’t have a catch at that point in the game, with less than four minutes remaining in the first half. But he finished with 10 catches (matching a career high) for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

“That’s why they’re paying him so much money. That’s why he’s asking for that much, he’s that kind of impact player,” Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said, referencing the four-year, $40 million deal Graham signed this offseason. “We held him in check for a little, then he got loose and made his plays.”

On a day when nothing else seemed to be working for the Saints’ passing offense, Graham delivered time and again. No matter who was covering him -- including Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, whom Graham beat twice for big plays in tight man coverage.

“When you’re 6-7, 260 and you can run like a deer and jump out of the gym, you’re hard to cover,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “So obviously you saw him make some plays today. I thought he played exceptionally well.”

When asked if he ever gets in one of those zones where he feels like no one can stop him, Graham said, “You know, I’m not that cocky. But I’m confident that if Drew throws it up, I’m gonna try to get it for him.”

Graham certainly helped to dispel the myth that he can be taken out of games by a top cornerback.

Two of his biggest plays came when he was being blanketed by Haden – a 9-yard TD pass with three seconds left in the first half and a 20-yard pass to the 3-yard line that set up another TD in the fourth quarter.

The notion that Graham doesn’t have the same impact when covered by cornerbacks became popular when the New England Patriots’ Aqib Talib had success against him last year. And it was oft-mentioned when Graham was trying to be declared a receiver for franchise-tag purposes this summer.

But Graham proved that his size advantage can still prove too much for even top cornerbacks.

When asked if he invites teams trying to cover him that way, Graham said, “Yeah, I guess. If they’re gonna cover me with a cornerback, I’ve gotta find a way to get open.”

Graham also added high praise for Haden, who certainly had a successful day aside from those two plays.

The Browns’ passing defense did an outstanding job of frustrating Brees and his receivers throughout the day. At times, they had seven defensive backs on the field, leaving no one open -- and sometimes leading to costly results.

That pass coverage led to Brees being sacked against the goal line in the first quarter when he held the ball too long. It led to an interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter when Brees heaved one over Graham’s head under pressure. And it kept receiver Marques Colston without a catch (or even a single target) for the first time in 87 games.

But the Browns couldn’t find an answer for Graham.

“Jimmy Graham is a special player that has a special talent,” Haden said. “I ran up to him after the game, and we just both paid homage. He was telling me how good I was at corner, but he is just a really big target. Sometimes it is really hard to make plays on the ball; you have to try and get under him. Once he gets that big frame in front of you, it’s kind of hard to hit that ball.”

Saints pin bad start on bad finishes

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
7:30
PM ET
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."
Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns:

Brees
Unfinished product: The word “finish” was uttered by just about every player in the Saints’ locker room after they let another lead slip away in the final seconds. Yes, they had a lot of problems throughout Sunday’s loss. But as quarterback Drew Brees pointed out, they are “literally” one play away in each game from being 2-0. And last season, they started 2-0 in the exact opposite fashion with last-minute wins. … That didn’t help erase anybody’s frustration, but it hasn’t sapped this team’s confidence yet. Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted any "crisis" will only come from the outside.

Payton-Ryan exchange: The TV cameras caught Saints coach Sean Payton shouting and pointing at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sideline early in the Browns’ game-winning field goal drive. When asked afterward if that was normal, Payton responded, “Every game. Yeah, every game.” … Obviously we don’t see (or notice) that exact type of exchange on a weekly basis. But it certainly matches with Payton’s animated, emotional persona on game days -- especially considering the circumstances of the game.

Dansby’s secret info: According to ESPN.com Browns reporter Pat McManamon, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said he heard the Saints’ line call on a crucial third-and-5 play at Cleveland’s 31-yard line late in the fourth quarter (that they were going to protect outside right). So Dansby said he knew he could get a free lane up the middle for a sack against Brees. Indeed, Dansby flew in untouched and knocked the Saints out of field goal range.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
4:30
PM ET

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: Disaster isn't the right word, but disappointment would also be a huge understatement. Maybe disgust fits?

I’m sure the Saints will insist that they aren’t in panic mode after their 0-2 start that came down to two last-second field goals. And they shouldn't be -- yet. But now they'll be in scratch-and-claw mode to dig themselves out of an unexpected hole. This isn’t where anyone -- including the Saints -- expected them to be in a season that started with Super Bowl expectations.

The Saints' offense has shown a ton of promise, which offers hope for the future. But both units can share equally in the blame after a game that started with a disastrous 16-3 deficit thanks in large part to an interception return for a touchdown by the Browns. In the end, though, it was the defense that allowed the Browns to march 14 plays and 85 yards for the winning field goal drive in the final minutes.

Stock watch: The Saints' secondary still has issues, but it was much-improved for large stretches of this game. Cornerback Patrick Robinson struggled mightily early in the game, with two costly penalties and allowing a short TD pass. He was demoted to the nickelback spot. Then the final drive was capped by an assignment breakdown for a wide-open pass to set up the field goal.

The good news is that the Saints were better with their open-field tackling, especially Kenny Vaccaro. But this was supposed to be more of a shutdown unit, especially against a Browns passing offense that didn’t have Josh Gordon or Jordan Cameron at its disposal.

Game ball: On a day when nothing else was working, the Saints could still rely on go-to tight end Jimmy Graham in a huge way. He didn’t have a catch for the first 26 minutes but finished with 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He did it no matter the matchup, even beating Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on two big plays.

Running strong: The Saints also relied heavily on their run game while patiently coming back on a day when the Browns weren’t letting the Saints get the ball down the field to receivers. Mark Ingram was outstanding with 11 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown plus three catches for 21 yards. The Saints want more balance, though. They didn’t complete a pass to receiver Marques Colston and completed only three short passes to receiver Brandin Cooks.

What’s next: The best news of all for the Saints is that they’ll be back in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next week, where they went 8-0 last season. And they’ll be hosting the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a must-win if ever there was one in September.

W2W4: Saints at Browns

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
1:00
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- When considering Sunday's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, I can't help but think of LSU's season opener against Wisconsin as a worthy comparison that Louisiana football fans might appreciate -- for better and for worse.

LSU didn't handle the clash of styles well at first, with the Badgers outrushing the Tigers 182-17 in the first half and jumping to a 24-7 lead in the third quarter. But LSU's superior talent and athleticism eventually won out, with the second half looking like a blowout.

Another good comparison: the Saints' last meeting against Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator last year. The Saints beat Buffalo 35-17, but here's what I wrote in my Rapid Reaction following that game: "Oddly enough, the Saints' offense started a little slow and sloppy in this one. Yet it still wound up with 35 points and five touchdown passes from Drew Brees."

Here's What 2 Watch 4:

Browns' stout defense: Saints players and coaches have widely praised Cleveland's underrated defense. And the subject they point out most is how big and physical the Browns' front seven is with a true 3-4 front in the style of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, etc.

"Their guys are huge," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "They're big and strong and athletic. You look at them on film, they're just massive guys. So you're gonna have to be disciplined and know that it's gonna be a fight."

The Browns have proven talent throughout the defense, from Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner to linebacker Karlos Dansby and nose tackle Phil Taylor, among others. Pettine's former team is a great comparison. The Bills' underrated defense sacked Brees four times last year and held the Saints to less than three yards per rush.

Browns' stout offensive line: Likewise, the Browns have an underrated offensive line, led by perhaps the league's best tackle in Joe Thomas and the league's best center in Alex Mack. Cleveland features a zone-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the mold of his father, Mike Shanahan, and the Browns will stubbornly stick to it even with top running back Ben Tate sidelined by an injury this week.

They'll run a lot of play-action out of that front. And they'll also probably trot out some of the no-huddle offense that was so effective for quarterback Brian Hoyer in the second half of their near-comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. So they'll force the Saints to be disciplined on defense -- which was already a huge point of emphasis after the Saints struggled so much with missed tackles in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Ripe for the picking: Enough about the problems the Browns will cause. How about the monster problem the Saints will cause -- their deep and diverse passing offense, which looked as good as ever in Week 1. Rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks emerged as yet another matchup nightmare for a Saints offense that is loaded with them (Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and possibly the healthy return of Kenny Stills).

Haden is an outstanding corner for the Browns, and No. 2 corner Buster Skrine is solid. But the Browns' own first-round draft pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert, struggled as the nickel back in his debut last week. As Pettine learned last year, even when the Saints start sloppy, they have a deadly quick-strike ability.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD