NFC South: New Orleans Saints

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
11:00
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A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

No quarterback in the NFL has been worse while under duress this year than Drew Brees, who needs to start making better decisions under pressure when the Saints (2-4) host the Green Bay Packers (5-2) on Sunday night.

Brees now has a league-worst passer rating of 19.4 when he's either under duress or being hit, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- a number that has plummeted with three ugly interceptions over the past two games against the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brees has completed 20 of 47 passes for 199 yards while under pressure with zero touchdowns, four interceptions and five sacks.

The good news is Brees has been under pressure on only 20.4 percent of his dropbacks this year -- a rate that ranks sixth best among NFL teams once you throw out the sack against punter Thomas Morstead on a flopped fake punt at the Dallas Cowboys.

And, at times, Brees and the Saints' offensive line have looked outstanding, like they did during the first three-plus quarters at Detroit this past Sunday, when Brees completed 26 of 32 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.

But then suddenly, the Saints line couldn't seem to block anyone in the Lions' stifling defensive front as they coughed up a 13-point lead in a stunning 24-23 loss. Brees threw a career-high 10 straight incomplete passes in the fourth quarter -- including a game-changing interception he admitted was too telegraphed.

Left tackle Terron Armstead got beat on that play, and he allowed at least three pressures in the fourth quarter. So did guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. Right tackle Zach Strief allowed at least two.

Saints coach Sean Payton expressed very little concern over Brees, though, when asked if he thinks he's pressing too much.

"No, I don't," Payton said. "Obviously [you] want to have the one interception back, but I felt like his decision-making and rhythm, I felt like his week of preparation and how he played all during the practice week was outstanding. He's going to be just fine. He's the least of our worries."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton didn't offer updates on any of the various injuries that piled up for the New Orleans Saints during Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

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But cornerback Keenan Lewis insisted, "I'll be ready," without getting into any of the specifics of what knocked him out of the game late in the fourth quarter. Payton said after the game it was hamstring and cramping issues.

The Saints certainly hope Lewis will be back this week, since they'll need their top corner more than ever Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers and their dynamic passing offense.

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The nature of running back Pierre Thomas' injury remains unknown. He appeared to be in pain as he punched the ground and lay there for a couple minutes as trainers tended to him in the third quarter after a hard hit to his left arm/shoulder area. But Thomas got up soon after and sat on the bench before later walking into the locker room with a medical staff member.

Center Jonathan Goodwin left via a cart with an unspecified leg injury. The severity is unknown, but Goodwin and teammates reacted on the field as though it might be significant before he was helped off the field by trainers.

Defensive end Glenn Foster was also ruled out of the game with a knee injury and was later seen on crutches. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley was ruled out after being tested for a possible concussion. And receiver Kenny Stills was sidelined on two separate occasions for undisclosed reasons. He mentioned afterward that he was ill, but it's unclear if that's the only issue he was dealing with.
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton was upbeat Monday as he dissected many of the encouraging aspects of the New Orleans Saints' performance in their 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday. But the coach clearly remained frustrated by some of the officiating calls throughout the game after watching the tape.

Although Payton tried to bite his tongue on several occasions, he couldn’t resist throwing a few jabs at the officiating -- even when he was answering questions on unrelated topics.

Payton
Payton
“Now obviously, listen, we’re not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place -- and I referenced the officiating (Sunday), and I’m gonna leave it at that, but that’s not the reason we lost this game yesterday,” Payton said during his opening statement Monday.

Later, Payton added, “There’s some adversity that takes place with road trips. But then that outside adversity you’re not preparing on. Some of these penalties, you’ve gotta overcome 'em.”

Payton only mentioned one specific instance -- when no flag was thrown on a third-down play midway through the fourth quarter after running back Travaris Cadet was "tackled around the head" when he was heading out to catch a screen pass.

When asked if he could identify any of the other specific calls, Payton said, “I don’t even want to start. It’ll cost me money (in a possible league fine).”

But Payton said in general that, “It’s the calls that they saw that nothing really happened, those are the ones that are a lot harder to swallow. The ones that they explain to you on the game field that this is what they saw, and then you watch the tape ... those are more difficult. But that can’t be our crutch, certainly not on a Monday.”

Payton, who was seen on TV giving an earful to referee Terry McAulay as time expired in the game, also acknowledged that the officials “have got a tough job now, make no mistake about it.” And he said, “Listen, they’re not different than me or the players: They have good games and they have bad games. That’s the truth.”

When it was pointed out that he doesn’t usually harp on the officiating like this, Payton said, “I’m not going to.” And when asked if he’s worried about hearing from the league, Payton said, “No, but it’s pretty clear. And that’s why I haven’t gone into detail about anything.”

When asked if he would send a request to the league to review some of the calls, Payton said, “Typically you don’t mess with it. And really it doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta get on to the next game. So it’s important that all of a sudden you don’t spend half your Monday consumed with what wasn’t ... or what was called that later you find out it wasn’t.”

There were at least three other noteworthy judgment calls that could have drawn Payton’s ire.

The costliest was a defensive pass interference penalty against safety Rafael Bush that gave the Lions new life after a fourth-down incompletion with 2:17 remaining. Bush was flagged for making contact with the intended receiver, running back Reggie Bush. The Saints safety clearly did have his arm wrapped around Reggie Bush's arm, though it was unclear how egregious the contact was. Color analyst Ronde Barber (a former longtime defensive back) agreed with the call on the TV broadcast.

In the second quarter, Barber also agreed with a 31-yard pass interference penalty against rookie cornerback Brian Dixon, who initiated some light arm contact with receiver Golden Tate before both players stumbled and fell to the turf.

The most objectionable pass interference call was probably the one against Saints receiver Marques Colston that nullified a big gain to Pierre Thomas on third down in the third quarter. Colston’s contact with linebacker Josh Bynes appeared to be incidental after Bynes stumbled over a teammate.

A 15-yard personal foul penalty against center Tim Lelito for an illegal blindside block on Kenny Stills' end-around early in the fourth quarter was another costly judgment call.

The Saints finished with 12 penalties for 134 yards, while the Lions had nine for 71 yards.
METAIRIE, La. -- For the first time all year, Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints resembled the team they expected to be this season.

And though it ended with a painful 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions after blowing a 13-point lead in the final four minutes, Payton said it was important for him to send a positive message to the team on Monday.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDespite the loss, Coach Sean Payton said it was the best the defense has played this season.
"It was the first game we played this year where I felt like there was a markedly different team from the last game, even [compared to a] victory versus Tampa, and how we looked. That's encouraging," Payton said. "And the reason is all we've talked about is that improvement from week to week. You guys [in the media] hear me say it all the time, 'We're in a race to improve.' And I felt like I saw more and we saw more in that game than we had in the prior five, with regards to improvement.

"Now obviously, listen, we're not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place (including the officiating, which I'll expand on later today after Payton again expressed his frustration Monday). … And we weren't able to finish. But when watching the tape, I'm encouraged with a lot of the improvement that I saw."

Obviously Payton and players acknowledged that they still need to clean up mistakes related to execution and scheme, etc., especially in those final minutes where they've now coughed up three leads this season en route to a 2-4 record.

But Payton's emphasis was more on things like energy, work ethic during the practice week and even that "edge" that had been missing for most of this season.

"I wouldn't come up and tell you guys, ‘Hey, I'll be shocked if we don't play lights out and win this game.' But this would have been a week where I would have said that," Payton said. "And I felt like the preparation leading up to it and the focus, that's the thing that was encouraging. And I felt like it was different. …

"I think it's important that they need to see that. Look, it's frustrating and it's tough when you expend that energy and come off the bye with a good plan and at the very end you still come away empty-handed. That can be very difficult and very frustrating. And yet, I think it's important that they recognize here's some of the things that were different. This is what we saw differently. This is why we resembled a little more of the team we expected for the first time.

"If we continue to make that same progress and improvement, this team will be alright."

Payton said it was "by far" the best game the Saints played defensively, with season-highs of two takeaways and three sacks. But obviously the defense ultimately collapsed with breakdowns on both of Detroit's late touchdown passes (a 73-yarder to Golden Tate on third-and-14 and a 5-yarder to Corey Fuller on third-and-goal).

As a result, the Saints' defensive players seemed torn Monday between that frustration and that encouragement.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis said you can't ever walk away happy after a loss -- whether there was improvement or not. And many other defensive players offered some variation of what linebacker Curtis Lofton said Sunday afternoon: "A loss is a loss, regardless, they all suck and you hate the feeling of them."

At the same time, players stressed that they remain united and focused on continuing to improve after seeing more signs of that improvement Sunday.

"We know we have to finish games, and that's something we will work on this week," Saints end Cameron Jordan said. "When you lose close games like that, it's heartbreaking. When you dominate for three quarters and you end up letting off in the last couple minutes, it completely changes the game. It definitely hurts, and this is a tough game to swallow."

But, Jordan also said, "There were a lot of great things in that game. That's why we're upbeat."
DETROIT -- The worst part about the New Orleans Saints' worst defensive collapse of the season was that they had played their best game of the season for 55-plus minutes.

With 4:47 remaining, the Saints led the Detroit Lions 23-10, and Detroit had a total of 240 yards.

The Saints had a season-high two interceptions -- one by cornerback Keenan Lewis early and one by safety Kenny Vaccaro that appeared to clinch the game midway through the fourth quarter.

The Saints had a season-high three sacks -- including one by linebacker Parys Haralson that forced a third-and-10.

Then came the breakdowns: on that third-and-10, a 21-yard pass from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to receiver Corey Fuller. And three plays later, a 73-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to receiver Golden Tate on third-and-14.

A few minutes later, Stafford threw the go-ahead 5-yard touchdown pass to Fuller after a pass-interference penalty on fourth down.

"It just flashed," said Vaccaro, one of many Saints who were torn between taking some positives from the overall effort and feeling exasperation because it was their third blown loss in the final minutes this season.

"It's the league, though. Anything can happen at any time," Vaccaro said. "You're feeling good about yourself sitting there at 23-10. Then, blink, now we're back in here talking to y'all [the media] about what happened."

The biggest dagger of all -- not just Sunday, but this entire season -- was the touchdown pass to Tate, which was a short, innocent-looking pass that was actually a little underthrown.

The Saints were in a Cover 3, prevent-style defense. But cornerback Corey White saw an opportunity to jump the route. And then Tate sneaked in and undercut White instead.

As a result, White was in the air and wasn't in position to tackle Tate. Then Tate burned past Vaccaro and Lewis, with safety Rafael Bush too far away to get over and make a tackle.

"I should've made that play," White said. "I had a good beat on the route, and I was going for the interception, and he just kind of stepped in front of me. I didn't know where he was. I knew he was behind me, but I didn't know whether or not he could work back to the ball, and that's what he did.

"Of course you're stunned. A play you could have made, and you look up and it's going the whole distance. And you're like, 'Man, if only I made the play it'd be over.'"

The Lions got a short field to work with on their next series after Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception, but the Saints' defense appeared to hold tight before Bush was flagged for defensive pass interference on fourth down for hooking the arm of running back Reggie Bush.

Two plays later, Saints rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste allowed Fuller to run straight past him wide open for a touchdown -- an apparent missed assignment by Jean-Baptiste, who was playing for the first time this season because Lewis was battling injuries late in the game (cramps/hamstring/knee based on varying accounts).

"I'm sick of it," Lewis said, according to The Times-Picayune. "I'm tired of all of this losing. It doesn't matter if you lose by one. A loss is a loss, and it's going down in the record book.

"We've got to find a way to finish games. All since OTAs, minicamp, that's what Coach has been saying. All the gassers we run, we've got to finish games."

That's exactly what the Saints' defense did two weeks ago in a 37-31 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And they carried that momentum through the bye week to the start of this game. The defense actually kept the Saints afloat while New Orleans' offense took a while to get going Sunday in Detroit.

That's why there was still some pride and optimism mixed in with all the frustration after Sunday's loss.

"I've had games where as a defense you walk away with a bad taste. But this one, we grew," Vaccaro said. "But in the end you've gotta finish. … You can't give up a 75-yard play when we're in a Cover 3, prevent-type defense, third-and-forever."
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DETROIT -- Sean Payton was clearly upset by some of the officiating calls in the New Orleans Saints' 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions. He was caught yelling toward referee Terry McAulay as time expired. Then he admitted as much in his postgame news conference.

“I thought the penalties ended up hurting us. I wasn’t happy with the way that game was officiated, I’m gonna leave it at that. And yet that wasn’t the reason in the end,” Payton said.

It’s unclear which calls drew Payton’s ire, though there were certainly some major calls in the game that could have been considered judgment calls.

The costliest was a defensive pass interference penalty against safety Rafael Bush that gave the Lions new life after a fourth-down incomplete pass with 2:17 remaining. Bush was flagged for making contact with the intended receiver, running back Reggie Bush.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, Saints quarterback Drew Brees appeared to be campaigning for a call when he threw the ball away into the turf and had to settle for a field goal. In the second quarter, Saints cornerback Brian Dixon was flagged for a 31-yard pass interference penalty that may have been considered incidental contact and led to a Lions field goal. And in the third, an offensive pass interference call against receiver Marques Colston nullified a big gain on third down.

The Saints finished with 12 accepted penalties for 134 yards, while the Lions had nine for 71 yards.
DETROIT -- You wouldn’t know it by looking at the box score, but New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham indeed returned from his shoulder injury and played a limited role in a 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

Graham
Graham didn’t catch a pass and was targeted only twice. An official snap count was not immediately available, but Graham appeared to play roughly 20 snaps or more, mostly in clear passing situations -- including the ill-fated final drive.

Graham wasn’t available to the media after the game as he iced down his shoulder.

Saints coach Sean Payton said “there was a handful of plays tagged for” Graham. But he pointed out that the Saints actually played very few snaps in the red zone, which is where Graham might have been a bigger factor.

“He was in the nickel, some of the third down, some of the red zone,” Payton said. “We kind of did the same thing a year ago [when Graham returned from a plantar fasciitis injury] against Buffalo. We kind of had a set plan in place for him, and the challenge is just making sure you’re ready if you’re not playing on a more frequent basis.”

It’s tough to predict how much Graham’s role will increase in the coming weeks. He doesn’t appear to have any limitations when it comes to catching the ball, but his ability to block and absorb contact will likely be bigger determining factors.
videoDETROIT -- Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have lost their killer instinct. And it's killing their season.

Brees threw his costliest interception to date Sunday while the Saints coughed up a 13-point lead over the final four minutes in a stunning 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

It was the third time this season New Orleans (2-4) blew a lead in the final minutes.

And though the defense certainly played its part in the meltdown, Brees shouldered the brunt of the blame, being about as hard on himself as he has ever been in his nine years with the Saints.

"The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down. And that's the way I feel right now with that interception," said Brees, who admitted he keyed in on receiver Marques Colston for a beat too long, allowing Lions safety Glover Quin to step in front of the pass with 3:15 remaining and the Saints leading 23-17.

It was Brees' first interception of the day and his seventh of the season.

"Listen, turnovers are gonna happen at times, especially at the quarterback position," Brees continued. "You've gotta throw with anticipation, you've gotta take chances at times. And I guess on the flip side you've gotta know when to take a chance -- when to try to fit a ball in there, or when to throw it away, take a sack, scramble, whatever it might be, and make sure the ball stays in your hands.

"And unfortunately that's a critical time of the game where a turnover cannot happen, and I'm responsible for that. That one's on me."

Brees and the Saints' offense got a chance to redeem themselves with 1:48 remaining, but they couldn't deliver. Brees completed just two of seven passes, scrambling for New Orleans' only first down on the ill-fated drive.

That failure was almost as disappointing as the interception itself. Brees is the guy the Saints desperately need to lead them out of this year's freefall. They're in big trouble when he's helping to create some of the adversity.

Yes, that's demanding more out of Brees than anyone else on the team -- the offensive line also started to falter down the stretch after a terrific start. But that's the standard Brees has set for himself over nine years. Heck, that's the standard he set in this game until the fourth quarter.

Brees was outstanding through three quarters Sunday, completing 25 of 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, including the long completion -- a 46-yarder to Kenny Stills -- that had been missing all year. It was Brees' best work of the season, coming on a day when tight end Jimmy Graham was a non-factor while being limited by a shoulder injury and the Saints' run game was a non-factor because of Detroit's dominant defensive front.

Then in the fourth, Brees was 3-of-14 for 17 yards and a pick. His passer rating was 131.9 through three quarters and 9.8 in the fourth.

Simply put, Brees isn't allowed to have collapses like that. The Saints can't afford it -- certainly not now, with their season on the brink.

Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't as hard on Brees as Brees was on himself, saying there were "too many elements of the game to look specifically at one individual." But Payton certainly pointed to the overall failure to finish.

"I felt like most of the game we had good control over it. And we let it slip," he said.

The only saving grace for New Orleans is that the entire NFC South has been mediocre this year, with the Carolina Panthers leading the division at 3-3-1.

Check that. The Saints' other saving grace is that they still have Brees, who remains defiantly optimistic and confident -- and still offers their best hope at recovery for this season if he can just find that missing mojo.

"There's no quit in this football team," Brees said. "I mean, 2-4 is not where we want to be. But I told the guys after -- and this is what I believe -- 'No better way to get back on track than to go home on "Sunday Night Football" against the Green Bay Packers, who are rolling right now, and find a way to win.

"That's the only thing we can control at this point, and that's what our focus is gonna be."

Drew Brees says he let Saints down

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions:

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Brees takes blame: Saints quarterback Drew Brees took this about as personally as I can ever remember him taking a loss, blaming himself for the interception he threw in the final minutes as Detroit rallied from a 23-10 deficit.

"The worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down. And that's the way I feel right now with that interception," said Brees, who was sensational for most of the first 56 minutes before throwing his only pick to safety Glover Quin on that third-and-9 play.

Brees said he felt like he looked at receiver Marques Colston for a beat too long before throwing the pass.

'No quit': There was no sign of implosion in the Saints' locker room. Players repeatedly insisted there's "no quit" in this team, and some drew on the positives while lamenting the inability to "finish." The only blame mentioned was pointed inward, with leaders like Brees, coach Sean Payton and offensive tackle Zach Strief saying it's on them.

Payton upset with officiating: Payton was clearly upset with some of the calls in the game. He was seen yelling at officials and admitted afterward, "I wasn't happy with how the game was officiated, but I'll leave it at that." He quickly added that's not why the Saints lost.

Injuries pile up: Center Jonathan Goodwin (knee), defensive end Glenn Foster (knee) and nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (concussion) were officially ruled out of the game early. Later, running back Pierre Thomas (undisclosed), receiver Kenny Stills (undisclosed) and cornerback Keenan Lewis were also hobbled. Lewis referenced his injury as a knee, while Payton said hamstring and cramps. The severity of each injury remains unknown. Foster was spotted on crutches and Stills said he was dealing with an illness.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field:

What it means: Somehow the Saints (2-4) managed to come up with their ugliest, most painful loss yet in a season filled with them. They blew a 23-10 lead with less than four minutes remaining thanks to huge breakdowns by the defense and quarterback Drew Brees.

The defense allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate and a 5-yard TD pass to Corey Fuller in the final minutes, and Brees threw an interception inside his own territory as the lead -- and possibly the season -- rapidly disintegrated.

The only saving grace for New Orleans is that the entire NFC South is in turmoil, with no teams over .500. And the Saints still have six home games remaining. But they can't expect to win anything if they can't close out games.

Stock watch: Brees' stock rose and fell dramatically in this game. He was clutch for 56 minutes, finally rediscovering his receivers on a day when tight end Jimmy Graham and the run game were nonfactors. But Brees threw his most costly interception of the season from his own 29-yard line with 3:20 remaining. Safety Glover Quin cut in front of a pass intended for receiver Marques Colston to snag the pick on third-and-9.

Brees was then unable to march his team back in the final minutes for a possible game-winning field goal, completing just 2 of 7 passes on the final desperate drive with only one first down. He finished 28-of-45 for 342 yards, two touchdowns (including a 46-yard strike to Kenny Stills) and the one interception.

The defense was just as much of a roller coaster, with interceptions by Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro nullified by the late breakdowns.

Graham a nonfactor: Graham did play and probably wound up playing close to 20 or 30 snaps by unofficial count. But he was targeted only twice and didn't catch a pass. It’s unclear if the Saints intentionally left him out of the game plan or if he was covered on plays designed for him. He is heading in the right direction with his shoulder injury, though -- and the Saints will need him going forward.

Game ball: Colston and Stills reluctantly get the nod since Brees and the defensive backs had too many highs and lows. Colston hauled in six receptions for 111 yards, many of them resulting in big hits over the middle. And Stills caught five passes for 103 yards and the 46-yard TD on a day when the Saints absolutely needed their receivers to come through.

What's next: The opponents don't get any easier for the Saints, who host the sizzling Green Bay Packers (5-2) next Sunday night. But the Saints love the setting. They have won 13 straight prime-time games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome by an average of roughly 20 points per game.
DETROIT -- The New Orleans Saints released veteran tight end Tom Crabtree and promoted linebacker Todd Davis from their practice squad Saturday.

Crabtree was signed just 11 days ago in the wake of tight end Jimmy Graham's shoulder injury. So his release could be taken as a good sign that Graham could possibly play Sunday against the Detroit Lions. That remains speculation, though. Graham said he would be a game-day decision after he practiced on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday.

The Saints also might have considered Crabtree expendable since fullback Erik Lorig has finally returned from an ankle injury -- and sometimes the positions are interchangeable in New Orleans' offense.

The Saints needed an extra body at linebacker because backups Ramon Humber and Kyle Knox were ruled out with ankle injuries. Davis is an undrafted rookie from Sacramento State who was with the Saints in training camp.
METAIRIE, La. – It’s flown a bit under the radar since the New Orleans Saints have had so many other concerns during their 2-3 start. But the Saints certainly aren’t ignoring the fact that they’re ranked dead last in the NFL in punt return average.

The Saints are averaging just 2.0 yards per punt return, with a total of 10 yards on five returns by rookie receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints also have 13 fair catches.

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“It’s an area we have to be better at. We feel like we’ve got a guy that can return them. So this bye week, that’s been a real big point of emphasis,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who pinned the blame more on the overall performance of the blockers than Cooks.

“I don’t know that it’s the returner,” Payton said. “I think when I look at it – and you try to look at it closely – I think the returner’s ready. The other 10 need to be.”

Cooks, meanwhile, said he personally takes the responsibility on himself. He said he should be able to do better, “being that athlete I am.”

“I have to just trust it. Trust the scheme, trust myself,” Cooks said. “Hit it hard and make something happen.”

The Saints’ punt return average wasn’t much better the past two years with Darren Sproles, either – ranking 30th in 2013 at 6.1 yards per return and 26th in 2012 at 7.6 yards per return.

When asked if he believes the return game is one of those things where it’s hard to put a finger on the specific problems – if big returns sometimes come in bunches like turnovers – Payton said no.

“No, you can put your finger on it. It’s like defense or offensive football. It’s not just, ‘Well, it’ll come,’” Payton said. “There are things you have to do in regards to staying on your blocks, fitting, understanding the return, the scheme that’s being run and then looking closely at, ‘Hey, the scheme itself, does it fit what we’re trying to do?’ The holdup players …

“I haven’t been disappointed with the effort, but the technique and obviously the results, the production hasn’t been good.”
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said coach Sean Payton will decide after a pregame evaluation on Sunday morning whether the tight end will be to play through his shoulder injury against the Detroit Lions.

“Sean said he’s gonna test it and then see where I’m at,” Graham said. “So if I can, I can. If I can’t, I can’t.”

Payton declined comment. Graham was officially listed as questionable on the Saints' injury report after participating in Friday's full-team drills on a limited basis.

Graham
Graham didn’t offer many specific details on the injury, which he suffered two weeks ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- other than to acknowledge that “it’s painful.” But he said he has been making progress after returning to team drills for the first time on a limited basis Thursday.

“I’m all right. It’s been better. I’ve had better days,” Graham said. “Right now, it’s been an OK week. …

“They’ve done a great job here (the training and medical staff), but you know we’ll see on Sunday. I actually don’t know. … Hopefully maybe in two days I’ll feel better.”

Graham tried to keep playing after he first suffered the injury, staying in the game for two more series after several chats with trainers and doctors on the sideline. Eventually, though, he was taken into the locker room for X-rays and did not return for the second half.

Graham laughed when asked if the Saints had a hard time convincing him to leave the field.

“You know, I played until I couldn’t really move it anymore,” Graham said. “So I just had to do what’s smart, and the doctors were smart. And Sean said if it was too much, then I needed to come out. So I had to do that. But Josh [Hill] and Ben [Watson] had a great game and they’re fantastic players, so with or without me they’re gonna do plenty to help this team win.”

It’s possible the Saints could opt to use Graham in a limited role, mostly in the red zone, which is what they did last year while he was recovering from a plantar fasciitis injury. Graham played just 18 snaps in that game against the Buffalo Bills and caught two touchdown passes.

But in this case it’s hard to predict anything based on Graham’s practice participation since he doesn’t face any contact in practice.

When asked if he would have any objections to being used in such a limited role, Graham said, “Well, who doesn’t just want the ball in the red zone? If I could do that for the next 20 years, I would. But that’s not how it works at tight end. So, you know, I just want to get back on the field as soon as I can and I’ll wait and see whenever I’m allowed to.”

On his conference call with the Detroit media Wednesday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton clicked off “eight asterisks” on the paper in front of him.

Those would be the direct ties between the Saints and the Detroit Lions, including Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and running backs Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Jed Collins and all the way to position coaches.

Will that help either team Sunday? Tough to say, but Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Saints reporter Mike Triplett will tell you all you need to know for this week’s matchup.

Rothstein: Let's start with Drew Brees. Without Lombardi, he has his lowest passer rating and QBR in a few seasons. Is Lombardi part of the reason for that, or is it something else with the veteran quarterback?

Triplett: Brees’ performance has been under the microscope around here, as you might imagine with the Saints off to a 2-3 start. Especially since he just had his worst performance of the season before the bye with three interceptions against Tampa Bay (two of them trying to force the ball while being hit). But even on that “bad” day, Brees threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns and led the team back from an 11-point deficit to win 37-31 in overtime.

Overall, I still think Brees has been really sharp. He was leading all full-time starters in completion percentage through four weeks. He’s just been “taking what the defense gives him” and settling for shorter throws to tight end Jimmy Graham, rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and the running backs. If Graham can’t play with a shoulder injury, the Saints will have to rediscover their downfield passing game.

As for Lombardi, it’s hard to say Brees misses him since he still has Payton and longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. around. But I do think Lombardi is really sharp and I was glad to see him get his shot there. What has he brought to the offense -- and how will he adjust if Calvin Johnson can’t play?

Rothstein: It's been interesting because the offense has been quite mediocre this season after years of being one of the best units in the league under Scott Linehan. Part of that goes to protection, as Matthew Stafford has been pummeled (21 sacks and counting through six games). But the run game has stalled and Stafford still appears to be gaining comfort in the offense. The offense has been the big question around here, but only this week has Lombardi's play calling really come into question. Head coach Jim Caldwell was asked about it and supported Lombardi.

The play calling hasn't really been the issue. It has been the protection and Stafford. I thought he adjusted well with Johnson either hobbled or out. Golden Tate has been dynamic in this offense, taking those short and intermediate routes and busting them for big gains. He's sixth in the league in yards (495) and fourth in yards after catch with 257 -- and the highest-rated receiver on the team. He, not Johnson, has been the player to really move the ball for Detroit so far this season.

If Johnson doesn't play, screen passes will once again play a role, as will getting the ball to Tate in space. But, unlike last week against Minnesota, the Lions are going to have to put up points to win this game. That goes into my next question. The Saints haven't seemed to generate much pass rush. Is that because of injuries in the secondary or overall skill?

Triplett: The Saints' missing pass rush has probably been the biggest surprise this season. They have real bona fide talent up front that just hasn't been producing the way it did last year (Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette and end Akiem Hicks). Maybe offenses have been game-planning especially for them (quicker throws, double teams, etc.) But the Saints know they have to simply produce better, and this is the strength of their defense that they're really going to count on to turn their season around. It sounds as if the Lions might provide them an opportunity to get something started, but, if Detroit's been watching film, it'll know those quick throws to Tate and the screen game could be effective against a Saints secondary that hasn't tackled well in the open field.

How big of a weapon has Bush been in that regard? This will be the first time the Saints have faced him since they traded him in 2011.

Rothstein: Bush has been useful for the Lions, but I'd argue he was more effective last season, when he was a 1,000-yard rusher, than he has been this year. Part of that has to do with a fairly anemic Detroit run game, but he also has his lowest yards per reception since 2011 (7.1). Bush is still an effective player and has not lost much of his speed, but Linehan used him differently than Lombardi has. If Detroit is able to fix its run issues, he should still be extremely effective, and he has been helpful for the Lions, but he hasn't been as much of a game-changer this season as he was last season.

The Lions have talked a lot about Brees' ability to avoid sacks. How does he manage to do that?

Triplett: Normally I would say it’s because Brees dissects the field so well and makes smart, quick decisions. But, as I said, that wasn’t the case with two of his interceptions in the last game when taking the sack would have been the smarter choice.

In general, though, Brees has always been good about stepping up into the pocket (either the cause or the effect of the Saints investing heavily in Pro Bowl guards over the years). And he does make smart, quick decisions. His favorite receiver is always the “open man” instead of getting locked into targets. And even though he throws for 5,000-plus yards every season, he also has set the NFL record for completion percentage twice. This is still a West Coast-style offense at its heart.

It sounds as if he won’t have it easy against this Lions defense, though. I was pretty stunned to see the numbers so far this year. Where did this performance come from?

Rothstein: It starts with the front four, which has three first-round picks up front, led by Ndamukong Suh. The havoc it can provide allows the secondary and linebackers to play a bit freer. The Lions have an emerging star who is strong in coverage in DeAndre Levy at linebacker. The secondary has been the surprise, but coordinator Teryl Austin has done a great job playing each guy to his own strengths, including multiple nickel packages. He has really refined these guys into an impressive group.
METAIRIE, La. -- It's almost impossible to define Reggie Bush's tenure with the New Orleans Saints -- except to say he was one of the most memorable players in franchise history.

Bush certainly didn't live up to the immense hype, but how could he? The former USC Trojan was supposed to be the next Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders rolled into one.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsReggie Bush arrived in New Orleans following a 3-13 season in which the Saints relocated to San Antonio following Hurricane Katrina.
At the same time, it wouldn't be anywhere close to accurate to describe Bush as a "bust." He finished his five-year stretch from 2006-10 with more than 2,000 rushing yards, more than 2,000 receiving yards and a total of 38 touchdowns, including the playoffs. There were frustrating bouts with injuries and inconsistency. But there were also plenty of jaw-dropping moments as a runner, receiver and punt returner -- including some of his greatest during the Super Bowl run in 2009 and the NFC Championship Game run in 2006.

Statistically speaking, Bush has had more success with his current team, the Detroit Lions, and with his previous team, the Miami Dolphins -- averaging more than 1,000 rushing yards per season since 2011.

But unless Bush winds up leading a Super Bowl parade through the streets of Detroit, it’s hard to imagine him making a bigger impact anywhere else.

“[Former New York Giants general manager] Ernie Accorsi said it once, 'When you win a world championship, at that moment it validates every selection and decision and signing that brings you to that point,'" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "[Bush] being included, obviously. He was very good in that game (Super Bowl XLIV). And in the years that he spent with us, he was very instrumental in what we became. From the minute he was drafted, for those people that were here at that time, that was a significant step for us.”

The Saints will face Bush on Sunday at Detroit for the first time since they mutually decided to part ways in 2011 with a trade to Miami.

“He’s probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen play the game. He’s one of those guys that you tell your kids about as far as his athleticism,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who arrived in New Orleans less than two months before Bush as a free agent in 2006. “I’m not sure if there has been a player where there was as much hype and excitement for coming out in the draft as Reggie Bush. Maybe you could argue 'Johnny Football' this year. But he was the man.”

Brees recalled the elation throughout the Saints organization -- and the entire New Orleans community -- when Bush unexpectedly fell to the No. 2 pick in 2006 after the Houston Texans decided to draft pass-rusher Mario Williams on the eve of the draft.

That was on the heels of arguably the worst season in franchise history, when the Saints had to relocate to San Antonio following Hurricane Katrina and finished 3-13 before dumping coach Jim Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks.

“Sean and I have had conversations about this, about just him being in the room and realizing that moment when it happened that Reggie Bush just fell in our lap. 'Are you kidding me?'" Brees said. “Not only the type of player that he was, all of the things that he could do on the field, but I think what this city needed was somebody like that to be drafted here and the excitement that that brought, lifting everyone’s spirits and giving them hope. That was huge.”

The divorce also worked out for both teams. The Saints quickly replaced Bush with free agent Darren Sproles, who was even more electrifying in that 2011 season in a similar runner/receiver role.

And Bush got his wish to become more of a featured runner in Miami, where he had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2011 and has followed with at least 986 yards every year since.

Perhaps most importantly, Bush has stayed healthy over the past four years (though he’s ironically nursing an ankle injury this week that he’s expected to play through).

But Bush, now 29, has also matured as runner, showing better vision and patience inside instead of wanting to turn his runs outside and use his speed around the corner.

“I think he’s definitely matured from my times playing against him when he was here. He’s become an all-around running back instead of just being treated as a wide receiver or a gimmick guy,” said Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, who used to face Bush as a member of the rival Atlanta Falcons.

“With a player like him, we knew going into the game how he was going to be used. So it made it, I wouldn’t say easy to game-plan for him, but we knew what he was going to be doing,” Lofton said. “Now when he’s in the backfield at running back, you don’t know what he’s going to do. He can run it downhill, he could run a reverse, can line up as a wide receiver, so I think that makes their offense very multiple by using him in those ways.”

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