NFC South: New Orleans Saints

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NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees wasn't good enough when it mattered most.

Neither was Jimmy Graham. And neither was the New Orleans Saints' offensive line.

The Saints' offense hasn't been their biggest problem throughout this entire wayward season. But it needed to be the solution, led by franchise players such as Brees and Graham. Instead, they came up small Sunday in the biggest game of the season to date -- a 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Saints (6-9) had a total of 78 yards in the first half against a Falcons defense that came into the game ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed.

Then they rallied, only to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, including a controversial fumble by Graham and a killer interception by Brees with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by just six points.

"It's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have as a quarterback," Brees flatly admitted when asked about that pick, which followed a disturbing season-long trend.

Brees has been very good at times this season. He's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and a 69.6 completion percentage -- good for seventh in NFL history. But those game-killing turnovers have crept up time and again, usually when he's trying to force things in close games.

"Yeah, that's been frustrating and disappointing," said Brees, who now has 14 interceptions and three lost fumbles, including one on a sack on the final play Sunday that was returned 86 yards for an exclamation-point touchdown by the Falcons.

"We could very easily look back and say there were many, many games where we had chances in the end, and we were not able to capitalize," Brees said. "And I'd say in every season, the difference between you being a 12-4, 11-5 team and a team that's just middle of the pack, 8-8, is just so fine. It's that fine line, 'Did you win some of those close games or did you lose them?'

"Fortunately, in the past, I feel like we've won a lot of those games. Unfortunately, this year we have not."

The Saints' sluggish start was just as disturbing as the finish Sunday.

New Orleans was gifted a quick 7-0 lead when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. But then the offense started sleepwalking for the better part of three quarters.

As coach Sean Payton pointed out afterward, that was especially disappointing, as the Saints' defense stepped up and played fairly well.

"We thought it was going to be a high-scoring matchup, but it ended up being different, and we weren't able to make enough plays on offense," Payton said.

Brees wound up sacked a stunning five times by a Falcons defense that had also ranked last in the NFL in sacks heading into Sunday. That was a season-high for both teams.

The Saints' run game went nowhere all day (15 carries for 45 yards by the running backs). Brees couldn't connect with Graham, whose performance was every bit as disappointing.

Graham, who did not appear in the locker room for interviews, caught just one pass for three yards through three quarters, despite being targeted five times. And his fumble -- even if it did occur after he crossed the goal line -- was still a fumble.

We are used to seeing Graham look like a man among boys and outmuscle defenders for tough catches (as he did on his too-little, too-late touchdown in the fourth quarter).

It's hard to say whether Graham's early-season shoulder injury is still bugging him, given he was still playing at a high level for a while after he got hurt. But the Saints need more from him than what they've gotten over the past month.

Brees, who turns 36 next month, was asked if getting older makes him wonder if he's running out of chances to win more Super Bowls.

"Well, I think that's stating the obvious. I'm not getting younger -- none of us are," Brees said. "But I'm not thinking about anything other than the opportunity that's right before you from season to season. I feel like all of the pieces are in place here to do that."

That statement seems a bit optimistic after the way this season just unfolded. But for the Saints to have any chance of that coming true, they'll need to rely most on Brees and Graham to be their two biggest game-changing weapons.

They'll need more than what they got Sunday.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons eliminated them from playoff contention:

Galette
'Feels like a funeral': The mood in the Saints' locker room was gloomy. Outside linebacker Junior Galette said he couldn't describe how he felt because he had never experienced this. Although the Saints had been up and down all season, Galette said he didn't see another disappointment coming Sunday.

"It sucks. We lost. Terrible year," Galette said. "I thought we'd be happy in the locker room right now, celebrating. Instead it feels like a funeral in here."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief said this loss didn't come down to a lack of energy like others the Saints had harped on before. But he said the execution clearly wasn't good enough.

And coach Sean Payton said the loss wasn't a head-scratcher. He said that once again, the Saints didn't consistently do the things they need to win -- although he pointed out it was a little different in that the defense played well for the most part and the offense wasn't good enough.

Falcons get last word: That funeral analogy was popular because Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis kicked off the week by saying he was hoping this game would become Atlanta's funeral. Those words obviously had an impact on the Falcons. Receiver Roddy White drew a personal foul by grabbing Lewis' face mask at one point, and after the game, White and Harry Douglas threw a few more jabs Lewis' way.

Lewis conceded afterward, saying, "They hate us, we hate them, but hats off to those guys. They came out here and fought. And they deserve to move on."

Brees on interception: Drew Brees said his interception with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by six was "about as bad a feeling as you can ever have as a quarterback."

Brees has had that feeling too many times this season. He has been very good at times, but his turnovers (14 picks, three lost fumbles) have killed the Saints in too many of these close games, which he called "frustrating and disappointing." Stay tuned for more on Brees and the offense.
NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest moment of the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons came when tight end Jimmy Graham lost a fumble at the goal line early in the fourth quarter that appeared to be a touchdown on the replay.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisFalcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (left) strips the football from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a reception near the goal line in the second half.
The ball appeared to cross the plane before it was stripped away by Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael. But referee John Parry told a pool reporter from The Times-Picayune that he didn't see "clear and indisputable" evidence to overturn the original call.

"If we would've ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score," Parry told the pool reporter.

Coach Sean Payton and players said it appeared to them Graham scored from watching the replay on the jumbotron. Payton said it "looked pretty clear, and yet it is what it is" and it's something the Saints can't control.

"They [the officials] go back to New York with that, and it's disappointing," Payton said.

Quarterback Drew Brees said it was a huge play in the game because it took seven points off the board when the Saints could have closed within six points early in the third quarter. But he and other players said you have to be able to overcome it -- and pointed out that they managed to make a defensive stop and follow up with a score to close within 20-14 regardless.

The Saints' bigger problems occurred earlier in the game, when they scored only seven points through three quarters, and later in the game, when Brees threw a costly interception with less than three minutes remaining.

Graham was not available for comment after the game. He especially had a rough game through three-plus quarters. He caught only one pass for three yards through three quarters despite being targeted five times. Then he fumbled on that potential touchdown -- whether the fumble occurred before or after he crossed the goal line. Graham did rally with four more catches for 38 yards and a touchdown after that. But it was too little, too late.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
4:14
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NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: The Saints (6-9) are done. They were officially eliminated from playoff contention with their loss and the Carolina Panthers' win. And they have their offense to blame.

Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and the offensive line all came up small with one of their worst performances yet in their biggest game to date -- against the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense, no less. The Saints tried to make things interesting with a late rally. But fittingly it ended with yet another forced interception by Brees when the Saints still had a chance to win with less than three minutes remaining.

It didn't help that the Saints had a potential Graham touchdown ruled as a fumble near the goal line early in the fourth quarter. But they put themselves in that position by coming up so small in the first three quarters.

Stock watch: This was easily one of Brees' worst performances of the entire season -- and the late interception was a microcosm of his entire year. The Saints were down by six points with 2:40 remaining with a chance to win the game. But he forced an out pass into the waiting arms of cornerback Robert McClain -- Brees' second interception of the game and 14th of the season.

Brees was very good at times this year, but he had way too many turnovers in big situations. As I wrote almost every other week this year, the Saints needed him to be Superman, and he wasn't.

He added a sack-fumble that was returned for an 86-yard touchdown by Osi Umenyiora on the final play of Sunday’s game -- the fifth sack of the day by a Falcons team that also ranked 32nd in the NFL in sacks before Sunday. Brees finished 30-of-47 for 313 yards and one TD.

Home flop: Stunningly, the Saints have now lost five straight games in the Superdome for the first time in a single season since 1980. Before that, they had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs.

Game ball: For the second time this year, Saints kick returner Jalen Saunders gets the game ball for providing the team's only spark. His 99-yard return on the opening kickoff set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram before the offense went to sleep for the rest of the day.

Up next: The Saints will finish the season at Tampa Bay (2-13) in a game that only matters for draft positioning.
METAIRIE, La. – Both the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) control their playoff destinies heading into Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints could clinch the NFC South title Sunday if they win and the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose to the Cleveland Browns. However, if the Saints lose and the Panthers win, the Saints will be mathematically eliminated.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on the latest installment of the Saints’ oldest and most heated rivalry. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Win back the crowd: Far and away, the biggest stunner of New Orleans’ 2014 season has been the current four-game home losing streak. Before that, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs. The Superdome had earned a reputation as one of the last places opponents wanted to set foot inside.

Instead, some of the Saints’ recent performances have been downright hideous (namely their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago). And the home fans have turned downright hostile.

Check out this picture by The Times-Picayune. Everything about it is as unfamiliar as it is unsettling.

That’s the No. 1 thing that has to change Sunday – and potentially in a home playoff game. The Saints need to turn their home-field advantage back into an actual advantage instead of sucking the life out of the place with early miscues.

That means early turnovers by quarterback Drew Brees and others, as we’ve seen in recent home losses, are unforgivable. And the defense can’t get lit up by big plays early.

The Falcons need to be the ones feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable instead of the Saints feeling pressure to perform inside their own building.

“I think you understand how to utilize the home crowd,” Brees said. “Early success, starting fast -- all those things keep the crowd involved, keep 'em loud. Big plays, momentum-changing plays. So you understand when you’re down and you’re not doing those things, you’re kinda taking that out of it, that benefit, that edge. So, man, we’ve gotta get that back.”

It’s kind of a chicken-vs.-the-egg thing to suggest whether the home fans need to pick up the team or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that neither has been happening lately.

Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted that players don’t let the boos affect their performance – but he said they’re well aware that it’s happening. And that it’s deserved.

“I think we’re going to have a great environment. That’s what’s special about playing at home,” Payton said. “Absolutely, we’re going to need every person in there to be as loud as can be, and we’re going to need to play well. Our fan base is real smart. They understand that. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Jones
Defending Falcons’ receivers: A huge X-factor in this game is whether or not Falcons receiver Julio Jones will play. Before he injured his hip two weeks ago, he was on a tear with 21 catches for 448 yards – in just a two-week span!

Payton said it obviously makes a difference whether or not Jones plays. But both Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted it didn’t alter their preparation. And they’re both well aware of how deep Atlanta’s receivers group is with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.

The Saints were torched by Atlanta’s passing game in a 37-34 overtime loss in Week 1, with QB Matt Ryan throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards. The Saints did a decent job of preventing Jones from burning them over the top. Instead, they were ripped apart underneath by all four receivers and a couple running backs – thanks in part to a lot of missed tackles.

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (whom I would love to see in a one-on-one matchup with a healthy Jones) said the Saints were surprised by how the Falcons used Hester. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said he and fellow safety Jairus Byrd played too deep and that the Saints need to use more of an attacking approach.

Ryan bluntly said, “I don’t think we played very well on defense, I don’t think we coached very well on defense, and the simple fact is they beat us and they did what they wanted to. … They obviously executed a hell of a lot better than we did.”

Exploiting Falcons’ pass D: Brees needs to torment the Falcons’ pass defense in a similar fashion. Not only do the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (292.5 per game), but they also rank dead last in sacks (16).

Payton and the Saints' players said Atlanta’s run defense has improved in recent weeks. That’s all the more reason why the Saints’ season will come down to Brees being able to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness. Brees needs to be the guy who’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, with a league-best 70.0 completion percentage – and not the guy who’s stumbled too many times with 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles.
METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro said the best way to describe the versatile role he is now back to playing in Rob Ryan’s system is "ADD" -- which is fitting since the New Orleans Saints safety said people have often used that term to describe his personality, as well.

But Vaccaro admits it took him a while to realize that this hybrid/nickel role is the best one for both him and the Saints’ defense.

The second-year pro said he wanted to move into a true strong safety role this season, thinking he might become "great" at one thing. Instead, he went through growing pains all season before switching back this past week.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints believe using Kenny Vaccaro in multiple roles benefits their defense more than having him play only strong safety.
"I took it wrong in the offseason," said Vaccaro, who admitted that he looked at someone like fellow 2013 rookie Eric Reid making the Pro Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers and thought that could have been him. "Eric Reid, for instance, he plays free safety, he’s sitting back there and that’s all he’s doing. He went to the Pro Bowl last year. And I was like, 'Dang, maybe if I played one position, I could ...'

"I thought that might help me make more plays, I guess. But not really though. Not in Rob’s scheme. The position I was in last year, that’s where you want to be. You want to be that guy that he designs the whole thing around."

Vaccaro was widely praised by analysts last season because he was so valuable in that versatile role -- drawing many comparisons to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. Vaccaro said that’s the model he’d like to follow.

"I was getting caught up trying to be a strong safety. When I watch Polamalu, that’s what I can do, and that’s how I can impact the game. And I think that suits me better, and Rob thinks that, too," Vaccaro said. "And there’s nothing wrong with that, and I think I took it kind of for granted what he believes in me."

Ryan certainly agrees. Known as one of the NFL’s more creative defensive coordinators, Ryan has always loved the idea of using Vaccaro as that versatile chess piece to both attack defenses and keep them guessing.

"I just think to utilize him, he’s got all these abilities, I think it’s better to be able to put him in different spots," Ryan said. "They have to be able to identify him as an offense. I think if he’s playing one spot, that strong safety, if you’re just playing a true strong safety, those guys make some tackles, but it’s not ... I think he’s a better player, he can affect the game more in different spots. So I think you’ll see him do that, and I think it’s better for our team."

The Saints have made some other tweaks to their defense, too.

Corey White has been moved from cornerback to safety -- admitting that it’s more of a steep adjustment for him both physically and mentally at this stage of the season, even though he did play safety in college.

The Saints moved cornerback Terrence Frederick into a starting role and Patrick Robinson into a dime role last week. They moved Jamarca Sanford into the starting strong safety role -- though Sanford’s hamstring injury might force another tweak this week.

And partly due to outside linebacker Junior Galette's knee injury, the Saints used Galette in a limited role as a pass-rush specialist last week while playing more of a base 3-4 run defense than they ever have, with Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber on the edges. Galette said he expects to play a similar role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I think our guys have always been multiple," Ryan said of some of the tweaks. "And look, we need to get some juice going on defense. And I think what we’ve done has helped. I think we get guys in some familiar roles, some guys in the roles that they maybe are built for. But at the end of the day we have guys that play multiple positions, and that’s a good thing to do."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said he expects to remain in a limited role Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons as he continues to recover from a knee injury.

Although Galette never appeared on the injury report this week, he told reporters Friday that his knee still isn’t 100 percent and that he thinks it’s a “smart” approach to keep limiting his snaps. He played only 27 snaps on Monday night against the Chicago Bears in a pass-rushing role -- and still wound up with two sacks.

Galette
“Probably the same thing going into this game. Kind of ease off the knee a little bit,” Galette said. “Right now my knee’s not 100 percent. So just being smart and making sure I’m not playing 60 snaps on half a knee.”

Three Saints players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game: Left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), defensive end Akiem Hicks (ankle) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).

Of that group, Hicks seems to have the best chance of playing after he returned to practice on a limited basis Friday. Armstead and Sanford did not practice all week.

Armstead would be replaced in the starting lineup by Bryce Harris, who’s had some ups and downs in cameo appearances this season but played well in Armstead’s absence last week.

It’s unclear how the Saints will replace Sanford since he just replaced Kenny Vaccaro last week as the starting strong safety. Perhaps Vaccaro will return to that role in base packages and play his nickel/hybrid spot in nickel and dime packages. Other possibilities include Marcus Ball and Corey White.

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

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METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team and has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts.

Stay tuned for his take on the Saints’ recent secondary shakeup and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons. Here are Greer’s thoughts on the leadership transition the secondary has gone through this season and how it has affected safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular:

“There's a huge transition, because what the men that were removed from that locker room (this past offseason) took was a culture. We had a sense of culture that was instilled during that 2009 championship season that we took long after that season was over. We knew how to hit, we taught everybody else how to tackle, the guys knew how to finish a play, how to intimidate and how to collectively weather the storm on the defensive side of the ball. And when all those guys who have had that culture are now gone, it’s up to the new guys who weren’t a part of that to create a new culture. And I think it’s been a process for them this year. There was a loss of leadership, but I think the biggest loss was the culture of accountability that we had for one another, especially in that secondary.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year safety Kenny Vaccaro was thrust into a leadership role that he may not have been ready for.
“We kept each other highly accountable, because I truly believe that Malcolm Jenkins knew what I was going to do, I knew what Roman Harper was going to do, we knew how to communicate with each other. I knew that on the sideline, if we were losing, Roman was going to be the guy that’s going to just calm us down. Malcolm was going to be the guy I really can’t talk to for a couple quarters. We understood that, and that formula worked for us. That formula worked for Kenny last year. That formula worked for Rafael Bush and Patrick Robinson, Corey White. We understood Corey was going to get in there and make a play, but then he was still young and he was going to make mistakes. We understood that, so we compensated and worked around that. Now all those guys right now are trying to find out who those guys are.

“You have to know your guys. You have to know their tendencies. I know that as soon as Patrick Robinson motions across, I have to make sure I get his attention, because he’s going to be locked in on his receiver. He can cover better than anybody in the league, but I know that when he’s coming across that I have to lock in and over-communicate with him. With Corey, I know he’s going to communicate with me. So it’s little things like that that I think as a secondary, they had a lot of questions to answer. Who was going to be that guy to step up and lead their pregame? Who was going to be that guy to help them weather the storm and really take control of the secondary when everything gets down? Who’s going to be that guy to overly communicate when they’re on the field making adjustments? And I think a lot of that, I think they invested that (newly-signed veteran safety) Jairus Byrd was going to be that guy. But once he got injured, all that sense of responsibility and leadership just got heaped on Kenny Vaccaro in a matter of days.

“Every young player that comes into the league goes through a maturity process, and it really helps when you have an older veteran to help you through that transition -- particularly that plays your position. When I was coming into the league, I had Troy Vincent, I had Nate Clements. Kenny has been thrust into this new leadership role, and there has been no type of transition. It just happened abruptly. Let alone, having the position change that Kenny had from a nickel-hybrid type player to a strictly strong safety. But keep in mind, I don’t question his ability at all. But knowing the psychology of the game, I understand that need for that player in there that has weathered the storm.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The revamped New Orleans Saints secondary did a decent job in the dress rehearsal.

But now comes the real thing.

The Saints will face much stiffer competition Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons than they did in this past Monday night's 31-15 victory over the hapless Chicago Bears.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFalcons QB Matt Ryan (2) shredded the Saints' D for 448 yards in Week 1.
Atlanta has the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense, and quarterback Matt Ryan previously carved up the Saints for a Falcons-franchise-record 448 yards in Atlanta's 37-34 overtime victory in Week 1.

The Saints and their 31st-ranked defense have been trying to fix the problem ever since.

"They're probably the best receiving corps in the league. I'm not gonna say probably -- they are," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who said he's preparing as though Atlanta will be at full strength despite receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas all missing practice Wednesday.

"So we definitely gotta get it together," Lewis continued. "They definitely embarrassed us the first week. And when you've got pride, you know you just can't come out there and let that happen again."

Jones' hip injury is the ultimate X factor this week. He didn't play last week and remains questionable. But Lewis said he expects Jones to play because the Falcons' season is on the line in this showdown that could wind up determining the NFC South champion.

Jones ranks second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards this year.

In that first game, the Saints' approach to covering Jones worked OK. They primarily put their best corner, Lewis, on White while mostly double-teaming Jones with corner Patrick Robinson and free safety Jairus Byrd. Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards, but most of it was underneath stuff, and he didn't score a touchdown.

The Saints used a similar approach that worked great three weeks ago against dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

The problem in Week 1, however, was that New Orleans got carved up by Atlanta's depth -- including a huge game from fourth receiver Devin Hester, strong performances by White and Douglas and two big touchdown plays by backup running backs Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Lewis admitted that Hester's usage (five catches, 99 yards) came as a "shock."

"In Chicago they really didn't use him like that," Lewis said of Hester's former team. "But he came out and he definitely exploited us last time. I'm pretty sure probably none of the guys expected it. The whole week they were saying how they were gonna use him as a returner and not as a receiver. But he showed that he's elite in this league and we've gotta keep aware of him."

The Falcons feature a lot of three-receiver sets (sometimes four) that will stretch New Orleans' new-look secondary to the limit.

Young cornerback Terrence Frederick and veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford were new additions to the starting lineup this past Monday. And undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made just his fourth start since being re-signed off of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro was demoted back into the nickel role in which he had thrived as a rookie last year. Robinson was bumped to dime back, and former starter Corey White was inactive.

The switches worked for the most part, with the Saints intercepting a season-high three passes (two by Warren, one by Robinson) and taking a 21-0 lead before some late breakdowns made the game temporarily uncomfortable.

"I thought overall, like anything else, you watch it, and you play well, and yet you put the tape on and there are things you can look at," coach Sean Payton said. "I didn't like particularly how we finished. Our red zone defense needs work. But I thought there were some positives you take away from the game.

"This'll be an entirely different type of game and an entirely different type of team we're playing. So we'll be smart about our personnel packages and how we want to use them."

Payton wouldn't specify whether he plans to stick with the same lineup. But he said the plan won't be altered much by the Falcons' injury report -- especially because the Saints have so much respect for Atlanta's depth at receiver.

"Their depth at that position is pretty impressive," Payton said. "Obviously the way Julio's been playing, it's important to know where he's at on the field. But I'm sure they'll be capable if he's not able to, so we have to prepare like he's playing."

Ryan also has traditionally frustrated the Saints' pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. A repeat of New Orleans' seven-sack performance against the Bears seems extremely unlikely.

"They're an explosive team offensively -- and not just in the passing game," Payton said. "Their numbers in the last six weeks with regards to big plays … they're a team that starts fast, they've got great tempo, obviously a veteran quarterback that gets them in to some advantage looks. It's not just a challenge for the secondary, it's a challenge for the whole defense. It's a challenge for our guys up front and understanding the splits, understanding what we're trying to do within each snap."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton said he doesn't think opponents can really glean anything valuable from seeing the zoomed-in look of his play-calling sheet during ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast. But the New Orleans Saints coach clearly wasn't a fan of the network's decision to do so.

Payton
Payton
"Pretty soon they'll be in our bench area helping out with the play calls," cracked Payton, who said the access of cameras and microphones seems to increase every year. "I don't think there's much to it. There's a lot of terminology. But I am kind of surprised it showed up on the TV screen. … I wouldn't put it on if I was ESPN."

When asked if there's anything he could use from an opponents' play sheet, Payton said, "There'd be nothing to really do with it. You look at their terminology. There's nothing that it's really giving you. ... It's 50 different names of plays, they're not numbered in any particular order."

Payton said the bigger concern for all teams around the NFL is how much the quarterback's cadence gets picked up with microphones now on guards or centers for nationally-televised broadcasts.

"That's significant. That topic, we would have a database now. … Shoot Peyton Manning's doing a commercial because of it," Payton said -- referencing Manning's famous "Omaha! Omaha!" call. "That's much more significant than what we're discussing, in regards to get-offs … the tempo of a cadence, how it sounds, when a play's changed. That's different now. That's something we're adjusting with, everyone has to."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he thinks every quarterback "kind of has their own spin" on their cadence at the line and does something a little bit different.

"But at the end of the day, you change it up," Brees said. "You don't give ‘em the same thing every time."
METAIRIE, La. -- If New Orleans Saints kicker Shayne Graham was on the hot seat before, it can't have cooled off much after he missed a 51-yard field goal in Monday night's 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Graham
Graham
Graham appeared to stumble a bit after the kick -- but it was unclear if that affected the kick, which missed a little short and right. And holder Luke McCown didn't spin the laces around on the football. But coach Sean Payton said he'd have to look at the tape before passing any judgment.

Graham's attempt came after McCown had dropped the snap on a previous attempt -- but the Saints got a do-over because of offsetting penalties.

There was a steady rain for several hours in Chicago leading into the first quarter. But Payton said the footing "wasn't that bad really."

Graham, who later made a 25-yard field goal attempt, is now 19-of-22 on the season (plus one missed extra point). But the Saints tried out four kickers last week after Graham had missed a 42-yarder at home against the Carolina Panthers.

And Payton said it's possible to be "unhappy off the last performance" despite a steady body of work throughout the season. Ultimately, though, New Orleans stuck with Graham and Payton insisted he believed he would respond the right way.

You could also question the decision to attempt that 51-yard kick in the first place on Monday night, especially with some mild weather conditions to deal with. But the Saints appeared to have a light wind at their back. Graham had just nailed a 55-yarder going in the same direction during his last warm-up kick with at least 5 yards to spare.

QB snapshot: Drew Brees

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
1:00
PM ET
A quick observation of quarterback Drew Brees and how he played in the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory in Week 15:

Brees
Suddenly Brees has become human at home and unstoppable on the road. Brees gave another outstanding performance Monday night against the Chicago Bears despite some chilly temps and a little wind and rain. He completed 18 of his first 20 passes and finished 29-of-36 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It was a calm, cool and collected performance that featured a lot of throws to tight ends and running back Pierre Thomas -- but also a few to his receivers downfield as he completed at least four passes to five different guys.

And it was a far cry from last week's disaster at home against Carolina, when Brees forced an early interception in a 41-10 loss.

"I think we responded well as a team," Brees said when asked if he was harder on himself than usual after such a spectacular loss. "We were embarrassed about what happened last week. We know we're better than that and certainly felt a great sense of urgency going into this game just knowing what's at stake and knowing what a win would do for us -- not just in the standings, but from a confidence standpoint."

Mother Nature helped. A steady rain let up just around kickoff time, which allowed the Saints to pick on Chicago's porous pass defense.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was one completion shy of the best start of his career (19-of-21 vs. Atlanta in 2009). And he's tied with Peyton Manning for the most 300-yard, three-TD games in NFL history (46).
The New Orleans Saints (6-8) control their own destiny in the NFC South. And they could even possibly clinch the division title this week.

 However, the Saints could also be eliminated from playoff contention this week.

Here are some of the scenarios:
  • The Saints clinch the NFC South if they win their final two games – vs. the Atlanta Falcons (5-9) in Week 16 and at Tampa Bay in Week 17.
  • The Saints clinch the NFC South if they beat the Falcons AND the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose one more game (either vs. Cleveland in Week 16 or at Atlanta in Week 17).
  • The Saints can still win the NFC South if they lose to Atlanta – but it would require the Saints winning in Week 17, the Panthers losing in Week 16 and the Falcons losing in Week 17.
  • The Saints can be eliminated from the playoffs this week if they lose to Atlanta and the Panthers beat Cleveland. … That means the winner of Carolina-Atlanta in Week 17 would win the division (or Carolina in the case of a tie).
CHICAGO -- Technically, Kenny Vaccaro did wind up getting demoted. But it was both a motivational and tactical move by New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. He returned Vaccaro to the role where he thrived last season, covering the slot in nickel packages.

Vaccaro still played 70 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps in Monday night's 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears. And he even played on all four special teams for the first time in his career -- helping to stuff a fake-punt attempt while in a role that he said was just assigned to him during pregame.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Nam Y. Huh/AP PhotoKenny Vaccaro pressures Bears QB Jay Cutler in the second half of Monday night's game in Chicago.
"A lot of people are gonna go in the tank, get mad. I wasn't mad," said Vaccaro, who described a meeting with Payton earlier in the week as both being "put on red alert" and career-changing. "I'm a team player, whatever my coach wants me to do, that's what I'm gonna do."

It didn't hurt that Vaccaro's "punishment" was also sort of a reward. He said it was easy for him to slide back into the role he played both last season and throughout his college career.

"My favorite thing to do is, 'You guard him, lock him down.' Or, 'You shoot that gap,'" Vaccaro said. "That's what I'm really good at. You tell me to lock somebody down, they ain't catching the ball. ...

"It was easy for me to plug back in, but that comes with repetition. And it'll be same way with safety ... when it all clicks. This is a year I grew a lot, this'll probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally-wise."

Vaccaro was admittedly making too many assignment errors in his first season as a true strong safety -- including two very costly ones in last week's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. He said he was reacting before thinking and needs to learn patience.

Payton ultimately decided Vaccaro was hurting the team too much in that role. But he still believed Vaccaro could be an asset if he played him to his strengths.

"His preparation was outstanding," Payton said. "He played about three different spots tonight (temporarily going back to his old spot when replacement Jamarca Sanford was injured). He was outstanding."

Vaccaro wasn't the only one who bounced back in impressive fashion as the Saints shuffled up their embattled secondary. Sanford and cornerback Terrence Frederick made their starting debuts, while cornerback Patrick Robinson moved to dime packages and Corey White was inactive.

The Saints' top cornerback Keenan Lewis was stingy as usual, coming up with some big-time pass break-ups against dangerous receiver Alshon Jeffery.

And the Saints picked off a season-high three passes against an extremely off-target Bears quarterback Jay Cutler -- one by Robinson on a tipped ball during the opening series and two by rookie safety Pierre Warren.

Warren, an undrafted rookie who re-signed with the Saints last month off the Minnesota Vikings practice squad, practically feels like a veteran already after filling the free safety spot that was vacated by season-ending injuries to Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush.

"It feels good because they brought me in to make turnovers, so doing that, doing my job, I just gotta keep going," said Warren, who explained that his first pick came in prevent mode in the final seconds of the first half and his second came from a tip by Lewis.

"No. 28, 'Westbank,'" Warren said, using Lewis' nickname, "he had helped me out on that one. He had figured something out, so he told me to get over the top of him, and I was in the right place."

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