NFC South: New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- Say this for New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson: He’s resilient.

Robinson
The former first-round draft pick’s entire career has been a non-stop roller-coaster ride because of his highs and lows on the field and injury issues off the field.

But Robinson has continued to battle back each time -- something he has again been doing quietly over the past month after losing his starting job early in the year.

And this week, Robinson was honored by teammates as the 2014 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award for the way he came back from the major knee injury he suffered last year.

“I'd say in the nine years that I've been here, [Robinson won by] the largest margin of votes. It wasn’t even close,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “With the injury he suffered and the rehab, he was here every day in the offseason. It was just like he was a fixture in the building. I think it was an easy decision for his teammates and certainly well deserving.”

More recently, Robinson has shown his resilience on the field, playing noticeably more decisive and aggressive in his nickelback role. He was officially credited with a total of three passes defensed in Weeks 9-10, and he easily could have been credited with two more this past Sunday against Cincinnati.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer made a point to stress the improvement he’s been seeing from Robinson when he broke down the Saints earlier this week. And Greer suggested that Robinson’s speed could make him a good matchup against the Baltimore Ravens’ speedy deep threat, Torrey Smith, on Monday night.

Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan both praised Robinson on Saturday for his improved play -- and his improved confidence, which Robinson himself admits has always been one of his biggest issues. Ryan said he’s seen the game start to “slow down” for Robinson.

“It was pretty tough. But I think it was all on me,” Robinson said of being demoted while he was struggling early in the year. “[I was] not being as fundamentally sound on my technique. And I think I was playing a little … like I don’t want to get beat instead of just playing football, pretty much.

“Right now, I’m just trying to do my job and that’s it. If I get beat, oh well. On to the next play.”
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is well aware that third-and-long has become his unit’s biggest nemesis.

“We gotta fix it. Hell, it’s everybody [trying to find the solution],” said Ryan, who said that includes meeting with coach Sean Payton to discuss the philosophy in those situations. “We have to fix this. So it can’t be just, ‘Oh, we played good, then we blow this or did this.’ It’s costing us games, and we have to fix it.”

The Saints allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to convert six first downs on third-and-8 or longer last week. And they’ve allowed more first downs than any team in the NFL this year on plays of third-and-8 or fourth-and-8 or longer (23, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

Some of the breakdowns have been more notorious than others (Golden Tate’s 73-yard touchdown on third-and-14 at Detroit and Michael Crabtree’s 51-yard catch on fourth-and-10 versus San Francisco immediately spring to mind).

Unfortunately, the specific solution is hard to identify since the Saints' defense has been burned in a variety of ways in those situations -- whether they blitz or not, whether they keep the quarterback in the pocket or not.

“There’s been a lot of different games where this situation has come up, and they’ve been a little bit different every time,” Ryan said. “We lose contain, we misplay a ball in the air, we have the wrong leverage on a play. There’s a lot of different things. But at the end of the game we have to be more aware of the situation, we gotta be better technique-wise, and we've gotta do a better job of coaching. That’s just the way it is.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' final injury report of the week was loaded with good news Saturday. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, linebacker Curtis Lofton and running backs Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet are all listed as probable for Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Lewis
That means all are likely to play, barring any setbacks. Lewis, who has been fighting through a nagging knee injury for two weeks, said he plans to ready.

"'Monday Night Football.' I’ll be there," Lewis said. "I definitely feel like it’s getting better every day. I’ve got two more days. And 'Monday Night Football,' here we come."

It remains unclear if Lewis will be limited, as he was last week when he only played 10 snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals. But chances are his workload will increase well past that total. He was able to practice on a limited basis both Friday and Saturday this week after practicing only once last week. The extra day of rest before a Monday game didn’t hurt.

It also remains unclear if Thomas will be limited, since he missed the past four games with shoulder and rib injuries. But the "probable" designation is a promising sign. And Thomas has been able to practice on a limited basis all week. He was in very high spirits when he met with the media Thursday -- though he refused to reveal whether he’s officially playing or not.

I addressed Saturday morning how Thomas’ return might affect running back Mark Ingram's touches. I think Ingram will still get a heavy dose of the carries and goal-line looks, with Thomas spelling him at times and playing a bigger role in the passing game. Cadet’s touches could diminish, even if he is healthy enough to play. And running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) has officially been ruled out for Monday, as expected.

Lofton was expected to play all along, so his "probable" designation comes as no surprise.

Receiver Robert Meachem remains questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis with his ankle injury. The Saints don’t need to rush him back, even after losing Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury this week, since they have experienced backups Joe Morgan and Nick Toon on the roster.

Linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) has also been ruled out. Ingram (shoulder) and offensive tackle Zach Strief (chest) are listed as probable, but they should be fine after both practiced fully all week.
METAIRIE, La. -- Cornerback Keenan Lewis returned to practice on a limited basis Friday, which is a very promising development for the New Orleans Saints.

Lewis is arguably as important as any player on the roster outside of quarterback Drew Brees. And the Saints were noticeably impaired when Lewis was limited to just 10 snaps last week because of a lingering knee injury.

Lewis
Lewis said Thursday that he was hopeful the extra day of rest would help this week since the Saints aren’t playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Last week, Lewis practiced only once. This week it’s possible he will practice twice -- assuming he also practices on Saturday.

For the second straight season, the underrated Lewis was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering the injury two weeks ago. He routinely matches up against the opponent's top receiver. And FOX analyst John Lynch said on a recent broadcast that no cornerback is playing better in the entire NFL this season.

Former Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said this week in a scouting breakdown of the Saints that Lewis would be a good matchup against dynamic Ravens receiver Steve Smith. But even if Lewis’ role is limited, it’s clear that having him close to 100 percent would be huge against a Baltimore team that also features speedy threat Torrey Smith.

The rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have struggled with inconsistency this season, and now they will be making a switch at free safety, too, in the wake of veteran Rafael Bush's season-ending broken leg.

In other Saints’ injury news:
  • Running back Pierre Thomas (shoulder, rib) and receiver Robert Meachem (ankle) practiced on a limited basis for the second straight day. It appears both could be on track to return from lingering injuries this week. But it’s hard to say definitively if and how much they will play (which means fantasy owners should proceed with caution heading into a Monday night game).
  • Fellow running back Travaris Cadet returned to practice on a limited basis Friday after being held out Thursday with a hamstring injury.
  • Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) also returned to practice on a limited basis. He has been playing through the injury and playing at a high level, so there doesn’t appear to be much concern about his status.
  • Running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) and linebacker Kyle Knox (hand) remained out.
METAIRIE, La. – I’ve written a lot this week about how the New Orleans Saints will look to replace rookie receiver Brandin Cooks’ production on offense. It remains an even bigger mystery how they’ll replace Cooks as a punt returner.

The only player on the Saints’ current roster who has ever returned a punt for them in the regular season is running back/kickoff returner Travaris Cadet. He has two career punt returns for a total of two yards, plus four fair catches. But Cadet also missed practice Thursday with a hamstring injury (the severity of which is unknown).

Saunders
The Saints signed rookie receiver Jalen Saunders this week. A fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, he began this season as the New York Jets’ punt returner. But he muffed two returns, which led to his surprisingly quick release. He later spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ and Seattle Seahawks’ practice squads.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Saunders’ punt return ability was the main thing that attracted the Saints to him in the wake of Cooks’ season-ending thumb injury.

“He’s a player that we evaluated coming out of Oklahoma and had good grades on, paid attention to. So we’ll see how he does this week in competition with a couple of other guys that are already working on it,” Payton said.

Among those other candidates are receivers Joe Morgan and Kenny Stills. Although neither has returned a regular-season punt for the Saints, Morgan thrived in that role in the preseason as an undrafted rookie in 2011, highlighted by a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. Morgan hasn’t returned a punt since the preseason of 2012, though.

Stills never even returned punts in the preseason for the Saints, but he did do it part-time in college at Oklahoma.

“We’ll probably take those guys to the Superdome one time this week to make sure they are good with catching it inside,” Payton said.

Regardless of whom they go with, the Saints need to amp up their punt-return game in general. Even with Cooks, they are averaging just 6.7 yards per punt return this year, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

Saunders’ winding road: Saunders admitted this has been a tough rookie season – one that also included a traffic accident when he experienced a seizure. “It hasn’t been my best year, to say the least,” Saunders said, via The Times-Picayune, though he added: "It's humbled me and it's made me a better player."
METAIRIE, La. – Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks played such a versatile role for the New Orleans Saints that no one single player will be able to replace his production.

Fortunately for the Saints, they have more than a half-dozen options to help pick up the slack. Especially now that pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas and deep-threat receiver Robert Meachem are on the mend from lingering injuries.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham could get more targets after the injury to Brandin Cooks.
“Here’s the thing. Are we gonna miss him? Yeah. Is he a great player, was he really kind of coming into his own? Yes. So it’s unfortunate that he had the injury he had and he’s going to be out,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Cooks, who was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. “But I’m excited by the opportunity this now poses for these young guys. And I feel like they’re gonna do a great job.”

“This has happened with us before with regards to a number of different players,” Saints coach Sean Payton added. “And it falls on the rest of the group picking up his touches. It’s the receivers, the running backs -- candidates that would be doing some of the same things.”

Mostly, I think we’ll see a slight uptick in targets for all of the Saints’ usual suspects – tight end Jimmy Graham, receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills and Thomas, who can provide a similar threat to Cooks in the screen game.

But as I wrote the other day, the area of the Saints’ offense that most concerns me is the deep passing game. That was a problem even before Cooks’ injury. But he had definitely started to emerge as their most dynamic downfield threat.

The Saints could turn to Meachem, Joe Morgan or even Stills on those routes. All have thrived in that role in the past -- we just haven't seen it consistently from any of them this year.

“Everybody kind of has the ability to be in there during those [shot plays], just depending on when they are called,” Brees said. “Did I think Brandin was doing a nice job with that stuff? Yes, I do. I also believe that the guys that we have can do a nice job as well.”

Brees and Payton were both asked if they think the loss of Cooks will hurt Graham, because defenses can now focus even more attention on the All-Pro tight end. But they both kind of shot down that notion because Graham already receives so much attention as it is.

“I would imagine everybody who we play looks at Jimmy and says, 'We've got to have a plan for this guy.' So I don't think it's really gonna change a whole lot," Brees said.

Regardless, I believe the Saints must find a way to keep Graham heavily involved in their passing game, even if Brees has to risk interceptions while force-feeding him. Brees and Graham are the two players who most make the Saints special. And they lost that special quality last week while losing a 27-10 dud to the Cincinnati Bengals. Graham had just three catches for 29 yards and no touchdowns.

Colston is another player the Saints need to resurrect after he has been so inconsistent this year, both with dropped passes and just plain lack of involvement.

I think Brees gave the best answer of all when asked specifically about Colston. Essentially Brees suggested that the biggest key to success for everyone is simply cleaning up a passing game that hasn't lived up to its usual standard all year -- even when Cooks was healthy.

"I think [Colston] is as involved as he’s ever been. I would say we haven't been hitting on all cylinders," Brees said. "We haven't been hitting all of the plays necessarily that we want to hit on."

Saints vs. Ravens preview

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
8:02
AM ET
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When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans TV: ESPN

The New Orleans Saints (4-6) have perhaps never appeared less intimidating in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era than they do right now after limping away from a 27-10 loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the "Monday Night Football" stage offers New Orleans its best chance to bounce back against the Baltimore Ravens (6-4). The Saints have won 14 straight prime-time games at home, including the playoffs, by nearly 20 points per game.

The Ravens, however, have dominated the woeful NFC South with a 3-0 record. They will try to make it a clean sweep coming out of their bye week.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Jamison, the Saints' pass defense has been struggling all season -- especially on third-and-long -- and now they have big injury concerns. Is Joe Flacco capable of taking advantage like fellow up-and-down quarterback Andy Dalton did last week against the Saints?

Hensley: It certainly would follow Flacco's trend of exploiting bad secondaries this season. In four games against pass defenses ranked in the bottom 10, Flacco has completed 65.9 percent of his throws and has averaged 281.5 yards passing. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 112.0 passer rating. The Saints are the NFL's ninth-worst pass defense, and they looked even worse in allowing Dalton to regain his confidence.

The biggest concern with Flacco's inconsistency is he typically has his "down" games on the road. Since the start of the 2013 season, Flacco's passer rating on the road is 73.1, the fifth worst in the NFL over that span. Only Jason Campbell, Kirk Cousins, EJ Manuel and Geno Smith have been worse. This isn't exactly elite company. Beyond these numbers, the Ravens' ability to pick up blitzes and Flacco's poise under pressure will ultimately determine whether he keeps the Ravens in this game.

Mike, Flacco is 2-of-10 on passes of 25 yards or more over his past three games. Based on the current state of the Saints' secondary, what are the chances that Flacco gets back on track with the deep pass?

Triplett: He has a great chance -- especially if the Saints' top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, continues to be limited by a knee injury. Lewis is underrated as one of the NFL's best cover men, but the rest of the Saints' cornerbacks have been inconsistent. Now they are down to their third option at free safety with veteran Rafael Bush suffering a season-ending leg injury last week.

The Saints will have to rely heavily on their pass rush, which should be their strength, led by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. They have been inconsistent, too, this season. But it's worth noting that Dalton's success last week came almost exclusively on quick, short throws. He attempted only four throws of 15 yards or more (completing three).

On the flip side, the Saints' passing offense has had two of its worst performances against AFC North teams this season, in losses to Cleveland and Cincinnati. But it looks like Baltimore is much stronger against the run than the pass. What do you expect in that matchup, and how will the Ravens handle tight end Jimmy Graham?

Hensley: You are exactly right about the Ravens' run defense. That has been a major strength of the team because of the front seven. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and nose tackle Brandon Williams clog up the middle, and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley has great instincts. This is why the Ravens have allowed 100 rushing yards twice this season, and they are allowing 2.9 yards per rush since Week 8, the second fewest in the NFL over that span. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL.

Where the Ravens are vulnerable is the deep pass. Teams have thrown six passes of more than 40 yards against the Ravens this season, and they have completed five (tied for most in the NFL). The Ravens are hoping that free safety Will Hill, who has started the past two games, develops into a ball hawk and cuts down on the big plays.

As far as Graham, the Ravens believe the best way to match up against him is to change how they match up. Coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens will use man coverage as well as zone coverage. They will jam Graham at the line and then back off. The Ravens don't want him to feel comfortable.

How committed to the run do you expect the Saints to be?

Triplett: Based on this matchup, I don't expect the Saints to be too stubborn with the run -- especially after their run game was surprisingly shut down by Cincinnati last week. But in general, the Saints have relied on the run game more this season than ever in the Payton-Brees era. They are eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and Mark Ingram had three straight 100-yard games before last week.

But the offense is really stuck in a sort of identity crisis that we haven't seen before. The efficiency stats are up: Brees leads the NFL in completion percentage and the Saints lead the NFL in third-down success. But Brees also has turned the ball over too much (10 interceptions, two fumbles). And the deep ball has been hit or miss -- even before they lost their best deep threat, Brandin Cooks, to a broken thumb. I'm guessing we will see the Saints get pretty aggressive to try to get out of their rut Monday night.

The other complicating factor is Baltimore's pass rush. How disruptive have guys such as Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Ngata been this season?

Hensley: With the injuries to the Ravens' secondary, the only way they are going to slow down a top quarterback like Brees is to get pressure on him. Few teams can get to the quarterback like the Ravens. Over the past seven games, the Ravens have 23 sacks, which is tied for the third most in the NFL. Dumervil and Suggs get most of the attention crashing the edges. They have acknowledged there is a competition on who can get the most sacks. What often goes unnoticed is the pressure the Ravens get up the middle. Ngata and Pernell McPhee constantly collapse the pocket. It's difficult for teams to shift their protections, because the Ravens win their one-on-one battles so often. In total, these four rushers have combined for 67 quarterback hurries this season. The Ravens need to rush quarterbacks so they don't have enough time to pick apart a secondary that has started six cornerbacks in the first 10 games.

The Saints have been surprisingly vulnerable at home recently, but they have been dominant in prime-time games at the Superdome. Why is it so tough to beat the Saints in those home night games?

Triplett: It really is uncanny how dominant they are in these games. They don't just win them. They routinely score in the 40s and win by 20 points. Obviously the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. The crowd is even more frenzied from the start in night games, and the Dome is one of the louder venues in the league. The conditions obviously favor New Orleans' offense (fast track, no weather, no crowd noise). And the Saints defense probably benefits even more because of that volume, which forces a lot of timeouts and false starts.

All of that being said, it's up to the Saints to keep that crowd in a frenzy with big plays. And it was really stunning to see how lifeless both the team and the fans were last week. The Saints have lost two straight home games now, after having won 11 straight before that. And their 10 points against Cincinnati was the lowest total at home since 2006.

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METAIRIE, La. – Unlike Terrell Suggs, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is well aware that the Baltimore Ravens are the only NFL team he has yet to beat in his 14-year NFL career.

“Just this one,” Brees said, almost interrupting a reporter when the question was asked Thursday.

Brees
Anyone familiar with Brees’ encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much every game he’s played shouldn’t be surprised at that.

“I can tell you each game too. It was really just three, ‘03 in San Diego, ‘06 here, ‘10 there,” Brees said.

Then when asked if that adds a little extra motivation heading into the Saints’ Monday night matchup against Baltimore, Brees said, “Maybe a little bit.”

That also shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with Brees’ ultra-competitive nature.

But Brees doesn’t exactly need any extra motivation this week, considering the Saints are 4-6 and coming off of one of their most lackluster offensive performances in his nine-year tenure in New Orleans. The Saints lost 27-10 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, their lowest point total at home since 2006.

Brees was efficient, completing 33 of 41 passes for 255 yards without a turnover. But he didn’t complete a pass longer than 17 yards as the Saints’ long drives stalled repeatedly.

Brees said he thinks the extra day off this week leading up to a Monday game was helpful for guys, “especially maybe coming off that game, just to kind of get realigned and really focused on the task.”

But he added that he didn’t want to dwell too much on the Cincinnati game since it’s now “in the past.”

“I think you walk away from that saying, ‘Gosh we didn’t feel like we had a whole lot of opportunities offensively, and we weren’t really efficient with the ones we did have. We sustained drives, we did some things, but obviously not near enough,” Brees said. “So in some ways you just say, ‘We’ve gotta find ways to be more efficient, take the things that we’re doing well, continue to master those, and then the things that we need to work on, let’s really fine-tune.’

“Because when you get out there, you want to be able to simplify the game as much as possible. And you want to play fast and confident.”

There’s no better opportunity for the Saints’ offense to do that than at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in prime time. They’ve won 14 straight primetime home games, including the playoffs, by nearly 20 points per game.

“It’s primetime ‘Monday Night Football.’ We’ve had a lot of these games here. Our fans always seem to rise to the occasion. I think our team always seems to rise to the occasion,” Brees said. “And we need it more than ever right now.”
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday for the first time since suffering shoulder and rib injuries in Week 7.

Thomas was in great spirits while talking with the media, but he playfully refused to reveal whether he expects to play Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

Thomas
“You’re gonna have to find that out. You’re gonna have to wait and see,” said Thomas, who even threw in a suspenseful sound effect at one point: “Who knows when it’s gonna be? It might be Monday. Oooooh.”

“I did not think it was gonna take this long,” Thomas added. “But, hey, I had to make sure it was right, and I still have to make sure it’s right before I step out on that field so I don’t have any setbacks. Because I don’t want to put myself out here and play one game and get hit and then that’s it.

“No, I want to finish this season out and then continue on into the playoffs, too. So I want to help out my team and help myself as much as possible. I gotta be smart about my decision. That’s what I’m doing.”

Thomas’ return would be a huge lift for a Saints offense that just lost dynamic rookie receiver Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury. Thomas has always been a big part of the Saints’ passing game, especially on screen passes – an element of their offense that they’ll miss with Cooks out.

Plus, fellow pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet was held out of team drills Thursday with a hamstring injury, the severity of which was unknown.

Thomas can also help relieve running back Mark Ingram, who has carried a heavy load with 26 carries per game in the past four weeks.

Fellow running back Khiry Robinson also has been sidelined since Week 7 with an unspecified arm injury. Robinson remained absent from practice Thursday. His timetable remains unclear.

“Oh, man, he’s been holding it down. He’s been holding it down, seriously,” Thomas said when asked about Ingram, who had three straight 100-yard games before the run game was shut down last week against Cincinnati. “I mean, Mark’s been doing a job we all knew he could do; he’s just getting more reps.

“With this organization, with this team, we rotate, and it’s hard to get on a rhythm. And he was on a rhythm. He was moving the ball; he was holding it down for some of us running backs that was down. He was doing the job that he needed to do. Everybody knows that he can do the job. Everybody knows that he can step up to the challenge, and he answered. I’m proud of him.”

Other injury notes:
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis was absent from practice Thursday as he continues to rehab a lingering knee injury. Lewis also missed two days of practice last week before practicing on Friday and playing 10 snaps – although he admitted he wasn’t as healthy as hoped. Lewis said Thursday that he’s still optimistic and getting better each day, and the extra day of rest before a Monday night game should help.
  • Linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) was held out of team drills, though he also was limited last week in a similar fashion before playing a full game. Linebacker Kyle Knox was held out of team drills with a hand injury.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His role in the Saints’ offense could also increase if he’s healthy enough to play Monday, as he has proven ability as a deep threat (another area where they’ll miss Cooks).
  • Right tackle Zach Strief practiced fully after leaving last Sunday with a concussion – a great sign for the Saints, who will be facing two of the league’s best pass rushers Monday in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
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.

Click here for Greer’s thoughts on the Saints’ struggles up until now. Here are his scouting reports on some of the Saints’ defensive backs, as well as a look ahead to Monday night’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens:

On the up-and-down play of safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Corey White: “This is the first year of both of these guys being THE guys, people who are solidified as starters and expected to make plays, especially Corey. So we’ve seen glimpses from Corey in which he’s made plays, and I definitely think [he can still be an asset]. I’m not too critical, because I understand how tough it is when nothing’s going right, we’re gonna search for someone to blame.

[+] EnlargeSmith
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Saints are familiar with Ravens receiver Steve Smith from his Carolina Panthers days.
“And I think the fans had such expectations for Kenny that he hasn’t met. But the thing is that Kenny has higher expectations for himself, and I’m sure that he is at the facility right now wondering what he can do to become a better player. Knowing Kenny, he’s extremely motivated to become great. And this slump that he’s having, I know it’s only for a time. I’ve talked to him, and I’m sure that he’s the worst critic. So even though I’ve expected him to have a better season, I think we also see the effect of just the shake-up of the secondary. He’s worn so many different hats. At the beginning of the year, when they signed Jairus Byrd, Kenny is looking to him like, ‘How do I get to that level? How do I become one of the best in the league?’ So with that being taken away, Kenny is thrust into a new leadership position in his second year. While he’s still learning who he is as a player, people are looking at him as the face of a secondary, saying, ‘Where do we go?’ People don’t understand how that impacts your game. But that’s why we get paid the big bucks.”

On defending the Ravens: “You know I’m familiar with Steve Smith. He has been so successful for such a long time, and he’s having a great season. I would think, depending on how the secondary looks this week, with Rafael Bush being put on IR, it’s interesting to see how they’ll shake things up. But if Keenan [Lewis] is healthy, I look for him being on Steve Smith. Steve Smith is a stutter-and-go receiver. I don’t mean the double move. I mean when he comes off the line, as soon as the ball snaps, he is going to hesitate to get you to sit back on your heels, and then he’s gonna run 100 miles per hour in the opposite direction. He lives off that. But the good thing about Keenan is he is one of the most patient, technique-savvy guys in the league. So he’s a great matchup for Steve Smith. Keenan’s gonna finish the play better than anybody.

“Now Torrey Smith is another guy that doesn’t take a long time getting out, either. He’s a one-cut guy; he’ll make one move and then go full-speed. So Corey or Patrick [Robinson] could be in that position, depending on what they do. If Patrick is playing Torrey Smith, it fits with his strength set. Patrick is patient; he’s a guy that is extremely fast and can stay with the best receivers. I think he’ll succeed in that matchup; he just has to make sure he keeps his eyes on Torrey Smith’s hips. And one thing I’ve noticed, even though Patrick took a lot of flak, if you watch last game or the last couple games, I haven’t see one catch in which Patrick hasn’t contested, whether it’s a catch and tackle or a pass break-up. He is playing at a high level right now. As an evaluator of corners, you want to see contested passes, you want to see that corner right next to the receiver as soon as he catches it.

“If Corey plays that position, then he has to understand they’re going to look for him. But Corey is strong, and he can battle with Torrey Smith on the short routes. He has to stay technique-sound and stay on Torrey Smith’s upfield shoulder. They both can do the job; they’re just gonna have to be aware that Joe Flacco’s gonna target them.”
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METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints (4-6) haven't been themselves this year. Not even at home, where they've lost two straight games to snap an 11-game win streak.

But there's still one streak they’ve continued to maintain -- their dominance in prime-time games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they'll host the Baltimore Ravens (6-4) on "Monday Night Football."

The Saints routed the Green Bay Packers, 44-23, on Sunday night in Week 8. They've now won 14 straight prime-time home games, including the playoffs, by nearly 20 points per game. They've won 17 of their last 18, dating back to 2008.



Saints quarterback Drew Brees has won seven consecutive home starts on "Monday Night Football," according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That's one shy of Peyton Manning's all-time record, which is still active.

And the Saints' streak of scoring 28 points in seven straight Monday night home games is also an NFL record.

Ravens’ dominance: On the flip side, however, the Ravens are one of two teams that the Saints have failed to beat since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006. And they are the only team that Brees has never beaten, dating back to his days with the San Diego Chargers.

Brees is 0-3 against Baltimore, including two losses with the Saints (a 35-22 loss in the Superdome in 2006 and a 30-24 loss at Baltimore in 2010).

The Saints are also 0-2 against the Denver Broncos in the Payton/Brees era.

Flacco's dominance: Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been up and down this year, but he's dominated the NFC South, going 3-0 with 297 passing yards per game, 10 passing TDs and two interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his Total QBR of 97.0 against the NFC South is the second highest of any quarterback against a division in a single season since ESPN started calculating QBR data in 2006.

Ravens insight: For news and notes on the Ravens this week, check out their team page on ESPN.com and follow Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley on Twitter @JamisonHensley.
METAIRIE, La. -- To help fill the void left by injured Brandin Cooks, the New Orleans Saints took a flier on another rookie receiver Wednesday by signing Jalen Saunders off the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad, according to ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates.

Saunders is already on his fourth team since being drafted in the fourth round by the New York Jets this year. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder from Oklahoma began the year as the Jets’ punt returner. But he was released after he muffed two punt returns. He then spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad before landing in Seattle.

It’s unclear if the Saints envision Saunders as an immediate punt-return candidate -- a job that became vacant when Cooks was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. Chances are even slimmer that they would use Saunders on offense right away.

Coming out of college, Saunders was expected to be a poor man’s version of Cooks -- a speedy and elusive slot receiver/punt returner. But ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini reported that sources said he wasn’t as explosive as draft reports indicated. Maybe another change of scenery will serve him well.

Saunders, who transferred to Oklahoma from Fresno State, caught a total of 123 passes for 1,558 yards and 11 touchdowns during his two seasons with the Sooners. He returned a total of 25 punts for 396 yards and three touchdowns.

To make room on the roster, the Saints released running back Brian Leonard -- a good sign that they must be expecting either Pierre Thomas and/or Khiry Robinson back from lingering injuries this week.

Thomas also tweeted out a picture and message to his fans Wednesday insisting he’s working his way back from shoulder and rib injuries.



The Saints’ first practice (and injury report) is Thursday this week since they’re not playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
METAIRIE, La. -- Veteran Jamarca Sanford would seem to be the most likely candidate to replace Rafael Bush as the New Orleans Saints’ starting free safety.

Sanford
Sanford, 29, is listed as Bush’s backup on the Saints’ unofficial depth chart. And the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder spent the past three years as a starter for the Minnesota Vikings, where he reportedly performed well in pass coverage.

The only real knock on Sanford is that he showed up in New Orleans a week ago -- signed mostly as a special-teamer and emergency backup.

But that’s what the Saints are down to now that Bush has been placed on injured reserve with a broken leg. Bush was the third Saints safety to land on IR, following veteran Jairus Byrd and rookie Vinnie Sunseri.

Sanford, a seventh-round draft pick out of Ole Miss in 2009, spent three games with the Washington Redskins earlier this season after being released by Minnesota. He has 269 career tackles, with two interceptions, eight forced fumbles and one sack.

The Saints have other candidates, but they all come with question marks, too:
  • First-year safety Marcus Ball has been with the team all year, but coach Sean Payton described him as more of a strong safety and special-teamer this week -- and Ball has struggled at times when he has played as a third safety on defense.
  • The Saints signed undrafted rookie Pierre Warren on Tuesday off the Vikings’ practice squad. Warren spent the summer with the Saints and made a strong impression as a playmaker in training camp. But he was ultimately released (ironically because of too much depth at safety), and he didn’t even stick long on New Orleans’ practice squad. It’s hard to imagine him stepping right into a starting role.
  • Cornerback Corey White is a wild-card possibility who played safety in college and dabbled at the position in nickel and dime packages during training camp. The Saints have more depth at cornerback, with Patrick Robinson, Brian Dixon, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and recently-promoted Terrence Frederick all capable of stepping up a rung on the depth chart. But the Saints already might need some of those guys to step up since starter Keenan Lewis is still battling a knee injury.
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METAIRIE, La. -- I've probably written it two dozen times over the past nine years: The New Orleans Saints' offense is deep enough to absorb the loss of any one player. I've even written that about tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

But for some reason, I'm less confident than ever in making that statement now with the loss of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks for the season with a broken thumb.

[+] EnlargeCooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie receiver Brandin Cooks' season is over because of a broken thumb. He had 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns.
It's not that Cooks was performing at such an incredible level that his production can't be replaced. But Cooks was the only player giving the Saints the kind of dynamic boost that they've needed most.

The Saints' fastest offensive weapon, Cooks had finally started to emerge as a threat on deep passes in recent weeks (catches of 50, 40 and 31 yards). He was also a pseudo-replacement for Sproles on screen passes and end-around runs designed to make defenders miss in the open field.

Last week in a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints (4-6) didn't complete a pass of longer than 17 yards.

They were surprisingly efficient in the game when it came to things like completion percentage, third-down conversions and avoiding turnovers. But they were downright toothless -- a word I've never used to describe New Orleans' offense.

It put the home crowd to sleep. And worse yet, it put no fear into an opponent that had been limping into Sunday's game.

That's not the Saints' personality. And they can't afford for that to be the case going forward -- starting at home this Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints' offense has always been at its peak in such prime-time home games, winning 14 straight by nearly 20 points per game.

Most likely, the Saints will rely even more heavily on Graham and receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills going forward. Colston has been more inconsistent this year than ever before with too many dropped passes. But the Saints haven't lost faith in him. He's continued to lead them in snaps each week, and he led them with eight targets and 56 receiving yards against the Bengals.

From a fantasy standpoint, I might stubbornly give a slight nod to Colston over Stills for that reason -- though it's close, and both should see slight increases in production.

It will be interesting to see if this also opens the door for deep-threat receiver Joe Morgan, who has only caught one pass all season while being mostly inactive (and suspended for two weeks for an unspecified team issue). Morgan flashed his dazzling big-play potential with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. But then he missed all of 2013 with a major knee injury.

It also wouldn't hurt for the Saints to get veteran deep threat Robert Meachem and pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas back from lingering injuries. Both are expected back at some point, but the specific timetables are unknown.
METAIRIE, La. -- It wasn’t easy, but I managed to stay awake through the entire replay of the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

All jokes aside, I understood what the Saints were trying to do -- patiently relying on the run game and check-down passes to control the clock and avoid turnovers. And we’ve seen it work before in victories at Carolina two weeks ago, at Chicago last year and against San Francisco last season.

But this was the downside of such a plan. The Saints’ offense wasn’t any good at running the ball Sunday. It couldn’t finish off long drives with touchdowns. And therefore it put no pressure on the Bengals' defense and put the home crowd to sleep.

Coach Sean Payton admitted he thought his team was too flat when he watched the tape. And quarterback Drew Brees said the energy was there to start, but teams usually feed off big plays that never materialized on either side of the ball.

The Saints (4-6) obviously need to find a better balance between staying patient but still cranking up the volume when possible.

Here are some other thoughts after reviewing the tape:

Ingram
Running nowhere: This is why the concept of “establishing the run” is easier said than done. The Saints ran the ball four times on the first five plays. And they ran the ball 17 times on first downs. But it usually just put them into a second-and-long situation.

The Saints ran the ball 26 times for 75 yards (23 for 67 yards by Mark Ingram), averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.

It was usually a case of one missed block on each run stuff. Center Jonathan Goodwin probably had the roughest performance, but each lineman was guilty at least once -- not to mention fullback Erik Lorig and the tight ends/receivers. Ingram himself appeared to miss an opportunity for a touchdown if he had broken outside once, but it’s too hard to tell what he could see and where the play was designed to go.

I didn’t notice the Bengals’ front doing anything unusual, but credit them for getting a consistently strong push and the linebackers making solid open-field stops.

Brees
Goal-line stand: The Saints came so close to a touchdown that might have changed the game on a 17-play drive in the first half, but they stalled after having a first-and-goal from the 3. Brees threw a nice back-shoulder pass to receiver Marques Colston on first down, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had Colston’s arm hooked after they jostled for position. Maybe it was worthy of a flag, but officials often let that kind of arm contact go.

Then Ingram got 2 yards on second down, bouncing outside when the middle was clogged. That’s the play where it appeared he could’ve scored by going further outside of a block by Colston, but it’s impossible to say if anyone missed an assignment or a read.

Likewise, on third-and-1, Ingram’s hole between Lorig and tight end Josh Hill looked promising for a second but closed too quickly.

Then the Saints went with a quick snap on fourth-and-1 and a play-action pass to Lorig that never had a chance with defenders all over him.

Graham
Missing deep, missing Graham: The Saints took very few deep shots -- partly by design against the Bengals’ zone-heavy scheme. But when Brees did throw deep, he missed. He overshot wide-open receiver Brandin Cooks in the first quarter after he recognized him late in the progression. Then Brees barely overshot Hill’s fingertips on the same drive. Brees also overshot Colston in the fourth quarter, possibly because he was hit as he threw by pressure against right tackle Bryce Harris.

I tried to watch closely to figure out why tight end Jimmy Graham’s production was so low (three catches for 29 yards on three targets, plus an incomplete pass that resulted in a late-hit penalty). It seemed like the Saints were settling for a lot of underneath throws by design. And on the few plays when it appeared Brees was looking deeper for Graham, the Bengals usually had two guys in the area, which led to more check-downs.

Graham was never an option on any of the four goal-line plays. He was an attractive target in single coverage later inside the 10-yard line, but Brees went with a 9-yard TD pass to uncovered receiver Kenny Stills instead.

Decent protection: Pressure wasn’t a huge issue for Brees, who was never sacked and never turned the ball over. Harris struggled on at least three snaps (including a holding penalty) after filling in for injured starter Zach Strief. Guard Ben Grubbs was also flagged for holding. And there were four or five other hurries, including one against Grubbs, one against Goodwin and one on a seven-man blitz that led to a batted pass.

Some good stuff: Brees did make several nice throws -- especially on several third-and-long plays -- on a day when he completed 33 of 41 passes for 255 yards and the TD. Brees and Colston connected on a fantastic 16-yard completion near the left sideline in the second quarter, when a replay review proved Colston kept both feet in bounds. ... Colston made one of the best offensive plays of the day by playing defense and breaking up an interception after Brees’ fourth-quarter overthrow. ... Ingram did manage to mix in a couple nice runs, fighting for yards after contact on gains of 13 and 8 during the TD drive.

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