While the final score tells a tale that any New Orleans Saints fan would surely warm to, a quick look under a microscope shows why head coach Sean Payton was not in the least bit satisfied with his team after their 31-24 win over the Tennessee Titans. While there were, indeed, several positives to take away from the Saints' preseason home opening win, the main negative came in the form of an absurd 22 penalties which left Payton steaming.
Nevertheless, the Saints did make strides across the board as they now head into the all-important third preseason game next weekend in Indianapolis against the Colts, a game which figures to serve as a dress rehearsal for both teams. With two preseason games and two victories in the books, here are 3 quick takeaways from last night's game in the dome...
1.For Flag's Sake
22 penalties. Twenty-two. Yes, that is correct. If Sean Payton was unhappy with the 10 penalties called against his team in last week's preseason opener at St. Louis, the fact that the tally more than doubled last night will not sit well with him at all.
From illegally dunking the ball over the goalpost...twice(come on now, Jimmy), holding, and false starts, to late hits and illegal contact, the Saints could never quite get out of their own way last night. The final score may have turned out in their favor, but the ridiculous amount of penalties left Payton cutting quite the disillusioned figure at his postgame press conference. Jimmy Graham was responsible for 2 of the Saints' many penalties in last night's 31-24 win over the Titans.
“Obviously, that was painful to watch," the Super Bowl-winning coach said at the podium. "I don’t recall, I can’t recall ever a game with that many penalties. And here is the thing; most of the ones I saw were good calls, so this isn’t about a crew calling a lot of penalties, this is about something I have to do a better job with. We will find ourselves at the short end of a game and then wonder about our offseason goals and what happened and we won’t know exactly what happened and you’ll hear about in a preseason game, (22) penalties, I’ve lost track. I have to do a better job in that area and it will start on Sunday.”
Sunday is when the Saints will return to the practice field, their first workout since returning to Louisiana on Thursday after a largely successful training camp in West Virginia. Look for Payton and his staff to deliver their message loud and clear; clean up the penalties or face the music. And the music won't be pretty.
2. Backup QB Competition Heats Up
The competition between Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin to be Drew Brees' understudy has been one of the more intriguing position battles to monitor throughout the Saints' offseason. As Brees continues to nurse a minor oblique strain which has kept him out of action since August 1, it was once again time to hand the keys to his backups. Veteran McCown got the start again last night, and showed much better poise and execution than he did in St. Louis last Friday when he posted a pedestrian 7-10, 49 yard, 1 interception stat line.
Last night, however, McCown looked much more comfortable, confident, and in command, playing most of the first half and leading the Saints on a touchdown drive on their opening possession. He finished his night with a 12-20, 117 yard, 2 touchdown line, thriving off high-percentage throws and taking advantage of Jimmy Graham's presence on the field. Luke McCown showed improvement in last night's game.
Griffin, meanwhile, was able to build off of his fine outing against the Rams, where he went 16-23 for 179 yards and a touchdown pass. Last night, the former Tulane signal-caller entered the game late in the second quarter and immediately hooked up with Joe Morgan for a 52 yard strike down the field. Griffin would engineer a pair of scoring drives of his own, resulting in touchdown passes to Mark Ingram and Seantavius Jones. The 2nd year man finished his night with a 13-19 179 yard, 2 touchdown line.
The play of the two quarterbaks was one definite positive for Payton to highlight in the midst of the sea of yellow hankies.
“I thought both Luke and Ryan did a lot of really good things," he said. "I thought they both located the ball well. I think you saw in Luke’s series influx and making some plays outside of the pocket. With Ryan, I thought you saw him step up and buy a little time and get the ball down the field a little bit. I thought there were a lot of positives to coach off of based on not looking at the tape but just first impressions.”
3. "D" Trending Towards Consistency
While the customary "it's just preseason" disclaimer could easily be applied here, especially given the absence of key playmakers such as Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey, Victor Butler and John Jenkins, the Saints defense has been inconsistent at best through the first two preseason games.
The Titans were able to move the ball successfully with the majority of the Saints' first-team group on the field, as both Jake Locker and rookie Zach Mettenberger, a former LSU standout, engineered long scoring drives.
However, the unit did manage to force 5 takeaways in the form of 4 fumble recoveries and an interception, and got better as a group throughout the game. As good as that sounds, Payton pointed out that the takeaways only produced two scoring drives in turn, a number he would have liked to have seen just a little higher at the final whistle. Led by Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints' defense produced 5 takeaways last night.
Another positive to draw from the defense was the improved play of rookie defensive backs Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinnie Sunseri. 2nd round pick Jean-Baptiste recovered one of the four fumbles, while also showing marked improvement in pass coverage. He was badly beaten for a touchdown last week in St. Louis, where, out of phase, he failed to turn his head and locate the ball. The former Nebraska standout has all the physical tools to develop and prosper into a potential starter outside down the road, and will grow into the position with more hands-on coaching and practice.
Sunseri came down with an interception late in the game, and drew praise from Payton for his development throughout the summer. The former Alabama safety has shined on both defense and special teams, and appears capable of adding quality depth to the safety position, one of the team's strongest areas. Sunseri showed strong ball skills in coverage, while demonstrating good tackling in run support in addition to his special teams prowess. Like fellow rookie Jean-Baptiste, the former Crimson Tide man has made the most of his reps with the first-team defense during Byrd and Bailey's absences from practice.
"He was around the ball; he had a couple minus yardage plays in the running game, a turnover," Payton said. "He looked like he was relaxed. I said this to him during the week, last week it looked like he was in good position but he was a half count either behind or missing the tackle, and I felt like tonight was much better."
LB Curtis Lofton was impressed with both of his rookie teammates.
"Sunseri had a great week of practice and it showed up for him in the game," said Lofton. "He had a couple of big hits and a great interception. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, he’s really been showing up for us. This week he got a little more action and he’s improved himself. As long as he keeps improving he’ll be okay."
As expected, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush excelled in the defensive backfield, while Brodrick Bunkley had another stout game up front, batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage and providing constant pressure up the gut. Cameron Jordan had a sack that resulted in one of the turnovers, while Akiem Hicks continued to be a nuisance to the opposing offensive line.
-In addition to the aforementioned absentees, WR Marques Colston, WR Kenny Stills, G Ben Grubbs, FB Erik Lorig, CB Rod Sweeting, TE Je'Ron Hamm, LB David Hawthorne and OL Ty Nsekhe all missed the game.
Colston's reason for sitting out remains undisclosed, though it was likely for rest purposes. Both Brees and Stills were seen sprinting on the field during warmups, and should be back in the fold soon.
CB Keenan Lewis and rookie LB Khairi Fortt both left the game with what appeared to be minor injuries. No update was given on their status. The Saints will hope that Lewis, in particular, will not miss much, if any time, given his importance as a true lockdown corner.
-With Grubbs out and Jahri Evans also missing time throughout camp, reserve guards Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones have stood out in the Pro Bowl tandem's absence. Both played well last night, giving McCown and Griffin solid protection as the saints unleashed their passing game after the Titans keyed on the run early.
-Pierre Thomas may be, in theory, down the depth chart, but the elder statesman of the Saints' backfield still has an incredibly important role to play. Thomas, especially with Darren Sproles no longer in town, is the team's best back in the passing game from both a receiving and protection standpoint. On an early 3rd down, Thomas showcased his value by taking a quick dump-off from McCown and turning it into a 13 yard gain.
His ability to pick up a blitzer cannot be underestimated, and though Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram may handle the brunt of the work on the ground, Thomas' role will be important as the Saints employ one of the league's better screen games, and are often throwing the ball in excess of 30 times a game.
Next Up: Indy
The Saints will travel to Lucas Oil Field to play the Indianapolis Colts next Saturday night in a nationally televised contest on CBS. Both teams seem likely to treat the game as the customary dress rehearsal that the third preseason game typically serves as.
It remains to be seen whether the likes of Brees and Byrd will be back on the field by then, but that information should become available throughout the week. Be sure to check back with Fantasy Knuckleheads for all the latest information from the New Orleans Saints and the rest of the NFL.