If it was, indeed, to be a dress rehearsal, the New Orleans Saints emerged from Lucas Oil Field Saturday night with a good idea of what their costumes, props and lines consist of with a sturdy backdrop set to the tune of a 23-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The typical third preseason game, both teams played the majority of their starters throughout the first half, some into the third quarter, as they looked to ramp up regular season preparations with the opener now just two short weeks away.
For New Orleans, this game also marked the return of quarterback Drew Brees, making his preseason debut after missing a portion of training camp with an oblique strain. Also making their preseason and Saints debuts last night were Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey, fresh off returning to the practice field earlier this week.
Like most preseason games, by and large, it was your typical mixed bag of results for New Orleans. Strides were made, steps were taken back, but it was another positive outcome in regards to the final score, with several positives outweighing the few notable negatives.
Here are 5 takeaways from last night's game:
1. Drew Brees is good to go
Though he admitted to not being quite at 100% over his camp ailment, Drew Brees looked to be in mid-season form as he led the Saints' first-team offense down the field on two first-quarter touchdown drives. Brees spread the ball around and demonstrated his trademark command of the huddle and all moving parts within Sean Payton's offense. Brees, and the offense in general, were unflappable as they converted on multiple third-down situations on their opening drive en-route to the game's first points.
Brees hit fullback Austin Johnson for the first score after a successful drive in which he not only displayed his usual accuracy, but also fantastic pocket awareness, stepping up to avoid a sack and converting a third-down with a 10 yard scamper. Brees exited after the 2nd touchdown, finishing his night with a 9-15, 128 yard, 2 touchdown stat line. Not to oshabby for a quarter's worth of action. Drew Brees saw his first action of the preseason last night in Indy.
“We had great balance, converted a few third downs. There weren’t any big chunks. Just kind of marching it down the field, and obviously we were able to punch it in," the quarterback said postgame. "It was a great way to start the game. We talked about coming in with a great tempo and with great balance. We talked about taking our shots when we could, but for the most part, I felt that when we were in there that it was kind of methodical.”
Payton was satisfied with his quarterback and offense's efficient production, particularly on that first drive.
"It was good to see Drew back on the field and he seemed to get in a pretty good rhythm," the Saints' coach said. "I thought what was really important in those drives, especially the first one were the third down conversions because I think we had to convert two or three to keep the drive going, one of them a longer yardage situation and I know Marques Colston made a good play on our sideline. So that is encouraging and I thought during the course of the week he specifically, Drew would look real sharp and it continued over in the game.”
Colston looked noticeably quicker and sharp, showing that he may indeed be over the foot problems that nagged him throughout 2013. Now that Brees has his favorite wide receiver and his dynamic tight end back in the mix, it looks like all systems are full-go. With number 9 at the helm, the Saints' offense should once again prove to be one of the league's best.
2. Let's hear it for the "D"
The Saints' defense has been consistently inconsistent throughout the preseason, but the first-team unit, seeing their most extensive action to date this summer, rose to the occasion and played their best ball yet. Highlighted by a goalline stand, an athletic interception by Kenny Vaccaro(Keenan Lewis nearly had a fantastic one of his own), constant pressure and a stout short-yardage presence, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had to be pleased with what he saw from his charges after up-and-down sequences against both St. Louis and Tennessee. New Orleans also recorded three sacks and recovered a fumble after a muffed punt.
The Saints did have a breakdown in coverage which led to the Colts' first score, and struggled against the run later in the game, but Ryan's first-string group looked to be at or near the same pace as their offensive teammates.
In addition to Bailey and Byrd's return and debuts, Lewis was suited up and played after a brief scare last weekend. Patrick Robinson also returned after missing some practice time, and Saints fans were able to finally catch a glimpse of what their secondary will look like at full-strength in 2014. Adding in the versatile Rafael Bush, Corey White, along with rookies Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinnie Sunseri, the Saints look to have one of the league's top outfits on the back-end of their defense. Even undrafted rookie Brian Dixon got into the action with an impressive interception in the back of the end zone. Cameron Jordan was a constant thorn in the Colts' side last night.
The Saints frustrated Colts QB Andrew Luck throughout the night, as the 2012 draft's top pick went 10-18 for 103 yards with a touchdown and interception. He was also sacked by Cameron Jordan. Indy sturggled to get their ground game going as well, with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw combining for just 19 yards on 8 carries.
Payton was glad to see those signs of life from his defense, and enjoyed the three takeaways.
"That was encouraging, we had some real good plays on the ball," he said. "I thought a lot of that comes from the energy and passion and I thought we got a little bit of pressure as the game went on and I thought we were able to, even in the first half, get into some rush lanes and make it difficult for the quarterback, especially there were some third down throws that he was high and wide with that I think we did a real good job with at least getting someone in his face."
It was a very good leap in the right direction for the Saints' defense, with a tough matchup at Atlanta waiting in the wings for week 1.
3. All good at RB
It would be incorrect to say that there is a true battle or competition going on in the New Orleans backfield, as the Saints have traditionally featured a multi-dimensional rushing attack under Payton. Pierre Thomas remains the unit's rock, an able runner and an even greater threat in the passing game. Mark Ingram can deliver a punch to the opposing defense, thriving off the Saints' zone-blocking schemes, while young Khiry Robinson continues to develop into a future pseudo-starter heir apparent to Thomas.
Darren Sproles is gone, but Thomas' impact in the passing game should help compensate. In addition, rookie Brandin Cooks, who did not play last night due to a stomach virus that bothered him earlier in the week, figures to be in line for a dynamic role within the setup of Payton's perennially explosive offensive system. Travaris Cadet could be ticketed for a role as well, giving Payton plenty of options. Pierre Thomas remains a viable threat as both a runner and receiver for the Saints.
The Saints accounted for 160 yards on the ground at 4.6 yards per rush last night. Ingram led the line with 8 carries for 46 yards, while Cadet showed improved vision and movement. Robinson has had, and will have better nights, but remains in line to be an important piece of this offense. Thomas had 3 carries for 13 yards, but again displayed his value in the passing game as he reeled in 4 receptions for 66 yards.
It looks to be another three-headed monster at the tailback position, with the likes of cadet and Cooks also in the mix to see touches one way or another. In other words, plenty of options and no worries.
4. That one battle that's alive and kicking
Ah, kickers. Love them or hate them, this particular tandem of specialists have engaged Saints' fans and their coaches, alike, with quite the camp battle throughout the summer. Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke have seemingly been neck and neck throughout the offseason, and both players were up to snuff in Indianapolis Saturday night, connecting on their field goal tries. Graham handled the first half place kicking duties and nailed both of his extra point attempts. Can Shayne Graham hold off Derek Dimke?
The players have gone back and forth at practice, as the younger Dimke looks to unseat the veteran Graham. Dimke, by most accounts, was coming off a week in which he was the better of the two in practice, though Graham looked like the seasoned veteran that he is during his time on the field last night. It was a 50/50 split as Dimke handled the kicking duties in the second half, showing a strong leg on kickoffs as well as his 45 yard field goal. Dimke looks tailor-made to kick indoors, and his accuracy has been notable through the first three preseason games. He also has experience kicking in the elements, having played collegiately at Illinois.
Graham's experience could ultimately give him the edge, but it is hard to deny that Dimke is firmly in the mix. This competition should carry right into Thursday night's preseason finale against Baltimore, where the winner should ultimately be decided. A good, strong week of practice would only be an added bonus to whomever emerges victorious.
5. The ugly...penalties
After committing a mind-boggling 22 penalties in last week's win over the Tennessee Titans, New Orleans drastically reduced their amount of fouls by more than 50%, ending the night with 10 infractions for a total of 84 yards.
It was an improvement upon last week for sure, but Payton will still be displeased, just as he was when the team committed the same amount of penalties (10) against the Rams in the preseason opener two weeks ago. Sean Payton would like to see his team clean up their mistakes, namely the penalties.
"I thought situationally in a lot of areas we did some good things. We are still high in the penalty count with 10," said the Saints' coach. "Substitutionally, that was a mess in the second half, part of it in the first half. We will get that squared away and we need to because it cost us time outs and just keeps showing up too often."
The Saints finished 2013 in a three-way tie as the ninth most-penalized team in the league with 110 fouls committed. If this preseason is any indicator, the team still has plenty of work to do to reduce that tally and trend down towards the bottom half of the table in that department. Payton and his staff will continue to emphasize discipline and organization in practice, with only one preseason game left to play.
- Jairus Byrd looked the part last night, after a week of rave reviews in practice. Byrd was explosive to the ball, showing great quickness and good tackling ability. Owner of 22 career picks, the former Buffalo Bill provides an excellent running mate for Kenny Vaccaro. “Definitely a good first step,” Byrd said. “I think we came in here and played good as a defense, but there’s some things we need to work on."
- Champ Bailey left the game with a minor foot injury, but insisted the move was simply "precautionary."
- WR Kenny Stills reaggravated the quad injury that has troubled him since July. Stills was only able to practice once while the Saints were camping in West Virginia, and had just returned this week. “Not much to say. It’s the same injury I was dealing with before,” he said.
- As mentioned earlier, Brandin Cooks was withheld as he continues to get back to full fitness following his illness. Junior Galette left the game briefly after getting the wind knocked out of him, but quickly returned to action.
- Jonathan Goodwin got the start at center last night. The former Jet and 49er, in his second stint with New Orleans, has battled the younger Tim Lelito for the starting gig in the middle of the offensive line. Lelito is a player with more developmental upside, but the polished veteran, Goodwin, has had the more steady camp to date, and his pre-existing rapport with Brees may give him the slightest of edges as the Saints look to continue to groom Lelito as a future option at the position. Re-signed in June, Goodwin was a member of the Saints team that beat Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Jonathan Goodwin looks poised to return to his post as the Saints' starting center.
- The backup quarterback battle is still alive and well, as both Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin continue to duke it out in an attempt to serve as caddy to Drew Brees. McCown was the first to enter the game, after starting the team's first two preseason games. He went 3-10 for 45 yards and took a sack, rounding out the first half action before making way for Griffin. It was not a pretty stat line for the veteran, but McCown did oversee a pair of drives that resulted in field goals before halftime. Known lovingly as "RG4," Griffin was equally unimpressive, going 8-13 for just 46 yards, while taking two sacks and tossing an interception. Needless to say, Thursday night's matchup in the Superdome against the Baltimore Ravens will be of the utmost importance for the two signal-callers.
- Next up, The Saints will conclude their preseason schedule at home to the Ravens on Thursday at 7 p.m. central time inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The team will return to the practice field tomorrow at their facility in Metairie.
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