In a game that, at times, very much resembled the quintessential first preseason game of the summer, the New Orleans Saints managed to escape the Edward Jones Dome with a 26-24 victory over the St. Louis Rams last night.
The game resembled an early-August matchup, with penalties, drops, confusion and general hiccups abound, but New Orleans managed to squeak out the win on the strength of fine efforts from RB Mark Ingram, rookie WR Brandin Cooks, and standout play from DEs Akiem Hicks and Tyrunn Walker, in particular.
The Saints, as expected, were without quarterback Drew Brees, among others, as coach Sean Payton and the team's medical staff keep an eye on the bigger picture. Brees has missed the last week of practice with a minor oblique strain, but is expected to be fine within days. Joining him on the sidelines last night were RB Pierre Thomas, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, WRs Kenny Stills and Andy Tanner, FB Erik Lorig, TE Je'Ron Hamm, OT Ty Nsekhe, S Jairus Byrd, CBs Champ Bailey and Terrence Frederick, LB Victor Butler and DT John Jenkins.
The Saints defense struggled as a unit throughout the night, while the offense, sans Brees, was able to move the ball against a Rams defense that boasts one of the more talented defensive lines in football. All in all, both teams got in a good run out on Friday, with more tales to be told in the remaining three games before preparations for week 1 begin in earnest.
Here's a look at 5 observations we took away from last night's game in St. Louis:
Ready To Run
Mark Ingram made the most of his opportunity last night, rushing for an impressive 83 yards on 8 carries with a touchdown behind superb offensive line play. The Saints' line was very impressive against a good St. Louis front 4, especially considering New Orleans was without their tandem of Pro Bowl guards in Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. The Rams fielded the likes of Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, as well as rookies Aaron Donald and Michael Sam.
Khiry Robinson also looked good, tallying 23 yards and a score on 5 carries. Both Robinson and ingram rotated in and out for a good portion of the first half. The Saints are planning on putting greater emphasis on their run game in 2014, and the type of open field maneuvering from the backs and dominant line play on display last night will be a huge boost to those efforts.
Senio Kelemete had a fine night up front, with the likes of Thomas Welch and Jason Weaver also standing out. Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin, both battling for the starting center spot, also turned in solid efforts. Mark Ingram had a successful night on the ground.
Tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill also had their moments, both as blockers and receivers, with Hill reeling in an impressive 46 yard grab downfield to set up a score.
While the third-team unit had their struggles late on, it was a positive start for the run game, and the offense as a whole.
Overall, Payton was pleased with how his team managed to run the ball in their first game action of the summer. The production of Ingram and Robinson delighted the Saints' coach.
"I was encouraged with our ability to run the ball and their efforts," said Payton of his two running backs. "I thought they played with good pad level. It was good to see from both of them."
Griffin Trending Up
Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown are engaging in one of the more intriguing camp battles this summer as they vie to win the backup quarterback job.
Griffin looked superb last night, going 16-23 for 179 yards with a touchdown pass. McCown started, but put up a much less-stellar performance, going 7-10 for 49 yards and a pick. Camp arm Logan Kilgore entered the game late, and went 4-7 for 24 yards and a pick.
Griffin displayed the type of poise, and cool demeanor that has seen him emerge as an early favorite to win the job, and last night's outing only further cemented his progress. The former undrafted signal-caller from Tulane showed great composure and did not hesitate to find his playmakers despite current Rams and ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams often bringing pressure his way.
The Saints' coaching staff may be quietly rooting for the younger Griffin to win the job outright, which could free up a roster spot for an extra defensive back, linebacker, defensive lineman or receiver to be kept on. The team seems unlikely to keep three passers on the 53-man roster, and had to make room for Griffin midway through last season, when quarterback needy teams began sniffing around the Saints' practice squad, where the Green wave alum was stashed.
With or without Brees, both men will have more opportunities ahead to stake their claims as three more preseason games remain.
Brandin Cooks Up A Storm
The hype is real. After a somewhat slow start, at least by the standards set by his phenomenal offseason output, rookie Brandin Cooks showcased why the Saints traded up 7 places to select him in May's NFL Draft.
The Oregon State product caught 5 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown last night. On his scoring play, Cooks left two Rams defenders out to dry with a quick cut in the open field en-route to his 25 yard score off the arm of Griffin. The dazzling speed and gamebreaking ability Cooks has become synonymous with was on display, and keeping things in perspective, this was just a sample-size. Brandin Cooks put his skills on display for the first time in a live game setting last night.
The Saints figure to use Cooks in a multitude of ways, as a receiver, return man, and possible Darren Sproles-esque weapon to frustrate defenses across the league. The team has often lined him up all over the formation in practice, and he has proven capable of absorbing and digesting the high volume of information given to him by the coaching staff, even more impressive considering he did not join up with the Saints until mid-June for the final round of OTAs due to Oregon State's late graduation date.
Payton liked what he saw from his rookie.
"We've been seeing him progress. He's done some good things," said the Saints' coach. "He's quick with the ball in his hands. We were trying to monitor snaps for all of our receivers but also give them all a chance for touches. But I thought he played hard, he's smart, he lines up very quickly. We'll keep bringing him along."
Cooks is the type that can turn a short, high-percentage throw into a home run play with relative ease. The show has only just begun.
"D" Must Improve, But Had Their Moments
This was not the type of output defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be pleased with, but keeping in mind that it is, after all, preseason, the Saints still managed to have their moments on that side of the ball while shuffling in many faces in different fronts and schemes throughout the night.
In particular, Akiem Hicks and Tyrunn Walker put in tremendous performances last night. Hicks, a player who has been tipped for big things in 2014, was absorbing double teams which freed up his teammates, while still managing to make his own presence felt. The third-year man has been unblockable in camp, and translated those high marks to the field last night.
Walker, meanwhile, may have had the best night of any Saints defender, recording a sack and 3 tackles for loss, including two consecutive plays where he stuffed the run in short yardage situations.
The front seven as a whole produced, with Brodrick Bunkley, Glenn Foster, Ramon Humber, Rufus Johnson, Kyle Knox, George Uko and Kevin Reddick all standing out at one time or another. Rookies Ronald Powell and Khairi Fortt also looked the part, and should see more opportunities moving forward. Stanley Jean-Baptiste struggled at times, but the future still looks bright for the former Cornhusker.
The back-end of the defense had their struggles at times, as the Saints had a breakdown in coverage which led to the Rams' first score. Rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste looks good in his uniform, but struggled with his coverage and mechanics. His ball location must improve and he has to be more physical in bump-and-run coverage, an area in which he excelled in college at Nebraska. Jean-Baptiste conceeded a 24-yard touchdown pass late in the game, allowing the receiver to beat him off the line while failing to locate the ball. Like most young corners, expect the team's 2014 2nd round pick to improve as his experience grows.
Rod Sweeting and Brian Dixon also had their struggles, while the starting unit, playing without 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey, played better than their backups.
Ryan will expect to see much improvement from the secondary as a whole moving into the next preseason game.
Those Lonesome Kickers
The battle for the kicking job has been another interesting camp battle to monitor, and things got somewhat interesting when veteran Shayne Graham clanged an extra point off an upright. The NFL is, of course, experimenting with a new 33-yard PAT rule this preseason, where the ball is snapped from the 15 yard line as opposed to inside the 3-yard line.
Both Graham and Derek Dimke made 37-yard field goals, but Graham's PAT miss is something to file away as the two have been neck-and-neck for most of the offseason. Dimke's kicks were very accurate, with seemingly no movement to them, right down the middle which suits a dome kicker quite well.
The remaining three games will unveil who ultimately wins the job. Graham may remain a slight favorite due to his experience, though Dimke is trending in the right direction to unseat the veteran, who was re-signed in February after finishing last season as kicker following the departure of Garrett Hartley.
The Saints will return to the practice field Sunday afternoon as they begin preparations for their second preseason game at home to the Tennessee Titans on Friday, August 15.
This will mark the team's final week at their West Virginia-based training camp facilities at the Greenbrier Resort, as they will return to Louisiana on Thursday, ahead of the Titans game.