The New Orleans Saints wrapped up a steady week of practice Thursday ahead their important preseason tilt against the Indianaplois Colts at Lucas Oil Field Saturday night. The game will serve as a dress rehearsal for both squads with week 1 just over a fortnight away. With both teams set to feature their starters for at least the first half of the game, this week's practice has had much more of a regular season-like feel to it.
The Saints' work week began on Sunday, roughly 48 hours after a 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans was overshadowed be an extraordinary 22 penalties. Coach Sean Payton and his staff put an added emphasis on discipline and structure in practice this week, with the hope that the team will be able to clean up these issues as they head into their biggest test of the preseason.
After a light morning walk through, the Saints departed for Indianapolis Friday afternoon. Here are some notes ahead of tomorrow's matchup:
The Saints made four roster moves on Thursday, cutting RB Tim Flanders, TE Je'Ron Hamm, LB Chidera Uzo-Diribe and WR Tobais Palmer. These cuts bring the Saints' roster total down to 86 players. All NFL teams must cut their rosters down to 75 players by next Tuesday, with final cuts due to be made by next weekend.
Flanders and Hamm were undrafted free agent skill players brought in to compete in camp. Flanders was unable to surge up the depth chart, while Hamm spent a good portion of camp battling an injury. Uzo-Diribie, another UDFA, found himself at the bottom of a crowded outside linebacking corps. Palmer, who had spent time with the San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, had been with the team for just over two weeks.
Eleven players will join these four by Tuesday, making the latter stages of Saturday night's game even more important for those on the fringes.
More good news emerged on the injury front, as CB Champ Bailey returned to practice Wednesday. It was Bailey's first workout since suffering an ankle injury on July 31. The 12-time Pro Bowler should see his first action of the preseason in Indianapolis tomorrow night.
Rookie WR Brandin Cooks was also back Thursday, albeit on a limited basis. Cooks has been dealing with a stomach bug and subsequent fever, though Payton did not rule his 2014 first-round draft choice out. Champ Bailey returned to practice this week, and is in line to play Saturday in Indianapolis.
"He practiced today. We will see where he is at tonight and tomorrow," Payton said Thursday. "Really just keeping him hydrated and getting his body weight up a little bit.”
Pro Bowl G Ben Grubbs was also back Thursday, having missed time on and off throughout camp with an undisclosed ailment. Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones have filled in nicely for Grubbs and fellow Pro Bowler Jahri Evans while the two battled injuries in training camp. Both Grubbs and Evans are expected to play tomorrow.
CB Patrick Robinson returned to practice this week, as did CB Keenan Lewis and DE Akiem Hicks. As of Friday, LB Khairi Fortt, FB Erik Lorig, LB Victor Butler and CB Rod Sweeting were among the notable absentees from practice, though Butler and Sweeting were spotted doing conditioning work off to the side Thursday.
The icing on the cake, or, in this case, the filé on the gumbo, came when Payton declared QB Drew Brees ready for action Thursday. Brees dealt with an oblique injury in camp, and has yet to take a preseason snap. Brees' unexpected absence has enabled Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin to take their heated camp battle for the backup quarterback job to the next level. Both have played well in Brees' stead, though the Saints will be glad to have their leader back tomorrow night. Drew Brees is set to make his preseason bow tomorrow night in Indianapolis. Brees played collegiately at nearby Purdue.
"I thought he looked pretty sharp tonight," Payton said after the team's Wednesday evening practice at nearby Mandeville High School. "There were a handful of throws that were exceptional. I think we've handled it the right way, and he is pretty smart and he knew where he was at. I'm sure he's going to play, and we'll figure out how many snaps in this game. But he looked pretty sharp tonight."
As for the quarterback, himself, Brees insists he is ready to go.
“I don’t know about shaking off the rust, maybe just anytime you’re coming off an injury that was directly related to you throwing, there’s this ramp-up that takes place," he said. "Obviously I didn’t want to push it too hard too fast because I didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances with it. Just kind of that progression each day of, ‘OK I can do a little bit more. I can kick up the volume, kick up the intensity.’ Finally when you’re out here again – I’d say the first day or two you’re a little bit, ‘How’s it feeling?’ on every throw. After a while you’re like, “Come on man, forget it. Just play ball. I’m at that stage right now, just playing ball.”
The Saints worked out in front of more than 6,000 local fans and media in Mandeville Wednesday evening before returning to their facility in Metairie for a late Thursday morning walk through.
- Jairus Byrd, back in the fold after more than two months of recuperation from back surgery, reminded fans and teammates why the Saints brought him to New Orleans on a six-year deal in March, drawing rave reviews by plucking two interceptions out of the air. Byrd looked healthy, showing a great first step, exceptional ball location and good command of the single high safety position which he will man for Rob Ryan's defense this season. The ex-Buffalo Bill, owner of 22 career interceptions, also made a nice play in the end zone as he broke up a would-be touchdown from Brees to Jimmy Graham.
- Brees continues to make progress and improvement every day. The quarterback looked sharp as he tossed bullet touchdown passes to Robert Meachem and Nick Toon, while Marques Colston and Brandon Coleman hauled in nice grabs during team drills. Brees definitely looked healthy, as he added a long scamper after the defense stretched to contain his receivers downfield.
- S Rafael Bush and CB Derrius Brooks recorded impressive interceptions during team drills. Bush figures to be a key part of the safety rotation, while Brooks, a former CFL standout, has seen added reps with the likes of Bailey, Robinson, Lewis, Sweeting and Terrence Frederick nursing injuries throughout training camp.
- The kicking competition remains hot, as Derek Dimke continued to put the pressure on veteran Shayne Graham, going a perfect 3-3 on his attempts, while Graham misfired on one. Graham has the experience factor in his corner, but by all accounts, Dimke has had the better summer. This one may, indeed, go down to the wire.
- The focal point of the Saints' defense heading into tomorrow night's game with the Colts seems to be QB Andrew Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton. Both players have emerged as top threats at their position, with Luck widely regarded as the best young signal-caller in the game. The top pick of the 2012 draft has taken the Colts to playoff appearances in both of his first two seasons as a pro, leading the team to an incredible comeback win over the Kansas City Chiefs in last year's wildcard round. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks, meanwhile, should give the Saints' secondary a good test in advance of week 1, where they will be tasked with slowing down Atlanta's duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. Reggie Wayne, coming off an ACL tear which brought his 2013 season to a premature end, has expressed a desire to play, although it is unclear whether or not the Colts are willing to risk their veteran wideout. The Saints will be paying extra attention to T.Y. Hilton in Saturday night's game.
"Obviously we know the quarterback's turned into the real good football player," Payton said of Luck. "He’s got the arm to make all the throws. I think the offensive line has played well. When you put that together with the defense, you are seeing a young roster that has played well and I am sure they have high expectations. I think when you look at this team, we were talking about this the other day, there are a lot of new faces, guys that are very impressive that can run."
Tomorrow's game will be nationally-televised on CBS at 7 p.m. CT.
This will be the first meeting between the teams since the 2011 season, when the Saints hammered the Colts 62-7. Indianapolis was without Peyton Manning that night, and for the 2011 season as a whole, en-route to a miserable 2-14 year which led them to the top pick in the 2012 draft where they grabbed Luck.
The Saints defeated Manning and the Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV, giving them their first ever Lombardi Trophy.