The New Orleans Saints held their first and only intrasquad contest of 2014 training camp, known as the Black and Gold scrimmage on Saturday morning, six days in advance of their opening preseason game at St. Louis.
The scrimmage did not resemble a true NFL game simulation, rather a more controlled setting with scaled-back tackling, no sacks allowed, and some scripted situations mixed into the action. There was, however, a running clock with referees enforcing all rules.
The atmosphere in camp has been sizzling in spite of the cool West Virginia conditions, as several scuffles have emerged in the morning sessions, mostly in team drills. The overall chipiness set the stage for the team's first taste of a game-like environment Saturday, as players were more than ready to kick things up a notch with the start of the regular season just over a month away. Sean Payton oversaw his team's first and only intrasquad scrimmage Saturday.
"You have to have your mind right and it's really one of the first days of people seriously getting evaluated," running back Mark Ingram said. "It's a big day for everybody."
The two color-coded teams comprised of Saints players took to the field minus a few notable names, with one very familiar name standing out amongst the rest.
Quarterback Drew Brees was held out for precautionary measures after slightly straining an oblique muscle during Friday morning's workout. Payton insisted his signal-caller was going to be fine, and hinted that he could return to the practice field as soon as Monday.
In addition to Brees, both John Jenkins and Kenny Stills remained out. Stills is nursing a quad injury he aggravated last week, while Jenkins remains on the active/PUP list following offseason pectoral surgery. Ben Grubbs has missed most of the week of practice and remained out Saturday. Reserves Terrence Frederick and Steve Hull sat out and rode stationary bikes off to the side.
The other notable absence was Champ Bailey, missing from the field for the second straight day. Bailey appeared to slightly roll an ankle towards the end of Thursday's practice, but was in good spirits as he consulted with trainers after the session was over. Payton says his future Hall-of-Fame corner will be fine shortly.
"We'll see. I don't think it's anything serious, it's just a matter of making sure he's healthy," said the Saints' coach. "But I don't want to put a time on it."
Safety Jairus Byrd was dressed out, but did not take part in the scrimmage as the Saints ease their prized free agent signing back into action.
Over 4,200 fans were in attendance as the two sets of Saints squared off Saturday morning, and the offense, sans Brees, got off to a nice start with Luke McCown getting the nod.
The veteran backup quickly established a connection with receiver Brandin Cooks, who has been of the stars in camp. The rookie has dazzled with his polished playmaking skills, athleticism, and consistency. In addition to his work on offense, the Oregon State product returned kicks, including a nice 45 yard run that set the table for a scoring drive. Cooks' knack for the big play coupled with his dynamic traits have drawn guarded, early comparisons to current Ravens and former Panthers wideout Steve Smith. Brandin Cooks continues to impress at Saints camp.
While McCown was solid, Ryan Griffin made the most of his increased work as Brees watched from the side. Griffin, an undrafted product out of Tulane entering his second season with the Saints, was very efficient, hitting on ten of his thirteen attempts, including an 8-8 start. The former Green Wave standout hit Cooks for a 40 yard gain, and took advantage of another prime weapon, hitting Jimmy Graham for a nice gain in front of safety Kenny Vaccaro. Griffin, who played for former Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson at Tulane, did most of his damage against the first-string defense.
Both Jonathan Goodwin and Tim Lelito split the reps at center with the first-team,while Mark Ingram got the starting nod at running back. Khiry Robinson saw his fair share of work with the 1's, while Pierre Thomas, Travaris Cadet and Derrick Strozier all had their moments in the scrimmage. Cadet, who could be ticketed for a bigger role in 2014, had a nice day in the run game as well as a couple of nifty kick returns. Robinson, who is also poised for a larger role in the run game moving forward, stood out as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, turning a routine screen pass into a huge gain early on Saturday.
On the heels of two strong outings in practice on Thursday and Friday, the offensive line continued to perform at a high level as they sprung their backs for several nice gains. Terron Armstead has been impressive at left tackle, while Zach Strief continues to play well on the right side.
All in all, the offense performed at a high level Saturday. The passing game was crisp, and effective downfield, while the running game was on point behind solid play up front in the trenches. With his ace, Brees, sidelined, Payton liked what he saw, particularly from his two quarterbacks, with undrafted rookie Logan Kilgore also the recipient of some extra reps.
"Both Griffin and Luke are doing well," Payton said. "We rotated both of those guys with the first group and the second group. Luke took the first role with the ones and three groups later, Ryan took a group with the ones. They're both competing hard."
As for the intriguing kicking battle, Derek Dimke was a perfect 3-3 on his attempts, while veteran Shayne Graham missed one of his three kicks. Graham's experience should still give him the slightest of edges as of now, but with Dimke performing better for the second straight day, the competition will likely come down to which kicker performs more consistently in the team's quartet of preseason games.
While the play of the offense stood out, the defense still had its moments on Saturday at the Greenbrier.
Sacks were not permitted in essence, with contact to the passer not allowed. However, Tyrunn Walker would have had a sack on McCown early after bursting around the edge.
The safeties and linebackers played well, as undrafted rookie free agent Pierre Warren continues to impress at camp. Warren made a couple of nice tackles and pass breakups against the 1's, while Ball had an interception and a sack. Rookie Vinnie Sunseri also played well, and saw some reps with the first-team defense.
Another rookie, Khairi Fortt, saw reps with the 1's, and picked off a Griffin pass. Junior Galette continued to set the tone for the defense with his high-energy and physical approach. Keenan Lewis had a fine day, excelling in redzone coverage.
While the defense did give up some big plays downfield in the passing game, they tightened up in the scripted redzone situations. Keenan Lewis thrived, breaking up two straight attempts into the end zone. Rafael Bush was good in coverage, and broke up a pass intended for Benjamin Watson.
Rob Ryan continued to rotate his talented group of safeties around, moving Kenny Vaccaro deep, closer to the box, and even over the slot in coverage. Jairus Byrd's return will only give the team's creative defensive mind yet another highly-talented option to add to the mix.
Ryan would have liked to have seen a better output from his group, but regardless, it was a productive day and a productive scrimmage. Now the team can set its sights on gameplanning for an opponent in St. Louis, a matchup that will air on NFL Network Friday night at 7 p.m.
Scrimmage Game Balls
Brandin Cooks - Cooks continues to shine and looks more and more like a polished pro as opposed to a rookie. Once the youngster experiences game settings and enhances his skills against tight man-to-man coverage, he will be a truly dangerous weapon for the Saints, and can be used in a versatile manner.
Ryan Griffin- His 10-13 line tells the tale of the day, and the fact that most of it came against the Saints' best defense speaks highly of the 2nd year Tulane man's day. Luke McCown has 10 years of experience on his side, but the Saints' staff loves Griffin, and even promoted him to the active roster in order to protect his rights, as he could have been signed off their practice squad by anyone at any time. Look for Payton and the staff to give the younger Griffin every chance to win the backup quarterback job this summer.
Keenan Lewis- While the secondary has seen better days, Lewis, the stalwart of the unit, had an excellent day. He shined in redzone drills, denying multiple would-be touchdowns, while also wrapping up well and providing strong run support. Patrick Robinson continues to play well in camp, and the Saints will hope that their secondary will be a major strength this season, especially upon Byrd and Bailey's return to action.
Following a pair of two-a-days and a scrimmage, the Saints will be off until Monday afternoon. Check back next week for another report from New Orleans Saints training camp.