As the Saints take a break this weekend, columnist Sheldon Mickles finds that the highlights have greatly outweighed the lowlights ... even after that pesky Patriots loss
On the weekend the New Orleans Saints get a break with their first extended time away from the field since training camp began in late July, it’s a good time to look at what has and hasn’t happened so far in the regular season.
There have been highlights and lowlights, to be sure, but the former easily overshadow the latter as their 5-1 record indicates — totally unlike 2012, when the struggling Saints were 2-4 at this point in a woebegone season.
1. GIMME FIVE: After losing their first four games in 2012, the Saints turned the tables completely and came out strong with five consecutive victories that made them one of the NFL’s last three undefeated teams. While many people thought they’d be improved with Sean Payton back in the saddle, no one believed they would come out of the gate with five wins in a row — no one.
2. THE DEFENSE: The Saints have put together a cohesive unit that can tackle, create turnovers, pressure and sack the quarterback and, most importantly, keep opponents out of the end zone — for the most part. Rob Ryan’s aggressive, opportunistic defense has gotten it done — for the most part, that last-minute, gut-wrenching touchdown drive by the New England Patriots notwithstanding.
3. BEATING THE DIRTY BIRDS: Most fans will tell you that this was THE highlight of the first six games — and it certainly would have been had they not followed it with four more wins. The Saints couldn’t have written a better script to start the season than keeping the reviled Atlanta Falcons out of the end zone in the final minute to preserve a six-point win. Beating the Buffalo Bills that way would’ve been nice, of course, but it just wouldn’t have been the same.
4. JIMMY GRAHAM: Forget for a minute that Graham, a fourth-year tight end, was shut out in the 30-27 setback to the Patriots and also suffered a foot injury — the severity of which hasn’t been disclosed. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder has toyed with defenses — using his speed to run away from linebackers and his size and strength to overpower most smaller defensive backs. His four-game stretch with 33 receptions, 548 yards and five touchdowns is All-Pro stuff.
5. THE YOUNGSTERS: While Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas, Graham, Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Jenkins are established players, several youngsters have produced positive results. Rookies like Kenny Vaccaro, John Jenkins, Kenny Stills and Khiry Robinson have come up big at times, while other players like Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette and Travaris Cadet continue to come into their own — which bodes well for the future.
1. NO RUNNING GAME: The Saints continue to have a devil of a time here. Despite making it a major point of emphasis in the offseason, they rank 23rd at 86.7 yards per game and are 28th at 3.4 yards per attempt. They’ll have to do much better in the next 10 games — and the playoffs — if they want to keep opposing defenses on their heels and prevent them from zeroing in on the passing game.
2. INJURIES: Every NFL team has injuries, but the Saints have been hit rather hard — especially on defense, where three of their four projected starters at linebacker have not played a down in the regular season. The defensive line has also played thin, while in the secondary, strong safety Roman Harper has missed four games, and nickel back Patrick Robinson is gone for the season. It hasn’t helped the offense that Moore has missed the past three games.
3. THE OFFENSIVE LINE: The Saints have been the least-sacked team in the NFL since Payton arrived in 2006, but they’ve had their troubles this season. Brees, who has been hit frequently and already has been sacked 14 times, is on pace to go down 37 times — which would be 11 more than he has been sacked in any year since joining the Saints.
4. THE PATRIOTS LOSS: It’s only one loss, but the way the Saints came up short Sunday could come back to haunt them. The offense twice had opportunities to put the Patriots away after the defense did its part with two stops, but it couldn’t put the nail in the coffin and then watched Tom Brady take advantage of a third chance. If the Saints miss out on home-field advantage — or even a first-round bye — by one game, they’ll look back on the one that got away in Foxborough.
5. GRAHAM’S CONTRACT: The Saints and Graham haven’t come to terms on a contract extension, but breathless fans should relax. It’ll happen. Maybe not now, but the Saints won’t let Graham just walk away — which means they’ll put the franchise tag on him if they can’t work out a long-term deal before the new league year starts in mid-March.