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Saints finding it’s hard to please as defending champs

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Adoration can be fleeting, especially in the NFL.

One year, fans and media wrap you in a season-long, warm-and-fuzzy embrace. They tell you and anyone else willing to listen that you're an inspiration, a symbol of perseverance and hope and excellence rising from the muck of despair.

The next, they're ripping you for having a putrid running game, for not scoring enough and for turning the ball over too many times.

That shiny, silver trophy you gave them last February was nice and all, but what's up with losing two of your first five games after opening 13-0 last season? What's up with that Week 5 embarrassment against the Arizona Cardinals, who had some rookie quarterback named Max Hall making his first NFL start?

"They ate filet mignon last year, too, just like we did," fullback Heath Evans said of the harsh criticism the New Orleans Saints had been hearing from their most ardent supporters. "The sirloin's over and done with, so at the end of the day, they know what they want."

On Sunday, the Saints were back to serving up prime filet again. They put a 31-6 pounding on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had been one of the bigger surprises of the early season and were no less capable than Arizona of adding to the Saints' unpleasantness.

The Saints generated 475 yards of offense and didn't have to punt until early in the fourth quarter. Drew Brees looked like, well, Drew Brees, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns. He had one interception, two fewer than the week before, and it came off of a tipped pass. There were no lost fumbles, and the defense was dominant.

"People were pretty much counting out this offense," offensive tackle Jonathan Stinchcomb said. "We take a lot of pride in our work, so we only view that as a challenge. It wasn't flicking-a-bird-to-the-world kind of attitude. It was a challenge to us. We know what we're capable of and we hadn't shown it, so what are you going to do about it? Are you going to sit there and whine and moan and say, 'Well, you shouldn't say those things, write those things.' Or are you going to step up and answer the call, so to speak. It was a good opportunity for us to come out and play well."

The outside reaction to the losses to Arizona and Atlanta and three close victories against opponents with a combined 3-13 record also provided a good opportunity for a learning experience.

The Saints found out, or at least received confirmation, that fanaticism cuts both ways. They drew as much from New Orleans as New Orleans drew from them. Maybe more. But they also realized that things change, especially when success enters the picture in a way that the Saints or their loyalists had never experienced.

Managing the new attitude and expectations is an integral part of trying to achieve the team's stated mission of repeating as Super Bowl champs.

"I told (teammates last year), 'Don't get used to this type of friendly banter with the fans; they'll turn on you in a heartbeat,'" Evans said. "And I think that's almost an edge that you have to take with a championship team because you depend on 53 people and you live and die in the locker room and on the field with those same guys."

Said linebacker Danny Clark, "Even though our team is made up of guys from all over the country, we take on the personality of the everyday citizen of New Orleans, and that's a person of resiliency -- who comes back from any kind of adversity, any obstacle, and bounce backs and proves a lot of people wrong. I think that's what our ballclub is made of. We know, pound for pound, man for man, as a ballclub, we have one of the better teams in this league playing together."

After the Falcons' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, they are 4-2 and tied with the Saints for first in the NFC South. Two of the Saints' next three games are against bottom-dwelling Cleveland and Carolina. In between, they face the Pittsburgh Steelers.

To prove that Sunday's win was a true indication of the type of team they are, linebacker Jonathan Vilma said, they must put together "two, three, four (similar) performances back-to-back-to-back. That's when you know you're clicking on all cylinders."

Still, the 2010 Saints should not be mistaken for the 2009 version. That doesn't mean they're not as good. It just means they're different.

They might not routinely score 40 or 50 points a game, because opponents are going to do more defensively to take away from that firepower. Generally speaking, every team on the Saints' schedule is going to approach them with a higher level of motivation than year ago. That's to be expected.

"It's a new season, it's a new team," Vilma said. "And we're going to do what we have to do to win."

Sometimes that means rushing for 212 yards, as they did against the Buccaneers. The Saints' ground cause no doubt was helped by the fact that the Buccaneers' run defense is terrible, but it still served as solid proof that their offense doesn't always have to throw to succeed. Given the right opponent, they are capable of being balanced and physical.

Sometimes, they must rely on a field goal to win ... and sometimes, they'll suffer the heartbreak of losing a game, as they did in overtime against Atlanta, when their kicker missed a 29-yard chip-shot.

"A sign of a really good team, a championship team, is to (be able to) win even when you're not playing your best ball," Clark said. "And that's what we're doing right now. We're not playing our best ball, (but) we're still coming out with wins and setting ourselves up for a great result in the end."

They've got answers

» The New England Patriots, because for those of us who promptly assumed their offense would suffer greatly from their decision to trade away Randy Moss, they had a resounding answer by producing 394 total yards in beating Baltimore (and one of the best defenses in the league) in overtime. Welcome back, Deion Branch!

» The Seattle Seahawks, because their pass rush did exactly what it needed to do in giving Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler the sort of mistreatment (six sacks) he received two weeks earlier against the New York Giants (nine sacks). That proved to be a huge difference on a day when Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck wasn't sacked while throwing for a season-high 242 yards and a touchdown.


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» The St. Louis Rams, because their defense is beginning to perform the way it was expected to when defensive guru Steve Spagnuolo was hired as coach last year. The Rams sacked Philip Rivers seven times on the way to a victory against San Diego.

They've got questions

» The San Diego Chargers, because they look to be unraveling after a second consecutive loss and yet another disastrous performance by their special teams.

» The Buccaneers, because their inability to stop the run could very well prevent them from righting a ship that the Saints were able to easily sink with the help of a strong ground game despite entering the game with one of the worst rushing attacks in the league.

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because they've lost two games in a row after grabbing the rest of the league's attention by going 3-0. Their defense, which had carried them to their strong start, showed in Sunday's loss to Houston that it can wear down in the latter stages of the game, especially against an explosive offense like the Texans'.

Gut-check time for Cowboys
The Cowboys dropped to 1-4 with a 24-21 loss at Minnesota. At this point, Michael Lombardi wonders if a lack of toughness is to blame for the problems. More ...

» Are Cowboys in trouble?

Observation points

» Of the many issues plaguing the Dallas Cowboys, one that stands out the most is a lack of discipline. And it isn't just mistakes or penalties that occur in the middle of a play. It's the over-the-top celebrating that follows almost anything positive. For the second week in a row, the Cowboys were penalized for excessive celebration. You just don't see that from consistently good teams. They just don't feel the pressing need to tell the world when they do something right because that is what they expect.

» The argument supporting the fact that the Oakland Raiders selected the wrong wide receiver with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft just got a little stronger. Their choice, Darrius Heyward-Bey, finished with three catches for 19 yards in Sunday's loss to San Francisco. Michael Crabtree, whom the 49ers picked three spots later, caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. In 17 games, Crabtree has 72 receptions for 926 yards and four touchdowns while Heyward-Bey has 23 receptions for 285 yards and only one score.

» Before Miami faced Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan told reporters that his defense's goal is to get a minimum of three sacks per game while also disrupting the quarterback. The Dolphins sacked Rodgers five times, but he still managed to throw for 313 yards. Then again, Rodgers only had one touchdown pass and the Dolphins won the game, so perhaps there is something to Nolan's sack formula, after all.

» Maybe the Browns do have a bright future ahead with rookie Colt McCoy at quarterback. He showed some pretty good poise while facing the Steelers' ferocious pass rush. That's not bad for a quarterback starting his first NFL game, especially when his team had no intention of using him this soon but was forced to by injuries.

» It's a force of habit that when you bring up the Ravens' defense in conversation, the first name you mention is Ray Lewis. Some habits are bound to change. Lewis' name wasn't mentioned nearly as often in the Patriots' game as Haloti Ngata's was. And with good reason. The Baltimore nose tackle, who has clearly become the biggest difference-maker on the defense, had two sacks and should have worn a Patriot uniform for the amount of time he logged in New England's backfield.

Four intriguing matchups for Week 7

Minnesota at Green Bay: The Vikings might have won the Desperation Bowl against Dallas, but with only two victories they're still desperate. Brett Favre continues to be bothered by a sore throwing elbow and there is the looming distraction of the NFL's investigation into inappropriate text messages and photos allegedly sent to a former New York Jets employee. After two straight losses and with all kinds of injuries, the Packers are pretty desperate as well. They must keep Adrian Peterson from ripping off too many long gains.

Pittsburgh at Miami: Ben Roethlisberger performed well Sunday in his first game back from suspension, but that was at home against the lowly Browns. He figures to have a sterner test at Miami, especially with the shaky play of his offensive line and Dolphins rookie Jared Odrick possibly returning from an ankle injury, which would make an already strong pass rush even better. However, the Dolphins did allow Aaron Rodgers to throw for 300-plus yards in their overtime win at Green Bay. Chad Henne and the rest of Miami's offense will face as tough a challenge as it has all season against Pittsburgh's punishing defense.

N.Y. Giants at Dallas: The Giants have turned their season around with a three-game winning streak and are playing with a great deal of confidence, especially on defense. They are more than capable of making life miserable for Tony Romo and the rest of the Cowboys' offense. If the Giants play with discipline and keep their errors to a minimum, they should be able to win this game. Of course, the Cowboys, who are as desperate as can be, could actually take a big step in the right direction by beating a divisional opponent.

Philadelphia at Tennessee: The Eagles' quarterbacking drama makes any game they play through the rest of the season compelling, regardless of the opponent. If Michael Vick isn't healthy enough to get the start for this one, coach Andy Reid will happily stick with Kevin Kolb's hot hand. It's the same thinking that allowed Vick to supplant Kolb. Keeping Kolb upright will be a challenge for a banged-up Eagles offensive line that is facing an aggressive, hard-hitting Titans defense. And it will be interesting to see how Kolb is able to fair without the Eagles' best receiver, DeSean Jackson, who is likely out with a concussion.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci

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