New Orleans Saints  

 

Brees, Payton show that few teams can keep up with Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints were just one of the teams that rallied in the second half for a victory Sunday. However, how they did it showed that they're not only a Super Bowl contender but that they understand how to evolve with the rest of the league -- if not stay a step ahead.

In defeating a very good Houston team, 40-33, the Saints weren't anywhere close to dominant. The defense got gashed again and the running game still hasn't come together, with two new players joining Pierre Thomas in the backfield.

The Saints don't have to dominate games, though. They just have to dominate a few series because of their playmaking ability. It's how the NFL's elite are breaking down their opponents. It's no longer with will or energy-consuming drives, but a crushing flurry of plays, sometimes in sequence, that wipes out the good other teams think they've generated.

When plays have to be made by the Saints, they usually have been. If the Packers' defense didn't sell out to stop rookie Mark Ingram at the 1-yard line at the end of the season-opening thriller, New Orleans might be unbeaten. It hasn't lost since and the wins might start coming a little easier. Quarterback Drew Brees is one of the best in the game but he also has more playmakers than any passer in the NFL, other than maybe Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.

The frightening part is that two of his most dangerous weapons -- tight end Jimmy Graham and Ingram -- haven't really scratched the surface of how good they're going to be. Even so, they're still better than a lot of players other teams count on, which is why it will be a stretch for those teams with lesser talent to be in the playoff hunt.

"We don't have a shortage of playmakers," Brees told me.

Graham, the second-year uber-talent and former college basketball player, had four catches for 100 yards and a huge 27-yard touchdown in the fourth-quarter against the Texans. The score came after he failed to break off an option route that led to a Brees interception. His composure and playmaking skills are soon going to be likened to Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, also a former college hooper who made the transition.

Graham is New Orleans' second-leading receiver on the season with 14 catches for 235 yards -- an impressive 16.8 yards per reception. That final stat is very Gates-like.

"There's a lot of expectation because there are so many guys (who can make big plays)," Graham said. "If one of us messes up, there's somebody in my face saying 'make it up. I know what you can do.' We're going to keep going. It's almost as if everyone expects it, even from me, a young player. It's weird not having everyone congratulate me when I make a play. They're not shocked. They expect it to happen."


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As for Ingram, he'll end up being the horse in a talented and deep backfield. Thomas is the most reliable and versatile option and is one of the most dangerous players in the NFL in the screen passing game. However, I've been told that Saints coaches feel Ingram is something special, and he's steadily learning how things need to work. Instead of hastily pressing the hole when he gets handoffs, he needs to be more patient to allow blocks to develop to spring bigger runs. That's something Thomas does impeccably well, especially in the open field. That will come, but coach Sean Payton and his staff aren't waiting. Not only did they go to Ingram on that failed run at the end of the Packers loss, but he was given the ball late in the Texans game, and barreled his way 13 yards for the winning touchdown with 2:42 remaining.

Then there's running back Darren Sproles, a free-agent acquisition who's given the Saints production in the return game and out of the backfield.

This is where the picture gets bigger. How in the world did the talent-rich Saints, who boast a boatload of franchise-bred receivers and running backs, land Sproles? There are so many teams that could have used a difference-maker like him, but passed. That, I don't get. Every time I see Sproles making someone miss or turning a four-yard screen into a 30-yard gain, I wonder what the Rams, Jaguars, Bears or Vikings were thinking in not adding someone like him to spice up their teams.

I'm not just talking about Sproles: There were playmakers to be found in the draft and in free agency, and it seems like the Packers, Ravens and Saints were among teams that found them without having to dole out huge bucks. All we hear about now is how the NFL is a passing league and how the game is played in space and how important it is to have players who can create on their own. Then you see Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford and Donovan McNabb trying to make it happen with nice tailbacks and not much else.

Is it a wonder why Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota are a combined 1-8? Sure, each team has deeper problems than just a lack of playmakers but it doesn't help when other teams go into games knowing they don't have to double-team a wide receiver and can send extra pass rushers or run blitzers with no fear of getting burned.

Granted, a stable of home-run hitters doesn't guarantee wins. The Eagles are 1-2 after stacking the roster with talented skill players. The Falcons also are 1-2, despite their stockpile of receivers, running backs, defensive ends and cornerbacks who are earning nice coin. Both teams still cause more concern than the Vikings, though, and have a better chance at rebounding because of their talent.

The Saints aren't going to run the table, but they will make things tough on everyone they face.

Against the playoff-caliber Texans, six New Orleans receivers had at least two catches. Underrated slot receiver Lance Moore had nine -- which equaled the amount of times he was targeted.

Of course, Brees is the one who makes all those nice parts come together. He's so in tune with what Payton wants and what his players can do, the quarterback called all the plays on the Saints' winning drive -- 93 yards on eight plays in a mere 91 seconds.

The Saints will almost certainly be in the hunt come playoff time. Oh, and by then, Brees might even have his top receiver, Marques Colston, who's out with a broken collar bone, to join in on the fun.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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