Saints coach Sean Payton said Tracy Porter's neck injury isn't serious and that Jo-Lonn Dunbar filled in for injured Jon Vilma playing middle linebacker and calling defensive plays in Sunday's victory over Tampa Bay.
Payton told a gathering of local; media reps at his Monday briefing that he's not worried about Drew Brees sliding when he is running the ball. "Drew's smart enough to know what he's doing," judged Payton.
Payton said the return of David Thomas helped the running game and that Darren Sproles puts a lot of pressure on defenders trying to cover him.
Also, in a media Q and A, free safety Malcolm Jenkins told the media that teams that win in November usually make the playoffs, guarding Tony Gonzalez, and of his visit with Porter.
“Real quickly just from an injury standpoint regarding Tracy Porter – he’s in the training room now. All of the tests and x-rays came back negative. Basically he’s dealing with some chest and upper back soreness from the collision. All the news with his injury is positive so that’s encouraging. We had a handful of other guys with some nicks and Wednesday we’ll give you an update as to where they’re at. I said yesterday after the game and then today after looking at the tape, there were a lot of good things to draw from. It was a good team we played and certainly a good win in the division.”
Can you explain Patrick Robinson’s delay of game penalty on that fourth down?
“It used to be defensively, you guys might remember, defensive players would try to move to draw a lineman offsides. It happened a lot in the kicking game ten years ago when teams lined up to punt or kick field goals where periodically a defensive lineman would line up to try to jump. When you extend out to a holdup player on the punt unit and you’re getting ready to block a gunner, the same thing applies. The call is a little unique in that it’s called a delay of game, but that’s the penalty. You’re not allowed defensively to try to do that.”
There was a game last year where Chris Ivory had a few great runs and you spoke to us about how that can have a ripple effect on your team. Do you think that was the case with Pierre Thomas yesterday with some of his runs?
“Last year, there was a game specifically in Tampa Bay where Chris had probably one of his career-best games. I think there’s always a residual or carry-over effect when you’re running the ball efficiently and for real good yardage. Pierre’s (Thomas) touchdown run for instance, obviously the significance of the touchdown is important, but the means in how you score can give you that momentum. The offensive linemen, the tight ends, everyone involved in the blocking aspect of the scheme feel that. Just as a fourth-and-one stop by your defense in a short yardage situation when you’re able to win that battle up front, you’re generally going to win a lot of football games.”
How valuable do you feel like Thomas Morstead has been this season?
“He’s been outstanding. He’s having a Pro Bowl season. He’s an extremely good athlete. He’s tall, he has great leg strength, and his consistency this year has been fantastic. That’s been the one thing is we’ve all seen him develop from his rookie year as a fifth round draft pick to where he’s at now. Each year there’s been a steady progress and there has been improvement. He’s very detailed in what he does. I’m not sure if we’re in first, second or third, but when you’re in the top five in the league in your punt coverage, it just establishes the importance of that field position. The old adage is you want to play on their end of the field. Then when mistakes are made, they’re magnified when they happen on their end of the field. He’s allowed us to do that a lot this year and on a very consistent basis.”
Did David Thomas’ return contribute to the running game?
“It sure did. You didn’t see the numbers in the passing game, but once again when we talk about David and the instincts he has, he plays with very good leverage. When you game plan and you’ve heard me say this before, you know exactly what you have in a player, and he’s one of those guys that when the tape’s graded out he always seems to grade out very high. He’s very smart and having him back in the lineup is a plus for us. It gives us some versatility in regards to our personnel groupings. When you add another tight end/f-back there are just a number of things we can do that can help Jimmy Graham and John Gilmore. We were able to get to some of those things yesterday.”
How does Darren Sproles open up options for other people in the offense?
“He does in a number of ways. First, the spread set running game which we don’t just feature with him but he’s a part of just as a running back, in space he’s very difficult to handle. He has very good burst and acceleration. He’s not slow through a hole. He’ll hit a hole very quickly. That element as to how you’re going to defend him not just in the running game, but how you’re going to defend him as it pertains to some throws. Yesterday, we had some matchups where he was isolated on a linebacker and just a simple wide route or swing route instead of being three or four yards was ten to twelve yards. There’s a lot of pressure put on the defense when you have someone with his skill set that can play at the h-back that can go in with Pierre as well, and now you decide whether you’re going to go in with the nickel and play him with a defensive back. There’s a lot of flexibility you have with a player like that. I think that puts a lot of pressure on the defense to decide within each personnel grouping are they going to cover down in their man coverages, with a nickel, with a linebacker, so there’s some stress involved there. He’s really adjusted well and played a big role for us yesterday.”
How do you carry over the physical presence from this past game to the one against Atlanta?
“I think our players understand (the importance of) the month of November and the divisional games. Purposely, I think the league schedules more of these divisional games late in the schedule. I think it’s been great for the fans and for everyone following the game. Playing well in this month, the month of November and December is very important. Atlanta is a very good football team. They won our division a year ago. They had a big win yesterday on the road. We have a lot of respect for and understand the challenges that they present. Again the weekly challenge for us is the process of looking at the tape, getting guys treated from the prior game, getting them healthy and then turning that page Tuesday and completely then as we focus when we get to Wednesday’s practice. We’re kind of in that process right now. Again, it’s another division game against a very good team.”
How did your linebacking corps look without Jonathan Vilma?
“I think very good. Jo-Lonn Dunbar played very well. He did a great job. Aside from the physical presence of a player like Jon who’s not playing, really the signal-caller is changing. The plays are sent into Jo-Lonn’s helmet. I thought he did a great job of getting us lined up. He made a few checks to get us in and out of certain defenses based on what he saw the offense doing. I was real pleased and encouraged. That was very important. When you lose a guy and you don’t play a guy like Jon Vilma, there’s a lot more to it than just the Mike linebacker. I thought the other guy stepped it up.”
How has Jo-Lonn Dunbar grown as a player?
“I wouldn’t make the comparison to Zach Strief, but he’s had probably more starts than Zach. They’re two completely different positions, yet he’s been part of the program and he’s played predominant special teams roles some weeks and he’s started a lot of games for us at the Sam. He played at the Mike yesterday. Once again, there’s a player that knows what he is and works extremely hard at his job and that gives him a chance. That spark he played with yesterday and that intensity I think carried over to the whole defense.”
How much of an impact did Zach Strief’s return have on your offensive line?
“It was real positive. Coming off his first game, there weren’t any nicks. I’m sure he’s somewhat sore. He graded out well and was very efficient. I thought both our tackles knew they had some big challenges with Tampa’s front and their ends. I thought overall up front we did a very good job not just at the tackle position, but all across the board both in the run and in the pass game.”
Were you concerned with Drew Brees sliding head first?
“That was a little uniquely different I guess. He’s athletic enough and smart enough to understand what he’s trying to do. He made a big play yesterday in that big game in that final drive. We got a snap of 22-man which is two deep safeties and a man underneath. There’s this instinctual aspect with that coverage if there’s no one open. The challenge defensively is if the quarterback ever decides to take off, all eyes of the defense aside from the defenders are on receivers and their back is to the quarterback so you can end up with big plays like that. It was a coverage that we’ve seen Tampa run before and it’s something they’re pretty good at. To Drew’s credit, he climbed the pocket and felt the crease and that was a huge conversion for us both from a time standpoint and leading to what would have been a field goal that really changed the makeup of the end of that game. That one specific play, I think all of us were expecting the slide and then it was head first. He’s pretty good at handling that so it’s not something that I’ll over-coach.”
After the game, you said you thought your defense did a good job of keeping plays in front of you and then you see a guy like Julio Jones from the Falcons have a game like he did yesterday. How do you defend a guy like that?
“It’s not necessarily a prevent style of defense which would really be a three-man rush, but it is an understanding of the splits the receivers take, the routes that are designed to get behind either the corner or the safety. Every week teams go into games no different than us where you have your intermediate or your underneath throws and then there’s half a dozen to eight throws that are really designed to get behind the safety or cornerback. It just forces you to be disciplined and really pay attention to formation, keys, split keys by receivers that might lead you to believe it’s going to be a shot play. We had a couple shot plays yesterday and I think every team that has success offensively generally puts those into the plan and a lot of times into the opening series of plays maybe to get behind the defense to soften them up. I just saw some of the highlights and certainly he’s a talented receiver along with some of their other weapons there in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. There are a number of guys you have to account for and you have to force yourself to have that discipline and understand within each framework of each coverage how you handle the vertical throws.”
What did you think about the penalties on Leigh Torrence and Will Smith?
“Overall, that crew worked their tails off and did a good job and yet there are some calls that don’t go your way and there are some calls that do go your way. The one offsides where we were called defensively and clearly the tackle moved. Maybe sometimes you just miss that and I understand that. The one that was disappointing was the one at the end where Devery Henderson does a great job, I mean I think a textbook job of really blocking him on the perimeter. He’s probably our best blocker as a receiver and springs Darren for what’s going to be our last play on offense and it comes back. Each week those are going to come up and you just hope you’re going to get a few of them that go your way. You get a few of them that don’t and it’s no different from the players element where often times there are mistakes and you keep playing and no different from the coaching standpoint where there are things that I do each week throughout the framework of the game or throughout the week that are mistakes. It’s no different for those guys who have a tough job. You just hope it balances out.”
Did you see a lot of boost after some of your running backs made some tough runs?
“There’s no question. There’s an effect of being able to run the ball. There’s an effect just from watching the game as a team from the sideline. Having done this long enough, when teams are having success running the football against you and it’s second-and-two or second-and-four, that has an effect on your team. When you’re the team that‘s having success and are able to run the football, that’s important.”
Do you go into the game thinking you have to give Roman Harper some help defensing Tony Gonzalez?
“I think you go in with mixed looks. I don’t think you want to go in with just one way that you’re going to defend him. The challenge he presents is his ability to really position himself opposite the squeeze of the defender. It’s no different if you were playing basketball and you took a post position and then left yourself this opposite shoulder away from the defender to catch a football. He’s very good at that. The coverage can be correct and the coverage can be good and yet Matt Ryan is an accurate enough quarterback where he can locate that away from the squeeze. You see them do that all the time. He has great presence and savvy and that route awareness that he has has served him well over the years. I think you have to have a handful or different set of ways that you can account or cover him and not just the safety. There will be times that there will be a linebacker or maybe a nickel. Your challenge is always the size matchup, the same thing we get with Jimmy Graham. At times, you think well a corner is on him and that’s a better pass defender, but the problem sometimes is just the stature from a size standpoint and the length of arms and the height and all those things that go into covering a bigger target like that. He’s been a handful every year we play them.”
Did you talk to Tracy Porter at all? How is he doing?
“I saw him this morning. It looks like he’s doing pretty good. It wasn’t as serious as it looked. He’s in good spirits. We’ll just wait to see what they say about his neck.”
Tony Gonzalez is a guy who has given the defense and Roman Harper fits. He’s obviously a great player and great players sometimes make plays regardless. How do you attempt to manage that?
“The funny thing is the first time we played them last year, we double-teamed them and we had a huge game. The second game, we just let Roman cover him one-on-one and he had a quieter day, although he still had some catches. The problem with him is he catches anything in his range. Matt Ryan does a great job of putting it close to his body. He (Gonzalez) does a great job with his body in boxing defenders out. He might not be running as fast as he used to, but he’s still savvy enough to get in between the defender and the ball. It’s almost guaranteed once the ball is that close.”
Coach Payton has been stressing November football for this team. What do you take from that?
“Last year was the same thing, even the year before that. This is the month in which you separate from being a playoff contender or not. Teams that win in November are usually teams that make the playoffs. You really position yourself as far as playoff standings in this month and in December you really finish, based on where you are coming out of the month of November. This is a big month for us, having had Tampa last week and the Falcons this week and with the season we’ve had, this is a defining point in our season to see where we’re going to head.”
Are the next three games overall a real challenge?
“Yes. We already know, the whole month is huge. The win yesterday was huge. We have Atlanta in the same division. We can get healthy then and get back after it and then we play the Giants on a Monday and then we have the Lions after that. These are all playoff teams we have in this month, especially this year. It will set us up well if we can get out of if what we want. We’ll see what team we have.”
What will it take for the style of defense to carry over to another week?
“I don’t think it will take much, just the fact that it’s a division game. It’s a rival game, at your place. I think the guys will come back and are focused. They know what they have to do every week. I think guys have bought in. I think it will show with the leaders of the team, making sure we’re ready to go and have that same consistency, enthusiasm and intensity. I think the fact that we have a bye week helps in that we can let it loose knowing that you have some rest coming up and then you’re back at it for some other tough games.”
Is there any fear that the team would take a step back?
“Yes. That’s why the emphasis is on this month. We don’t have that margin of error anymore. Earlier in the season, our goals were still in hand. Any loss in this month is crucial to what we want to do. I think guys recognize the seriousness of it.”
How does playing off the line of scrimmage help in defending a guy like Julio Jones after he had a breakout game?
“It’s going to do real well for us, the fact that can play with some depth sideline to sideline, it almost takes away those deep throws and makes you earn your underneath. We have a lot of confidence in our corners to cover. If I can take away those deep throws and make them force the ball into tight coverages underneath with our corners covering, it plays into our hands. I just have to stay patient and whoever is back there has to stay patient and not get greedy and jump something. We also need to keep the ball in front of us and make them earn every yard. That will be huge. The same way this past game in keeping everything in front of us, we have up (only) one big pass that we shouldn’t have, but we make them check the ball down and let all the guys run to the ball to make turnovers, as opposed to letting them go over the top of the defense”
Can you talk about how Jo-Lonn Dunbar filled in for Jonathan Vilma?
“He does a great job of bringing intensity and leadership. Everyone’s looking when Jonathan Vilma (is out) and everyone is looking at Jo-Lonn seeing what he’s going to do and I think he takes it in stride, comes in with confidence, asserts himself in the huddle. He takes on that role. He fills that spot well. He brings that intensity and makes plays. We’re never worried about it when Jo-Lonn comes in.”
With yesterday being a bat game and so physical, do you expect more of the same this week?
“The same way if not more. Me being here for three years, the Falcons have always been our rivals over the last couple years and the Bucs have really turned it up. I know with the Falcons it’s going to be another physical game. They’re going to try to run the ball with (Michael) Turner who’s a physical back. We’ll probably try to run the ball and establish the run. Teams will be grinding it out. It’s going to come down to the trenches and who can move that line of scrimmage and who can knock it back”
After watching LSU-Alabama, Saints-Bucs and Steelers-Ravens, is that kind of what we’re talking about in November?
“Yes, this is the time of the year where football really starts to get played. A lot more things are on the line. It always seems like you have those matchups in the month of November like say the Steelers and the Ravens and Saints-Falcons. It’s going to be a physical game. They have a lot riding on it and we have a lot riding on it. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Jabari Greer seems to be playing well, but not catching the ball well. Is there a problem with recording interceptions?
“We’ve all had trouble taking advantage of opportunities that come. At the beginning of the season, it was a joking thing, but now we’re taking it very seriously. It’s preventing us from being where we want to be defensively. A lot of them are coming in the red zone too where we can get red zone interceptions and take away seven points as opposed to giving them up. We haven’t done that well in the red zone this year. That makes these turnover opportunities more crucial. Whenever we can get the ball back in Drew’s (Brees) hands it’s huge for us as a team. We haven’t done that well in the turnover margin either. That’s part of it. We’re dropping some interceptions. It’s not just Jabari, it’s everybody whether it’s linebackers, DBs. In practice, we get on the Juggs machine and doing extra things. When we get in a game we have to make those plays, but we’re still a far away from where we want to be.”
When you won the Super Bowl you were the best red zone defense in the NFL. What changed over the past two years?
“We’re trying to figure it out. We had a huge emphasis on it in practice this week and I thought we played well this past game, except for that one score late in the game. Before that, we played pretty well. We need to get back to making them kick field goals. A lot of it has to do with penalties, third downs (conversions), giving them extra sets of downs in the red zone, which is crucial, letting them run the ball. We have to make them throw the ball. It will continue to be an emphasis over the next couple weeks in the red zone. If we can hold teams to three points every time they’re on offense, we can outscore them.”
What has been the cause of some of the penalties on third downs?
“I don’t know what it is. I think it’s just that on third down, we’re going out there scrapping, keeping them from getting the first down. Whether its’ a call on hitting the quarterback or pass interference, or something (else), it’s usually guys trying to go as hard as they can. Some of those penalties we’ll have to live with. I think this past week, they were 2-of-12 on third down. That’s great. We can live with that as long as it’s not something that’s going to hurt us in the long run.
by Ed Staton