Wednesday, 21 December 2011 15:14

Payton, Mike Smith, Vilma Prepare for Saints-Falcons Rivalry Showdown

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falcons_logo Tuesday was media day for the New Orleans Saints and for the Atlanta Falcons as the two teams prepared for their late-season showdown, both teams now playing with playoffs closely in mind. the Saints and Falcons, who once ruled the NFL dweller have been one of the teams to watch over the past years.  Both hope to maintain the momentum with a big win on Monday Night Football showdown. Below are from the Saints' head coach Sean Payton, Falcons' head coach Mike Smith and Jon Vilma's press conferences:

Saints coach Sean Payton said Drew Brees' passing success is due partially to his pocket allowing him to climb and his receivers being comfortable working the middle of the field at his Tuesday media briefing.

Additionally, Payton talked about the Falcons and termed their quarterback, Matt Ryan "a great player" and said Atlanta plays great team defense.

The coach said his 11-3 and NFC South-leading Saints are "having a pretty good run and he hopes to continue it."

“A couple of things first, just from a scheduling standpoint, what we’ll do this week is pretty common with a Monday night game. Today is like a Monday in regards to our players’ routine. Tomorrow will be a players’ day off and then Thursday we’ll get into our practice schedule, so Thursday would be our base, our first day in preparation much like a Wednesday would be. Our Friday would be exactly the same schedule as a Thursday, and then our Saturday would be the same schedule we follow on Friday. Our Sunday, we’ll push things back just from our walk-through schedule and check into the hotel that night and of course play on Monday. From a timing standpoint, it works out pretty well. We were pleased with the game we just played and were pleased to get a win. I thought, like I mentioned after the game, early on with some of the miscues we had offensively with the fumble and the snap, defensively holding them to field goals especially early in that game was important. As the game wore on, I thought we settled in and played better. Overall, I was pleased to get a win and recognize the importance of that. We shift our focus to this upcoming game knowing we’re going to play a very good opponent and someone we’re very familiar with in a game that obviously has a lot riding on it. We look forward to that challenge and we’ll go from there.”

Are you surprised that you’ve been on this six-game winning streak and Atlanta has stayed right behind still with a chance to catch you in the division?

“They’re a real good team. We felt going back to even our game when we played them earlier in the year, every time it seems we play them it comes down to a last possession or field goal. We’ve just played so many close games, so many hard-fought games that it’s a sign that typically both teams are pretty evenly matched, very competitive and very good.”

What is your opinion when you hear players from other teams talking about your defense being dirty?

“I actually haven’t seen any of that. I think more than ever the officials nowadays are doing a great job of controlling games and monitoring hits. Roman (Harper) got called on a penalty that was one that really could have gone either way. I really don’t pay a whole lot of attention to that. I guess it’s a little like our whistle guy.”

What has impressed you most about the Falcons and what you’ve seen from them?

“I think they play very good team defense, they get to the ball, they have good speed and are real solid in a lot of areas on that side of the ball. Offensively, we’ve seen a lot of these players for a number of years, and you add a rookie receiver in Julio Jones to that equation and now you have really what amounts to a lot of weapons and a lot of guys you have to defend. They have great special teams play. I think it’s a team that gets it and understands how to win and understands the objectives each week in order to get a win. It’s been a big reason why Mike (Smith) and his staff and his team have been so successful. They understand what wins games, they understand what loses games, and that’s why they’re always a difficult opponent.”

How do you compare the running style of Michael Turner to running backs like Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson?

“Turner has a unique skill set in that he’s explosive, he runs with very good pad level, and he’s hard to get a good hit on. He’s a guy that carries his pads well and is low at the point of contact. He has very good balance and vision, and he has that speed that can take all of a sudden a four or five yard run and do a much longer run. He’s built differently and his running style is somewhat different, although you would describe him as very dangerous just like the others. He has great power and great leverage. Those are the things that strike you about Michael Turner. He has good vision and balance, all the things an elite runner would have.”

Do you think Julio Jones might be the x-factor in this game?

“He didn’t play certainly the snaps that we’ll see him play this week (in the first game). He stresses the defense because before you might decide to rotate coverage one way to Roddy White, and now that becomes a little more challenging when you add (Anthony) Gonzalez to Julio Jones and Roddy White. They have very good depth at wide receiver as well along with the running backs and have a quarterback that knows how to distribute the football. They present a lot of problems.”

Were you watching any of last night’s game with the 49ers and Steelers?

“Yes, a good portion of it. San Francisco looked very good. They’re playing very well as a team. Ultimately, it was a tough challenge for Pittsburgh especially with the way San Francisco’s defense is playing.”

Can you talk about how special the potential Drew Brees single-season record for passing yardage can be?

“It’s significant in that it’s something that was accomplished by a great player, a Hall of Fame player in our league. We’re talking about Dan Marino and the other significance of it is that’s it’s coming with success and with our offensive plan. It’s not coming as a result of being in close games, maybe losing games and having to throw at the end of games. When you look at a record like that and you look at the person that’s currently holding it and you see there’s not just one quarterback, but two or three that are on pace possibly to eclipse that mark. I think the more significant issue or the thing that makes it more unique and special is the fact that it’s coming with success and I think Drew would feel the same way. I think he would also say it’s such a team record in regards to all the different things that have to take place for something like that to happen. Whether that happens in this game or the following week, you try to put more of a focus on the game itself and the score of the game and what we have to do to win this game, but the idea of eclipsing that mark is pretty amazing.”

Can you talk about Matt Ryan and how you’ve seen him mature?

“He’s definitely a guy that we feel like is a great player. He has that size that you look for, he’s very intelligent, and they ask him to do a lot at the line of scrimmage. He has a quick release, he’s hard to sack, and has that athleticism where he can make plays moving to his right or his left. He’s very comfortable in stepping up and avoiding (sacks), and I think he’s helped them and provided that leadership to put that program in a position it hasn’t been in a while much like Drew has done that for us.”

Is there anything different with those primetime games that you can attribute to your team playing so well in?

“When you’re a kid, you grow up with the idea that someday you might be involved in Monday Night Football. I think for a player to play on a national stage, it’s important. There are so many people that have a vested interest in how they do, you hope that you have many of those opportunities and you hope that you have more success. I think that we’ve been able to do that because I think we’re a better football team than maybe in year’s past and we get comfortable to a schedule or a routine I think like all the teams do. I think it comes down to the execution and understanding how to focus for that three-hour period to play your best football, and chances are the team that does that this upcoming Monday night will be the team that’s most successful. I think from a scheduling standpoint this week with Christmas, the Sunday schedule works out pretty good. I’ve said this before, it’s not a very holiday-friendly profession. We’re involved in practices and games on Thanksgiving. We’re involved in practices and games on Christmas. Over the years, I’m sure many players and coaches have had to alter their season or holiday plans because of what we do, and this week it works out a little bit smoother; but to the point of the record we have with playing in national TV games, I think it goes hand-in-hand with being a better football team than maybe we have been.”

What’s the significance of being on this win streak and peaking in December?

“You’d like to be hitting your stride and playing your best football. In ’09, we weren’t necessarily playing our best football in the last week or two of the regular season, and then went into the playoffs. I think getting players healthy, and you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse each week. That’s really the truth. There’s nothing simpler than that. You’re not just staying the same. I think finding players that have that will to prepare and have that want to or drive to improve on the week prior and get better as the season moves on, I think that’s a key component to preparing for the postseason and getting yourself mentally and physically prepared for the end of the season, playing good football at the end of the season and then carrying it over if you can.”

Do you feel like what your team did in ’09 was somewhat of an exception?

“Historically, it’s been the exception because it’s the first time it’s ever happened. I would say that losing three games and then winning the next three with the Super Bowl being the last one is different. We were a team that needed rest at the end of that year, and it worked out pretty well. You still recognize the importance of playing well here. I think you’re seeing some teams that are doing it, and you’re seeing some teams that maybe aren’t doing it as well. Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to get on a pretty good run and we hope to continue it.”

Can you talk about what’s contributed to Drew Brees’ success over the past few games?

“You have to have that pocket that allows you to climb. I mentioned it last week I think a little bit in the postgame interview, there were two or three great examples of it last week where the rush came outside high and wide, and he was able to climb and inside that pocket was clean. A couple things happened: you buy more time and maybe you see him take a hitch or a second hitch and get off to a second or third receiver. When it’s clean that way, he’s very comfortable with climbing up into the pocket and from that location generally your target area isn’t always inside the hash-mark or inside the numbers, but generally it becomes more confined to that middle portion of the field as opposed to the outer spots of the field. I think also some of the targets he has in regards to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston and Lance Moore, guys that are comfortable with working in the middle of the field, lead to that statistic. I think we try as best we can in the passing game to have versatility as to where we go with the football so that it’s not just one area and defenses can lock in or play a certain field zone. We’ve been able to do that, and I think it starts with that pocket and his comfort level of stepping up and coming to either primaries or guys that are second or third in the progression.”

Saints middle linebacker Jon Vilma said he has to calm his emotions when the Saints play the Falcons.

"We're trying to clinch our division and they are trying to clinch a playoff berth," said Vilma. "The roles are reversed from last season.

The linebacker has been limping on an injured knee of late, but he said his health is "good enough now."

Vilma's comments during Tuesday's media briefing:

You don’t need much motivation for this game, do you?

“Yes, this is going to be a great game. Emotionally you don’t have to get up for this game. You will probably have to calm your emotions, so we can play, function and do the things we need to do to win this game. It’s a huge game for both sides. For us, we’re trying to clinch the division. They’re trying to clinch a playoff berth. The roles are reversed from last year. It’s going to be a great battle and be a lot of fun.”

How would you describe the team’s personality at this point?

“I think we’re jelling at the right time. I think that we’re peaking at the right time as well, I’m talking jelling as a team on offense, defense, special teams, the camaraderie within practice, the meetings, being out and about before the games, getting to know each other off the field, just not on the field. Also, being able to now start to peak at the right time. I think defensively we’re playing well. Offensively it’s always been lights-out, so has special teams. It’s really good to know we are playing well, can play better. As long as we keep improving collectively as a group and try to work for that little bit to get better and we will be alright.”

What accounts for your team’s improvement against the run over the last couple of weeks, really since you’ve been back?

“It’s all me (laughing).”

Seriously what has it been in managing people like Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson?

“Seriously it’s about paying attention to details. I’m talking about not just the defense itself and lining up. It’s understanding your assignment, matchup, gap integrity. Once you have top guys like that, Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, if you don’t take care of your gap and control your assignment, they can hit one out of the gate. Adrian hit a nice one and it’s really about everybody collectively wanting to get to the ball, wanting to do their job, now you have your gap, getting to make a play.”

What have you seen of Julio Jones?

“I honestly haven’t seen much of him. I saw him at Alabama. I thought he was an exceptional talent. I know when he played against us, he missed a little bit. He had a hamstring issue. I really couldn’t tell you too much yet.”

Can you talk about the accusations of the Saints being a dirty defense?

“Fair or unfair doesn’t really bother me. We’re an aggressive defense. We’ve always been an aggressive defense. I’d rather be labeled that than be labeled a finesse defense. I know we’re not out there maliciously trying to hurt anybody. You see the way we play. You see our game. We go hard. That’s really about it. We get a personal foul here and there. It’s not intentional and I definitely know we’re not intentionally trying to hurt people. We’re going hard and playing tough defense. A guy like Adrian Peterson, he’s tough enough to tackle. He had a high ankle sprain, but this guys’ so elusive, getting him around the ankles is a good thing. It’s tough to get him down. It’s unfortunate he thinks we’re aiming for his ankles. He’s that good of a talent.”

Can you explain your defense’s recent success on third down?

“Execution. That’s about it. We get a good game plan from the coaches, watching film, not just the practice film, talking about the other team, the other opponent. We’re executing. We’ll keep doing that, understanding the benefits of getting off the field and more so getting our offense the ball. Everyone knows good things will happen (if they get the ball). For us, executing, getting off the field, it’s huge for us, it keeps their defense on the field, (and) they get tired. We get points and we get victories.”

Sean Payton is 9-2 against the Falcons. Is he in their head?

“It’s probably a battle of the coaches. For me, I’m probably 50-50, so I always have respected them. I think they are a pretty good team. They are a very good talent. They always have a new wrinkle here or there when we play them, an effective wrinkle I should say. For me, I’m definitely not looking at the records.”

How close are you watching San Francisco’s results, based on wanting a bye?

“I was all for it (Pittsburgh), watching it closely until Ben (Roethlisberger) threw those two interceptions early in the game and then I realized I was bad luck. I went and watched Sherlock Holmes.”

Teams like yourselves, New England and Green Bay have great records but are way down in the net yardage defensive rankings. Green Bay is making up for it in the turnover category. Is that something your defense is going to have to improve on as well if you war going to get to the Super Bowl?

“It’s definitely something we should strive for. We also want to create more takeaways and we’re always preaching to give our offense the ball, give them an extra possession, (and) create takeaways. Right now that’s always going to be a point of emphasis, but we’re not going to look solely at the turnovers, because we’re going to do a lot of other things very well. At 11-3 you have to be doing something right. We understand for us, we’re always striving for the best. Trying to get to the upper echelon as a team, as a defense and turnovers will be key.”

What’s the most important key to stopping Atlanta’s offense?

“I would say job one is to stop the run. Michael Turner is a two-time Pro Bowler, a heck of a running back. Now you look at Julio Jones, who he has that big play ability. Roddy White has been a mainstay for them. Tony Gonzalez (is a) future Hall of Famer, not a lot to say about him. I really have to look at the film break it down and see what’s winning for them and what’s not. I still believe it’s going to be to stop the run. They’re getting back to their old ways, their winning ways, it started with the running back. For me on defense, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be to stop the run and containing big play guys.”

How is your health coming out of the last game?

“The best answer I can give you is good enough. This time of the year it’s good enough.”

Do you think you can continue to play every game from here on our, no problem?

“Yes, I have to do what I have to do.”

It seemed like your defense had more margin for error last Sunday?

“Starting the game, we didn’t have a real margin for error. They were in our territory in two of our three possessions. So, that easily could have gotten away from us before our eyes. There wasn’t any room for error. We weren’t looking back at St. Louis. We were improving from that. For us to go out there, it doesn’t matter where you put us on the field. We have to hold our opponents. I thought we did a good job of that to start the game.”

What does it say about the team when those things happen and you win by 22 points?

“We know we’re a good team. We’re past that. It’s really about looking to be a better team. Looking to achieve all the goals that we set out with way back when, even at Tulane when no coaches were around. There are certain steps you get over. You get over the steps of being a good team. We’re trying to get to bigger and better things.”

Talk about Matt Ryan?

“Watching Matt Ryan, I think he’s bringing a lot to the table as far as understanding and controlling that offense. You see him checking into and out of plays, getting into some good offensive plays. I think his maturity has really come along. This is his fourth year. You can tell his demeanor, body language. He’s in complete control of that offense.”

What is the challenge for you since they run so much no huddle offense?

“It will be a little bit of a mental challenge for me, but I don’t want to get enamored with that mental part of the game, because no matter what they run you still have to stop it. It comes back to fundamentals of the gap integrity and tackling. I would rather live with a bad call early as Gregg (Williams) always says and try to get into a good call late and we’ll play the game."

Did the offseason workouts at Tulane matter or pertain to what’s going on now?

“Some of the things that we’ve done do pertain to right now and less X’s and O’s and more about finding out about your guys and teammates that were there with us, people that weren’t there with us, so I think you get a good understanding of who you’re working with, find out their commitment level, more than just a regular two coverage, a regular flat or something from the offensive side. I think this is what’s carrying us over now, especially when we had some tough times where we could easily have broken up, pointed the finger and things of that nature. We’ve come together.”

Can you talk about your success at home overall as well as your primetime success at home? Is there a difference?

“What we’ve done at home in primetime has been exceptional. I think that to a man, we’ve gone out there and performed very well. You can’t put your finger on anything specific as to why we’ve turned it up a notch in primetime. We just get the extra day preparation. I say many times we don’t get many days off. We’re going to come in. We’re going to watch film. We’re going to work. The purpose is not just punch the clock, but to get better and get an extra day to watch more film, really study and break down our guys. I think it really carry’s over.”

Is there anything special for Christmas you want? What is Christmas like for the Vilmas?

“I don’t really celebrate holidays (laughing). My family will come. That will be great. I have a game to play. I know it sounds real cliché, but I’m locked in right now. This is a fun time of year, not because of the holidays, but because I would say real football starts right now. These games are crucial and of course once you hit the dance, you can’t lose.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith has returned  to practice since his Thursday night game  and is getting his 9-5 Falcons ready for Monday Night Football against the Saints in  the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But he had time to offer his opinions on some of the Saints:

On offensive tackles Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief: "Bushrod was a starter last year. Strief was their extra offensive lineman in their big package and he's a guy that has stepped into a starting role this year. They've done a very good job with protecting the quarterback and also, running the football with their run- blocking. It's a big offensive line. The two guards and the two tackles are really big men and they've done a very good job you can see by the statistics that they've put up, not only scoring but passing and rushing yards."

On Saints defensive line and the play of rookie DE Cameron Jordan: "He's done a nice job for them. We're very familiars with Cam in our due diligence in the draft process. We've seen him on tape with swing crossover games in our preparation for New Orleans earlier in the season.  He's a big, strong defensive end that can play the run and play the pass and he's off to a really good start in his career. He's going to be a guy that we're going to have contend with for a long time."

On the key to limiting Darren Sproles in the first meeting: "He's such an explosive player that you've got to put a lot of emphasis on trying to defend him. We put a very good game plan together knowing that he was one of the key factors in  their success that they've had and our guys did a very good job of tackling in space. They did get the ball out to Darren in space and you've got to control the guy and not give him any misleverged plays because if you do, he's going to make you pay. We tackled very well in space in that first game."

by Ed Staton

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Ed Staton

Ed Staton is a former sports writer for the Times Picayune and New Orleans States Item.  He also served as the New Orleans Saints Information Director.  He has won 43 media awards in writing, design and photography. | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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