Preseason game two for the Saints is helping everyone forget about game one.
It was a game of redemption for quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tyler Palko, rookie receiver Robert Meachem and the Saints defense. The Bills won 13-10 but the story was the big improvement of the home team in the Louisiana Superdome.
Overall, team effort was good, far better than what we saw from a perhaps exhausted team last weekend.
Brees, playing in Canton with his timing and accuracy seemingly left in Jackson, was on target back in New Orleans. Brees looked like his 2006 self again, lasering passes all over the field. Though the first team offense mustered only two field goal attempts - one blocked - and no touchdowns in the first quarter, it was obvious that timing and accuracy were there. This despite the starting offensive line missing its left tackle and center, as Jammal Brown (bone bruise in knee) and Jeff Faine (strained calf) were replaced by Zach Strief and Jonathan Goodwin.
Olindo Mare's first field goal attempt in the Superdome was blocked, but his second was perfect from 42 yards out to give the Saints' first string offense their first points of the exhibition season.
Brees finished a fantastic 12/14 for 118 yards, passing on five of the first nine snaps including four consecutive completions to start his stats, and six completions on consecutive downs in the second drive. Devery Henderson, continuing his push for a starting job, had Brees' eye in the first quarter, catching passes of 11, 17, and 24 yards. Henderson also couldn't corrale a high pass on the deep post in the end zone, and took a vicious hit from Ko Simpson on the way down. The speedster apparently suffered a hamstring pull on the play.
Brees told CBS he was dissappointed by producing only three points, but that the emotion and energy were right. He remarked that two mental errors cost them a drive.
But this week, the Saints weren't the only ones delivering big hits. Charles Grant, Fred Thomas, Troy Evans, Jason Craft, and Josh Cooper all delivered good hits, and a flurry more were delivered in the piles. Backup fullback Kevin Dudley probably delivered the biggest hit of the night, hammering a would-be tackler with the crown of his own helmet as he went down. Dudley, who stayed too high and got himself flipped on a sideline hit last week, this week wisely lowered his head - and the boom - on rookie safety Trevor Hooper, who staggered to get back up.
Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush started together in the backfield, but McAllister didn't find any room on three carries. Bush had carries of 13 and 2 yards, and made a dazzling catch on a perfect throw by Brees for 17 yards, one of his three catches for 26 yards.
Rookie QB Tyler Palko took over in the second quarter and played the rest of the game, as expected, in his very real tryout for a job. Palko is battling Jason Fife - the only Saint quarterback with a pulse in Canton - and newcomer Matt Baker for the third quarterback job, should the Saints choose to keep three quarterbacks. Palko wasn't introduced slowly to the game either, and was thrown right at the Bills' second string defense with four straight pass plays - and completions - on his first drive.
Palko showed uncanny scrambling ability - reminding one of the preseason performances J.T. O'Sullivan once turned in for Jim Haslett. He also showed remarkable poise and his accuracy was far improved. His footwork was hit or miss, even with time and space in the pocket he sent a duck flying skyward while leaning on his back foot, a move that Aaron Brooks trademarked on the same Superdome turf. He also fired some rockets and showed glimpses of NFL-quality arm strength, while other times wobbling passes into blanketed coverage. Bills CB Jabari Greer picked Palko twice, once in the end zone when Greer read Terrance Copper's slant route and Palko fired anyway. Greer also picked Palko on the aforementioned duck, getting position on Lance Moore and leading to the Bills' third quarter touchdown.
The halftime score was tied at three, and in the third quarter Bills RB Freddie Jackson took over. Jackson had ten touches for 68 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown run when he skirted the pile, raced to the sideline and flew into the end zone. Bills QB Trent Edwards connected on passes of 11 and 9 yards to Sam Aiken to set up Jackson's touchdown.
Tyler Palko started red hot, with completions of 18, 24, 18 yards to Lance Moore and dumpoffs to Antonio Pittman and Kevin Dudley. But between his first four completions and his touchdown drive that ended in the fourth quarter, Palko went through a bad slump in the second and third quarters, completing three of nine passes for 40 yards and two interceptions.
To follow the Bills' touchdown, Tyler Palko went to work redeeming himself with just under four minutes left in the third quarter. What would follow was a sixteen play, 78 yard drive that ended with another Saint rookie redeeming himself.
Antonio Pittman running style hasn't seen a lot of success, and on this drive's first carry he would lose five yards when he was swarmed in the backfield. Palko quickly made up the yardage with a 17-yard strike to Lance Moore, the Saints' Michael Lewis replacement in body type and role. Palko hit Moore twice more for another first down before losing nine yards on a sack by a blitzing Paul Posluzny. An 18 yard strike over the middle to Robert Meachem would set up fourth and one. Sean Payton called for a naked bootleg that Palko executed perfectly, racing around left end for 19 of his 47 rushing yards. Pittman then got something going, plowing ahead for three yards for a third down conversion and 11 more yards to down inside the Bills 5 yard line.
Three plays later on third and two, Meachem made the biggest play yet of his Saints career and showed a nationally televised audience what the Saints saw when they picked him 27th overall in April's draft. Palko's quick toss on the fade was perfect, and Meachem artfully dragged two toes at the side of the endzone for a much-needed touchdown. Dashing past Bills rookie Riley Swanson to the corner, Meachem located the ball over his shoulder as he fell.
On Palko's finest drive, he was six of eight for 52 yards and the score, capping what should be an overall positive performance. If not for his maddeningly inconsistent mechanics that doomed some of his throws, Palko obviously has the makings of a pro quarterback. His escapability is above average, his maturity and football wisdom is clearly above the level of your typical undrafted rookie. We're not sure what he was thinking on some of his throws in Canton, but tonight in New Orleans its clear he learned. And its also clear he has much to learn.
Jonathan Goodwin, subbing for injured Faine, was called twice for holding. Aside from those two penalties and Aaron Stecker leaving too early on a kickoff, the Saints were not flagged in the first half. The second saw a smattering of special teams flags.
As for the defense, the performance was also better against J.P. Losman, playing in his old college stadium. Charles Grant and Will Smith once again each made plays, with Smith collecting a sack and Grant delivering a bone-crunching tackle for a loss. Grant had dropped into coverage, something we've seen in both preseason games so far, and shut down a dumpoff pass to TE Robert Royal. Reserve LB Troy Evans, a prime candidate for special teams captain this year, and backup DE Josh Cooper each collided with Bills QB Trent Edwards for sacks in the second half.
CB Jason David, starting across from Mike McKenzie, wasn't beaten deep, and was in on a nice breakup, but was caught multiple times giving far too much cushion to his receiver. The secondary's performance was much improved. Jason Craft and Fred Thomas may not be the best in coverage or collect many interceptions, but they are far better open field tacklers than most cornerbacks you will find. Backup quarterbacks Craig Nall (a former LSU transfer) and Trent Edwards each had their own problems and used the short, controlled passing game efficiently without challenging the Saint backups.
Defensive tackle saw Kendrick Clancy and Antwan Lake start, and Lake was especially disruptive. With Brian Young (foot) and Hollis Thomas (weight) battling physical issues of their own, these two have grabbed the opportunity and made the most of it.
Late in the game, Payton eschewed a field goal and possible overtime by going for a fourth down and 11 to go in Bills territory. The Saints offensive line couldn't handle an all-out Bills blitz and Palko scrambled through several tackles before lobbing a desperation pass into the ground. Meachem appeared to be open across the field but Palko didn't have a chance to set his feet. Palko finished 15/27 for 172 yards, one score and two interceptions.
Injuries include Devery Henderson, who may miss signifcant time with a hamstring pull. That opens up Terrance Copper to win the starting job across from Marques Colston, and is a major dissappointment for Henderson, who had come on very strong in practice and two preseason games.