How far away is Canton, OH?
It's safe to say that the Saints have found their timing. Evening their exhibition record at 2-2 with a Kansas City obliteration of the Chiefs on Thursday night, the Saints looked awesome.
Three Saints quarterbacks completed 29 of 34 passes for 295 yards, a Drew Brees TD pass to David Patten and a tipped ball interception from Jamie Martin.
Herm Edwards on the other hand got little from his top two quarterbacks. Brodie Croyle started off shaky and got worse. Completing 3 of 14 passes in the first half, and 2 of 4 in the second, Croyle was off target and haunted by Will Smith and Charles Grant. Backup Casey Printers captained a comedy of errors and rookie third string Chiefs QB Jeff Terrell - go figure - completed five of five passes and led the Chiefs on their only scoring drive late in the evening.
Croyle had his best drive to start the game, reaching the Saint 47 yard line before punting. Croyle and the Chiefs offense would get no closer until the third quarter, when they would get to the 45. Casey Printers managed to explore deep into Saint territory - the 35 yard line - with a drive that ended on downs late in the fourth quarter. Terrell finally led the Chiefs on a scoring drive inside the two minute warning, completing all five of his passes for 54 yards.
Brees started the game and played most of the first half, moving the ball up and down the field. The first Saint drive went just less than 80 yards, ending on fourth down when Deuce McAllister was rejected at the goal line. Brees and David Patten really got going in the first half, and their timing was apparent. Patten took a textbook post down the seam from his slot receiver position for 33 yards, on his way to six catches for 75 yards in 25 minutes of action. Brees' only two incompletions came on the leaping drop of a deep pass by Patton and a deflected pass drop over the middle by Reggie Bush.
The Saints threw Bush or McAllister up the middle of the line four straight plays in a row, stopped short by the Chiefs defense each time. On the fourth down, Jeff Faine was pushed into the backfield and when McAllister went to leap he knocked into Faine and was swarmed over. Faine left the game after the first drive and Jonathan Goodwin subbed in. Faine had missed time in practice and the last preseason game with a calf injury.
The next Saint drove ended at the Chiefs 10 with an Olindo Mare field goal, a drive Brees powered with first down completions to Deuce McAllister and Terrance Copper and a Reggie Bush 12 yard run on 3rd down. Another Croyle-inspired punt, and the Saints started at the Chief 45 after a facemask penalty on a Lance Moore punt return. McAllister ran for six yards, then Brees completed five straight passes, capping the drive with a bootleg pass to the right and finding David Patten alone in the back of the end zone.
Patten's mastery of the Chiefs' starting defense, which played well into the third quarter, came with starters Marques Colston (knee) and Devery Henderson (hamstring) sitting out, and starting center Jeff Faine playing only the first drive of the game. He's likely won the right to be the third receiver for the Saints, and will be running the seam slant down the middle of the field all season long, as opposing safeties keep their attention on the Marques Colston, Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, among other weapons.
Two plays after Patten's touchdown, CB Jason Craft picked off Croyle at his own 23. Craft started across from Mike McKenzie as Jason David has temporarily left the team to be with his wife and the birth of their first child. Jamie Martin entered the game and moved the ball down near the goal line, but Antonio Pittman was stopped short on fourth down. Pittman was one of the few low points on the right, often running without aggressiveness or burst. He ran hard, but at times very tentatively, and will hear it from the coaching staff for getting blown up in blitz pickup again this week. Pittman was rocked backwards into the pocket by blitzing safety Bernard Pollard in the opening drive of the third quarter, meeting him too high. Pollard got close, got his hands up and deflected a Jamie Martin pass that was intercepted by Jared Allen.
Zach Strief also had problems with Allen, winning some battles and losing others. Strief disengaged from Allen a moment too early early on, allowing Allen to run behind him and drop Reggie Bush short of the end zone. Strief then allowed Allen to take him deep into the backfield, then the skilled defensive end reversed and ran shallow into Brees for the sack. Earlier, Allen blew right by Strief on a speed rush but Brees got rid of the ball to the other side of the field.
Brodie Croyle's first half was awful. He had one solid completion to rookie WR Dwayne Bowe on the Chief's third drive. Bowe is huge, and took S Kevin Kaesviharn for a ride down the field before a gang tackle. That 21-yard gain was more than half of Croyle's first half passing yards.
The Saints got to Croyle in the backfield on the second drive when they blitzed Scott Fujita, who returned from his waterpark foot injury, and Brian Simmons, starting for Marc Simoneau. The linebackers came in hot behind Charles Grant as Will Smith dropped into shallow coverage, and Simmons brought down Croyle by his ankles. DT Kendrick Clancy, who lost his helmet on the play, still jumped on Croyle as the secondary blanketed receivers behind him. It was a symbolic play for a team defense that really came together to punish Croyle and the offense, sans Larry Johnson. One time Saint RB Michael Bennett finished with 27 yards on seven first half carries.
Later, strong safety Roman Harper missed a chance to sack his former University of Alabama teammate Croyle on a dead run, getting only a hand on him as the stepped out of the way. Will Smith followed up on the next play, beating left tackle Will Svitek and despite being held, lowered the boom on Croyle with his left arm. It was a clear indication that the referees were to let the teams play on the night. After getting a few flags in the secondary out of the way early on, the refs looked the other way especially when it came to line play.
Other highlights of the starters-on-starters first half included Jay Bellamy delivering a devastating hit on the Saints' first kickoff, fantastic downfield blocking by David Patten and Lance Moore to spring Reggie Bush for a big run, Mike McKenzie hammering Michael Bennett with a perfectly timed hit, and Moore muffing but luckily falling on a punt. Left-footed booter Dustin Colquitt's strange-spinning punt got the best of Moore, but Moore got the best of the Chiefs first and second string defenses, playing most of the game in multiple receiver sets and getting open for Brees and Martin. Moore led all receivers with six catches for 88 yards, including a gorgeous adjustment on a deep pass. Brees called an audible, pumped and tossed down the left sideline to Moore, who made a spinning catch on an underthrown pass and then ran away from his double coverage. The gainer led to Mare's second field goal. It was just one of Brees' ultra-sharp passes on the night, placing the ball where Moore could make a play in front of his defenders.
Sometimes a fat new contract will make a player lazy or content. Just the opposite with Charles Grant, who appears to be playing the best football of his career. The combination of Grant and Smith is going to make Saint defensive tackles and linebackers look better than they probably are, and will redeem Saint cornerbacks more than once per game. The Saint defense allowed 69 yards and five first downs to the Chiefs in the first half. Remember though that the Chiefs were missing LT Damien McIntosh and most importantly the focus of the franchise in runningback Larry Johnson. After tonight's performance, Brodie Croyle has probably lost the starting job to veteran QB Damon Huard, who didn't play because of a minor injury.
Jamie Martin was serviceable in the second half, playing the type of safe, no-lose football he always has. Payton's scheme fits this stage of Martin's career perfectly. Martin hit 10 of 13 passes for 93 yards, even as the Chiefs left defensive starters well into the third quarter. TE Billy Miller had a good night, taking LB Derrick Johnson out of a play with a block to the feet to open up room for Pittman on a 15 yard run, then springing Aaron Stecker for a 19-yard gainer with a downfield block even after he'd been knocked down.
The fourth quarter became the Pierre Thomas show. The undrafted rookie out of Illinois made the home town Chiefs look silly, with his low, hard running style and some very nice cuts. Even in pass protection, Thomas matched up and squared off against edge rushing safety Jon McGraw. Running behind converted fullback Jamaal Branch, Thomas marched through tired tacklers. On his first touchdown, Pierre fought through three Chiefs for the goal line.
Taking handoffs from third QB Tyler Palko, on the next drive Thomas took the Saints 51 yards down the field in two carries, the first a stumbling, rumbling burst right through the arms of five different Chiefs before a shoestring tackle brought him down. Then Thomas vectored himself around the pile and he trotted into the end zone from 19 yards out. After each touchdown, Pierre stayed on the field and ran down the kickoff. Could Thomas knock Stecker or Pittman off the 53 man roster, or force the team to keep five runningbacks? At this point, Pittman is a liability in pass protection and won't see a lot of action.
Thomas has earned it, and has one more game of running behind impressive fellow rookies Jermon Bushrod and Andy Alleman to prove it. The Saints end their preseason schedule in one week, on Thursday night in the Superdome against the Dolphins.
In injury news, TE Eric Johnson had the wind knocked out of him in the second quarter. Holding the ball in his right arm, Johnson was tackled after a pass from Brees by Kendrell Bell, who held his left hand back. Johnson landed squarely on the ball and Bell landed on his back, but Johnson returned.