August 20, 2011

Texans "whipped" Saint starters, 27-14; rookie WR Morgan shines again

Gregg Williams' unit turned in one of the worst performances by the Saints in the Sean Payton era, allowing over 300 yards of offense in the first half with many starters playing both quarters.  A planned vacation/training camp experience in Oxnard, California next week might turn out to be a lot less fun.

The Saints' starting offense found plenty of yards but couldn't keep up with the Texans offense, who scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives and hung 24 points on the Saints before missing a half-ending field goal.  Drew Brees and his offense were far improved from a bad performance against San Francisco.  The two offenses combined for 484 total yards in the first half alone.

"They whipped us," Sean Payton said after the game.

More significantly, prize free agent acquisition DT Aubrayo Franklin suffered damage to his MCL, Payton said after the game. That type of injury potentially has a 4-8 week recovery based on past injuries of that sort.  Franklin may now not be available until October.

The Saints received the opening kickoff and Brees started off the way he wanted to, handing off on a 13-yard ramble up the middle by starting runningback Pierre Thomas. A 10-yard out to Lance Moore picked up an extra 15 yards when LB Xavier Abidi dropped himself on Moore after the play.

The Saints picked up another first down – that’s three so far, three more than Brees gained in the preseason opener – on a catch and run by Darren Sproles for nine yards followed by a run up the middle by Pierre Thomas for the conversion. Sproles dropped an outlet pass in the flat that Brees threw high – understandable for the 5’5" Sproles. Two runs by Mark Ingram set up 3rd and 2, before a lofted pass to TE Jimmy Graham down the middle drew an illegal contact penalty and an automatic first down inside the red zone.

Runs by Thomas and Sproles up the middle set up another third and short. As we might see often in the regular season, third and short meant Mark Ingram. The rookie blasted up the middle for a seven yard gain down to the Texan 7 yard line. On first and goal however, Brees dropped back in a short set and was harassed by Antonio Smith. Brees raised his throwing arm above his ahead and tried to swim past, but lost control of the ball. A pileup for the fumble all the way back at the Houston 28 saw the Texans come away with the loose ball.

Texans QB Matt Schaub hit two quick passes to this right side underneath Jabari Greer before Jonathan Casillas returned Abidi’s favor, spearing TE James Casey on the turf and drawing a 15-yard penalty that put the Texans in Saints territory. A 23-yard strike to a wide open Andre Johnson, and a speed cutback by RB Arian Foster for 12 yards put the Texans down at the Saint 4. It took less than two minutes for the ball to complete switch sides. Foster ran twice more, the second time bowling through CB Jabari Greer for the touchdown. LB Will Herring, starting across from Casillas at outside linebacker, was sealed easily, allowing Foster to push into the end zone with only the resistance of a cornerback.

On the ensuing kickoff, we saw something rare this year – a kickoff return. Even though K Neil Rackers sent the kick four yards deep into the end zone, KR Courtney Roby showed great speed and returned it up to the 28 yard line. Rookie WR Joe Morgan, who returned a punt for a TD last week, and Roby are competing for a job that may not be there – kickoff return specialist.  Both teams would experiment with kickoffs, as the Texans would short kick and the Saints would directional kick.

A classic Pierre Thomas screen pass picked up 15 yards on the first play of the Saints’ second drive, a familiar and welcome sight for Thomas. On second down, LB Brian Cushing had a free run at Brees and leveled him just as he released an outlet pass to Sproles – which was too high, and Sproles dropped. Two plays later, Brees showed the opposite of a classic Pierre Thomas screen – lofting a pass into a crowd that was nearly intercepted by two Texans. On third down, Brees and Sean Payton furiously objected when Antonio Smith recognized a screen play and decided to tackle Sproles in the backfield. Payton, out on the field, called a timeout to further his protest, but the refs would not throw a flag. The Saints opted to punt from the Texan 39 yard line, eschewing a 56-yard field goal attempt.

On his second drive, Schaub threw deep down the middle to All-Pro WR Andre Johnson, who beat Paul Oliver and Patrick Robinson to haul in the pass for a 48 yard gain to the Saint 32. Oliver, starting for Malcolm Jenkins and Robinson, starting for Tracy Porter, appeared to be in good position but didn’t make a play for the ball.  Two plays later, Foster burst through the defense off left tackle and untouched. Oliver made an embarrassingly poor tackling attempt on Foster, who jogged in for the touchdown from 28 yards out. A collegiate cornerback at Georgia, Oliver bent at the waist and fell down as Foster glided by.

Pressure from the Texans’ 3-4 defense created problems for Brees on screen plays. On the next drive, Brees’ second down screen play was busted and his third down pass was swatted down by Texans rookie DE JJ Watt. Frustrated, Brees refused to come off the field, and hit WR Marques Colston over the middle for four yards and the first down.

Tempers continues to flare on the next snap, when Texans CB Kareem Jackson and Saints WR Devery Henderson exchanged facemask slaps, but it was Henderson who was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. On 2nd and 23 back near midfield, Brees hit a mid-open Robert Meachem at the 10 yard line, but his momentum carried him out of bounds at the 8. Meachem ran past Texans CB Jason Allen, who fell down on the play, but Brees’ pass pushed Meachem towards the sideline.

Two plays later Darren Sproles was inches short of the goal line after he took an inside draw, absorbed a body blow and dove towards the line. The Saints opted to go for it again, this time on fourth and goal from inches out.  Ingram leapt over the pile for an apparent score, but Sean Payton had called timeout before the snap.

On the second try, the Saints ran the same play. The Texans got to Ingram in the backfiel, so Ingram kept his feet on the ground and powered across the goal line, winning a battle of momentum with Abidi. In all, it was good practice for Ingram and the Saints in goal line situations.

Up 14-7, the Texans drove again, powered by second-year RB Ben Tate who ripped off a 23-yard run. The Saints finally forced an incompletion by Schaub with 9:15 to go in the second quarter, when DE Will Smith deflected a pass into the air that fell incomplete.  Two plays later the Saints would finally stop the Texans on third down, forcing a Neil Rackers 49-yard field goal.

The Saints pulled Brees after leading the offense to their first points of the preseason, and rising star Chase Daniel started fast.  Daniel's first pass was an across-body strike down the field to Jimmy Graham for 19 yards.  Chris Taylor carried for six yards, then Daniel fired deep off play action for rookie WR Joe Morgan, who scored his second touchdown in as many exhibition games.  Morgan sped past Texans starting CB Kareem Jackson and Daniel's throw was perfect for a 56-yard touchdown.

Up 17-14, the Texans left their starters in.  Schaub and Tate teamed to move the ball to the Saint 48, and then Schaub found Andre Johnson open over the middle for 21 yards on 3rd and 10.  Many Saint starters were still on the field when Johnson got behind Casillas' zone drop.  New Orleans native Jacoby Jones would shake Jabari Greer on a quick flare pass to pick up 11 yards, one of a dozen missed tackles in the first half.  Defense ends Alex Brown and Turk McBride combined to sack Schaub, but three plays later Tate rumbled through tacklers into the end zone from four yards out.

RB Darren Sproles got loose for 17 yards on an inside draw play, an impressive display of footwork, but Daniel fired incomplete three straight times to force a punt.  Backup QB Matt Leinart entered the game for the Texans and handed off to Tate who ran untouched for 43 yards before being escorted out of bounds with :59 left on the clock.  Leinart moved the Texans to the Saint 20 with two easy over-the-middle completions.  An illegal contact penalty on CB Mark Parson gave the Texans a first down at the 16.  Leinart fired three straight passes incomplete thanks to pressure by DE Junior Galette, then a good breakup by S Jonathon Amaya, and the last was hurried by Casillas and throw out of the end zone.  Rackers missed the short field goal, and the Saints went into the locker room down 24-14.

The Saints should feel good about their backup quarterback situation at least, as Chase Daniel looks far more capable than Leinart.  Leinart led the Texans to their first punt in the opening possession of the third quarter.  FB Jed Collins took Daniel's first down pass on a short flare route for 10 yards as he continues to compete for the Saints' fullback job.  Daniel would then hit WR Adrian Arrington for 14 yards, but on his next drop back he was sacked by DE Brooks Reed and lost the football.  Star of the preseason so far WR Joe Morgan chased down and tackled 285-pound DT Scooter Berry's fumble return.

Leinart took over and went three and out, but was in range for a Neil Rackers 40 yard field goal.

Daniel and RB Chris Taylor moved the Saints to their own 42 before Daniel, rolling left, fired downfield a little high for Arrington, and it was intercepted by CB Brice McCain.  It wasn't a terrible throw by Daniel but it was high, tipped up and picked off by the deep safety.  RB Patrick Cobbs, in place for Taylor, made the tackle on McCain.  The Saints stuffed Texans RB Chris Ogbonnaya on third down, but the Texans decided to go for it on 4th and 3 at the Saint 35 with a little over a minute left in the third quarter.  Leinart fired high and incomplete for TE Garrett Graham.

Back under center, Chase Daniel was getting brutalized by poor blocking.  After being leveled on second down, C Matt Tennant snapped the ball early on third down.  Daniel was surprised but managed to catch the shotgun snap, but LT Charles Brown didn't move, and Daniels was smashed from behind by Brooks Reed and fumbled.  Brown got back to recover and the Saints punted, but it was getting ugly.

Through three quarters, the Saints had turned the ball over three times and had given up 378 yards of offense.    The defense had started to settle down, with some thanks to poor play by Leinart, and forced a three-and-out to start the final quarter.

QB Sean Canfield took the field for the Saints.  Unlike six footers Brees and Daniel, Canfield at 6'4, 223 is prototypical size and a lefty.  With two pass attempts last week Canfield looked pretty good, and tonight he started with an out route to Adrian Arrington complete for nine yards.  RB Patrick Cobbs on the ground and in the air moved the Saints to the Houston 41.  On third and nine, Canfield fired out of bounds to TE Michael Higgins, but Arrington was stepping forward in his motion during the snap and Charles Brown was flagged for holding at LT.  Brown struggled tonight badly, and veteran free agent George Foster came in at right tackle behind newly-appointed starter Zach Strief.

The Saints punted, and Leinart handed off to Ogbonnaya to near midfield before the Texans punted.  Cobbs made the most of a middle screen at the Saint 5 and ran 23 yards up the field to give Canfield some breathing room.  Canfield hit WR Andy Tanner for 11 yards, then two plays later Tanner dropped an easy first down over the middle.  Canfield was sacked on third down when DE Tim Jamison abused OG Dan Gay and collared Canfield for a nine yard loss.  Morstead punted, and the Texans kneeled away the final minute.

Injury notes: Free agent prize DT Aubrayo Franklin walked to the locker room under his own power after an apparent knee injury... fourth string RB Chris Taylor headed to the locker room... WR Joe Morgan had an ice wrap on his right hamstring late in the game...

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