The Saints and Texans lit up the Saturday night Superdome crowd in much the same way they have in regular season matchups in years past. The 24-24 halftime score barely tells the story of the excitement in the first half.
Two of the top offenses, let by Drew Brees and his counterpart Matt Schaub, were sharp in their third preseason games, the game when NFL teams play their starters the most. Next week, the Saints will wrap up their preseason schedule in Tennessee, a road trip that may leave sooner than expected with the looming arrival of Hurricane Isaac.
It was a good night for Drew Brees, who completed 17/25 for 179 yards and two touchdowns, plus a ten yard scramble, in one half of play, and for Chase Daniel who went 11/17 for 88 yards and a score, plus 18 yards on two scrambles. RB Chris Ivory was knocked silly and fumbled his first carry, but bounced back to lead all rushers with eight carries for 57 yards. TE Jimmy Graham was the star of the night, having his biggest play nullified by a formation alignment penalty - a brilliant 57-yard short catch and rumble down the sideline. He collected three catches for 48 yards and a score, which capped an exciting two minute drive by Brees before halftime. None of those starters will likely play this Thursday against the Titans.
Jonathan Casillas, starting a middle linebacker with four other middle linebackers hurt or suspended, had tight coverage but was behind TE Owen Daniels on the first snap, a bootleg that Schaub completed for a 16 yard gain. Two plays later, Casillas was stiff-armed away by TE Garrett Graham, but CB Johnny Patrick lowered his shoulder into him for a good tackle. It wasn't a good start for Casillas, who has been challenging at the outside linebacker competition before this week in practice.
After runs of 8 and 7 yards by Ben Tate, CB Patrick Robinson nearly picked off an ankle-level pass for Andre Johnson. But on the ensuing 3rd down, LB Scott Shanle went through the back of Johnson short over the middle, giving the Texans a first down. It was perhaps the first sting of a number of blown calls by the NFL's scab officiating crews working the preseason games.
On the next throw, the Texans stacked three ends in three-point stance to the right side of the offensive line, all down in three-point stance. A blown coverage from his unusual situation by the entire left side of the Saints' defense left Graham alone at the five yard line, with FS Malcolm Jenkins and CB Johnny Patrick nearby. Graham ran right by Casillas, and into a huge void where Jenkins was turned the wrong way.
Only Schaub's too-high pass that forced Graham to stop and leap for the ball prevented a touchdown, but Tate punched it in from one yard out on the next play, with DT Broderick Bunkley sealed off from the gap and on the ground quickly at the point of attack.
Drew Brees started the Saints offense off with a patented Pierre Thomas screen, this one out of a spread formation, which picked up nine yards. Brees fired incomplete deep down the left sideline, challenging CB Kareem Jackson who ran step-for-step with Henderson but didn't turn and allowed Henderson one hand on the ball, but was unable to haul it in.
On 3rd and 1 of the Saints' first drive, RB Chris Ivory burst through the hole and was stumbling head-down into the secondary when he was stuck in the right shoulder by FS Glover Quin, popping his head back and away from the football. Quin recovered the fumble while Ivory was motionless on the turf for a moment, woozy on the sidelines and escorted to the locker room for examination. He would return and have a good showing on the game overall, despite the fumble.
Second year DE Cam Jordan made his presence known on the next drive, pushing starting RT Derek Newton deep into the backfield and into RB Arian Foster. Foster would escape Jordan but would be wrapped up for a four-yard loss by Roman Harper, and Newton was flagged for holding. That set up 2nd and 15, when Patrick Robinson and Lestar Jean went up high and came down with the ball together. Jean was awarded the reception, and Robinson was hit with a personal foul when he appeared to head butt another Texan when the pile was unstacking.
LB Scott Shanle, the elder stateman of the linebacking corps now, knifed through to drop Foster for a six yard loss on the next play. But a screen to Tate and a pass to a wide-open Keshawn Martin over the middle for a touchdown made it 14-0 at the 7:18 mark in the first quarter, with Schaub hitting 8 of his first 9 passes for two touchdowns.
WR Courtney Roby, the surprise veteran of training camp, had a great return on the ensuing kickoff, running 33 yards up to the Saint 35. Lance Moore two plays later made a fantastic diving grab into Texan territory, beating Pro Bowl CB Jonathan Joseph over the middle. A strike Devery Henderson on a slant picked up 14 against Kareem Jackson, and then a strike to Colston over the middle - also beating Jackson - picked up 10.
Two plays later, Brees found Moore on a deep fade into the end zone, who beat Jackson again to make a leaping two-handed touchdown grab. Jackson was flagged for pass interference on the play, which of course was declined.
Nine seconds later, former LSU speedster Trindon Holliday, an emerging kick returner for the Texans playing in his home state, fumbled the kickoff return. DE Junior Galette, sporting his Super Bowl Beard, was on the ground after getting tumbled over in the pile, and had the football pop backwards out of the pile right in front of him. The fumble was forced by S Isa Abdul-Quddus and gave Galette an easy, untouched scoop, turn and score, which tied the game at 14 with 3:53 left in the first quarter.
Holliday, eager to return the next kickoff and jawing with the crowd, reluctantly kneeled Morstead's nine-yard deep kickoff at the back of the end zone.
Six plays later, with the Texans driving into Saints territory, WR Keshawn Martin fumbled a wide receiver screen, forced by rookie CB Corey White. That ended a drive that saw Arian Foster rip off an 18-yard rush, making one cutback through a huge gap left where all three Saints linebackers were blocked out of the play. Schaub hit Johnson for 19 and Forsett for 13. Two plays later Jordan made another great play in the backfield, drawing another holding penalty when he beat T Rashad Butler to sack Schaub for a seven yard loss. But White's forced fumble, recovered by Ellis, ended that drive.
Brees converted a 3rd and 10 on the next drive with a 29-yard catch and run by TE Jimmy Graham, who was found wide open in the secondary after Quin let him go in coverage. Ivory returned to the field on the next play, a good sign for the youngster in the thick of a runningback battle, and raced around the right end for a five yard gain. Second year RB Mark Ingram dragged tacklers for a four yard gain on the next play, setting up 3rd and 1, which Brees converted with an outlet pass to underrated FB Jed Collins.
Former LSU LB Bradie James, replacing Texan stalwart MLB Demeco Ryans, mugged Graham on an aggressive seam pass down the middle of the field and was flagged, setting up 1st and 10 at the Texan 11 yard line. But the Saints couldn't convert with plays that featured Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas or Travaris Cadet, and settled for the 22-yard Garrett Hartley field goal and the 17-14 lead with 11:28 left in the second quarter.
The Texans offense was fully chilled at this point, and responded with a three-and-out following a 62-yard kickoff return by Holliday. Patrick Robinson had a third near-interception on Schaub's first play, Andre Johnson wrestled the ball away for an incompletion. A fired-up Cam Jordan beat his man Butler again and strung out Arian Foster for a two-yard loss on a run wide right. On 3rd and 12, Johnson went up high to make the catch but Malcolm Jenkins grabbed him high around the waist and slammed him to the ground, knocking the ball free.
Two plays later, second-year speedster Joe Morgan had his progress stopped by three Texans but the substitute officials did not blow the whistle. S Daniael Manning stripped the ball from Morgan in the scrum and recovered the fumble, a play that would have been blown dead in the regular season. Two plays later, Foster pounded it in from six yards out for the score an a 21-17 Texan lead.
After a strong eight-yard power rush by Ingram up the middle, Ingram lost two yards and he was tripped in the backfield by DE Antonio Smith, who pancaked LT Jermon Bushrod. Quin batted away a pass for Colston on the third down pass, and the incomplete ended the drive for a quick three-and-out.
Holliday took another bad step when he muffed the punt return out of bounds, a dangerous mistake for the diminutive hometown speedster from Zachary, Louisiana. On the next play, Keshanw Martin would fumble again, this one after he was drilled by FS Malcolm Jenkins on an end-around run. Jenkins blasted him, popping the ball into the air, and it was recovered by DE Will Smith at the Houston 33. That was the sixth fumble or muffed punt in the game with 7:19 left in the second quarter.
Brees was nearly intercepted on the next play, when pass deflected off of double coverage and into the hands of Quintin Demps, who was out of bounds when he came up with the pass. Brees went into the end zone again for Jimmy Graham 1-on-1 with Bradie James. Though James fell into Graham and put a right arm on Graham's facemask, the pass was ruled incomplete with no flags. The crowd, and interim head coach Joe Vitt, were incensed after that play.
With 4th and 3 from the Houston 21, the Saints went for it with an empty-backfield shotgun formation with 6:27 left in the second quarter. Brees' pass to Cadet, who was open at the right sideline, was fingertip deflected by a diving Demps.
Garrett Graham beat the Saints defense beep on the next play, the speedy tight end running past Malcolm Jenkins open for a 44 yard gain. Schaub used James Casey on the next play, the fullback/tight end hybrid who burned the Saints for more than 100 yards receiving last season, then completed a 10-yard screen to TE Owen Daniels, showing off the Texans' stocked cupboard on offense.
Four plays later, the Saints would stuff Foster on 3rd and 2, setting up rookie K Randy Bullock for a 33-yard field goal and a 24-17 lead with 2:13 left in the half. On that stuffed run, Broderick Bunkley was blocked completed out of the play but Sedrick Ellis slid over to make the big first hit on Foster, with Jordan on his ankles.
Brees got the ball back with 2:04 left in the half for likely his last drive of the preseason. A 57-yard strike to Graham was incredibly impressive, with the power forward beating Glover for the pass and then pushing him down. Racing down the right sideline, Graham was finally dragged down by a desperate Manning. A curious set of flags nullified the flag however. Graham's catch was ruled "illegal touching" because he was not lined up correctly and ruled an ineligible receiver. Then the Texans were called for roughing the passer, even though that flag was seen in the backfield while Brees was scrambling to the right with the ball. The Texans were rightly flagged for crushing Brees late, and the 15-yard penalty made it 1st and 10 at the Saint 38.
The substitute officials, this crew led by Don King, were not good in this game, also missing some obvious late-hit spearing with the helmet calls on the Texan defense. Considerable delays made the Saints' first half two-minute drill a lengthy, stuttering affair. A 10-yard hit to Pierre Thomas, an 18-yard strike to Colston and a 10-yard sliding scramble by Brees himself moved the Saints to the Houston 24. After a false start on Jermon Bushrod resulted in a 10-second run off with :57 left, Brees threw an incomplete pass after Brees ducked decapitation in the backfield when Bushrod was beaten on a stunt by DT Earl Mitchell. Not a good night, or a good preseason, for the Saints' Pro Bowl left tackle.
With :34 left in the second quarter, Pierre Thomas picked up 16 and ran out of bounds on a textbook screen pass, converting the 2nd and 15, setting the Saints up with 1st down at the Texan 13 with :27 left. Brian de la Puente and Ben Grubbs would out in front escorting Thomas in the open field. On that screen, Bushrod slapped Connor Barwin's hands to the ground and buried him, neutralizing him and showing the kind of effectiveness the Saints will need out of him in his big contract year.
Two plays later, Brees hit Jimmy Graham from eight yards out with :15 left to tie the game at 24. Brees stepped up in the pocket, dodging a hard-charging Barwin on the stunt, and fired a laser into double coverage, confident that his power forward would block out both Kareem Jackson and Danieal Manning. Graham celebrated his first preseason touchdown with a crowd-thrilling goal post dunk. It looked more like a chest pass into the paint than a touchdown catch for Graham, who towered above the defenders to make the catch with both hands.
In the second half, Chase Daniel and a roster full of backups took over for the Saints starters. The very first play was flagged for a five-yard penalty for having 12 men on the field, and he used Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet to move into position for a field goal from Garrett Hartley. Daniel hit backup TE Michael Higgins for an 11-yard gain on 3rd and 7, when Higgins used his 6'5 size well. While the Texans might have speed at tight end, the Saints have great size.
Ivory especially got a heavy dose of work, the first of which was a 20-yard dash around the right side when he was initially stutter-stepped in the backfield. He escaped the backfield by juking LB Jesse Nading to the turf and escaping.
Newly-signed WR Greg Camarillo, wearing Robert Meachem's #17 jersey, catch a pass on the first play of the second half that wasn't whistled dead - he notched two catches on three passes thrown his way on the drive for gains of 8 and 7 yards. Short passes by Daniel, including a nifty nine-yard screen pass picked up by Cadet, and a steady dose of Ivory, including a three-yard gain on 3rd and 1, moved the Saints to the Texan 6. But the drive stalled there with three incomplete passes, including a busted-up screen on 3rd down, and Hartley came on to hit a 24-yard field goal.
TJ Yates came in for Houston at the 9:17 mark of the third quarter, and hit TE James Casey for a quick 15-yard gain, who held on after a big hit by Jonathon Amaya. Former Seahawk RB Justin Forsett got some action in this drive, as did former Seahawk LB Barrett Ruud, acquired via trade by the Saints this past week. Initially the Saints said he wouldn't play, but Ruud collected two tackles and an assist at middle linebacker, including a tackle on Forsett.
After a booming first half, it was a quiet third quarter. Backup defensive back Cord Parks and seventh-string (no joke) MLB Kadarron Anderson collected sacks on Yates to help kill Texan drives. Rookie TE Jake Byrne nullified a 26-yard rush by deep backup RB Joe Banyard with a holding call to help kill a drive on the first play of the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Yates hit Garrett Graham and Forsett for 20 and 11-yard gains to move the Texans into position for a game-tying field goal. Third round pick Akiem Hicks helped stifle that drive by sacking Yates on third and long and forcing a 53-yard field goal from Shayne Graham, who may have beaten the rookie Randy Bullock for the job.
In response, Daniel converted a 3rd and 13 with a 14-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. Daniel then overcame a holding penalty on Marcel Jones with a 16-yard screen pass to Cadet and tough running by Banyard to pick up a pair of first downs. Tough running by Cadet and Banyard helped fuel a long, time-consuming drive that would take up most of the fourth quarter.
WR Joe Morgan, on the field at the beginning and end of the game, drew a pass interference flag from CB Roc Carmichael to give the Saints first and goal at the 9. Morgan would get the score three plays later with a diving catch on a pass Daniel threw away from the coverage, on a pattern when Morgan's jersey was held with fists by Carmichael. Morgan still came up with the tough catch, a great finish to his fourth straight preseason game with impressive highlights and remarkable lowlights.
That drive took 7:05 off the clock in the fourth quarter over 13 plays, and would end up providing the game-winning points. Yates would be sacked on back-to-back plays by DE Turk McBride, returning healthy to the field, and then DT Tyrunn Walker, who has shown consistent pass rush ability late in games this preseason. Sean Canfield came in for the Saints on the field after Greg Camarillo's 8-yard punt return put the Saints in long field goal position.
Canfield was 1/2 for 2 yards and the Saints settled for a 53-yard field goal attempt from Hartley, whose knuckleballer kick was low and to the left. Yates moved the Texans to the Saint 31 and threw incomplete on fourth down. Canfield kneeled off the final :32.
The Saints are 2-2 in the preseason now. The Saints and Texans have played in the preseason every year since 2008, and the Saints are now 3-2 in those exhibition games.
The only injury appeared to be Chris Ivory's temporary absence from the field after a potential head or neck injury when he fumbled, but he returned to the field.