A physical week of practices in Houston was capped by a preseason game that saw Saints RB Mike Bell run roughshod over his old team.
Bell rushed for 100 yards on 10 carries, including a 46 yard cut and run up the middle near the end of the first half that capped his night. He was a member of the Texans for a brief period of training camp last season, signing on July 31 but cut nine days later. Bell joined the Saints last November. Saturday night, Bell enjoyed healthy success in the first half despite running behind a line that featured third string left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
Bushrod was the other story of the night. A former fourth round pick out of tiny Towson, this was his biggest spotlight yet in his third NFL season. He's had an up and down practice but between his rise to the occasion and a scheme that protected him in pass blocking, Bushrod did well against superstar defensive end Mario Williams of the Texans and showed great mobility in getting to the second level.
TE Jeremy Shockey was often lined up next to Bushrod on the left side of the line. Williams' biggest play of the game, when he sacked a shifting Brees and caused an apparently fumble in the red zone, came when Shockey apparently blocked in and allowed Bushrod a free outside path to the quarterback.
Brees' fumble was ruled an incomplete pass and after a replay review, officials invoked the infamous tuck rule and uphelp the ruling. On the next play Brees capped the drive with a floating pass to a wide-open, back-pedaling Pierre Thomas at the goal line. That score tied the game at 7. On the opening drive of the game, the Texans marched down the field and were stopped on a fourth down, but a unnecessary roughness call on Will Smith extended the drive. Texans QB Matt Schaub capped that drive with a touchdown pass from eight yards out to WR David Anderson, finding Anderson open in a pocket of the spread coverage inside the five.
Bell and Bushrod aside, the Saints defense took on a top three offense from 2008 and gave them problems. WR Andre Johnson, one of the best, is nearly uncoverable on quick slant patterns, and Schaub and Johnson connected there more than once. The defense also had trouble with shifty, strong-running back Steve Slaton, who broke numerous tackles.
On the second drive, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter disrupted Johnson's reception, resulting in a ruling Johnson fumbled the ball after a five yard gain. The Texans recovered, but it was a good hit and play on the ball. Johnson would beat both Greer and Porter on the night, but on the second drive a holding call and some good defense would force a punt by the Texans.
The Saints' second drive saw a sharp Brees hook up with Shockey, Colston and Thomas to move the ball down the field, along with Mike Bell who gashed the Texans with runs of 8, 6, 12, 9 and 4 yards to give the Saints first and goal at the Houston 6 yard line.
Brees almost had his second touchdown on high pass to Meachem at the back corner of the end zone was complete but out of bounds, though it was a marvelous effort by Meachem who looked great with the ball in his hands. On the first drive, Meachem took a quick out in the flat for 17 yards as he scooted away from CB Fred Bennett down the right sideline.
It was on this goal line situation though that the same ghosts of the past kept haunting the Saints, as a first and goal at the six turned into a fourth and 14 after a stuffed run up the middle and two incompletions, a false start penalty on Jon Stinchcomb and on the field goal attempt, an illegal formation penalty. Placekicker Garrett Hartley connected from 26 yards out but the penalty forced a re-try, which Hartley missed wide left from 31 yards away.
Midway through the second quarter, both teams had already begun putting in some substitutions. Brees played the first two possessions of the game, both long drives deep into Texans territory though the second resulted in no points. Schaub entered the game after the missed field goal, connected on a 12 yard pass to Kevin Walter on third and long, but then couldn't convert a second third down, forcing a punt.
Joey Harrington entered the game on the third possession for the Saints, playing with many of the starters, and hit Marques Colston for a 13 yard gain to move the Saints into Texan territory. Mike Bell took it in from there with a 46-yard blast up the middle and down the right sideline, the last of his 100 yards on the day.
Texans backup Dan Orlovsky moved his team again but was then intercepted by Jabari Greer on a pass forced high by Saints pass rush. Greer set Harrington up at the New Orleans 44 with 1:51 left on the clock, when Harringon took the Saints down to the Houston 4 with a good two-minute drill. Harrington, given a chance to play early instead of with the third string, completed consecutive passes to Colston for 17, Thomas for 8, Meachem for 12, and Colston for 11, spiking the ball between each snap.
Then, with :26 seconds left, Harrington choose poorly to throw the ball to tight end Buck Ortega in the right flat, and Ortega was forced down for no gain, in bounds. Harrington spiked the ball on third down with five seconds left, and Hartley hit a 22-yard field goal to put the Saints up 17-7.
In the third quarter, with Mike Bell done for the night after a fantastic showing, it was time for the Saints' other runningbacks to try and match his performance. Undrafted rookie PJ Hill was the third runningback on the field for the Saints, but he didn't find any room to run until early in the fourth quarter when he ripped off a 15-yard run to the Texan six. Fellow rookie Herb Donaldson then scored on third and goal from the four, but a holding penalty on guard Nate Bennett moved the Saints back to the Houston 14.
Not a problem to Donaldson, who found the end zone again from 14 yards out at the right pylon. It was a good showing for Donaldson, who was extremely productive at small Western Illinois University in the Missouri Valley Conference, but has an outside chance of making the roster.
PJ Hill, a productive runner in his own right at Wisconsin, would later score from one yard out after second year wide receiver Adrian Arrington made an amazing circus catch of a 47-yard pass from Brunell to the Houston two yard drive.
As for the Saints' defense, Malcolm Jenkins played in passing formations with the first team and in the third quarter, at cornerback. Houston WR Andre Davis isn't a dynamic receiver but is one of the fastest men in the league, and he burned Jenkins deep for a 23-yard touchdown from Orlovsky on the Texans' first drive of the second half. Jenkins never turned to make a play on the ball.
Newcomer linebacker Anthony Waters made a huge play in the third quarter, with the Texans at the Saints' doorstep on a fourth and one. Dan Orlovsky rolled out to pass and was chased down by Waters, who had his sights on more than just a sack. Waters went ahead and ripped the ball away from a backpedaling Orlovsky but couldn't stay on his feet as the quarterback pulled him down. Its a great play for Waters, who presumes to be a backup outside linebacker on this roster, and yet another embarrassing highlight for Orlovsky.
Water's forced fumble was one of several created opportunities for the defense. On the second to last play of the game, CB Randall Gay picked off Texans QB Alex Brink at Saints' seven yard line on a pass TE James Casey couldn't bring in. Gay's pick was the last of three turnovers for the Saints' defense, not counting a forced fumble that the Texans recovery.
The Saints' special teams also got in on the fun. In the third quarter, backup receiver Rod Harper returned a touchdown 79 yards for a touchdown, enhancing the already-intriguing return battle between Courtney Roby and Skyler Green. Harper's high stepping into the end zone though won't help his cause, as it drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
It was a great night for the Saints, who in terms of turnovers didn't give up a fumble or interception. The Saints' runningbacks, who had fumble issues last week and in their own scrimmage, held on to the ball. RB Lynell Hamilton, who had two fumbles last week, played but did not touch the ball.
Harrington never got much going in the second half and left the game when a cheap shot from Texans LB Buster Davis left him dazed on the turf. Harrington scrambled for 10 yards out of his own end zone, slid and was down by another defender when Davis fell from standing and led with his shoulder into Harrington's helmet. Amazingly, no penalty was called on the dirty play, though the refs later in the drive flagged Texans DE DelJuan Robinson for unnecessary roughness for a hit on Brunell.
Brunell entered the game and took over at quarterback, hitting newcomer TE Martrez Milner for a first down. Herb Donaldson provided a conversion on second and one, and Brunell hit Arrington for 24. That drive would end in Donaldson's back-to-back impressive scoring runs.
NFL.com video highlights