September 3, 2009

P Morstead, LB Dunbar, WR Harper shine in preseason finale

(We'll look at the positives from Thursday night's preseason finale first, and then rip Joey Harrington at end this column.)

The Saints failed to complete the first undefeated preseason in team history Thursday night, but that's hardly a failure of note. The 10-7 loss to the Dolphins was an ugly game to watch, as most exhibition finales are.

Quarterback Drew Brees, runningbacks Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey did not play tonight, in this most meaningless of exhibition games. The starting defensive line for the Saints played one series.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, on the other hand, played his starters well into the game. QB Chad Pennington played two snaps into the second quarter, along with many of his starters. Starter Ronnie Brown and ex-Saint Ricky Williams played the first half. As expected, the Dolphins starters outplayed the Saint backups early in this game, grabbing a 10-0 halftime lead.

The MVP for the Saints on the night was rookie punter Thomas Morstead, who got a lot of work. Morstead, the Saints' fifth round pick out of SMU and the recent victor in a competition with veteran Glenn Pakulak, averaged 45 yards on seven punts, many pinning the Dolphins deep in their own territory. Morstead's first two punts were 35 and 43 yards but very high and were fair catches. His next bounced inside the five but coverage was unable to catch it before it bounded into the end zone.

In the second half, Morstead was stellar. His punts were downed by the Saints at the Miami 4, 26, 3 (from 63 yards out!), and 11 yard lines. He was also given an opportunity to kick off after Rod Harper's touchdown, and it went into the end zone.

Payton on Morstead: "I thought he punted the ball extremely well tonight. He looked outstanding. That was probably one of the better things coming out of this evening... I don't know if there was a punt return."

LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a second year player out of Boston College, had a fantastic first half and finished the game with 13 tackles, a sack and a stripped ball. Dunbar has likely secured a spot as the primary backup at weakside linebacker and already has a big role on special teams. Also on defense, Anthony Hargrove, who will be used at both tackle and end this season, played well and with high emotion. DT Sedrick Ellis also looked good chasing down Chad Pennington early on.

WR Rod Harper returned his second punt of the preseason for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the only New Orleans points of the game. The play was a big one for the high-energy Harper, a 55-yard return slashing up the middle for a returner who spends far too much time running east-west.

But Harper drew an illegal motion penalty on offense and his six other punt returns were fruitless. As a receiver, he failed to fight high to prevent an interception and caught only two of seven passes thrown his way.

It doesn't help that Reggie Bush will be the Saints' punt returner of choice this season with Lance Moore as his backup. Harper's big preseason has likely helped him get picked up by another team after he's released.

Payton after the game on Harper: "Credit him... I was encouraged with the play he made tonight, it was a big play."

RB Lynell Hamilton started at runningback and had fifteen touches, nine carries for 34 yards and six receptions for 88 yards including a fantastic 43-yard gain on a screen play where he showed excellent patience lining up his blockers and following his escort down the right sideline.

RB Mike Bell has likely already secured the third runningback job with the team, so the team gave all possible playing time to the three competing to force the Saints to keep a fourth: Hamilton, PJ Hill and Donaldson. Hill had only five touches and Donaldson eight, a likely indicator of what the decision will be.

And now for Joey Harrington.

He played behind a bad offensive line made up of players who will not be employed after Saturday. He was throwing to young, inexperienced wide receivers. WR Skyler Green dropped a touchdown pass from Harrington.

He was sacked eight times.

Eight times. Harrington held onto the ball far too long, showed poor pocket awareness and made terrible decisions in movement. It was Mark Brunell who was picked off on an amazing one-hand catch by Dolphins rookie DB Sean Smith, but in comparison to Harrington, Brunell looked like, well, Mark Brunell of his Pro Bowl years.

Harrington's final statement to the Saints coaching staff was poor. If he was to convince them to hold three quarterbacks on the roster (under Payton, they've often gone with two), he's failed. He appeared to lose his composure on the field more than once, screaming at his receivers after another sack or an incompletion. When Harrington wasn't sacked, he rarely threw down field.

One of Harrington's best plays was a short pass to Adrian Arrington who broke loose for a 36 yard gain inside the Miami 20. But that play was called back for holding on rookie tackle Michael Brown, the second straight play he was flagged for holding. Later, Brown committed a false start and is himself headed off the roster.

Harrington's stats weren't ugly, 13/19 for 115 yards, but including his eight sacks, Harrington completed less than half of his pass attempts in an basic offense that is designed for high-percentage throws. It won't surprise us to see Harrington cut at Saturday's deadline.

CB Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints' top pick in April, also did not distinguish himself. He was picked on early by Pennington for a number of completions and missed a tackle on the Dolphins' lone touchdown run.

Injury report: Starting free safety Darren Sharper left the game on his second play, but the injury doesn't appear to be severe and possibly just cramps. That would be a significant blow for the Saints, as both his backups Usama Young (shoulder) and Chip Vaughn (knee) both missed the game. FB Olaniyi Sobomehin took in neck stinger injury. TE Billy Miller's injury looks to be the most significant.

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