August 28, 2010

Brees shows off, Ivory shines in 36-21 preseason romp over Chargers

The Saints first team offense showed off in the first half while the defense had a decent showed against a top-tier offense.  Meanwhile, injuries mounted including a potentially serious groin injury for middle linebacker and captain Jonathan Vilma. 

The Chargers moved the ball down the field on the opening possession for a touchdown, a drive spared by a fantastic near-interception on a comeback route by CB Jabari Greer. The Saints showed a lot of blitz pressure to Rivers, surely an indication of regular season form, but Rivers was able to get rid of the ball quickly each play.

The Chargers worked rookie RB Ryan Mathews on the drive, who showed remarkable acceleration to get around LB Scott Shanle when the veteran had position and angle.  Mathews turned what looked like a no gainer into a burst of speed and a whiffed tackle by Shanle.  The rookie turned up the left sideline for a 16-yard gain.  Not sure if that is more of an indictment of Shanle, the team's new strongside linebacker, or a heap of praise on a soon-to-be-superstar runningback.

Former LSU star Jacob Hester scored on a six yard plunge, a play reminiscent of his game-winning score against Florida in 2007.  The Charger offensive line got a powerful push, and Jonathan Casillas was unable to get to Hester before he fell on the goal line.

The Saints got the ball for the first time and picked up a single first down on a completion to Colston but had to punt after Brees was sacked by Eric Weddle on third and five.  Weddle had a clear strike at Brees after Reggie Bush, in on pass protection, failed to recognize the outside blitzer.  Bush, caught up inside, made a last ditch dive to block Weddle but it was too late, and Brees fumbled on the play.  Stinchcomb fell on the ball but the drive was over.

The Saints defense responded well on the Charger's second drive, forcing a three and out capped by a good pass-breakup by SS Roman Harper on third and short over the middle.  Harper on the first drive was clowned by TE Antonio Gates on a short route.

The Saints got the ball back deep in their own territory but got out quickly thanks to a Pierre Thomas' shifty quick feet on a screen pass.  The Saints, who as a franchise for decades couldn't run a screen pass, are now masters of running screen passes at unconventional lines of scrimmage - deep in the red zone and in their own territory.

Reggie Bush showed good vision and willingness to lower a shoulder on two rushes for first down to help move the Saints to near midfield, when Drew Brees unleashed a bomb to the end zone where Devery Henderson played basketball with Antoine Cason.  Both went up high for the ball, but Henderson tipped it up and away from Cason's hands.  Cason fell, Henderson caught the rebound in the end zone for a 46 yard touchdown.

Tied at 7-7, the Saints defense stopped the Chargers on the next drive which started with the the defense completely sniffing out a toss right and dropping Mathews for a four yard loss on first down.  The Chargers picked up a first down on a 20-yard completion to Malcolm Floyd on a deep out.  But the Saints stopped the Chargers after three straight passes, including a bad drop by TE Kris Wilson.

Both Bush and Pierre Thomas looked excellent tonight, running tough and with success against the Charger starters.  Thomas kicked off the next drive with a hard-fighting 16-yard blast up the middle. Two plays later, Brees tossed for Jeremy Shockey deep down the middle, who climbed the ladder and went up very high for a 21-yard catch.  On the way down though, he was blasted by LB Stephen Cooper and S Steven Gregory and sat out the rest of the game.

Brees finished off the rest of the drive with a rollout right comeback strike to Meachem inside the red zone, and then hit Meachem in the slot on the post for the touchdown and the 14-7 lead.  After punting on their first drive, the Saints starters scored touchdowns on the arm of Brees with drives of 80 and 90 yards. 

The Saints shut down the run in the second quarter, so the Chargers tied it up by throwing the ball.  Rivers hit five straight completions of 9, 14, 29, 6 and 8 yards before Scott Shanle hit Rivers early to force an incompletion near the goal line. On the next play though, a mixup in the Saints secondary saw Malcolm Floyd wide open in the back of the end zone.  Randall Gay looked to be the guilty party on that play.

The next Saints drive was ended by two straight drops - Henderson on a deep post that went right through his hands, then Bush bounced a short pass off his shoulder pads at the first down marker.  A three and out by the Chargers set up the Saints with 1:50 left in the half.

On the final drive of the half, Brees had fun.

Completions to Reggie Bush and David Thomas, the latter after Brees pump faked and shifted left to avoid pressure, picked up a first down.  Then a masterful strike down the middle to Colston in the seam was just an inch over the defender's outstretched hands.  The drive got a setback when Colston, pushed down after being tackled, flipped the football towards CB Quentin Jammer, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct flag.

On the next play, Brees hit Bush on a shovel pass that was turned into a 38-yard romp down the sidelines.  That play was very reminiscent of Bush's rookie season, full of short passes turned into long gains.  A false start and a screen pass to Bush lost yardage, but then the Saints moved into field goal range on receptions of six and 13 yards.  Hartley ended first half scoring with a booming 40-yard field goal.

Colston was emotionally charged most of the night, and burned the Chargers a couple of times.  In the second half, Colston was the target of four passes at the start of the second half, only came up with one of them.  He and many starters left the game with the third possession of the second half, when Patrick Ramsey entered the game.

In the second half, Ramsey was aided by some good performances by backup players.  Rookie WR Montez Billings made an amazing one-handed snare of a Ramsey bullet over the middle to convert a third and four.  Then TE Tory Humphrey made a nifty move after the catch for an 11-yard gain.  Humphrey could force the Saints to make a hard decision with third-round pick TE Jimmy Graham unable to stay healthy.  WR Courtney Roby made a fantastic catch down the left sideline on a deep ball from Ramsey, a 33-yard catch over accomplished CB Nathan Vasher.  The ball was a little underthrown for Roby, who showed off his speed to get past Vasher. 

But Ramsey benefited from no one more than RB Chris Ivory, who ran hard and showed some good moves.  No play was more impressive of his 11 carries than his one reception, a rumbling, bruising 76-yard catch and run touchdown that was one of the best plays of the NFL preseason so far.  Ivory broke away from six tacklers as he took a simple checkdown pass across the field to drag a seventh tackler into the end zone.  Ivory has without doubt locked down the third runningback job.

Ramsey would get picked off by Vasher late in the fourth on a pass that floated on him as he was hit.  Volek turned that excellent field position into a one-yard touchdown dive and the final Chargers points.

On defense in the second half, DE Jeff Charles looked good with a batted arm and a sack on Billy Volek.  S Usama Young collected an interception off of Volek, as did CB Leigh Torrence, who returned the pick for an 87-yard touchdown at the end of the game.  Torrence has played well in preseason and looks to have won a job as the fourth or fifth cornerback, especially with Robinson's struggles.

Also good to see tonight was massive improvement in the Saints' kick coverage teams.  The Saints stuck Darren Sproles hard on his return attempts, including a momentum-changing body blow by LS Jason Kyle.  They allowed a late 47-yard return to Shawnbrey McNeal but shut down Sproles. 

On their side, the Saints experimented at kickoff returner.

Rookie first round pick Patrick Robinson was given a chance on two returns, the first was a disastrous, ground-giving, field-crossing return to his own 10 yard line, a seven yard kickoff return.  His next return was better, up to the Saint 36, but called back for holding.  Robinson has struggled mightily in coverage and was giving Friday night an opportunity to prove himself in other duties. 

New injuries picked up during the game were the biggest downside of the night.  Pierson Prioleau (knee), Jonathan Vilma (groin), Jeremy Shockey (possible concussion), Zach Strief (knee), Courtney Roby, and Reggie Jones (hamstring) all picked up injuries of unknown severity.

Vilma's injury is most concerning.  He was able to walk off the field on his own but given the Saints' awfully bad luck with sports hernia injuries, it is concerning.  His backup Marvin Mitchell is unproven and mostly a special teamer.

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