New Orleans Saints vs. Tennessee Titans: Report Card Grades for Each Saints Unit
For the Saints, who bested the St. Louis Rams in their preseason debut a week ago, the victory was polluted with a barrage of penalties. New Orleans was flagged 22 times on the night, including 14 penalties for 118 yards in the first half.
Despite the surplus of errors, the Saints played with high intensity and effort, particularly on defense, as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit accounted for five takeaways.
The New Orleans defense was led in the first half by starting safety Kenny Vaccaro, who forced two fumbles and was seemingly always around the ball. In the second half, rookie safety Vinnie Sunseri stepped up in a big way in just his second NFL game action and snagged an interception while making his presence felt all over the field.
Playing without quarterback Drew Brees for the second consecutive week, the New Orleans offense was spearheaded by quarterback Luke McCown. The 11-year veteran completed 12 of 20 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns, both of which went to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
McCown was relieved late in the second quarter by Ryan Griffin, who tossed for 179 yards and two touchdown passes of his own.
Following is the first 2014 edition of postgame report card grades, with each position unit for the Saints receiving a letter grade.
With Brees being held out of action for the second game in a row, Luke McCown is becoming quite the familiar face for the Saints under center. His play was less than stellar Friday night, but it was serviceable.
On the Saints' first offensive possession, McCown led them on an 80-yard march that culminated with a six-yard scoring strike to Graham. The 33-year-old quarterback moved outside the pocket early and often in the contest and was largely effective when throwing off bootlegs and improvised scrambles.
His final pass of the night was perhaps his best in two years as a Saint, as he found Graham in the back of the end zone for a crowd-pleasing 19-yard touchdown strike.
While McCown did most of his damage when moving outside the tackles, reserve quarterback Ryan Griffin was equally effective from the pocket. The second-year Tulane product made repeated efforts to step up and advance the ball downfield vertically.
He connected on two deep balls to Joseph Morgan, and despite the solid effort from McCown, Griffin didn't do anything to hurt himself in the race for the backup quarterback spot.
Undrafted quarterback Logan Kilgore came on late in the game and completed two of three passes for 28 yards against Titans reserves, but he's very likely the odd man out for a roster spot.
With four touchdown tosses and no interceptions, it's hard to argue against this group receiving a solid report.
After averaging 5.1 yards per carry against the Rams last week, the Saints ball-carriers took a step back this week. The unit averaged only 2.9 yards per carry, and while part of the blame for the poor numbers can be attributed to offensive line play, the New Orleans backs didn't exactly play to their potential.
The play of starting running back Mark Ingram was a bright spot, as the former first-round pick once again ran the football with great effort.
Second-year man Khiry Robinson's performance was far from noteworthy, as he was only able to churn out 11 yards on four carries.
Pierre Thomas didn't log any carries, but he stayed true to his old form as a receiver out of the backfield, totaling 27 yards and executing the screen pass to perfection on one occasion.
Travaris Cadet saw plenty of relief action late in the contest and turned in a respectable performance, although it wasn't enough to gain any depth-chart ground on the trio of Ingram, Robinson and Thomas.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
After rookie Brandin Cooks exploded out of the gates in his debut last week, the Saints quarterbacks turned to other weapons in this one.
Jimmy Graham, as usual, proved extremely tough to deal with in the passing game, as he reached paydirt twice in the first half on passes from McCown.
Joseph Morgan enjoyed an exceptional outing, as he hauled in two deep balls from Ryan Griffin and broke the 100-yard receiving mark. Both catches required adjustments from Morgan, and such plays are hard to discount when roster spots are at stake. Morgan may have secured his place on the 53-man roster with his performance on Friday, barring some unforeseen collapse in the final two preseason games.
Undrafted rookie Seantavius Jones made his presence felt with a late-game touchdown catch from Griffin, which should make things interesting regarding the final few wide receiver roster spots. Also in that discussion will be fellow rookie Brandon Coleman, who caught two balls for 28 yards on the night.
Wide receiver Nick Toon and tight end Josh Hill also made their marks on the game with a few catches, and both should continue to improve going forward.
The Saints offensive line pounded the Rams for most of the game last Friday, but after bringing the same intensity for the first drive against Tennessee, the group appeared to let its foot off the gas a little.
New Orleans totaled just 78 yards on the ground, a statistic which won't prove to be very beneficial when it comes to winning games this fall.
The group only yielded one sack, but the Titans managed to rack up six tackles for losses on the night.
Granted, the Saints were without starting guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, but the two 2013 Pro Bowlers were absent last week as well when this group turned in a much stronger performance.
The front line is widely regarded as a strength of the Saints defense in 2014, but the group had somewhat of an up-and-down night on Friday.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan started off rather slowly but warmed up enough to earn a sack in the second quarter. Fellow end Akiem Hicks had a quiet game, but the man in the middle, nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, enjoyed a fine outing. Bunkley clogged Tennessee running lanes and bulled his way into the Titans backfield on several occasions.
Reserve defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick also had an active game, as did Tyrunn Walker. Neither player stood out on the stat sheet, but both players were disruptive along the line of scrimmage.
Like Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette got off to a slow start, but he redeemed himself in the second quarter and delivered a timely sack.
Inside 'backers Curtis Lofton and Ramon Humber were solid against the run, as was backup Kevin Reddick. The standout of the group, however, was newcomer Kyle Knox, who registered six solo tackles and was around the football at seemingly every turn.
The biggest black eye on the Saints linebackers was their play in pass coverage, as Tennessee quarterbacks Jack Locker and Zach Mettenberger often had their way in the short-passing game.
The most inspiring performances of the contest came from the Saints secondary. Kenny Vaccaro was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half, as the second-year safety forced two fumbles, recorded four solo tackles and came up with a big sack.
When the majority of the Saints defensive starters were pulled at the start of the third quarter, rookie safety Vinnie Sunseri picked up right where Vaccaro left off. The fifth-round pick out of Alabama had an interception and two passes defended, and he ignited the crowd with a series of bone-jarring hits.
Second-round draft choice Stanley Jean-Baptiste enjoyed his best day as a Saint, picking off one pass and nearly another, while safeties Pierre Warren and Marcus Ball were also highly active.
Despite injuries to safety Jairus Byrd and cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Patrick Robinson, the New Orleans secondary was the bright spot of the team's play on Friday night, and accordingly, the unit will receive the highest grade.
Special teams play was a bit on the sloppy side Friday night, as the Saints coverage units appeared to be in need of some work before the regular season rolls around.
New Orleans' kick-coverage special teamers failed to stay in their lanes on several occasions, and the return units weren't much better. The Saints have been unable to find any life in their punt return game through two preseason contests now, as both Cooks and Travaris Cadet have tried to earn the job.
On the bright side, Thomas Morstead continues to establish himself as one of the game's best punters. The 6'4," 235-pounder boomed a 52-yard punt, while maintaining a 40.8-yard average on the night.
When an NFL team racks up 14 penalties in a game, the natural response is to look at coaching. After all, mental blunders on a football field are often signs of lack of focus, lack of discipline or both.
The Saints were certainly an error-plagued squad on Friday night, and part of the blame for that should lay at Sean Payton's feet.
The New Orleans headman did oversee a couple nice calls on offense, however, and a good coach like Payton will always find ways to turn sloppy performances into teaching tools.
The chances of a Payton-coached squad struggling with penalties for two straight weeks are slim, and the Saints aren't likely to come out nearly as sloppy next weekend at Indianapolis.
The Saints finished Friday night's contest with a turnover margin of plus-five but only managed to fend off the visiting Titans by just seven points.
The mountain of penalties piled up by New Orleans didn't help, and yet the Saints still managed to put 31 points on the board.
These Saints are undeniably a talented squad, and they're capable of better play on both sides of the ball. Their mistake-riddled showing against Tennessee was average, and it deserves, quite simply, an average grade.
Final Grade: C+