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John DeShazier: Sean Payton looks for special teams improvement down the stretch

Big returns, injuries have hurt overall average for Saints special teams

Twice this season, the Saints have had noticeable lapses in terms of punt and kick coverage.

Against Detroit, Jamal Agnew had four punt returns for 106 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown. And against the Los Angeles Rams, Pharoh Cooper averaged 27 yards on four kickoff returns and 19 yards on three punt returns, with a long return of 40 yards on each.

Those are significant contributing factors to opponents averaging 26.2 yards per kickoff return and 13.1 yards per punt return. Also, a contributor is that the Saints have lost a couple of core special teamers this season due to injury. Craig Robertsonis playing significant defensive snaps after the injury to linebacker Alex Anzalone, and linebacker Nate Stuparalso was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. Both Robertson, Stupar and running back Daniel Lasco (bulging disc) were expected to be big contributors on special teams.

Special team coordinator Mike Westhoffwill oversee the attempts to improve in those areas. Sunday's game against Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be the third with the Saints for Westhoff, who was lured out of retirement.

"Any time you have attrition, to where some of your core players get elevated, you have to find guys to fill in in that role," Coach Sean Paytonsaid Wednesday morning in a teleconference with local media. "I think one of problems is when you have a decent return or a big return – you go back to the Detroit game where we give up a long return; now, there's two blocks in the back or holding on that play, but, it's one of those that takes you a while to overcome it in your average. Down the stretch here, I'm excited to see what we can do in these five games at the end of this season."

FLEENER ON THE MEND:Tight end Coby Fleenertook a vicious helmet-to-helmet blow on Sunday against the Rams (it drew a personal foul penalty). After a brief return to action, he was led off the field and placed in the concussion protocol. Payton said that initially, Fleener exhibited no signs of head trauma.

"I don't think, No. 1, there were any signs or indications from our medical crew or anyone," he said. "And it wasn't until a play or two later – I want to say, early the next series – where he was having more of a vision issue and as soon as Dan (Campbell), his position coach, realized it, we held him back. And then went ahead and had testing. He's doing good, we'll see where he's at this week. But there were no signs or symptoms immediately following the hit. Now why the spot checker upstairs (didn't call attention to a potential problem)…but our people, we're pretty on top of that and pretty aggressive.

"We have a complete protocol. The Saints have one that I would say is real strict. We've had playoff games where if it's even close, we wouldn't put a player back in. We never will. As soon as there was any sign. But initially there were none, even when he was looked at. The process took place in a good way."

A DIFFERENT TEAM:The Saints' eight-game winning streak began with a victory over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 24. Now, the Panthers (8-3) are on a four-game winning streak and have an identical record as New Orleans, though the Saints currently own the tiebreak by virtue of their earlier win.

Payton assessed the Panthers of late.

"The last four weeks (for Carolina), they're running the ball extremely well," he said. "Their plus-minus in the turnover ratio has flopped entirely – it doesn't reflect in the total on the year, but in these last four weeks, it has tilted in their favor. Defensively, you're seeing one of the better defenses in the league right now when you look at total yards, scoring – pick a number. They're healthy and I think playing with a lot of confidence. The time of possession has been significantly in their favor as well. They're first in the league, certainly in this winning stretch they're first in the league."

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