Following a two-hour practice outdoors today, Saints head coach Sean Payton adressed the media at Saints headquarters. The head coach gave an injury update, disclosing that Pierre Thomas will be a gametime decision with his ankle injury, discussed the challenge the Carolina Panthers posed as well as discussing the club's run defense:
"Today's injury report: Usama Young with his quad was limited; Anthony Waters (hamstring) did not participate; Reggie Bush (fibula) did not participate; Roman Harper (hamstring) did not practice and Pierre Thomas (ankle) did not practice. Most of this afternoon was the nickel."
From a defensive perspective, is a 19-play touchdown drive a positive or a negative? Does making a team work that hard for a score provide anything?
"Generally if an offense has the ball for 19 plays, they've converted third downs, and although it has taken time, the objective is to not let an offense score. We look at is as a team that if we go 19 plays and score, we would feel pretty good and that we had accomplished a lot of what we were trying to do; number one scoring a touchdown. Now if you're up 21 points in the fourth quarter and you're trying to hurry the game up, then you could look at it that way, but other than that I don't think it's looked at as a good thing because the other team scored."
How did the defense play against the run? You didn't give up any long runs but was it a matter of getting worn down?
"One of the things we just talked about was third down. The key importance of this down – which was today's emphasis – is that it can really cure a lot of your other issues. If you're converting offensively at a good percentage, you're on the field longer, your rushing numbers and your snaps can increase. Defensively, if you're getting off the field on third down your snap totals decrease and your efficiency increases. I think third down is a pivotal down because when you're staying on the field, you have what you just talked about in a long drive; you begin to wear a defense down with a series of 19 plays or 16 plays or 12 plays. The emphasis for us and one of the things that we literally just finished talking about was the importance of us winning third down on both sides of the ball and how much that can affect some of the other areas of the game if you're able to do that. It's a chance to really give the ball back to your offense or a chance to stay on the field offensively, so that number is going to be important."
On third down, is it over-eagerness on the part of your defense to get off the field that has been the issue?
"I wouldn't say that. If you're talking specifically defensively, you're looking at coverage, pass rush, all of those things, and it's a statistic that we have been pretty good at – but not as good these first three game, nor have we been as good offensively. Those numbers are important numbers to all of these other things that can become a cumulative effect. If a quarterback throws a deep interception on 3rd-and-10, it's a turnover. If on 3rd-and-10 he throws an incompletion and then we in turn punt, essential there's a similar result. We didn't turn the ball over but we turned it over on downs. So I think that down is critical for not just our team, but for team success in our league, and it's a down that we handled very well a year ago and I think we can handle better this year."
Last year you had success against some rookie quarterbacks. How do you guard against overconfidence seeing that Jimmy Clausen will be making just his second start this week?
"You have to pay close attention to the weapons. You have to look closely at the two halfbacks, to the experienced offensive line, Steve Smith. I think from a defensive perspective you study closely the scheme and what they do. It varies with who's behind center but I think most importantly is identifying where the threats are and making sure that you know where those guys are on every play. If Clausen is able to turn and hand the ball off with success, that certainly changes his job description for the game. That's no different for Drew (Brees). If we're able to run the ball with some success, then the workload on that quarterback changes. The two greatest allies for a quarterback – any quarterback – would be a good running game and a good defense. So you look closely at the scheme and understand that the person behind center is different and try to pay attention to the things that he's doing well and what he isn't doing so well and capitalize on those."
Is it easy to say that Steve Smith has beaten us and use that to motivate your team?
"There clearly is respect in our locker room for the player. When you're in the division and you see a guy like him – no different than Roddy White a week ago – you begin to understand how dynamic those guys are. They can turn games around. There is certainly that respect level."
Is there any reason behind all the injuries we're seeing to running backs? It seems like there aren't any Jim Brown type of running backs anymore.
"What we are seeing around the league though is teams carrying a number of backs knowing that the toll on those players oftentimes is tough. You really can't have enough coming into the year and we've had an unusual amount of injuries at that position for us. The quicker we can get healthier there, the better certainly.
I don't know that there is one specific reason though. It may be that it's the type of running back that's playing, compared to a guy like Ottis Anderson or Jim Brown. Some of those bigger backs are able to handle that workload a little bit more. I would imagine that would still be the case with teams that are carrying a bigger back. But I think that it is a position that gets stressed during the course of a game and you see so many teams carrying at least three that they feel like can play."
Has that philosophy changed since you got into the league?
"Probably prior to me getting into the league, but I think that there certainly is more of an emphasis on the passing game, so you look at what that player gives you in the passing game in regards to protection and route-running. I don't know of anyone that would turn down or not be interested in a guy that could carry the load and have durability. You're still going to have your nickel backs and backs that play in your sub protections and are a little bit more specialized, but there has been a little bit of a trend toward the spread offenses than the traditional two-back sets."
The way you use some backs – like Chris Ivory last week – is he getting a handful of snaps because of the physical load that your backs are taking?
"When you go into a game, for instance last week minus Reggie (Bush) where you have Pierre (Thomas), you have Chris and you have Ladell (Betts) and you want to be able to help take some of the workload off of Pierre Thomas. We didn't have as many snaps last week but I think that's a cause of concern this week, making sure that we have enough healthy bodies that in the event of an injury or if someone is wearing down that someone else can carry the ball. Chris would be a guy that I think has good durability or appears to have good durability and is built well. He'll get a chance this week."
Will the decision on which kicker to use be a game-time decision?
"Probably. Towards the weekend we'll know. That probably will be the case each week, as it was last year. We'll see how they work, see how they're doing and then go from there."
How are the two guys that are on PUP – Clint Ingram and Darren Sharper – doing?
"They're doing well. Certainly they have different injuries but they're currently on schedule. With Darren, he's keeping his weight down and going through the rehab process well. With Clint, he's going through it just as thorough as we would expect. We're optimistic, we're hopeful, and yet there are no guarantees. Looking back, clearly we made the right decision. I'm not sitting here right now with Darren ready to play but he has to wait two and a half or three more weeks; that's not the case. Hopefully we can have them back in that six-week timeframe."
When kicking a field goal on first down, if it gets blocked on your side of the line and you recover it, can you kick again?
"I don't think that's the case. I think once you kick it, that's it. I've been places where the school of thought was to kick a field goal on third down in the event of bad snap where we could live with that and kick it again. I've always believed, and I still do, that when we choose to kick I don't want to even plant that seed. Four years ago we played Philadelphia and had a long drive late in the game and got down in there tight and took a knee three times and kicked the game-winner with no time left on the clock. We didn't leave eight seconds in the event that there was an errant snap. The message was that we were going to kick it right here to win it and that was mainly to keep Philly's offense from getting back on the field. That same scenario kind of came up this weekend with Chicago and Green Bay. There has been a lot of talk of if Green Bay should have let Chicago score. If Philly had let us score, I didn't want that to happen because that would have meant that they had a chance then to tie the game so we just took a knee. We were at the 10 or 11-yard line and we felt real comfortable with that down and distance and location on the field, so we just bled the clock and ended up kicking it with no time left. That's the approach that I would always take.
"When you look at our game a week ago, once we got to that spot where we felt like the percentages were in our favor, that was something that was an easy decision. That wasn't a difficult decision. There are other parts of the game that were more challenging but that was an easy decision."
Are you coaching there with percentages in mind?
"The screen to Devery (Henderson) was key. It as 3rd-and-9 and obviously if we don't convert, we're kicking – it's fourth down. The yardage he gained on it brought us to the 11 and at that point the risk-reward – whether it's sack-fumble, tipped ball, fumble – any of those things – you throw out the window and you say this is where we have to be. I know the numbers are above 90% - in fact closer to 95% - of a kick at that location. So field location does matter. If you're 1st-and-10 at the 21-yard line, you're still probably looking for a little bit better position to increase the percentages of the kick.
"I said before in overtime in the postseason that it's different. If that's your first drive, you're thinking touchdown to avoid the follow-up touchdown with the rule change. But that was the second possession of overtime, so it didn't matter if that would have been in postseason or not, a field goal wins it. That one was a pretty easy decision."
Does watching the Green Bay-Chicago game plant a seed in your defensive thought process of allowing a team to score?
"In that position, I think you discuss and certainly consider it. Back to the percentages, inside the 10, it's a 90% winner, so how do you feel about your offense? If you're having trouble offensively, then maybe you don't, but if you feel pretty good about your two-minute offense and you have enough time to operate, then I think you can consider it. Flip it around though, and you strongly consider taking a knee so you're not in that position. You're at the 90-some percentile already and that's something that happened to us. That happened in our first Philly game in '06. That was in regulation, but nonetheless, it was to keep their offense off the field."
Is there a chance that Pierre Thomas could be a game-time decision?
"He will be."
How comfortable would you be playing someone who hasn't practiced all week?
"He's smart enough. If you asked me what some of his strengths are, he's extremely intelligent with what we're doing. Pierre is the type of player that could not practice during the week and play well on game day. I don't know that that's always the case. Certainly you'd like to see him get work and we're hopeful that he'll get work tomorrow. The swelling is going down and he's feeling better but you just have to give it time and not hurry it. We'll look closely at it. Fortunately it wasn't a severe sprain, but at his position that's important."
You said that Ivory looks like he's durable. What do you look for to make that determination, especially now when it seems like the shelf life for running backs is dwindling?
"He's put together pretty well. He's strong. When you look at his weight, he's above 220. He's built differently than some of the other running backs that we have. So a lot of it would be size. There are still a lot of unknowns with Chris so it might be a little bit premature, but based on watching him he seems to have durability and he possesses speed and he runs with power. But I think the size of the back can matter."
If Pierre Thomas can't go, do you feel more comfortable having a third running back active? Would you bring DeShawn Wynn up from the practice squad?
"Obviously if he can't go, we would have to look closely at that. The other option is just two backs."
Would you feel uncomfortable with just two?
"Probably more uncomfortable than comfortable. Heath (Evans) gives flexibility to some degree but we'll have to see."