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saint5221 10-31-2003 10:20 AM

Don't be scared by Saints grade

Sheldon Mickles: Don't be scared by Saints grade
Advocate sportswriter

How appropriate is it to hand out midseason grades to the New Orleans Saints on Halloween?

As you might expect from a team that got off to a miserable 1-4 start and is 3-5 going into the second half of the season, which begins on Sunday against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it could be a little scary.

Then again, it could be a lot scarier.

Coming off back-to-back losses to the Tennessee Titans (27-12) and Indianapolis Colts (55-21) to close out September, nightmarish outings in which the Saints were anything but competitive, they rebounded a little with two wins in their four October games. Both of those setbacks came by a total of nine points to the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers, which gives the Saints some hope that they can turn things around and feel a lot better about themselves by the time the second half ends on Dec. 28. But before they move on, here is what the report card looks like.

· Quarterback: Coming off shoulder surgery, Aaron Brooks has played well for the most part. He's hit on 60.9 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions even though his receivers have dropped a number of catchable balls. Brooks ranks ninth in the NFL with a passer rating of 89.0, which is nearly 10 points higher than his career rating of 79.4 coming into the season, but still looks indecisive at times. GRADE: B-MINUS.

· Running back: Barring an injury, Deuce McAllister is headed to his second straight Pro Bowl. McAllister, who continues to impress with speed and power, has rushed for 761 yards and 4.5 yards per carry and is the second-leading receiver on the team with 29 catches for 204 yards. Ki-Jana Carter has only 65 yards, but has proven to be a valuable backup for McAllister. Fullback Terrelle Smith continues to be a solid blocker. GRADE: B.

· Wide receiver: Three-time Pro Bowl pick Joe Horn is well on his way to a fourth straight 80-catch season with 45 receptions for 537 yards and six TDs at this point. He continues to be the go-to receiver in almost any situation and leads the NFL in third-down receptions with 19 catches for 285 yards and three scores. Jerome Pathon has been the most consistent wideout with 21 receptions for 322 yards, but second-year pro Donté Stallworth has been terribly inconsistent with several dropped passes. GRADE: C.

· Tight end: In just half a season, Ernie Conwell, Boo Williams and Walter Rasby have combined for 34 catches, 377 yards and three TDs. In 16 games last season, Saints' tight ends had only 27 receptions for 276 yards and two scores. While that kind of production is huge, they've also done a good job in their run blocking, but the grade is hurt by dropped passes. GRADE: C.

· Offensive line: The starters of center Jerry Fontenot, guards Kendyl Jacox and LeCharles Bentley, and tackles Wayne Gandy and Victor Riley have been steady if not spectacular. They've allowed 15 sacks and the Saints had back-to-back games with no sacks for the first time since 1995. McAllister has five straight 100-yard rushing games. GRADE: B-MINUS.

· Defensive line: The loss of right end Darren Howard to a dislocated right wrist and injuries to tackle Johnathan Sullivan and Kenny Smith have hurt this group, but they're hanging in there. Left end Charles Grant has had to move all around to avoid being double-teamed in the absence of Howard, but still has six sacks. Tackle Grady Jackson has 31/2 sacks, but his weight continues to be a concern. The Saints have been gashed by the run, however, and rank 28th in allowing 138.6 yards per game. GRADE: D.

· Linebacker: The Saints lost strongside linebacker Sedrick Hodge to a fractured lower right leg in the second game and have been scrambling to help the defensive line stop the run. Middle linebacker Darrin Smith had to replace Hodge and Orlando Ruff was moved into the middle of the defense. Smith and weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers have played well and rank second and fourth, respectively, in tackles. GRADE: C-MINUS.

· Defensive back: Injuries are a major factor here as well. Strong safety Mel Mitchell blew out a knee in the exhibition finale and free safety Tebucky Jones hasn't played up to the rich contract he received. But Jay Bellamy is the leading tackler in replacing Mitchell. The safeties and cornerbacks Dale Carter, Fred Thomas and Ashley Ambrose have done a much better job this season of limiting the big plays. GRADE: C-MINUS.

· Special teams: Michael Lewis has been slowed by a groin injury, which has limited his effectiveness as a returner and top cover man. As a result, the Saints have given up kickoff returns of 70 and 100 yards and a punt for 46 yards. John Carney continues to be money in the bank with only two misses on field goals and one of them was a 57-yarder. Punter Mitch Berger leads the NFC in net average at 38.9 yards per kick. GRADE: C.

· Coaching: Considering a tough schedule and injuries, the Saints could be a lot worse off. But the coaches have held things together for the most part and continue to get the players they have to work with ready. GRADE: B-MINUS.

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