Sunday Evening Quarterback: Saints rested, ready for second half of season
NEW ORLEANS -- I caught up with veteran free safety Darren Sharper on the 10th Sunday of the NFL season, the last official day of R&R for the New Orleans Saints before they say bye to their bye and reconvene for business Monday.
A year ago at this juncture, the amazing Saints were 9-0, battling the Minnesota Vikings for NFC supremacy and holding a commanding four-game lead on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South.
Today, the NFC South sports a different look, with the Falcons (7-2) on top by a game and also owning trump cards on the Black and Gold (6-3) and Tampa Bay (6-3) by virtue of victories over both divisional foes earlier this season.
Unquestionably, the NFC South is the Falcons’ to lose with seven games remaining in the regular season.
I asked Sharper to put the Saints’ season in perspective -- the past, the present and the all-important future.
“Before the bye, it was a question if we could put two games back-to-back with consistent, complete performances in all phases,’’ he said, alluding to wins against Tampa Bay (31-6) and Pittsburgh (20-10) in Weeks 8 and 9. “Having seen that we can do that should be a good building block for us as we get some of our horses back for the backstretch run of our season.
“We got to make sure we keep step for step with Atlanta in order to win our division. That’s our first goal.’’
All indications suggest the NFC South - and perhaps a first-round bye in the playoffs – will come down to the rematch between the Saints and Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Monday Night Football two days after Christmas.
Their upcoming schedules are comparable in terms of difficulty, with one slight difference. The Falcons play four of their next five games on the road; the Saints three of five.
-- Atlanta: at St. Louis, Green Bay, at Tampa Bay, at Carolina, at Seattle. The Falcons are 5-0 at home this season, 18-1 with quarterback Matt Ryan as the starter. His only loss at home came against the Saints in Week 8 last season, 35-27 on Monday Night Football.
-- New Orleans: Seattle (Nov. 21), at Dallas (Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25), at Cincinnati (Dec. 5), St. Louis (Dec. 12), at Baltimore (Dec. 19). Beginning with the Seahawks, the Saints will face a critical stretch with three games in 15 days
With each passing week, Garrett Hartley’s errant chip-shot field goal attempt in the Saints’ 27-24 loss in OT to the Falcons in Week 3 looms larger and larger.
Unlike last season when the Saints kept distancing themselves from the pack in the NFC South on a weekly basis, they now are in full chase mode.
“When you get to 9-0, you’re thinking about being undefeated for the season and we don’t have those thoughts now,’’ said Sharper, who spent much of the bye week rehabbing a tweaked left hamstring. “Now we’re behind by a game, so we don’t really have any margin for error. Now our focus is to try and win our division.
“But as far as our mentality, it’s the same as it was a year ago. We want o go out and play well each and every week. We know we have a team that can do it, and we know we’re good enough to do it, so the mentality is the same but the margin for error is different.’’
-- Offense: WR Marques Colston (54 catches, 592 yards, 2 touchdowns). Attaboys: QB Drew Brees, WR Lance Moore, TE Jeremy Shockey, TE David Thomas, RB Chris Ivory.
-- Defense: MLB Jonathan Vilma (58 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF). Attaboys: DT Sedrick Ellis, DT Remi Ayodele, SS Roman Harper, FS/CB Malcolm Jenkins.
-- Special Teams: (tie) KR Courtney Roby (24.5-yard average, 10 tackles, 2 FR) and P Thomas Morstead (46.9-yard average).
OPERATION 'HEAD' START
Best wishes for a speedy recovery to Al Nastasi Jr., the 68-year-old original member of the Saints game-day “chain gang’’ who has returned home after being injured on the sideline three weeks ago during the Cleveland Browns game.
I appeal to Saints and NFL officials to keep the safety of game-day officials and employees like Nastasi in mind as they address the concerns of player safety in the coming weeks and months.
Actually, there is no reason why Saints officials can’t take the lead on protecting their “chain gang’’ crew. I will personally donate the first $100 to the purchase of protective helmets for their’ “chain gang’’ crew. Let's call it "Operation Head Start!'' Why wait till another volunteer gets hurt?
My biggest concerns heading into the backstretch of the season come on offense. After nine weeks, the Saints rank 24th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 93.7 yards per game. They also rank 24th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns at a 43.7 percent clip inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Both aspects of the offense need to improve. … The Saints will go through a normal routine Monday, holding meetings, running, lifting weights, etc. They will be off Tuesday. Our next access as a media corps will be Wednesday. … NFL.com is the place to cast your 2011 Pro Bowl votes. You can also vote on your mobile phone at nfl.com/probowl/ballot or by texting PRO BOWL to MYNFL (69635).
BY THE NUMBERS
43 – Days until the Saints-Falcons nationally-televised rematch at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 27th.
“We exchanged text messages a couple of times. He said he’s doing fine. He knew it was part of the game. I told him to heal up and keep fighting. He’s a good player. He’s having a heck of a career. I’m glad he’s doing all right now.’’ – Saints FS Darren Sharper whose clean hit on Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart during their game Nov. 7 resulted in Stewart suffering a concussion.
Saints beat writer Brian Allee-Walsh can be reached at email@example.com
BRING ON THE SEAHAWKS PLEASE
I hope it's a great blow out win for the SAINTS !!!!
The Seattle Seahawks......now that's a scary bird!lol Load up the buck shot......let's go hunting.
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