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NEW ORLEANS — It wasn’t supposed to look like this. Not again. Not with a young defense that had finally turned things around so impressively last season.

But somehow the New Orleans Saints kicked off the 2018 season with a defensive flop as dreadful as anything they posted in some of those historically bad seasons between 2012 and 2016.

They allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 417 yards and four touchdowns and run for a fifth Sunday in a 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs had more TD passes of 50-plus yards (two) than punts (one).

It was one of the biggest Week 1 surprises in the NFL — a stunning performance from a team that was anointed as one of this season’s popular Super Bowl picks.

And it’s yet another slow start for the Saints, who haven’t won a season opener since 2013.

“We needed this, we needed to get slapped in our face one good time to see that we’re not on the level we think we’re on. But we’re gonna get better,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore insisted.

The second-year cornerback — the NFL’s 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year — allowed Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans to have a big day (seven catches for 147 yards and a 50-yard TD) after Lattimore had stifled Evans in both meetings last season.

It was that kind of day for the Saints’ defense.
Cornerback Ken Crawley and the the rest of the Saints’ defense spent a frustrating day chasing DeSean Jackson and the surprising Buccaneers in Week 1. Derick E. Hingle/USA Today Sports
The unit also had a breakdown in zone coverage on Tampa’s fourth play of the game that allowed DeSean Jackson to spring wide open for a 58-yard touchdown catch. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s now two 50-yard plays against a Saints defense that gave up only one play of 50-plus all season in 2017.

Fellow defensive backs such as Ken Crawley, Marcus Williams, Patrick Robinson and Vonn Bell were also victimized in what is expected to be the most talented unit on New Orleans’ defense.

But it wasn’t just the back end that failed to do its job. Coach Sean Payton lamented that Fitzpatrick was “pressure-free” for the most part Sunday.

“Take your pick,” Payton said when he was asked what didn’t work on defense. “We didn’t hurry the passer. Guys were open. Third downs were awful. They had [529] yards. We didn’t disrupt the timing of any element of the passing game. And too many penalties.

“I can’t think of any positives.”

When a reporter started asking Payton a question by saying, “Obviously anything can happen in this league at any time …” Payton cut him off.

“That’s true. And you just saw it happen. So there’s no ‘buts’ after it. You have to come ready to play in this league, period,” Payton said — though he repeatedly credited Tampa Bay and Fitzpatrick, in particular, for doing just that Sunday.

The defensive struggles wasted a dynamic performance by the offense — Drew Brees threw for 439 yards and three TDs, Alvin Kamara scored three times and Michael Thomas caught a franchise-record 16 passes for 180 yards and a TD. The offense also made two costly errors, though, with lost fumbles by Thomas and Mike Gillislee.

No one specifically suggested the Saints came out flat or lackadaisical or overconfident for their season opener: “I don’t think anybody went out there with the mindset that [the Buccaneers] were just gonna roll over because we won the division last year,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “They beat us at the end of the year last year, so I’m sure they had all the confidence in the world they could beat us. And they did.”

But the result was exactly the type of “hangover” performance the Saints tried to guard against all summer.

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Payton tackled those Super Bowl expectations head-on in the first team meeting of training camp, using the message “Prove Them Right” as a way to capture the same mentality of teams who are determined to prove critics wrong. The Saints had a poster with that message hanging outside their team facility throughout training camp.

And they talked all week about avoiding the slow starts that led them to records of 0-2, 0-3, 0-3 and 0-2 over the past four seasons.

But as Lattimore acknowledged, no amount of talk can do the job that they needed to actually do on the field Sunday.

“I mean, we like to do what we say, of course. But it’s not always gonna end up like that. It takes time to be a great team,” he said. “You know, there’s a lot of new guys on the team, and we’re still trying to jell together and get right.

“It’s the first game. Don’t panic. We went 0-2 last year and went on an eight-game winning streak. … We’re still together. We’re gonna get it right.”
The good news about that trend of slow starts is that the Saints have been here before. All too many times. Last season, their defense got torched for a total of 1,025 yards in the first two games of the season against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, respectively, before that epic turnaround that led to an 11-5 season and the NFC South title.

“It’s not a death sentence,” Rankins said. “You take it on the chin, you learn from it and you play better next week.”

“Hopefully the Super Bowl isn’t won Week 1,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We’ve got a lot of things we have to address, and I’m my toughest critic. And I guess my dad would be my second-toughest critic — so I’m looking forward to that phone call.

“[But] we have a 24-hour rule. We have to wipe our mind clean of this catastrophe that just happened. You can’t be proud of 41 points on the board (by the Bucs offense). But we have to push forward.”

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METAIRIE, La. — New Orleans Saints fans — and Michael Thomas’ fantasy owners — can relax. The standout receiver was back on the practice field for the portion open to the media Thursday after being held out of drills Wednesday with a knee injury.

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead (shoulder) also participated Thursday after being held out Wednesday.

(UPDATE: Both Thomas and Armstead were listed as limited in full-team drills on the Saints’ official injury report Thursday evening.)

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Obviously, both are huge factors for the Saints. Thomas has become as much of a true No. 1 receiver as the Saints have ever had in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era (and draws that type of No. 1 attention from opposing defenses). And Armstead has played at a Pro Bowl level when healthy in his career, though he has been plagued by injuries over the past three seasons.

Thomas remains a must-start player for fantasy leagues, even though Sunday’s opponents, the Chicago Bears, have been playing great defense. Thomas still leads the Saints with 35 catches and 403 receiving yards despite all the attention he has been receiving from defenses — though his total of two touchdowns is surprisingly low for such a dangerous red zone target.

As for the rest of the Saints’ injury report, receiver Willie Snead (hamstring) practiced fully for the second straight day, but guard Larry Warford (abdomen) remained out and is not expected to play Sunday.

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New Orleans Saints veterans report for training camp on Wednesday, and the intense competition for positions will begin Thursday.
This year’s camp offers plenty of intrigue as the Saints have so many spots that should be hotly contested. Between the draft picks and free-agent acquisitions, there are plenty of new faces who will have a chance to earn critical roles quickly.
Some of the battles are easier to predict than others. A group of defensive ends will compete to be in the rotation with Cameron Jordan, but Alex Okafor probably has an advantage over Darryl Tapp, rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad and other contenders.
Filling defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s void is one of the most important things for the Saints to do this season, but Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata have a great leg up on any of the other options.
All competitions are important, of course, because no matter who wins a starting job, the team must pay attention to building depth around the roster.
Here’s a look at the five most important position battles for this year’s camp:
(Photo by David Guralnick, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Ryan Ramczyk , New Orleans Saints OTA May 25, 2017
Left tackle
This is one spot the Saints hoped wouldn’t be up for grabs, but with Terron Armstead (shoulder) out until at least October, the team has to rely on someone else to protect Drew Brees’ blind side.
Rookie Ryan Ramczyk, this year’s 32nd overall pick, seems the most likely candidate to replace Armstead, but don’t be surprised if he starts camp with the second- or third-team offense. Coaches often like to make rookies climb their way up before winning a starting gig.
However, counting on a rookie left tackle in Week 1 is rarely desirable. There are examples of players thriving immediately, like Taylor Decker with the Detroit Lions last year, but it’s certainly a position where experience is preferred.
Khalif Barnes might be the best option among the veterans. He’s 35 years old, but entering his 13th season in the NFL, he should be ready to help if needed, especially now that he’s in much better shape than his brief time with the Saints in 2016.
Bryce Harris, who’s entering his sixth year, is the other veteran option, but he has just four career starts, compared to Barnes’ 117.
The other possibility the Saints could consider is moving Andrus Peat from left guard to left tackle, which they did last year when Armstead dealt with his injuries, and have Senio Kelemete play left guard. The problem with that idea is that Kelemete will likely spend all of camp playing center because Max Unger won’t be available — he’s targeting Week 1 — so it’d be best for the Saints if Ramczyk, Barnes or Harris can impress at left tackle.
(Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Delvin Breaux, New Orleans Saints host the Detroit Lions 2016
Every cornerback spot
No position on the Saints roster has more unanswered questions than cornerback entering 2017.
Can Delvin Breaux return to his status as a No. 1 cornerback? How good will Marshon Lattimore be? Can Damian Swann stay healthy? Can P.J. Williams stay healthy? Will Sterling Moore be better now that he’s been in the scheme for a year? What kind of improvement will Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris show in Year 2?
All these and more should eventually have answers, but for now, it’s impossible to project which players will be in coverage for the Saints to open the season. The most likely starting group is Breaux and Lattimore on the outside with Moore playing nickel, but there’s going to be a lot of competition across the board.
The Saints hope Lattimore will be able to play right away, but rookie cornerbacks typically face an adjustment process harder than most positions. Williams showed promise last year before a season-ending concussion in Week 2. Crawley was so close to making a lot of plays last year that any improvement could help him earn a role on the outside.
At nickel, Swann has played well, but Moore has a lot more experience. The team also likes undrafted rookie Arthur Maulet a lot as someone who can play inside.
Cornerback play has been one of the Saints’ biggest weaknesses the past few years, so they certainly hope improved competition in camp will lead to better performance.
(Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com |The Times-Picayune)
A.J. Klein, New Orleans Saints mini camp second day 2017
Middle linebacker
This could easily say every linebacker spot, but the competition in the middle is the most important and should be the most hotly contested. At weak side, Dannell Ellerbe is the favorite whenever he’s healthy, and even though there will be a good competition for the strong-side job, that player will play 30 percent of snaps or less.
Meanwhile, the Saints defense still largely runs through the middle linebacker, and finding someone who can make the right calls as well as be a plus player is imperative. In 2015, Stephone Anthony made plenty of plays, but struggled with the other minutiae of the position. Last year, James Laurinaitis earned the job largely because of his football IQ, but couldn’t make enough plays.
For 2017, A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson are the top contenders for the role, but Anthony will have a chance, too.
Klein has the most lucrative contract of the middle linebackers, so the front office obviously expects him to contribute. Te’o’s best film is better than the other options, and he’s moving to a 4-3 system where he should be more comfortable than he was in the Chargers’ 3-4. Robertson’s knowledge of the Saints scheme can’t be overlooked either, and Anthony still has untapped potential.
With Te’o expected to be healthy for camp after being extremely limited this offseason, it shouldn’t take long to have an idea of where this competition stands.
(Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Long snappers: Saints OTAs 6/1/17
Long snapper
After moving on from Justin Drescher, the Saints are hoping an upgrade at long snapper can improve the rest of their special teams units.
The battle between Thomas Gafford and Chase Dominguez certainly won’t be at the top of fans’ minds this summer, but it will be one of the most important competitions throughout camp.
Gafford, 34, is the experienced option, having played nine seasons including seven (2008-14) for the Kansas City Chiefs. He signed with the Saints after impressing during a minicamp tryout this spring.
Dominguez, 23, is an undrafted rookie who joined the Saints after snapping for Utah the previous four years.
This is a tough competition to handicap, but one the Saints want to pick right to ensure special teams can make significant strides in the kicking game.
(Photo by Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Return duties
Yes, two special teams roles are on this list. The Saints had so many errors in this phase of the game last year that it’s important they try to improve in as many ways as possible.
The Saints have several candidates with return skills, and the roles could change throughout the season. But, if they can find someone who can provide better field position for Drew Brees and the rest of the offense, it would obviously benefit the team significantly.
Tommylee Lewis, Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy all had chances as return men last season. None provided much consistency, but they’ll be in the mix once again during camp.
Among the new guys, wide receiver Ted Ginn and rookie running back Alvin Kamara will certainly have a chance to return. Rookie receiver Justin Thomas, the former Georgia Tech quarterback, also has the desired speed and agility for returns.
The veteran Ginn has ample experience returning punts and kickoffs, and he’s already said he wants to fight for the punt return job. With seven career return touchdowns, Ginn has a strong chance at winning return duties.
Kamara returned 26 punts the past two years at Tennessee with a solid 10.9-yard average. He also scored one touchdown in 2015. Kamara returned just one kickoff in college, but he has all the traits teams look for in a returner. And if the Saints lean heavily on Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson, using Kamara on returns would be a good way to get him on the field.