Inside slant: New Orleans Week 15 review

Here's the "Inside Slant," your twice-weekly source for news about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' NFC South rivals. Today's edition wraps up Week 15's games, including personnel news and exclusive unit grades for the New Orleans Saints. It's a premium service from Bucsblitz.com.

The Saints have an answer for all those people who thought their running game would suffer dramatically with the loss of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush to knee injuries.

Well, they've done quite well in the two games since Bush was lost to a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee following a 27-23 setback to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Dec. 2. He followed McAllister, who was lost for the season in Week 3, to the Saints' sideline.

Third-string tailback Aaron Stecker and rookie Pierre Thomas have filled in and more than carried the load in wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, which has kept the Saints in the NFC wild-card race.

Stecker ran for 100 yards in the victory over the Falcons and came back Sunday for 95 more in the 31-24 win over the Cardinals, adding 46 yards on six receptions. Thomas, who had 31 yards rushing at Atlanta, had runs of 11 and nine yards against Arizona.

That unheralded duo has helped the Saints produce 259 yards on 59 carries, just over 4.0 yards per attempt, with a season-high 145 yards coming last week against the Falcons.

Stecker fumbled on the second play Sunday, handing the Cardinals a quick 7-0 lead, but bounced back to have a productive outing.

"I came to the sideline and told myself to continue playing hard," Stecker said. "My teammates told me to keep my head up. I blew it off. That could have cost us, but it was early in the game. You can either get down or let it go. I let it go and just tried to run harder.

"I've been in the league a while now," he added. "That wasn't my first fumble and it won't be my last. I'll continue to work on not fumbling. You have to concentrate on the things you can control and you can control how you handle things after that."

Saints coach Sean Payton was glad Stecker didn't get down since he's become a key component of the team's stretch run to what they hope is an NFC wild-card playoff berth.

"He has done a good job between the tackles," Payton said. "I was pleased we rushed for over 100 yards again. We thought we were going to need balance and I thought we were able to get that.

"It starts up front and we were able to win that battle. We were able to make some big plays in the passing game to keep them somewhat off balance."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Saints coach Sean Payton surprised everyone Monday when he announced at his weekly news conference that running back Reggie Bush will try to return to practice Wednesday.

Payton usually doesn't talk about injuries in his day-after news conference, preferring to wait until the team returns to practice on Wednesday. But he said Bush is ahead of schedule in his rehab from a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that forced him to miss the last two games.

If Bush plays Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, Payton said his involvement likely would be limited.

"I think that you would have to take into account the injury and not just throwing him back into the role," Payton said. "He feels a lot stronger on it and he is moving around a lot better on it. I think we would be kind of judicious as to what role and how many snaps."

--While the Saints could get Bush back this week, the news on defensive tackle Brian Young wasn't as good.

Payton said Young, who missed practice all last week with a chest cold, actually has a rare form of pneumonia and was hospitalized late last week. He said Young underwent an arthroscopic procedure over the weekend in which fluid was drained from the area between the chest cavity and lung.

"It was more serious than any of us initially thought," Payton said. "Fortunately, he is doing better and he is feeling better. But it set him back.

"It's something that is going to take a while. It was pretty significant and it was pneumonia that basically had gotten progressively worse to where it was causing him pain breathing."

--Saints quarterback Drew Brees continued his record-setting run in his team's 31-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Brees broke his own team record for completions in a season (356) with a six-yard pass to tight end Billy Miller in the first period. He went on to finish with 26 completions in 30 attempts for 315 yards and two touchdowns.

Brees now has 378 completions this season and needs just 41 more in the Saints' final two games to break the NFL record of 418 set by Oakland's Rich Gannon in 2002.

--Second-year pro Marques Colston reached the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second consecutive season when he pulled in a 19-yard TD pass in the first quarter against the Cardinals.

Colston finished the game with eight catches for 114 yards and a score, giving him 1,092 receiving yards for the season. That's 54 more than he piled up in setting a Saints rookie record last season.

In doing so, Colston became only the third Saints player to record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Eric Martin accomplished the feat in 1988-89 and Joe Horn put together three straight from 2000-02.

--Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita had an extremely busy week.

In between helping his team to wins over Atlanta and Arizona in a seven-day period, he became a father for the first time when his wife, Jaclyn, gave birth to twin girls on Thursday.

Fujita, who admitted to getting very little sleep after the girls arrived early Thursday morning, went out and celebrated by collecting a team-high 10 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in the win over the Cardinals.

Prior to heading to the Superdome on Sunday morning, Fujita made a stop at a local hospital to check in on his family. He said the visit and an e-mail that he received from his wife gave him more motivation to play well.

"Yeah, it motivated me. It felt good," he said. "My wife actually sent me an e-mail with a picture of her holding the two of them together for the first time. Without getting all sappy, that was a special picture."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--DT Brian Young could miss a second straight game on Sunday after being hospitalized last week with a rare form of pneumonia. He will remain in the hospital at least until later this week, coach Sean Payton said Monday.

--RB Reggie Bush, who has a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that has sidelined him for the last two games, may try to practice Wednesday.

--TE Eric Johnson, who did not play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals because of a groin injury, will be re-evaluated when the Saints return to practice on Wednesday.

--FS Josh Bullocks was inactive against the Cardinals because of a strained quadriceps muscle and his status for this week's game with the Philadelphia Eagles is unknown.

REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS

PASSING OFFENSE: A-plus -- Thanks to the pinpoint passing of Drew Brees, the Saints couldn't have been much better in their 31-24 win. The Saints averaged a healthy 9.9 yards per pass play as Brees hit on 26 of 30 passes for 315 yards and TDs of 19 yards to Marques Colston and 32 yards to David Patten. Brees was sacked just once as he posted a passer rating of 132.6. Of his four incompletions, at least two balls were batted down at the line of scrimmage.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- It wasn't the best rushing game this season for the Saints, but it was pretty efficient at times as Aaron Stecker and rookie Pierre Thomas continued to fill in admirably for injured starters Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Stecker just missed his second straight 100-yard game in gaining a game-high 95 yards on 22 attempts, averaging 4.3 yards per carry with TDs of one and six yards and a long of 15. Thomas added 20 yards on two attempts with a long of 11. As a team, the Saints finished with 114 yards on 29 carries and a 3.9 average.

PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Saints did a decent job in keeping Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in front of them all day long. Boldin caught six passes for 83 yards with a long of 25, but Fitzgerald was held to two catches for 27 yards, although he did have an 18-yard TD reception in the second quarter. Kurt Warner completed 19 of 30 passes for 233 yards and three scores, but he was sacked twice -- losing a fumble on one of them -- and threw an interception.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- The Cardinals found some running lanes and finished the game with 103 yards on 22 carries. Edgerrin James had a good outing with 84 yards on 16 attempts, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt with a long of 21. Wide receiver Sean Morey, however, was the second-leading rusher with a 13-yard scamper on a fake punt in the fourth quarter.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- The Saints didn't have a great day as they averaged just 20.6 yards per kickoff return and Lance Moore muffed one punt return and allowed another to roll an extra 15 yards when he failed to make a fair catch. The Saints also gave up a 13-yard run and a first down on a fake punt. They gave up a 29-yard punt return and a 28-yard kickoff return. On the bright side, Steven Weatherford averaged 48.5 yards on two punts and made a touchdown-saving tackle on the 29-yard return. Newcomer Martin Gramatica made a 31-yard field goal in his only attempt.

COACHING: A -- Sean Payton once again held the upper hand with a balanced running and passing attack. With his team's back to the wall as far as the NFC wild-card playoff race is concerned, Payton continues to press the issue and remains as aggressive as ever with his play-calling while making sure that his team remains focused on the task at hand -- which is playing one game at a time.


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