Inside Slant: Tough Game for Saints

After winning three games in a row, the Saints are still trying to get their heads above water as they reach the midway point of the season Sunday.

At least they're treading water now after a four-game losing streak to start the season almost did them in. Once mired in the cellar of the NFC South, the Saints are back in the race -- just a game behind the division-leading Carolina Panthers and a half-game back of the second-place Tampa Bay Bucs.

No matter how far they've come, Saints coach Sean Payton and his 3-4 team know it's no time to let up with the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-2) coming to the Superdome on Sunday. The Jaguars are the best team the Saints will have faced since the season opener at still-unbeaten Indianapolis.

"We're still a work in progress," Payton said this week. "We still have a lot of things that we have to improve on. There is a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of football ahead of us. We've played seven games -- we're not even at the halfway mark of the season yet.

"We have guys who understand how much work we have to do still and how difficult this is," he said. "We have one of the better teams we have played all year coming in this weekend that will be a tremendous challenge for us. We are going to have to play better than we played this weekend; we're going to have to play one of our best games to beat this team."

The thing that kept his team afloat, Payton said, was a group that truly believed in each other and didn't panic or point fingers. Even though they were 0-4 on the morning of Oct. 8, he believed that they would take it upon themselves to evaluate their play and work to improve.

"The key is that we have a group of guys that are sticking together, wanting to fight their way out of it," Payton said. "They really approach it with each game you're playing that week and are not looking any further past that.

"We're still in that position. We're still under .500. We're still looking up at teams in our division," he said.

But they're making up ground fast. With quarterback Drew Brees returning to his All-Pro form of 2006, the Saints have turned that ugly 0-4 start into a 3-0 stretch that has helped them get back into the thick of the division race.

"It's hard to get caught up with what the other teams in the division are doing outside," Payton said. "You just pay attention to the upcoming week's plan and you try to streamline the focus of everyone on your team for that game. I think that as the season goes on, things seem to sort themselves out. We know that we're still looking up and have a lot of work to do."

As a result, they know they can't slip up against the Jaguars.

"They're one of the better teams we'll face all season. Their record speaks for itself," said Payton, who is 1-5 against AFC opposition since being hired by the Saints in 2006.

"It's a confident group that has played well this year despite some adversity. They've rallied around the young quarterback (Quinn Gray) that's playing for them now and handled it well on the road last week."


SERIES HISTORY:
    4th meeting. The Jaguars lead the series, 2-1, winning the last two matchups in Jacksonville. In their last meeting, the Jaguars prevailed 20-19 when John Carney missed a game-tying extra point with no time remaining on the clock.


NOTES, QUOTES
    --Saints quarterback Drew Brees was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday. It's the first such honor this season for a member of the Saints.

    Brees, who twice was named the NFC's top offensive player last season, was 31-for-39 for 336 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers. He posted season highs in completions, passing yards and TDs as well as completion percentage (79.5) and passer rating (136.8).

    With his four-score day against the Niners, Brees now has eight TDs and only one interception in his team's three-game winning streak. Brees had one just TD and nine interceptions in the first four games -- all losses.

    --Saints left defensive end Charles Grant, who has not missed a game in his six-year NFL career, said he expects to be ready for Sunday's game with the Jacksonville Jaguars even though he didn't practice Wednesday.

    The 6-3, 290-pound Grant has played in 87 straight regular-season games and two playoff games since being chosen in the first round of the 2002 draft.

    "I'm gonna play," said Grant, who was injured early in the first quarter against the 49ers but returned to the game late in the first half.

    He said the ankle tightened up on the plane ride home and said he experienced some swelling on Monday. But he added the swelling had gone down and was confident the ankle was getting better.

    --Saints running back Reggie Bush didn't appear to be bothered by a lawsuit filed against him by a sports marketer who said he gave the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner's family nearly $300,000 in gifts and other benefits while Bush was in college.

    Plaintiff Lloyd Lake claims he provided financial assistance to Bush's family with the understanding he would become Bush's marketing agent when the running back turned pro, which he did after the 2005 season.

    Before Bush's media availability on Wednesday, team officials said the second-year pro would not answer questions about published reports.

    "I'm focused on football and this game with the Jacksonville Jaguars as well as our team," Bush said. "The team is first and foremost, and that's it."

    --While they've only met three times, Jacksonville Jaguars' fans might remember the last meeting with the Saints on Dec. 21, 2003.

    On that day, the Saints pulled off one of the most memorable final plays from scrimmage in NFL history when trailing 20-13 with seconds left in Alltel Stadium. The Saints went 75 yards on a pass from Aaron Brooks to Donte Stallworth and three laterals from Stallworth to Michael Lewis to Deuce McAllister to Jerome Pathon -- who leaped into the end zone.

    The wild play went for naught, however, when Saints kicker John Carney missed the extra point and the Jaguars hung on for a 20-19 victory. The TD play was dubbed the "River City Miracle" and won an ESPY Award as the year's top play.

    In an odd twist, Carney now plays for the Jaguars. Released by the Saints in the offseason, he was signed by the Jags after kicker Josh Scobee pulled a quadriceps muscle while warming up for the season opener.

    --Former Saints defensive end Joe Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2000, will become the 35th member of the Saints Hall of Fame on Friday.

    The team's fans will be honored with the Joe Gemelli Fleur De Lis Award, which goes to the person or persons who contribute to the betterment of the organization, for their undying support of the team after Hurricane Katrina.


BY THE NUMBERS: 6 --
    Takeaways by the Saints this season in seven games, which puts them last in the league in both number and average (0.8 per game).


QUOTE TO NOTE:
    "We have a long way to go, but we have the type of guys that understand that and put in a good day's work on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and prepare to play their best game possible. It doesn't always end up coming out that way, but you have to work on the corrections and have to work hard during the week and we've been able to do that for the most part." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on his team's three-game winning streak.


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Saints might have to rely on an expanded defensive line rotation in Sunday's game with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Left defensive end Charles Grant sprained his right ankle early in last week's win at San Francisco and, although he did return late in the first half, did not participate in practice on Wednesday. His status for the Jaguars was unknown.

    Also not working Wednesday was defensive tackle Brian Young. He had to have fluid drained from his left knee last week, but started against the 49ers. Like last week, the Saints were just being cautious and Young will likely start as usual Sunday.

    Their injuries could, however, give more reps to ends Josh Cooper and Renaldo Wynn as well as defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy.


PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
    --LDE Charles Grant did not participate in Wednesday's practice because of a sprained right ankle. His status for Sunday's game against Jacksonville was not immediately known.

    --WLB Scott Shanle strained a hamstring in the second half last Sunday and did not practice on Wednesday.

    --C Jeff Faine, who was inactive last week because of a strained left pectoral muscle, did not practice again Wednesday and could miss his second straight game Sunday.

    --DT Brian Young did not work for the second straight Wednesday after having some more fluid drained from his left knee. However, he'll likely be able to play against Jacksonville.

    --RB Reggie Bush left Sunday's game late in the third quarter with a bruised rib, but practiced fully Wednesday and should be ready for the Jaguars.

    --LB Alfred Fincher was experiencing headaches after suffering a concussion in last week's game at San Francisco and was held out of Wednesday's practice as a precaution.


GAME PLAN:
    The Saints will face their stiffest challenge since the season opener against the Indianapolis Colts, so they will try to follow the pattern they've established in their three-game winning streak: They have to take care of the ball, which they've done with only three giveaways in the last three games after turning it over 12 times in the first four games. The key this week is to keep the ball out of the hands of the Jaguars, who will try to protect young quarterback Quinn Gray by running the ball effectively with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. That's where an improved Saints run defense comes in, as New Orleans will be challenged after not allowing a team to rush for 100 yards over a six-game stretch. If they can successfully shut down the run, the Saints should be able to make the Jaguars one-dimensional, which is not good news for a passing game that ranks 27th in the league.


MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
    Saints front seven vs. Jaguars QB Quinn Gray -- The Saints have been rather active up front the last three weeks and they figure to bring a lot of pressure to try and rattle Gray, who will be making just his second NFL start. Getting in his face and rattling him will be the order of the day if they can stop the run early.

    Saints WR Marques Colston vs. Jaguars CB Rashean Mathis -- Colston came on strong with his finest game of the season last week against the San Francisco 49ers. He caught eight passes for 85 yards and three TDs and will try to build on that performance while going against the Jaguars' top cover corner in Mathis.

    Saints C Jonathan Goodwin vs. Jaguars DT John Henderson -- Goodwin filled in admirably for an injured Jeff Faine last week, but this time he'll certainly have his hands full with Henderson. Goodwin will have to make sure that Henderson doesn't get a good push up the middle and disrupt the rhythm of quarterback Drew Brees.


INJURY IMPACT:
    LDE Charles Grant has a sprained right ankle and might be a game-time decision for the matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    DE Josh Cooper could get the start if Grant is unable to play against the Jaguars.

    Faine could miss his second straight game with a strained left pectoral muscle.

    Goodwin would get his second straight start Sunday if Faine can't play against the Jaguars.

    WLB Scott Shanle came out of Sunday's game at San Francisco with a hamstring injury and his status for this week is unknown.

    WLB Brian Simmons would likely start in Shanle's place if he can't play against the Jaguars.


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