Revamped Saints secondary showing potential to improve
WHITE SULPHUR SRPINGS, W.Va. (AP) Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis launched himself horizontally across the front of receiver Nick Toon, nearly intercepting Drew Brees' pass at the goal line before the ball fell incomplete.
New Orleans' revamped secondary has produced a number of such plays in training camp, and their promising practice form will have to translate on game days for the Saints to avoid a repeat of last season's losing campaign.
''We're making improvement,'' Lewis said of the Saints' pass defense, which ranked 25th last season, allowing 251.2 yards per game. ''We won't be 25. I can promise you that.''
In 2014, New Orleans' 12 interceptions tied for 21st in the NFL. The Saints' 57 passes defended ranked 25th.
This offseason, New Orleans brought in Brandon Browner, who has won Super Bowls the past two seasons with Seattle and New England.
The addition of Delvin Breaux, who played in the CFL the past two seasons, appears set to pay dividends as well, with Breaux having quickly working his way into the first-team nickel back spot.
Breaux thwarted a red zone opportunity for the Saints' first-team offense during Tuesday's practice when he tipped away Brees' pass intended for 6-foot-6 receiver Brandon Coleman near the back of the end zone.
Lewis said being in the same position group with Breaux, a fellow New Orleans native, and Browner, a former college teammate at Oregon State, has fostered good chemistry among the defensive backs.
''We're all jelling together, competing - very talented guys,'' Lewis said. ''And when you've got guys like that coming out every day to work, it'll definitely boost your secondary.''
Browner is 6-4, while Lewis and Breaux are both 6-1, giving the Saints good height to contend with some of the taller receivers in their division, such as Atlanta's Julio Jones (6-3), Tampa Bay's Mike Evans (6-5) and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin (6-5).
''They're big, long physical guys that play a tough brand of football,'' Brees said. ''It's one of those deals where if they get their hands on you it's hard to slip by and get open and get separation.
''Brandon's been a great addition both just the role that he plays obviously as a starting corner and his presence that he brings,'' Brees added. ''From a leadership standpoint, here's a guy that's been on the last two Super Bowl (winners), so he knows what great teams look like. He knows how they work, how they prepare.''
When Saints first-team defensive backs weren't breaking up passes, their coverage seemed to force Brees to hold the ball longer, sometimes resulting in (non-contact) sacks.
Browner, who was part of Seattle's ''Legion of Boom'' and then joined star cornerback Darrelle Revis in New England, isn't sure the Saints' 2015 secondary will rival either of the past two with which he's played. But he won't sell his current position group short, either.
''I've been a part of some good groups,'' Browner said. ''I think we have the potential, but it's so far away. It's training camp. We'll know mid-season.''
The Saints also expect another year of experience for strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, a 2013 first-round pick, along with the anticipated return to health of former three-time Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd, will make their secondary more formidable.
Byrd spent 12 games last season on injured reserve with a knee injury. He appeared to be fully recovered during offseason practices, but began training camp on the physically unable to perform list. When spotted at practice, he's been working out on his own in a sweat suit. Coach Sean Payton said Byrd has not had any recent setbacks and should be back ''sooner than later.''
Lewis didn't sound concerned about the time Byrd has missed.
''That's a guy, a tremendous athlete - a guy I feel like is very smart and talented, and will get in and won't miss a beat,'' Lewis said.
Notes: Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Phillips both returned to practice on a limited basis. ... Running back C.J. Spiller did not practice, while fellow running back Tim Hightower, trying to resume his NFL career after left knee injuries sidelined him for three seasons, saw action with the first-team offense. ... Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett attended Tuesday's practice. ... The Saints travel on Wednesday to Baltimore, where they play their preseason opener on Thursday night.