It was third-and-goal from the defense’s 4, there were fewer than 20 seconds left, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees shouted at his teammates, “Dig deep!”
Then, after the snap, Brees saw Kenny Stills slip inside and behind safety Rafael Bush, and he connected with the second-year receiver for a touchdown that capped off a 13-play, 70-yard, two-minute drill drive at the conclusion of the Saints’ three-day minicamp on Thursday.
It’s worth noting players weren’t allowed to make contact, and helmets were the only equipment they were wearing. Conditions were far from ones that are found in actual games.
Yet the man who caught Brees’ final pass Thursday declared, “It’s important we can execute that way this time of year,” nearly three months away from the first week of the 2014 regular season. And there’s no arguing that has to be encouraging for New Orleans.
After all, neither rookie receiver/first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks nor All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham attended minicamp. Cooks was finishing up his junior year at Oregon State, and Graham is in negotiations for a new contract with the Saints.
Furthermore, 2013 practice squad member Senio Kelemete was filling in at left guard for Ben Grubbs, who had participated in on-field work earlier but not in the two-minute drill.
Meanwhile, the defense Brees and his colleagues operated against was No. 2 against the pass in 2013. The unit was missing safety Jairus Byrd (recovering from back surgery in late May), its marquee free-agent addition; but it otherwise had the players most expect the first string will count on in 2014.
Brees began the drive at his team’s 30 with two incomplete passes to wide receiver Nick Toon. Then, he hit on six of his next seven passes to set up the offense at the 4, getting completions to Stills, tight end Ben Watson (twice), wide receiver Robert Meachem, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Nick Toon.
The passes to Meachem and Stills were third-down conversions. Brees clocked the ball once.
Then, from the 4, Brees took two shots at the end zone, aiming for Watson and Toon. Both fell incomplete — cornerback Corey White had Watson covered, and a high pass to Toon bounced off his fingertips.
But then Brees linked up with Stills for a score on the next play, completing his seventh pass in 12 throws.
“As an offense, we were very happy with the way things ended today,” Stills said afterward. “We just hope we can build off that; and when it becomes game time, that becomes natural for us.”
‘D’ HAD MOMENTS, TOO
Nonetheless, before the two-minute drill between the first units Thursday, the “1s” on defense got the best of the offense a number of times.
Two moments stood out. On one in 11-on-11 drills, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis emphatically batted away a long pass Brees intended for Meachem, whose body was facing the ball. Lewis did a good job of reaching an arm around and inside Meachem, putting up a barrier between the receiver and the ball.
On the other, during the first play of 11-on-11, second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro intercepted a Brees pass. He celebrated the play by throwing the football as if he were shooting a jump shot in basketball, as the crowd loudly whooped and applauded him.
Vaccaro later said he celebrated so emphatically because he had picked off a former Super Bowl MVP and “Hall of Fame quarterback.” He also explained defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had shown them highlight videos of ex-Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan nailing crucial shots.
Ryan instructed players to pretend they were shooting a basketball when they did something “clutch,” Vaccaro said.
About his jump shot, the safety remarked, “I did it ’cause he told us to.”
— Thursday’s two-minute drill was not the first time Kelemete worked at left guard with the first team. He had stepped in for Grubbs at least one other time, at a voluntary offseason practice before minicamp that was open to the media.
Kelemete said it’s been invaluable getting looks from defensive linemen such as Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, third-year man Akiem Hicks and Glenn Foster, in his second year.
“They’re not average linemen,” Kelemete said. “They’re good.”
–Kickers Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke were each 3-of-3 from 33, 37 and 39 yards out in drills.
–Undrafted rookie safety Ty Zimmerman had another interception, that one off a high pass from backup quarterback Logan Kilgore to Stills that bounced off the receiver’s hands in 7-on-7 drills.
–Aside from Cooks and Graham, receiver Steve Hull and defensive back Derrius Brooks were not seen at minicamp Thursday. Both had been working at minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Spotted but not participating in drills were wide receiver Joseph Morgan (knee), nose tackle John Jenkins (reportedly, recovering from surgery on a pectoral muscle), Byrd, nose tackle Moses McCray (undisclosed) and outside linebacker Cheta Ozougwu (undisclosed).