After giving up long returns, Saints getting back to fundamentals on kickoff, punt coverage

If coach Sean Payton is to breathe easier during the Saints' next game, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon will have to make measurable progress with his kickoff and punt coverage teams.

"The last two games we have not covered kicks very well at all. It's obvious," McMahon conceded after practice on Tuesday. "When you put the film on and you look, it'd be easy if it was one guy. But we've had our share of inconsistencies."

The Saints have given up three kickoff returns of more than 50 yards, and a 40-yard punt return, in their first two preseason games.

In their second preseason game last weekend against Houston, the Saints allowed kickoff returns of 63, 55, 28 and 26 yards, after which Payton talked of holding his breath every time his team kicked off.

For now, Payton is trying to be patient, noting that some inconsistency on special teams is common early in the preseason because so many young players are rotated onto the field as coaches try to decide whom to keep and whom to cut.

"We've got a lot of guys going in and out of the games, and so more importantly, it's who's going to play in those core units," Payton said. "A lot of the decisions we make with the final roster is predicated on how guys play in the kicking game."

Special teams captain Troy Evans was cut shortly after Tuesday's practice.

Earlier Tuesday, he said that after the Saints' allowed a 52-yard kickoff return and 40-yard punt return in their first preseason game at New England, he couldn't sleep.

"We know what we do wrong. We see it. And that's the thing with special teams. You make one little mistake and it can cost you, and it looks bad because it's 60 yards," Evans said before he learned he had been released.

"It's always difficult when you have to make decisions such as releasing players that have contributed as much to the Saints as Troy has," Payton said in a statement. "Troy was our special teams captain the past two seasons and provided us with tremendous depth at the outside linebacker position the past three seasons."

The mistakes nearly cost the Saints their punter, Thomas Morstead, who was forced to make the tackle on a 40-yard punt return by the Patriots' Julian Edelman. Morstead hurt his left shoulder on the play and did not punt the rest of that game, but was able to return last weekend against Houston.

McMahon and Evans said missed tackles have been part of the problem. They said other mistakes included players being pushed out of their lanes as they advance downfield, or allowing the returner to get to the outside when the assignment was to force the return toward the middle.

This week, with the San Diego Chargers coming to the Louisiana Superdome on Friday night, the Saints have spent more time than usual studying special teams film and working on kick coverage fundamentals in practice.

"Hey, when things aren't going the way they need to go, let's get the dang thing fixed," McMahon said. "There's definitely a sense of urgency with these guys and they understand. They look at the film and they see it and go, 'We've got to get that right.' They can see where the mistakes are. We all can. It's glaring."

The undercurrent to such problems this preseason is the fact that the Saints, at least during the 2009 regular season, were among the worst in the league in the same areas. New Orleans ranked 29th on kickoff coverage and 32nd — dead last — in punt coverage.

During the playoffs, however, the Saints inserted more defensive starters on special teams, and the coverage units were good enough for New Orleans to win the Super Bowl. Opponents' punt return averages dropped from 14.3 yards in the regular season to 3.8 in the playoffs, while opponents' kickoff return averages dropped from 24.5 yards to 23.6.

"Special teams is like its own entity. You've got guys who specialize in it and that's what I do and I take a lot of pride in it," said backup safety Chris Reis. "It's one of those things you can't really figure out you've got let it go, keep working hard and keep pushing through and you'll start gelling. It'll come together, we've just got have that nasty, attack attitude."

NOTES: The Saints waived WRs Mark Bradley and Rod Harper, G Tim Duckworth and CB Danny Gorrer. ... Starting CB Tracy Porter was given the day off from practice because of knee soreness. ... Rookie TE Jimmy Graham (ankle), S Darren Sharper (knee), LB Clint Ingram (knee) and LB Stanley Arnoux (ankle) also sat out. ... Before Friday night's game, longtime Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney will present Saints quarterback Drew Brees with the Professional Football Writers of America's "Good Guy Award." Finney, 82, is now in his 64th year covering New Orleans-area sports and this year was honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame for distinguished service. The PFWA's "Good Guy Award" goes to the NFL player who was deemed the most helpful to the media.