NFL

Brees' protection not what it used to be

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

Drew Brees has fostered a reputation among fans as an accessible super star. Unfortunately for the Saints, pass-rushers are starting to see New Orleans' quarterback in a similar light.

Only halfway through this season, Brees has been sacked 19 times, more than he was sacked for the entire seasons of 2006, `07 or `08, and only one fewer than all of 2009.

That statistic is a troubling one for New Orleans' offensive linemen, who aren't used to seeing Brees take the pounding he has this season.

''We're definitely talking about it,'' Saints offensive guard Carl Nicks said. ''It's a direct challenge to your skill, your pride, your craft.''

When Brees was getting good protection in past seasons, he suggested that his offensive line's success stemmed in part from stability. This season, however, Brees has often had different sets of blockers in front of him from week to week, in part because of injuries and partly because other personnel changes didn't pan out.

The first major change occurred shortly after the lockout, when Jonathan Goodwin, who had started for the Saints at center for three seasons, elected to take a new deal in San Francisco. The Saints moved to replace him with veteran free agent Olin Kreutz, who opened the season as the starter but left the team after six games and was replaced by Brian de la Puente.

Also during training camp, the Saints waived right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who had started every game for the past five seasons, but played with a quad injury for much of 2010, when Brees was sacked 26 times, his most as a Saint.

Stinchcomb was replaced by veteran Zach Strief, who then sprained his knee in Week 3 and was spelled by second-year pro Charles Brown. Last Sunday, however, Brown went down with a hip injury, and on Wednesday the Saints placed him on injured reserve, ending his season.

Fortunately for New Orleans, Strief is practicing fully this week and ready to step back into the starting lineup.

''Certainly there's been a lot more instability,'' Strief said.

Strief was not on the field for most of the sacks on Brees this season, including last week when the Saints gave up a season-high six sacks in a stunning loss to previously winless St. Louis. Still, the overall sack totals are as much of a concern for Strief as anyone else up front.

''It's definitely something that we don't walk in the (meeting) room and say, `Oh well, it happens,''' Strief said. ''We're way past that point. I know this is the most sacks we've given up since Drew's been here. I think we take it personal and I think certainly we're trying to recommit ourselves.''

Currently, only 10 of the NFL's 32 teams have allowed more sacks than New Orleans this season.

While Brees acknowledged such stats don't look good, he said he is not overly concerned with his protection.

''I don't feel like I've gotten sacked an inordinate amount of times or more than usual, except for this last game,'' Brees said. ''I truly have confidence in all those guys. ... There's just times where we've all played well and there are times when we haven't executed as we should have.''

Brees said he might be partly to blame for holding on to the ball too long at times, and said the Saints may also need to look at whether their scheme going into a game is designed to ensure the five down-linemen have all the blocking help they need from running backs and tight ends in passing situations.

''We have ways to help fix that issue,'' Brees said.

Since coach Sean Payton and Brees both came to New Orleans in 2006, the Saints had never given up more than five sacks in a game, which they did only twice - until the loss to the Rams. Making matters worse, New Orleans managed only a season-low 56 yards rushing at St. Louis, which also did not reflect well on the offensive line.

While Payton was not pleased with last weekend's outing, he said the line also deserves credit for playing well in other games, such as New Orleans' 62-7 pounding of Indianapolis on Oct. 23, when the Saints racked up 236 yards rushing and Brees passed for five scores.

''Two weeks ago we had one of our better games. This past week we didn't play very well in a number of areas, not just in the offensive line,'' Payton said. ''There are some new players getting more playing time and I think that it's a group that's been a strong-suit of ours and will continue to be.''

NOTES: LB Jon Vilma participated in individual drills which were open to reporters but was listed as out for the full-team portion of practice because of his left knee. Vilma has rested the knee routinely in recent weeks but continued to play. ... RB Mark Ingram, who missed his first game of the season last weekend with a bruised right heel, also did not practice and was riding a stationary bike. ... With Brown going on injured reserve, the Saints signed veteran offensive tackle Ray Willis. Willis' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said his client signed a one-year deal. Willis started 16 games for Seattle in 2009 but missed last season with a knee injury.

Tagged: Saints, Drew Brees, Jon Stinchcomb, Ray Willis, Zach Strief, Charles Brown, Brian de la Puente

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