Saints see offense headed in right direction

by Patrick Flanagan

Drew Brees sees plenty to like about the way New Orleans' offense is shaping up, even if it's not yet reflected in the win column.

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Drew Brees sees plenty to like about the way New Orleans' offense is shaping up, even if it's not yet reflected in the win column.

Brees has had a couple days to digest New Orleans' season-opening, 37-34 overtime loss at Atlanta, and said he found plenty to build on as the Saints head to Cleveland on Sunday for a matchup of teams looking for their first victory of 2014.

"I feel like we moved the ball well. I feel like we ran the ball well. We were very balanced. We hit some big plays," Brees said after practice on Wednesday. "Statistically, if you didn't tell me the score and you just showed me the stat sheet at the end of the game ... I would say I think we had a pretty good day."

The Saints gained 472 yards last Sunday, third most of any team in the NFL. Unfortunately for New Orleans, one of the two teams that eclipsed that total was Atlanta, which racked up a league-leading 568 yards. The other was Pittsburgh (503 yards), which beat the Browns, 30-27.

With contributions from Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and even rookie receiver Brandin Cooks on an end-around, the Saints gained 139 yards rushing on 28 carries, an average of 5 yards per rush. The running game also accounted for three touchdowns, two by Ingram and one by Robinson.

Brees, meanwhile, completed 69 percent of his passes to seven different receivers for 333 yards and a touchdown, and Cleveland defenders so no evidence of rustiness or decline in the Saints' 35-year-old star quarterback, who only played three offensive series in the preseason after sitting out a couple weeks with a strained left oblique muscle in his abdomen.

"He can make three reads in like 5 seconds and that is hard to defend," Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard said. "He is kind of

shifty and he can run the ball as well. ... He is definitely one of the elite quarterbacks and we are going to have to do a good job of getting after him."

Brees' touchdown toss went to Cooks, a speedster out of Oregon State who was a first-round draft pick and is showing the promise to make coach Sean Payton's offense even more dynamic than it already was.

"It just seems like they can replace players and it's still very seamless, very productive," Browns coach Mike Pettine said of Payton's offense. "It's a system that I've had admiration for from afar for a long time."

Cooks caught seven passes for 77 yards in his regular season debut on his way to 95 total yards from scrimmage.

"He's awesome," Brees said. "What I love about him the most is just his attention to detail and just how locked in he is.

"You tell him something about a little nuance or route or concept or whatever and man, he's got it," Brees added. "You don't see him make the same mistake twice."

Brees' most established targets were back in force, with franchise all-time leading receiver Marques Colston gaining 110 yards on five catches and tight end Jimmy Graham adding 82 yards on eight receptions.

Meanwhile, Thomas continued to demonstrate his prowess catching the ball out of the backfield with six catches for 58 yards. In the process, he increased his career receiving total to 2,288 yards, breaking a franchise record previously held by Dalton Hilliard (2,233 yards).

"I know that we got a loss this last game but I feel like we played good," Thomas said. "We feel confident going into this game (in Cleveland) and moving forward.

"Everything was clicking on all cylinders. I feel like our offense was in a great rhythm," Thomas added. "We were moving the ball, everyone was doing a great job doing their assignments."

If the offense had a flaw, it was ball security. In the third quarter, Brees was intercepted looking for Cooks in the end zone after the Saints were already in field goal range. In overtime, Colston's fumble after he'd gained first-down yardage set up the Falcons' winning kick. The Saints finished the game minus-1 in the turnover department.

"We want to play our game and I felt like we did that. It was turnovers that really hurt us," Thomas said. "If we win the turnover battle, I think we win the game."

Notes: FB Erik Lorig (ankle) and S Marcus Ball (hamstring), who did not play in Week 1, did not practice on Wednesday. ... WR Kenny Stills (quad), who also missed the season opener, practiced on a limited basis. Also limited were CB Keenan Lewis (knee) and Curtis Lofton (shoulder).