WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Those who showed up at The Greenbrier on Saturday probably didn't know they were going to watch the best defense of all time.
It was an unreal sight. With Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd and Damian Swann sidelined — basically the starting secondary — all sidelined, the Saints defense still managed to intercept quarterback Drew Brees four times during practice. Rookie safety Vonn Bell dropped a fifth opportunity for a pick.
Is this defense for real? It's hard to know for sure. At least some of the interceptions were the result of offensive failure. Stronger answers will start coming next week, when the Saints head to New England to practice with the Patriots. But Saturday was certainly the crescendo, at least for now, of what this defense has been showing throughout the summer.
And it led to frustration for the offense.
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"It was a rough day, probably one of the rougher days I've had in a long time — maybe ever. In training camp practice especially," Brees said. "Some of them bad luck, some of them anticipating where the ball should be and whatever reason it gets tipped or not just quite the execution that we hope for."
This defense knows how to get to the ball and create opportunities. Last year's defense didn't. It's reason for early optimism — and so, too, is the depth of the secondary.
All of Saturday's interceptions were made by players who weren't on the team last year. Cornerback Ken Crawley, an undrafted player quickly becoming one of the darlings of camp, picked off Brees twice. Linebacker James Laurinaitis and safety Erik Harris had the other interceptions.
One important thing to keep in mind: As well as the defense executed, some of the interceptions were the result of the offense screwing up its assignment. Saturday was the first time the offense moved the ball and was calling plays, and some issues created by the lack of familiarity showed up.
On Brees' first interception, it looked like he was trying to squeeze the ball into a tight window to Brandon Coleman when Crawley jumped in front of it. But this is what actually happened: Tight end Coby Fleener ran a bad route, which created an opportunity for the defense.
"I messed up a route, and it cost us dearly," Fleener said. "It's one of those things where there's 11 guys out there and one guy messing it up can really hurt the team. That's the game of football, and you work to make sure that doesn't happen."
Crawley's other interception came during 7-on-7s on an underthrown pass.
The next drive ended when Brees' pass was tipped by defensive end Cameron Jordan and picked off by Laurinaitis, who ran the ball back for a touchdown.
Photos: Drew Brees picked four times in Day 9 of Saints training camp
The Saints continued training camp at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on Saturday.
With basically the whole starting secondary sidelined, the Saints defense managed to intercept Drew Brees four times during the practice.
Here are some of the best shots from Day 9 at Saints training camp.
One could place some blame on Brees for letting the ball get tipped, but it seemed like an unlikely moment — albeit one that the defense created and took advantage of.
"It's about that feel. You see the quarterback cock his hand back; that's when you put your hands up," Jordan said. "You feel an offensive lineman overset you; that's when you have to have communication enough to be able to stunt inside and have your other guy wrap around you. We're headed in that direction. I don't think we've arrived anywhere yet, but we're on the train and headed toward that destination."
The last interception came during the team portion of practice when Brees was trying to find rookie Mike Thomas in the back corner of the end zone. It looked like the quarterback was trying to put the ball over cornerback De'Vante Harris but, when he let go, safety Erik Harris read the play, got to the sideline and jumped the route.
There were no breakdowns to blame for this turnover; Harris simply made a good play.
"The one at the end shouldn't happen," Brees said. "That's a critical mistake; you need to avoid those. Those are frustrating. Rather get them all out of the way right now."
It was a big day for the defense during a camp that has featured many of them. Optimism is high. In a few days, when the team heads to New England, we should have a better idea if it's warranted.
It's probably not going to be the best defense of all time. But each day, it feels like this group takes another step away from last year's woes.
ATTENDANCE: A handful of players missed practice Saturday, including cornerbacks Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis and Damian Swann, wide receivers R.J. Harris and Jake Lampman, safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, running back Mark Ingram, fullback Austin Johnson and tight end Garrett Griffin.
OLD FAITHFULS: Brees completed 11 of his 19 attempts Saturday. Six of those passes were completed to Willie Snead and Travaris Cadet. With Brandin Cooks not participating in team drills, Brees used Snead as his security blanket.
FAIRLEY UP: With the defense rotating starters, defensive tackle Nick Fairley took advantage of his opportunity to compete against the third offensive line by recording a run stuff, a sack and another run stuff on consecutive plays. He has been quick off the line and is involved in a lot of plays.
OFFENSIVE LINE MOVES: Tony Hills received some first-team reps at right tackle, serving in place of Zach Strief.
SHORT PRACTICE: After conducting a longer practice Friday, the Saints kept Saturday's condensed. This was the third consecutive practice with live hitting.
UP NEXT: The Saints practice at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.