METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Although Drew Brees again has the Saints' offense ranked near the top of the NFL, the unit has been struggling with a couple of troublesome trends.
Neither is particularly flattering to the offensive line.
Brees has been sacked 18 times through the first seven games of this season after being taken down only 26 times in all of 2012. Meanwhile, New Orleans ranks 25th in the NFL in rushing, averaging 85.3 yards per game.
"We don't like those numbers, but we don't really pay too much attention to those," Saints center Brian de la Puente said after practice Wednesday. "We're really focused on this week, and protecting (Brees) this week and the task at hand."
That task includes slowing down the New York Jets' pash rush, which has piled up 25 sacks, tied for fifth most in the league.
"They get after the quarterback and we're going to have our work cut out for us again," de la Puente said.
If Brees is concerned by the amount of times he has gotten hit, he doesn't show it. He first points out that the Saints are 6-1. The star quarterback also notes that some of the blame falls on him, and that not every sack results from blocking breakdowns.
Sometimes, Brees said, he may have held the ball too long when pass coverage was good downfield. Or, he may have failed to recognize a blitz in which there was one more defender than the Saints could block, and did not unload the ball quickly enough.
"If we were to pull up all the sacks from this year, you'd say there was a combination of all those mixed in. We can all do a little bit better," Brees said. "They're a part of the game to a degree and there are times where taking a sack was the best thing that could have happened on the play based on everything that was happening around you. You try to keep them to a minimum because you want to avoid negative plays, but at the end of the day, those happen sometimes."
When things go well, Brees is usually quick to share credit with his line, which he joins for dinner on most Thursday nights during the season. And in spite of the unusually high rate at which he's been dragged down lately, he remains on pace to have another stellar season. The Saints are third in the NFL in yards passing per game, averaging nearly 311. He also has thrown for 19 TDs, second only to Peyton Manning.
And Brees has not allowed the pressure to force him into many ill-advised throws. With five interceptions, he is on pace to throw only 11 this season, which would be his second lowest total in any season in which he has played at least 15 games.
Still, right tackle Zach Strief said Brees' successes don't excuse the sack total, which included four takedowns last Sunday against Buffalo.
"You don't ever want him to get hit. He's the focal point of our entire team," Strief said. "We can't give up four sacks. We can't let him get hit like that. It's nothing that we don't work on. It's not intentional. I hate to say they get paid, too. But you want (the number of sacks) to be less."
In the running game, the Saints have been encouraged by their execution in spots. There have been more gains of 5 yards or more lately, but those have not come consistently and often have been offset by a handful of negative rushes.
"Negative plays will happen," Strief said. "The rate at which they're happening is the issue and we have to give coach the confidence that we're not going to have a negative play — that a running play is not going to put us in a bad position."
Notes: Those missing practice on Wednesday included S Malcolm Jenkins (knee), S Kenny Vaccaro (concussion, back), WR Marques Colston (knee), G Jahri Evans (hip) and DE Tyrunn Walker (knee). Jenkins referred to his injury as a "tweak," adding that he sat out the second half last Sunday against Buffalo as a precaution and expects to be ready to play soon. ... S Roman Harper (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis. Also limited were TE Jimmy Graham (foot), Kenny Stills (knee), David Hawthorne (ankle) and Rod Sweeting (hip).
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org