We take a look at the Saints chances at making a Super Bowl run this year.
One year removed from a Super Bowl title, the Saints are poised for a rebound and are ready to battle the Green Bay Packers for supremacy in the NFC, although there is a palpable sense of urgency. With quarterback Drew Brees and the team’s core of young veterans in their prime, the Saints’ brain trust recognizes that the window to win another title is open only temporarily. Consequently, the front office has acted with appropriate haste to make deals and sign players at areas of need.
Likewise, motivation should not be a problem after a humbling 41–36 first-round playoff loss to Seattle that exposed the club’s deficiencies — a punch-less defense and faulty running game. The club used its first three draft picks to address these areas. Like many teams, the Saints are desperate for a difference-maker to emerge in their front seven. They need someone — anyone — to become a factor up front.
If the defense and running game can approximate their 2009 form, the Saints have the talent, experience, depth and — most important — quarterback to make another run at the Super Bowl.
As long as Brees is around, the Saints’ offense will rank among the best in the NFL. Few quarterbacks are better at making pre-snap reads at the line of scrimmage and attacking defensive weak spots. Brees compensates for his lack of size with a quick mind, hair-trigger release, pinpoint accuracy and underrated athleticism. Those assets make him a perfect fit for coach Sean Payton’s complex system, which relies on multiple formations and personnel groupings and a pass-first mentality. Brees’ aggressiveness can sometimes lead to costly mistakes. He threw a career-high 22 interceptions and lost two fumbles last season.
Brees is complemented by a veteran offensive line and deep receiving corps. The strength of the line is inside, where powerful Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans form the best interior tandem in the league. Tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb are smart and dependable but are not elite athletes and need help in pass protection against top pass rushers.
The receiving corps has a little bit of everything. Marques Colston is the go-to man on third down and in the red zone. He’s not a true burner but has everything else — great hands, a tight end’s frame, elite leaping ability and remarkable body control. The diminutive Lance Moore is the Saints’ version of Wes Welker, working the underneath routes with his quickness out of the slot. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are deep threats on the outside. Tight end Jimmy Graham is poised to blossom into a Pro Bowler in his second season. Darren Sproles, signed as a free agent, will replace Reggie Bush, as a pass-catching option out of the backfield.
When the Saints’ offense is clicking on all cylinders, the running game sets up the play-action passing game to keep defenses on their heels and set up big plays downfield. That didn’t happen enough in 2010, but Mark Ingram could be the answer to the problem. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama has a rare combination of speed, power, balance and vision. Like many of the Saints skill-position players, he doesn’t have prototype size or speed but is extremely productive. If he learns the system and proves he can protect Brees, team officials believe he’ll make an immediate impact.
The Saints have a nice fall-back option in veteran Pierre Thomas. He’s not particularly big or fast but is smart, tough and has an uncanny ability to make tacklers miss on zone runs and screen passes. Second-year power back Chris Ivory has breathtaking talent but can’t stay healthy. His status is uncertain after undergoing Lisfranc surgery in the offseason. If he returns to his pre-injury form, he’ll compete with Lynell Hamilton for the short-yardage and second-half closer role. Hamilton is trying to return to form after season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Coordinator Gregg Williams loves to get after the quarterback, but he’s often been forced to manufacture pressure because his unit lacks an elite pass-rusher. The tepid pass rush and a series of injuries in the secondary contributed to a drastic decline in the unit’s takeaway totals, from 39 in 2009 to 25 last season. Consequently, the overhauled front seven could feature as many as four new starters. Someone from the group desperately needs to become a disruptive force, especially in the passing game. Ends Will Smith and Alex Brown are solid, but neither has the elite explosiveness needed to pressure the quarterback consistently. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is coming off his best season and should benefit from the addition of massive run-stuffers Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. The Saints hope Rogers will be motivated by playing in a winning culture for the first time in his career. If so, he can be a difference-maker. Rookie Cameron Jordan could start at left end and is versatile enough to move inside in passing situations.
Speedy veteran Jonathan Vilma leads a linebacker corps that likely will feature two new starters outside. Jonathan Casillas is the frontrunner on the weak side after missing his second season because of a Lisfranc injury. He’s a Williams favorite and is a classic sideline-to-sideline tackler. Rookie Martez Wilson and veterans Scott Shanle and Danny Clark will compete for the starting job on the strong side.
The strength of the unit is the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are solid cover men outside. They don’t make many big plays, but they also rarely blow assignments or get burned deep. Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, played sparingly as a rookie but has talent. He’ll try to hold off newcomer Fabian Washington and promising third-round draft pick Johnny Patrick for the nickel spot. Strong safety Roman Harper is the team’s best tackler and ball-stripper but can still be exploited in pass coverage. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins is the best of the bunch. Smart and instinctive, he’s very similar to former teammate and mentor Darren Sharper.
The kicking game boasts a pair of powerful young legs in kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead. They’ve brought much-needed stability to an area that was shaky two years ago. Both should be around for awhile. Sproles should significantly upgrade the return game. An influx of young athletes should bolster the punt and kickoff coverage teams, which have annually ranked near the league’s bottom.
The talent, depth and experience are there for the Saints to supplant the Falcons in the NFC South and make another Super Bowl run. Much will depend on the impact of the newcomers. The offense remains potent. Brees is primed for another big season, and Ingram should bolster the rushing attack. If the defense can generate just a few more impact plays, the Saints will battle the Packers and Falcons for the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Outside the Huddle
Still marching in
The Saints sold out their full allotment of season tickets for the sixth consecutive season, another benchmark of the wildly successful Drew Brees-Sean Payton era.
Brees once again showed why he is one of the game’s great leaders when he organized a seven-week informal workout program for teammates in May and June. Thirty-five to 40 players regularly attended the thrice-a-week sessions at Tulane University.
The Saints have a chance to accomplish a rare feat this season. They’ve advanced to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons only once in club history, from 1990-92. They can match the feat with a postseason berth this season.
Dome sweet dome
The final phase of a five-year, $336-million post-Katrina renovation of the Superdome was completed in June. More than half of the cost was paid by FEMA. The renovation added more than 3,000 lower-bowl seats to the 36-year-old stadium, which will generate millions of dollars in additional annual revenue for the club.
Brees and fellow quarterback Chase Daniel are fierce competitors, especially with each other. They waged an epic battle in the home run derby at Heath Evans’ charity softball game in May, with Brees edging Daniel after the pair had homered on four consecutive at-bats in “extra innings.” Daniel did best Brees in the long-ball competition, sending one shot over the 330-foot fence in left field at Zephyr Field, the home of the Florida Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate. Afterward, linebacker Jonathan Casillas revealed the defense’s strategy in the ensuing offense-vs.-defense exhibition game: “We’re going to walk Drew and hit Chase every time they get up,” he said.
In June, Daniel raised more than $4,500 in relief funds for storm victims in Joplin, Mo., which is located about 250 miles from the University of Missouri campus where Daniel starred from 2006-08.
Payton created a stir locally in January when he elected to move his family from a bedroom community in New Orleans to an exclusive suburb of Arlington, Texas. Payton insisted the move was for personal reasons and wouldn’t affect his job, but many New Orleanians felt jilted, especially with the move coming only six months after the release of his best-selling book Home Team, in which he celebrated the emotional connection between the Saints and the local community.
Fullback Heath Evans has become one of the nation’s leading spokesmen for victims of childhood sexual abuse. His charity, the Heath Evans Foundation, has raised more than $2.5 million to increase awareness and provide resources to victims of abuse. Evans’ commitment is in honor of his wife, Beth Ann, who was abused by an older classmate in grade school.
Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage in each of the past two seasons — 70.6 in 2009 and 68.1 in ’10. He has completed at least 64.3 percent of his passes in all five seasons with the Saints. His career low is 57.6, which came in his second season a starter in San Diego.
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