New Orleans Saints 2009 Preview
If a man in a New Orleans Saints shirt ever passed a man wearing a Phoenix Suns hat on a street somewhere, you can be the two would briefly lock eyes and exchange looks of empathy. For, the man in the Suns hat knows what the man in the Saints shirt is going through. The Suns fan has spent the better part of the last five years rooting for a juggernaut offense to carry his favorite team to a title.
Sadly, the old saying Defense Wins Championships isn’t just a way to coax focus in young athletes during the boring drills at practice––it actually has merit. So, for the Suns fan, each postseason has proven to be nothing more than emotionally-expensive foreplay, outfitted with “We Believe” signs, thundersticks and homecrowd-unifying T-shirts.
The Saints fan hasn’t even gotten to taste that much of the playoffs. After exploding for a magical post-Katrina 2006 season that saw first-year head coach Sean Payton and new quarterback Drew Brees carry the club to the NFC title game, the Saints have become a beacon of disappointment (7-9 in ’07, 8-8 in ’08). None of the blame can be dumped on Payton or Brees. This offense ranked first in scoring and yardage last season, despite being without top receiving options Marques Colston, Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey, and despite having an utterly putrid rushing attack.
If Saints fans are frustrated seeing the team’s high-octane offense go to waste, imagine how general manager Mickey Loomis must feel. Since shrewdly signing Brees––who, you may recall, was originally a risky free agent investment after major shoulder surgery––and striking gold in the ’06 draft with Bush (first round), Colston (seventh round) and outstanding right guard Jahri Evans (fourth round), Loomis has wisely focused on constructing a formidable defense.
He locked former first-round star pass-rushers Charles Grant and Will Smith into long-term deals. Last year, he brought in ascending speed-rusher Bobby McCray and spent the No. 7 overall pick on defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. He also traded for Jonathan Vilma, a productive 27-year-old middle linebacker who played well enough to earn a new five-year, $34 million contract. Loomis hasn’t ignored the secondary, either. Jason David was signed to a rich free agent contract prior to ’07. When the zone-based corner floundered, Loomis tried again, bringing in Randall Gay in ’08. He also drafted Tracy Porter in the second round.
But nothing worked. The Saints defense finished 23rd in yards and 26th in points allowed last season, thanks in large part to a penchant for surrendering big plays (33 pass plays of 25 yards or more, just one less than they gave up in 2007). Injuries continued to be a factor, but not as much as general ineptitude.
So what did Loomis do? He tried even harder. This past offseason, longtime Jaguar defensive end Paul Spicer was brought in to provide depth up front (Spicer may also have to start four games depending on the outcome in the StarCaps steroid case that Grant and Smith, along with Vikings defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, have headlined). Identifying the secondary as this defense’s prime area of weakness, Loomis paid $10 million in guarantees to underrated Bills corner Jabari Greer, assured 33-year-old free safety Darren Sharper of a starting job if he came aboard and drafted Ohio State corner/safety Malcolm Jenkins in the first round.
All these moves give New Orleans a defense that, in terms of strict talent, is in the top half of the NFL. But it’s not Loomis’s player personnel changes that have the Bayou buzzing––it’s the change that Payton made. Facing the tough reality that his team’s defensive scheme was overly-cautious and just plain futile, Payton fired close friend Gary Gibbs after three seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator. Then he hired renowned attacker Gregg Williams.
The former Redskins D-coordinator is almost the antithesis of Gibbs. Williams preaches turnovers and aims to dictate tempo and tone. Is he a savior? Well, actually…maybe. A closer look at this roster reveals very few weak spots.
Drew Brees makes Sean Payton’s innovative, high-flying offense great. Reggie Bush makes the greatness come easy. But the lynchpin is the 30-year-old quarterback. Brees’s mastery of this complex system affords him a level of comfort in the pocket akin to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. His precision is top-notch, and his deep ball, while not overwhelming, is lethally accurate. Brees has an innate ability to extend the medium range pass. What would be a 12-yard completion for most quarterbacks is often a 16-20-yarder for Brees.
Perhaps more remarkable is that the man can post big numbers without having big-time receivers to throw to. Last year, Brees fell just 15 yards short of Dan Marino’s 5,084-yard single-season passing record despite New Orleans not having a single 1,000-yard receiver. Of course, the 1,000-yard receiver tidbit is somewhat misleading, as luminous fourth-year pro Marques Colston is more than capable of topping the millennium mark when healthy (thumb and knee injuries hampered the 6’4” possession wideout for much of ’08).
Colston moves the chains; speedsters Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem stretch the field. With the electrifying Henderson also being butterfingered and fundamentally shaky, the hope is that Meachem, a first-round pick in ’07, can make a quantum leap to star status in 2009. He has just 12 catches in 14 career games, but his undeniable talent is overshadowed only by his hard work in practice. Whoever doesn’t start between Henderson and Meachem will be relegated to No. 4 duties, as Drew Brees-favorite Lance Moore is terrific in the slot.
Amplifying this aerial assault are short-area weapons Jeremy Shockey and, of course, Reggie Bush. Shockey must show more all-around focus. Because this system often calls for the tight end to run only simple patterns in the flats, the impetuous eighth-year pro can easily be replaced by Billy Miller or even blocking aficionado Dan Campbell. As for Bush, it’s all about staying healthy. He underwent two arthroscopic knee surgeries last season and never found his true form. When Bush is 100 percent, defenses must pay him undivided attention, making the rest of this offense virtually unstoppable.
Bush is never going to please the critics who carp about his inability to run between the tackles. Simply put, he’s not really a running back. The Saints offense can technically thrive without a ground game––it did last year––but a way to indirectly help your defense and win consistently (rather than just register inflated stats) is to have more command over the tempo and clock. That’s done on the ground. With Deuce McAllister gone, Pierre Thomas takes over ahead of former Bronco Mike Bell as the hopeful power runner behind new fullback Heath Evans. Thomas does not have star qualities, but he can gobble up any yards presented to him.
There should be plenty simply because of this overbearing offensive line. Left tackle Jammal Brown draws the most accolades, though right guard Jahri Evans is actually the best player up front. Evans is a strong, dexterous run-blocker, and his pass protection, while occasionally iffy, is, overall, a big reason why Brees was sacked an NFC-low 13 times in ’08. (Granted, Brees’s ability to get rid of the football played a significant part.) Brown can be a nasty––sometimes even too nasty––road-grader. But he drew a league-high seven holding penalties last season because he lacks the lateral quickness to pick up racing edge-rushers.
The rest of the line consists of center Jonathan Goodwin, second-year left guard Carl Nicks and seventh-year right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. All are somewhat sloppy though mammoth maulers who can move the pile. Backups Jamar Nesbit, Nick Leckey and Anthony Davis all have fairly extensive NFL starting experience, though Nesbit is the only true reliable option of the bunch.
The new scheme isn’t going to impact just one area. Under Gary Gibbs, all 11 Saints defenders were passive; under Gregg Williams, all 11 will be aggressive. Williams would love to see his front four live up to high expectations and minimize the necessity of blitzing. Charles Grant and Will Smith can both be demons off the edge, though neither has posted big numbers since signing lucrative long-term contracts. Given that injuries have been a factor, it might be harsh to accuse either veteran of tempering his intensity. Though to ensure a full motor from both, the Saints may want to consider employing more of a rotation at end. The resources are there. Bobby McCray can be a lightning-quick pass-rusher. His former Jaguar teammate, Paul Spicer, can anchor against the run. Even third-string option Jeff Charleston is worthy of a few snaps a game.
The depth at defensive tackle is unimpressive save for maybe last year’s undrafted rookie Remi Ayodele, who shows potential as a run-stopper. Thus, the onus is on second-year sensation Sedrick Ellis to continue his maturation. Rotund size and impressive quickness give Ellis Pro Bowl potential. With middling nose tackle Kendrick Clancy unable to dominate in a phone booth, Ellis will have to learn to combat double teams.
A more assertive scheme poses bigger challenges to this solid linebacking core. Strongside starter and defensive captain Scott Fujita must conjure more big plays. Fujita is smart, physical, fast and, frankly, too good to be posting similar numbers to smaller and less athletically-blessed weakside mate Scott Shanle. The Saints actually drafted Shanle’s eventual replacement, Stanley Arnoux, but the fourth-round rookie blew out his Achilles in May. Thus, unless Williams takes a special liking to versatile veteran Mark Simoneau (returning from a back injury that cost him all of last season), Shanle’s starting job is safe for 2009. Shanle’s playing time is merited, though the 29-year-old must prove he can pin his ears back.
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is not the bone-chilling athletic specimen he was prior to his ’04 knee injury. But at 27, he’s established an image as a patient, fundamentally-sound read-and-react stopper. Whether his style meshes with Williams’s scheme remains to be seen, but the Saints wouldn’t have signed Vilma to a five-year deal if they didn’t believe he could maintain his status as a solid second echelon Mike.
Williams has always saddled his cornerbacks with heavy responsibilities. That’s why the position will be closely monitored throughout training camp. In New Orleans’s perfect world, second-year man Tracy Porter would resume his commendable development from early last season and use his quickness to become a feared route-jumper. Lining up opposite Porter in this perfect world would be Malcolm Jenkins, whose physicality on the outside is so firm that the front office would feel okay having free agent pickup Jabari Greer be a first-class nickelback as opposed to a steady starter. If this scenario comes to light (and it’s likely that it will), then Randall Gay would be relegated to dime duties and special teams maven Leigh Torrence would play well enough for New Orleans to cut Jason David.
The Saints are hoping that the light bulb can finally illuminate for strong safety Roman Harper. But they’re not exactly confident. Chip Vaughn was drafted in Round Four and could get a chance to start if the fervid tackling Harper continues to bobble so many of his coverage assignments. Cunning free safety Darren Sharper can help guide Harper. Sharper is 33 but not yet washed up. That’s why the speculation about slow-footed third-year pro Usama Young, a former cornerback, capturing a starting job in centerfield is baseless.
Unknown kicker Garrett Hartley joined the Saints in Week 10 last season and scored every time he saw a snap (13/13 on field goals, 28/28 on extra points). This year, those snaps will be coming from longtime Panther Jason Kyle, a man as reliable as mathematics. Punter Glenn Pakulak will almost certainly lose his job to fifth-round rookie Thomas Morstead. Backup receivers Skyler Green and Courtney Roby will compete for kick return duties now that Pierre Thomas is a starter. Reggie Bush will continue to scare the daylights out of opposing punters.
As long as Drew Brees is under center, this is a Super Bowl-caliber offense. A healthy Reggie Bush and a semi-potent power run game makes the offense virtually flawless. So can the defense catch up? Or even get close? Bringing in Gregg Williams and his refreshingly aggressive scheme was absolutely brilliant. This defense, if healthy, is surprisingly talented. The Saints have been too flaky in recent years to bet the farm on, but feel comfortable wagering some of your finest tractors and livestock.
Predicted finish: 1st NFC South
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