PFF Preview 2011 – New Orleans Saints

| August 26, 2011

Losing away to Seattle in the playoffs can’t have sat well with head coach Sean Payton.
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From the start, New Orleans should have been at home after winning the division; losing to Arizona and Cleveland (at home) should not have happened. However, those two embarrassing losses wouldn’t have mattered as much if they had managed to put away a team with four less wins than them in the playoffs. As we all know, the Seahawks’ edge rushers targeted the Saints’ weak tackles and made Drew Brees very uncomfortable in the pocket,while on the other side of the ball, the New Orleans’ defensive shortcomings were exposed for all to see.
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What can we expect from the Super Bowl XLIV champs this year?
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1.) Drew Brees is Still Underrated

There are some truly great quarterbacks playing in the league right now, and with all the talk of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and most recently Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees doesn’t get as many mentions as he should. In a three year study (2008-2010) of quarterbacks we published recently we had him as our third ranked quarterback, which does him some justice.

Brees is an excellent deep passer that genuinely challenges defenses,  on passes over 20 yards in 2010 only Rodgers graded higher.

While he also has an uncanny ability to read defenses, understand where pressure will likely develop and make the appropriate throw, Brees did make an unusual amount of poor decisions last year as four of his 22 interceptions came behind the line of scrimmage. Don’t expect to see those numbers again as Brees is a far too accomplished a student of the game to make the same mistakes twice.

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2.) A Three-Headed Monster

It’s early in the preseason, but there are already positive signs in the New Orleans’ backfield. Pierre Thomas has been a perennial PFF favorite, but because of his history with injuries, the Saints decided not to take any chances and drafted Mark Ingram in the first round and signed Darren Sproles in free agency. It’s too early to be definitive but it looks as if Thomas and Ingram will share early down carries, with Sproles taking the field on third downs. This makes the most sense because although Thomas is a real threat as a receiver, he’s not the pass protector that Sproles is, and you really don’t want a rookie running backs picking up blitzes.

In the game against the Texans, these three backs combined for 106 yards and a touchdown on 18 touches and that may just be the precursor to far better things to come.

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3.) The Right Side of the Offensive Line

We put Jahri Evans in our Pro Bowl squad a year before anyone outside of Louisiana knew who he was, and told you before last season started that the Cowboys would be fine with Doug Free playing left tackle. The last time Jon Stinchcomb was anything other than a liability in pass protection was the 2009 regular season. Stinchcomb has always had skills as a run blocker, but his protection has faded notably over the last year and a half and he’s been particularly poor in the playoffs. That’s just one of the reasons why we’ve been calling for Zach Strief to be promoted.

Another reason is that if you extrapolated Strief’s pass blocking performance over the last three years up to the same snaps as Stinchcomb had last year it would read like this:

Strief – sacks 4, hits 11, hurries 17

Stinchcomb – sacks 7, hits 6, hurries 48

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4.) The Receiving Corps is Intact

It’s great that despite having fewer snaps than a player of his ability warrants, the Saints knew what they had in Lance Moore as they made it a priority to retain his services in free agency. The Saints tend to rotate their offensive personnel more than any other team in the league, varying their offensive formations with single receiver sets (that almost always feature Robert Meachem) and multiple receiver sets (that use Marques Colston plus a combination of the others). As a result, their receivers have limited chances to compile even more impressive numbers.

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5.) A Solid Combination of Defensive Tackles

New Orleans made some excellent additions on the defensive line this offseason. Shaun Rogers was a cap casualty in Cleveland, and the only knock on him is that he can look a little uninterested when playing against the run. However, he was excellent when tasked with getting to the quarterback, as he was our sixth-ranked pass rusher as a defensive tackle, getting three sacks, 12 hits and 15 hurries on only 272 rushes.

Later, when the market for 49ers NT Aubrayo Franklin didn’t materialize, they filled the void left by Remi Ayodele with an even better run stuffer. In our opinion, only Kyle Williams did a better job against the run than Franklin last year and on early downs he can eat-up two blockers. Great news? Not quite yet. In their obsession to try and ring every ounce of value from first-round underachiever Sedrick Ellis, the Saints are still starting him alongside Rogers.

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5 Reasons to be Concerned
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1.) Olin Kreutz Could Be Over The Hill

Let’s be honest, it’s a real indictment when a club with as poor an offensive line as the Chicago Bears lets their former All-Pro center walk. Olin Kreutz still holds his own as a pass protector, but his run blocking has declined significantly, and he was as ineffective as any center in the league last year. Should we call it? Not quite yet. He’s now gone from playing between two of the lesser guards in the league to two of the best, and his notorious passion and pride has got to have been piqued. In the world of previously good centers moving to new teams, let’s hope this one is more Matt Birk (our top ranked C last year) than Jeff Faine (No. 27).

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2.) Jermon Bushrod is (still) at LT

Three seasons ago, after winning the Super Bowl with David Diehl at left tackle, the New York Giants gave him a new contract and the position full-time. 21 sacks, 28 hits and 76 hurries of Eli Manning later, they finally returned him to LG. Putting it bluntly, David Diehl is a better player than Jermon Bushrod, but the fourth rounder out of Towson State may have a longer tenure than Diehl at the position. Why? Well there’s a theme running through this preview and if you skip to No. 5, it will answer that question more fully.

The recent past is more my point and watching Bushrod get killed by Raheem Brock in this year’s Wild Card game worries me a lot.

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3.) Pressure on Opposing Quarterbacks Will Need to be Manufactured (again)

Of every Saints defender only three players still with the team generated more than average pressure per rush last year; Will Smith – who was good but by no means great, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. It’s instructive that of all 28 players used on defense last year, regardless of snaps, only two never rushed the passer (Kawika Mitchell who played 2 snaps and Matt Giordano with 10). Everyone else was coming at one time or another and that’s the way Greg Williams will continue to roll this year. It’s boom or bust stuff and he better hope his back end plays to their ability, otherwise the Saints will be involved in a lot of shoot outs.

They did pick up Rogers who’s got significant ability to push the pocket but beyond that, the names remain the same – unless of course first round pick Cameron Jordan plays beyond his years and makes a big difference.

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4.) The Linebackers are a weakness (once more)

Hard evidence from previous years suggests that a third of the linebackers will be awful and, if Jonathan Vilma is not protected by his defensive tackles, the Saints can make that two of three. The Jets let the ex-hurricane go because of his lack of solidity vs. the run but given his fantastic ability in coverage that wasn’t such an issue for New Orleans. The problem is last year his coverage fell away too; giving away 71% of catches on balls thrown his way and four TDs. However, let’s say this coverage issue is a blip and we now have Aubrayo Franklin holding in guards – it could go either way.

What isn’t a blip is Scott Shanle’s performance. In the last three years, we’ve ranked him last, next to last and 4th from last of all 4-3 linebackers. In 2010 he missed 20% of all tackles he attempted, gave up a QB rating of 106 on balls thrown into his coverage and generated only 12 pressures from 147 attempts.

Finally, for reasons that escape us, the Seahawks used free agent pick-up Will Herring as a nickel LB last year in preference to David Hawthorne. Herring played 302 snaps and in that time there was nothing to suggest he was more than just a back-up. Starting him on the strong side seems like a high risk move.

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5.) The Saints are (very) stubborn

Winning a Super Bowl is the ultimate goal but sometimes it brings its share of problems, not the least of which can be an all-devouring belief in what worked “the first time”. Since Payton has taken over the team, they’ve obviously become one of the best in the league but how much of that is down to having someone like Drew Brees at QB? Is there such a deep-seated belief in their way of doing things they allow issues to go on beyond what is reasonable and only let go when they have little or no choice? Some examples of this are:

●  Insisting Reggie Bush was a between-the-tackles runner when the rest of the league knew after one season he was a slot receiver.

●  The obsession with Sedrick Ellis despite years of underwhelming play.

●  Leaving Bushrod at LT.

●  Persisting with Scott Shanle at all never mind as an every down player.

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The Saints are likely to be one of my NFC Championship team choices for this year – such is my belief in just how good a player (and leader) Brees is and because of the potential in their team. They will, however, need to get the best out of what they have to beat a team like Green Bay and whatever the AFC has to offer and win it all. Is it in them to adapt and overcome or will they flounder on the rocks of their own, self-imposed, structures?

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  • mvillar

    Excellent observations. Looking forward to your analysis of the Saints throughout the season.