After finishing the regular season 13-3, the playoffs ended in disappointment for the New Orleans Saints. The team handily won their playoff opener against the Lions, but proceeded to blow two go-ahead scoring drives in the final four minutes of the Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
The offseason couldn’t have gone worse, as Drew Brees held out and the Saints were hammered by the NFL for Gregg Williams’ bounty program with suspensions of head coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis, assistant coach Joe Vitt, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, and the loss of draft picks.
Now the team goes into the 2012 season with an interim head coach who is suspended to start the season, and a tough schedule. Will they be able to handle the adversity and remain a Super Bowl contender?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Drew Brees
The leader of the NFL’s most prolific passing attack is back and happy after signing a five-year $100 million dollar contract, which will pay him $40 million in 2012. In 2011, Drew Brees was PFF’s highest rated quarterback, finishing with a ridiculous +60.2 grade and setting NFL records for passing yards and completion percentage. This season doesn’t come without question marks though: what effect will his absence from team activities during the offseason have? And more significantly, will he be the same quarterback without Sean Payton on the sidelines for the first time in his career with the Saints?
Answering these questions, and improving upon a season in which he completed 71.2% of his passes and broke Dan Marino’s single-season passing record will be a challenge, but Brees is one of the few quarterbacks with the ability to even match it. The pressure of being the highest paid player in NFL history could provide some extra motivation.
2) Revamped LB Corps
Last season, the linebacking trio of Jonathan Vilma, Scott Shanle, and JoLonn Dunbar combined for a PFF grade of -60.2. Jonathan Casillas, who played 560 snaps, added a rating of -11.2. No matter who Gregg Williams put on the field, whether in a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, the group was a weakness, with all seven players that received snaps at the position getting negative grades.
With that in mind, it’s pretty safe to say that linebacker was a position of colossal need for improvement this offseason. The Saints responded by bringing in free agents Curtis Lofton (+12.3 in 2011), David Hawthorne (+8.9), and Chris Chamberlain (+3.6). The trio should help sure-up a Saints run defense that allowed 5 yards per attempt last season, one of the worst marks in the NFL. Through two preseason games the former Falcon, Lofton, has looked right at home in the middle of the defense, making the absence of Vilma a non-issue.
The past two seasons ended with the Saints’ offense on the sideline watching Marshawn Lynch and Alex Smith run over (quite literally in the case of Lynch) Gregg Williams’ defenses. Williams is now gone, taking with him the all-out blitzes that left the defense vulnerable on the back end (they led the league by blitzing on 50.8% of all passing plays). In comes Steve Spagnuolo, whose more disciplined, zone-based scheme should create more turnover opportunities and limit the amount of big plays given up. The defense will exclusively line up in a 4-3 alignment, which means fewer 3-4 looks which the Saints used heavily in their 2009 Super Bowl victory under Williams.
Although a disciple of the aggressive Jim Johnson defense, Spagnuolo prefers to create pressure with a four- man rush, which he did successfully during his tenure with the Giants. Improving the Saints’ tepid pass rush will prove a greater challenge, though changes are already evident in this regard: upon arriving in New Orleans, Spagnuolo immediately moved second-year player Martez Wilson from linebacker to defensive end, the position at which he was a 5-star recruit out of high school.
Bolstered by the free agent signings at linebacker and the addition of Brodrick Bunkley at defensive tackle, the defense already looks to be improved: after coming up with only nine interceptions last season, the Saints already have three through two preseason games.
4) Jimmy Graham
In his second season in the NFL, Graham took a huge step forward and cemented himself as one of the premier tight ends in the league. Graham’s regular season, in which he caught 99 balls for 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns, was bested only by Rob Gronkowski’s historic season. Few defenders can handle Graham in coverage with his freakish combination of size and athleticism, and what’s worse for opposing defenses is that Graham is still relatively new to football and the tight end position. The Saints’ TE does need to improve his blocking to become a more complete tight end, but even without that he’s still a tremendous talent. Expect another monster year from Graham.
5) Running Game
Often overlooked because of Brees and the Saints’ aerial attack, is the fact that the Saints had PFF’s second highest graded rushing attack and ranked sixth in yards per game on the ground (132.9) in 2011. The rushing attack is largely a product of what could be the deepest stable of running backs in the NFL with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram.
Few backs in the league bring more to the table than Thomas and the dynamic Sproles. Yet Ingram could be the most talented of the group and should take a step forward in his second season, provided he can stay on the field. The Saints have so many running backs that Ivory, who posted a +5.2 grade in just 156 snaps last season, might not even make the roster. Ivory is competing for his spot with this year’s fan training camp favorite Travaris Cadet, the undrafted rookie out of Appalachian State, who has turned heads this preseason. Even though one of the better offensive lines in the league lost its best player with Carl Nicks now in Tampa Bay, Ben Grubbs is a solid replacement who should be able to help keep this Saints run game among the best in the league.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) No Sean Payton / “Do Your Job”
In six seasons as Head Coach of the Saints, Sean Payton amassed a 62-34 record and turned New Orleans into a Super Bowl champion and perennial contender. In the wake of the bounty scandal, Payton is gone for the year and his replacement, interim coach Joe Vitt, is suspended for the first six games. How will the team respond? The coaches have been preaching a “next man up” philosophy, but will they be able to translate that into wins?
The question of who replaces Vitt for the first six games is significant. Pete Charmichael is a logical choice, but he might have his hands full trying to maintain the Saints’ high powered offense without Payton. Spagnuolo has previous experience, but is installing a new defense. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is a dark horse in this regard; he’s been with the Saints for a few years now and won’t be bogged down with coordinator duties.
The good news is the Saints experienced a pseudo-trial run of Payton’s absence last season, when he went down with a broken tibia and torn meniscus in Week 6. They won’t have him in the meeting rooms this time, but the game-day experience could prove valuable for Charmichael and the rest of the coaching staff.
2) Pass Rush
No team had a worse pass rush grade (-73.4) than the Saints last season and that was with Williams’ ultra-aggressive defensive scheme. Spagnuolo’s scheme will rely much more on a defensive line that produced just 18 sacks. Only Will Smith, who led the group with seven sacks, and Junior Gallette provided an above average pass rush, and Smith is suspended for the first four games of the season.
Beyond Smith and Gallette, where will the pass rush come from? Cam Jordan was one of the best ends in the league against the run, but needs to show that he can do a better job getting after the quarterback. Martez Wilson is an intriguing option and has been solid in two preseason games after shifting to end from linebacker, where he flashed good pass rushing ability in limited snaps last season. On the interior, newcomer Bunkley (+31.2 against the run) isn’t a guy quarterbacks fear, while Sedrick Ellis was a Top 10 pick, but hasn’t looked it. The Saints will be hoping that Spagnuolo can turn around a poor performance last season and make Ellis play up to where he was drafted. Rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, impressive in his preseason debut against New England, could be an interesting player to watch through the season.
3) Secondary Depth and Play
The Saints’ secondary did not perform strongly in 2011, highlighted by the season ending performance against Alex Smith and Vernon Davis. Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson were above-average corners last year, but both have missed time with injury this preseason. Tracy Porter is now in Denver and while he didn’t play particularly well last season (-10.4 grade), he had a knack for making big plays as a Saint. Behind Greer and Robinson, the Saints are relying on second-year player Johnny Patrick, rookie Corey White, and free agent signing Marquis Johnson.
The safety situation isn’t much better. Roman Harper (-17.8) is a liability in pass coverage and Malcolm Jenkins (-8.7) might want to stay away from Vernon Davis, though you hope that he won’t be left quite as exposed as he was with Williams in charge. Spagnuolo’s less aggressive scheme should help to put less pressure on the secondary, but the group remains a big question mark heading into 2012.
4) Who Replaces Robert Meachem at Wide Receiver?
Meachem isn’t necessarily a star, but he provided Brees with one of the best deep threats in the league. Now a Charger, he also played the most snaps of any Saints receiver last year. Devery Henderson and the unproven trio of Adrian Arrington, rookie Nick Toon, and Courtney Roby are the leading candidates to replace Meachem. Henderson (-4.9) is a good deep threat but has been below average overall the past three seasons. Mostly a practice squad player since he was drafted in 2008, Arrington looks a lot like Marques Colston and has flashed the ability to be a solid possession receiver. The problem is he can’t stay healthy and may not make the roster this season. Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, looks like he could also be a similar player to Colston but, like Arrington, is an injury waiting to happen and has yet to play this preseason. Roby has looked good through two preseason games but has played a total of 19 offensive snaps the past three years and appears more of a fixture on special teams.
The good news is the Saints have other quality receiving options. Colston (+17.3) had his best season as a pro and was a Top 5 player at the position last year, while Lance Moore has also been a great target when he is on the field, not to mention Graham and Sproles. The cause for concern is that in a group of receivers prone to injury, there is not a lot of depth.
The Saints will be heavily tested in 2012, with 11 games against teams that finished 9-7 or better in the 2011 regular season, and a gauntlet of tough opposing quarterbacks that will put the new look New Orleans defense to the test.
Within the NFC South, Atlanta will provide the usual tough challenge; four of the last five meetings between the two teams have been decided by only three points, including two overtime games. The Falcon’s offense looks to be much more explosive this year, with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter sending Julio Jones deep more often. Cam Newton should be much improved in his second season and Tampa Bay, under new coach Greg Schiano, can only get better after finishing 4-12 in 2011.
New Orleans gets Phillip Rivers and the AFC West outside of conference, while within the NFC, the Saints face the NFC East: they get to welcome Robert Griffin III to the NFL in Week 1 when they host the Redskins in the Super Dome, but have to travel to New York in December to play the defending champion Giants.
The prize for winning the NFC South last season is a home game against the 49ers and a trip to Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers, with a minor consolation being they play the Packers early (Week 4).
What to Expect
All of the offseason turmoil stemming from ‘Bounty-Gate’ can make it easy to forget the fact the Saints were a 13-3 team last season, and with Drew Brees at the helm of an explosive offense, it’s unlikely that the Saints will take a huge step back. If the defense can improve, the Saints should once again be one of the top teams in a loaded NFC.
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