New Orleans Saints 2013 Season Preview
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It wasn't anarchic as the storyline from William Golding's classic novel "Lord of the Flies," but last season for the New Orleans Saints was in disarray without figurehead Sean Payton.
Due to his alleged involvement in a bounty scandal, Payton was suspended without pay the entire 2012 campaign. Payton, the first head coach suspended by the league for any reason, was accused of trying to cover up a system of payouts on targeted players from opposing teams.
Even then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams received an indefinite ban from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Payton, one of just seven active coaches to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, is back with the Saints and excited to resume head coaching duties.
"Just getting back to being out on the field in practice and having a chance to coach in a regular game, that part of it is exciting," Payton said earlier this month. "The fans have been great. They get excited about our team, especially at the start of the season after everything that went on a year ago. I know our players are excited to play."
The Saints lost their edge a bit without Payton and lost their first four games of last season en route to a 7-9 finish, the worst since an identical mark back 2007. They managed to get their act together by winning five of the last nine games of the season and Drew Brees had another epic campaign. He was one of the heavy supporters for Payton and is glad to hear his voice again.
"I had Sean Payton in my ear for 5 1/2 years," Brees said in late July "I've got confidence in whomever is calling the plays, but I'm happy to have Sean's voice in my ear (again)."
Brees finished first in the NFL last season with 5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes and was tied with 19 interceptions. The veteran quarterback is the bona fide leader of this team and the Saints would be in deep sludge without him. Brees, one of the more intelligent signal callers in the league, still has a bevy of weapons at his disposal in New Orleans' fast-paced style of offense. The Saints enjoy attacking opponents through the air and, with Payton back, will compete with Atlanta again for NFC South bragging rights.
New Orleans is expected to have a four or five-game turnaround in 2013 if the offense can revert back to its balanced ways under Payton. The ground game finished 25th in the NFL with 98.6 yards per game and it will once again be a committee approach this season.
A potent offense needs a stingy defense to maintain leads and give the likes of Brees, the offensive line and other skill position players a rest. New Orleans was simply awful on defense a year ago, finishing near the bottom in every major category. The Saints were last in rushing yards allowed (147.6) and total yards allowed (440.1), and 31st against the pass (292.6) and points allowed (28.4) under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose defense gave up 7,042 yards last season, the most yards given up by a team in NFL history.
The Saints needed to counter their high-powered offense with a different philosophy on defense, so they hired Rob Ryan as Spagnuolo's replacement. Ryan's flowing locks will be on the sidelines and he will implement is energetic 3-4 defense, which consists of position shifts and changes up front. Ryan tries to intensify pressure up front and hold up blockers to allow the linebackers and secondary to make plays. The Saints had just 30 sacks last season, while Ryan's Dallas Cowboys unit registered 34.
In fact, the Cowboys weren't that great on defense as they were 19th in both pass defense (230.2) and total yards allowed (355.4), 22nd in rush defense (125.2) and 24th in points allowed (25.0). Whether Ryan can make it work with his aggressive nature and co-exist with Payton will be one of the team's biggest obstacles.
2012 RECORD: 7-9 (tied for 2nd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011 (lost to San Francisco Divisional Round)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Sean Payton (62-34, eighth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael (fifth season with Saints)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Ryan (first season with Saints)
KEY ADDITIONS: S Jim Leonhard (from Broncos), LB Victor Butler (from Cowboys), CB Chris Carr (from Chargers), CB Keenan Lewis (from Steelers), S Kenny Vaccaro (draft), WR Kenny Stills (draft), TE Benjamin Watson (from Browns), QB Luke McCown (from Falcons)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Chase Daniel (Chiefs), QB Seneca Wallace (released), WR Steve Breaston (released), WR Patrick Crayton (released), RB Chris Ivory (Jets), WR Devery Henderson (released), DT Sedrick Ellis (Bears)
QB: Brees (5,177 yards, 43 TD, 19 INT) tried desperately to hold the Saints' offense together during the tumultuous 2012 season and did the best he could. Known for lighting up the sky within New Orleans' aerial attack, Brees has thrown for 5,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons and could be eyeing another now that Payton is back. Brees, though, proved that he didn't need his coach on the sidelines to inspire another passing masterpiece.
Brees has also thrown 40 or more TD passes in back-to-back campaigns and had thrown a TD pass in 54 games in a row until Atlanta picked him off five times in November. His 19 interceptions were the most since he had 22 in 2010, so the Saints are hoping he can keep that down.
Luke McCown is the new backup in New Orleans after Chase Daniel headed to Kansas City. McCown played two games with Atlanta last season and spent training camp with the Saints in 2012. McCown is a seasoned veteran and has played in 22 career games (9 starts) with the Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Falcons.
RB: It will be another running-back-by-committee approach for the Saints' backfield with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles.
New Orleans struggled on the ground last season, finishing 25th in the NFL with 98.6 yards per game, and it appears nobody wants to prove their worth as the starter. Ingram (602 yards, 5 TD) led the bunch in rushing and really hasn't lived up to expectations after winning a Heisman Trophy. Ingram, who's also injury prone, also had a team-best 156 carries, while Thomas (473 yards, TD) was second in touches with 105.
With Chris Ivory now playing for the New York Jets, Sproles could see more carries. The multi-purpose back has the most talent in the backfield yet he is tremendously undersized. Sproles (244 rushing yards, TD) shined in the passing game with 667 yards and seven TDs on 75 catches, third-highest on the team. The Saints need a balanced attack to regain their dominant form from years past and it rests on the shoulders of these running backs. In 2011, the Saints finished the season ranked sixth overall in the NFL in total rushing yards (2,127).
WR: The reason why Brees and the Saints' offense has been so potent over the last few seasons is because of the passing game. Brees helped the Saints finish first with 312.3 passing yards per game last season, second in total yards with 410.9 and third in points scored at 28.8. With so many weapons in the aerial assault, there's no reason why New Orleans won't compete for another NFC South title.
The Saints nearly had three 1,000-yard receivers a season ago, as Marques Colston (1,154 yards, 10 TD), Lance Moore (1,041 yards, 6 TD) and Jimmy Graham (982 yards, 9 TD) garnered much of the attention.
Graham has been Brees' favorite target recently and battled with a wrist ailment in 2012. It didn't stop Graham from playing 15 games and finishing with a team-best 85 receptions. Colston and Moore are New Orleans' deep threats and Devery Henderson took his talents elsewhere in the offseason.
Rookie Kenny Stills was drafted in April and veteran tight end Ben Watson was added in the offseason to provide stability. Wideout Joe Morgan suffered an ACL injury and is out for the season. Sproles and Thomas are also valuable commodities out of the backfield. Will the Saints' offense be more potent than Atlanta's? Perhaps, but the Falcons do have the edge right now.
TE: Graham is one of the best tight ends in the game and his height and size add to that claim. The sure-handed Graham, who led the Saints in receiving for a second year in a row, underwent wrist surgery in the offseason and dropped 15 passes in 2012. That number must be cut in half this season. Graham, a former hoops star at the University of Miami, ranks second among NFL tight ends and sixth overall in receiving since 2011 with 184 catches for 2,292 yards (12.5 avg.) and 20 touchdowns. Graham has deceiving speed and is a matchup nightmare for ends and linebackers.
If should anything happen to Graham, health-wise, the Saints have Watson as an insurance policy. Watson played the past three seasons with the Browns. Last season, he recorded 49 receptions for 501 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games.
OL: Granted Brees has enough time and smarts to hit the open receiver, but reading defenses doesn't always work out. Brees was sacked 26 times last season, one short of his career high in 2005 with San Diego. The 26 sacks, though, tied for third in the league in fewest allowed. In fact, the former Purdue star has been sacked at least 20 times in each of the previous four season (95 total).
For the lack of protection Brees may sometimes get, the offensive line should be blamed for last season's ineptitude in the ground game. Guard Jahri Evans, one of the best in the business, and tackle Jermon Bushrod were named to the Pro Bowl last season, but Bushrod is no longer with the team. Evans was selected to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, while center Brian de la Puente is coming off his first full season as a starter.
An entire offseason and training camp can only make this line even more cohesive. Charles Brown is penciled in to start at left tackle, Brees' blind side, and Zach Strief is expected to win the job at right tackle. Ben Grubbs is at left guard for the Saints, who were hoping to add depth with Jason Smith, but he was cut on Wednesday.
Eric Olsen is a quality backup and rookie tackle Terron Armstead is hoping to gain some valuable experience in his first season. The line helped the offense soar in a lot of categories last season, but struggled in others.
DL: Switching to a 3-4 scheme could help the Saints' awful defense from a year ago. But if they still can't apply pressure up front or stymie the run game, then what's the point?
Defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who came over with Ryan from Dallas, will miss the season with a chest injury and played in just seven games last season. Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins and rookie end Rufus Johnson hope to see action up front, while Akiem Hicks (20 tackles) and Cameron Jordan (66 tackles, 8 sacks) are expected to start at the end spots.
Jordan, who played in a 3-4 defense in college, is a young and up-and-coming talent and led the unit in sacks last season. Trying to help the inexperienced Jenkins up front will be starting nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Bunkley (23 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) is a veteran of the game and needs to collapse the pocket more often this season.
LB: Since a 3-4 system moves personnel around, Will Smith will be playing a new position from his ordinary DE spot. Smith (58 tackles, 6 sacks) was second in sacks last season and is now on the outside.
Junior Galette (20 tackles, 5 sacks) will start on the opposite end of Smith and is making a transition from the defensive line as well. Galette played well in a rotation last season and his role will increase in 2013.
New Orleans leading tackler Curtis Lofton (123 tackles, sack) and Jonathan Vilma (37 tackles, sack) will man the inside spots for Ryan's stop unit. Vilma reportedly underwent knee surgery earlier this month and is expected to play in Week 1. Vilma played in 11 games last season, starting 10, and allegedly played a key role in the bounty scandal. If the Saints fail to slow opposing offenses down up front, the linebackers will be in for a long day. That's why it's important for the lineman to hold up blockers so the linebackers can attack ball carriers or get sacks.
Butler was signed in the offseason, but tore his ACL in OTAs. He was supposed to be a pass rusher in Ryan's new system.
DB: It's difficult to imagine the Saints struggling so badly against the pass last season with two of the more talented safeties in the league. Roman Harper (115 tackles, 2 INT) and Malcolm Jenkins (94 tackles, INT) are great tacklers and hitters in this league. They were beaten in coverage several times last season and need to produce more turnovers. The Saints are hoping the new defense will open more holes for both Harper and Jenkins.
Hard-hitting rookie Kenny Vaccaro was drafted to push either one of the safeties and may even crack the starting lineup by mid-season.
Cornerbacks Jabari Greer (51 tackles, 3 INT) and Keenan Lewis (71 tackles) have their work cut out for them in the NFC South and the latter was signed away from Pittsburgh in the offseason. Lewis is a New Orleans native and led the league with 28 passes defensed a season ago.
The Saints have some depth in the secondary with Patrick Robinson (63 tackles, 3 INT), who finished tied for the team lead in picks, Corey White (31 tackles, INT) and newcomers Jim Leonard (18 tackles) and Chris Carr (4 tackles).
Leonard appeared in 16 games last season for the Denver Broncos and the undrafted Wisconsin product is playing for his fifth NFL team. Carr played nine games with San Diego in 2012.
SPECIAL TEAMS: For how dangerous Sproles is running and catching the football, he can cause some damage in the return game, too. Sproles will handle both kickoff and punt return duties even though he'll be put in harm's way. Sproles had 18 kickoff returns for 483 yards (26.8) and 23 punt returns for 183 yards (14) last season. His small stature makes it difficult for defenders to see him and Sproles has quick feet for proper cuts. Sproles has brought back five kickoffs and punts for touchdowns since 2007.
Kicker Garrett Hartley connected on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts last season and nailed all 57 of his PAT tries. Perhaps no kicker gets more involved in extra-point plays than Hartley, who kicked the Saints to the Super Bowl a few years ago and missed 2011 with a hip issue.
Punter/holder Thomas Morstead averaged 50.1 yards per punt on 74 tries (3,707 yards) in 2012 and landed 20 inside the 20-yard line. The Pro Bowl pick's longest of the season was a 70-yard boom and he handles kickoff duties as well.
Justin Drescher is the Saints' longsnapper and signed a new deal. Courtney Roby owns 61 special teams tackles in the past five seasons and is the captain of the unit. Last season he had 10 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered a blocked punt for a TD.
COACHING: The return of Payton is supposed to ignite the Saints' offense once again and has the players relieved their head coach is back. Payton is a mastermind of the offense, having learned under a handful of intelligent minds, and he owns the franchise's top winning percentage (.646).
The 14th head coach in team history, Payton is counting on Ryan's defense to keep opposing offenses off the field. For how poorly the Saints were a year ago on defense, they finished 20th in the league in points allowed and 25th in yardage during the championship run of 2009. But that's because Brees and the offense brought back memories of the St. Louis Rams from years ago with a dangerous pass attack and a solid ground game. New Orleans allowed 400-plus yards on defense in the first nine games last season, including three occasions in which the Saints gave up 500 or more. The streak reached 11 games from the 2011 playoffs. That cannot happen again or the Saints will be battling to stay out of the NFC South basement. Payton's return to the offensive-minded Saints will have a huge impact on how the defense performs.
GRADE: B+ (only because of Payton's return)
THE SKINNY: Not to beat a dead horse, but Payton's return to the sidelines is just as important as having a healthy Brees under center.
Uncertainty ran wild and played a significant role when Goodell cracked down on the bounty scandal. But it's a new year and New Orleans is right back in the playoff mix months after a 7-9 finish. The Falcons are now forced to look over their shoulder in defense of last season's NFC South title.
08/23 15:40:08 ET
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