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2010 NFL Preview: New Orleans Saints

Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 Final record (overall, division): 13-3, 4-2
Division finish: 1st NFC South
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 1st, 1st, 4th, 6th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards):
20th, 25th, 26th, 21st

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Pierre Thomas, 793 yards, 6 TD; Mike Bell, 654 yards, 5 TD; Reggie Bush, 390 yards, 5 TD
Passing: Drew Brees, 4,388 yards, 34 TD, 11 INT
Receiving: Marques Colston, 1,074 yards, 9 TD; Devery Henderson, 804 yards, 2 TD; Robert Meachem, 722 DD yards, 9 TD; Jeremy Shockey, 569 yards, 3 TD; Reggie Bush, 335 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Jonathan Vilma, 87 total tackles; Roman Harper, 84 total tackles
Sacks: Will Smith, 13 sacks; Charles Grant, 5.5 sacks; Anthony Hargrove, 5 sacks
Interceptions: Darren Sharper, 9 interceptions (3 touchdowns); Tracy Porter, 4 interceptions, 1 TD

2010 Season Outlook


(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 26 vs Atlanta Falcons: This game will be key to getting an early lead on the division, as Atlanta is the team with the best chance of beating the Saints for the divisional title. Whichever team wins this game will probably have the lead in the divisional race, at least until they meet again on December 27. With quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner healthy, the Falcons' offense can be just as good as the Saints'. Although the Falcons' defense is a work in progress, it is getting better and has the potential to be very good this year if some of the rookies play well. The Falcons are going to be a force in the NFC South this year, and both matchups against them are going to be crucial to determining the divisional championship.

November 25 at Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys provided the Saints with their first loss of the 2009 season, mainly due to exotic blitzes from Dallas's front seven. Also, the Saints' defense will be hard-pressed to contain the Cowboys' many weapons. These are two teams that have very few flaws, and this game will be a great contest. It could also have a major impact on which of the two teams gets the top seed in the playoffs. For this reason, the Saints need to beat the Cowboys to help set up an easier postseason run.

December 19 vs Baltimore Ravens: The type of team that the Saints struggled the most against last year were teams like themselves that could both pound the ball for yardage as well as tear you apart in the passing game on offense, with blitz-happy defenses that routinely forced turnovers. With the addition of receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth, as well as the return of Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, the Ravens finally have a full complement of receivers for Joe Flacco to throw to. While the Ravens' defense has shown some age at corner, they still have the pieces at safety and in the front seven to wreak havoc on the Saints' passing offense and shut down their running game.

Key Losses

Charles Grant, DE; Scott Fujita, LB; Mike Bell, RB

Key Returning Players

Will Smith, DE; Darren Sharper, FS; Drew Brees, QB; Pierre Thomas, RB

Key Draft Picks

Jimmy Graham, TE; Patrick Robinson, CB

Key Free Agent Signings

Alex Brown, DE; Bobby McCray, DE; Jimmy Wilerson, DE; Clint Ingram, LB; Terrence Metcalf, OG

Offensive Overview

General manager Thomas Dimitroff struck gold with the selection of Matt Ryan in the 2008 Draft, and the Falcons are set at the quarterback position for years. Though Ryan has some minor work to do in hiThe Saints have one of the most explosive passing games in the league, but they are also more than capable of moving the ball forcefully on the ground. Their receivers are excellent at producing yards after the catch, and Drew Brees' precise ball placement beats even the best of coverage. They also utilized tight end Jeremy Shockey to attack the middle of the field frequently, as he was great at holding onto the ball while being hit after the catch. New Orleans should be able to produce even more plays from the tight end position after drafting former college basketball star Jimmy Graham out of Miami.

Although restricted free agent running back Mike Bell left to Philadelphia, the Saints still have Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Though ineffective as a full-time running back in 2007 and for most of 2008, Bush was at his best in 2006 when splitting the workload with Deuce McAllister. For this reason, coach Sean Payton will likely give Thomas, built in the mold of McAllister in his prime, most of the carries, while utilizing Bush from time to time. While Bush is not a starter, his speed and receiving skills allow the Saints to move him around the field in order to confuse defenses. In this sense, less of Bush meant more productivity for the former USC back, who led the Saints' running backs in average yards per carry due to the defensive mismatches that Payton creates with Bush on the field. Additionally, he had the second-most rushing touchdowns on the team, despite having only 70 carries during the entire regular season. Also, his 7.1 yards per reception make him a deadly threat coming out of the backfield on third-down plays.

Left tackle was one of the Saints' weaknesses in pass protection last year after starter Jammal Brown missed the season due to a sports hernia and a hip injury. Although Brown has recovered, the Saints appear to be allowing his replacement, Jermon Bushrod, to continue to develop as the starting left tackle during Organized Team Activities lately. Right guard Jahri Evans was less than spectacular in pass-blocking, but his ability to maintain his run-blocks and get to the second level of the defense more than makes up for any deficiencies he might have in protecting the quarterback. As a whole, the line did well in pushing defensive linemen off the ball, and provided the Saints' running game a huge boost throughout the year. With another year of experience working together, this line should be even better in 2010.

Defensive Overview

The Saints created 39 takeaways on defense, more than any other team except the Packers, who had 40. The reason for this was speed in the defensive backfield: the Saints' defensive backs flew to the ball and were almost always able to take a shot at either the ball or the receiver before the receiver came down with the catch. For this reason, the Saints' defense scored more touchdowns than any other defense in the league. They added yet another speedy cornerback in the first round of the draft, and they made it a priority to re-sign ball-hawking safety Darren Sharper, so their defensive backfield should come back just as ferociously fast as they were in 2009.

However, their defensive line has room for improvement, especially with the release of defensive end Charles Grant after a 2009 campaign that ended with a torn triceps. Grant was an extremely disruptive presence, and he and defensive end Will Smith wreaked havoc together in opponents' backfields. The most logical reason for Grant's release would be if the Saints' decision-makers felt the triceps injury would still affect his arm strength, which would be deadly for a defensive end's football skills. In order to make up for Grant's loss, the Saints signed three defensive ends to compete for his spot. In order for the line to come close to its 2009 production, one of the three free agent ends needs to have a phenomenal season. The defensive line had a hard time generating a rush up the middle, but the combination of Grant and Smith did more than enough to compensate for that. However, once Grant went down with the triceps injury, teams with solid offensive lines were able to double-team Smith without having to worry about getting pressured from elsewhere.

The Saints' linebackers aren't very fast, and they don't tackle particularly well. However, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' exotic blitz packages were able to compensate for that when the blitzes were successful. Due to the high-stakes nature of blitzing frequently, Williams' strategy had huge benefits when it paid off, but it could burn the Saints when it didn't. Though the Saints' defensive turnovers boosted the team, it should be noted that they were ranked in the twenties in points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and rushing yards allowed. This is the result of plays where the Saints' defensive gambles did not pay off. With the loss of Scott Fujita, the Saints' top linebacker, there will probably be a few more plays where the gambles backfire. The loss of Fujita and Grant, though mainly Grant, will cause the Saints to lose one or two more games than they did last year.

Despite this, the Saints' defensive future is not all gloom-and-doom. Their defense was an enormous factor in deciding the outcome of the Super Bowl, so it obviously worked. Their focus on heavy blitzing and speed in the secondary was most effective in the red zone, where the defense didn't have as much ground to cover when the blitz was beaten. Despite the relatively high amount of yards they allowed, they allowed the second-lowest percentage of touchdowns in the red zone, which shows that they are a true bend-but-don't break defense. While the loss of Grant and Fujita may make the defense a little less effective, Williams' aggressive style will still make the defense a force to be reckoned with.

Special Teams Overview

Although Reggie Bush was sometimes electric as a punt returner, he spent too much time making moves and trying to look for the home run instead of quickly getting to the hole that was in front of him. As a result, the Saints had the league's second-lowest average yards gained per punt return at 4.6. Punter Thomas Morstead averaged 43.6 yards per punt, which was the 16th-highest average in the league. While this sounds mediocre, there's really not too much room for improvement. Two-thirds of the teams in the league averaged from 42 to 47 yards per punt, a five-yard range. Only two teams averaged higher than 47 yards per punt, the San Francisco 49ers with an average of 47.6, and the Raiders with an average of 51.1. As long as a team averages between 42 and 47 yards per punt, the difference between the fourth-highest average and the fourteenth is minimal. However, they allowed a league-leading 14.3 yards per punt return last year, 10.1 yards worse than the best punt coverage team in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Additionally, their net yards gained per punt was the lowest in the league, at 29.3 yards.

Kickoff return specialist Courtney Roby was much more effective, leading the Saints to a kickoff return average of 24.4 yards per return, tied for fourth-best in the league. Meanwhile the Saints' kickoff coverage was ranked fourth-worst in the league, allowing an average of 24.5 yards per return, despite the Saints' kickoff distances having the sixth-highest average in the league. The farther the ball is kicked, the more time the kicking team's gunners have to get down the field and stop the returner. The fact that they allowed such long returns despite long kickoffs speaks volumes about the quality of the Saints' kickoff coverage.

Head Coach: Sean Payton

Payton has emerged as one of the most impressive coaches in the league. He got off to a fast start as the Saints' head coach, earning Coach of the Year honors and taking the Saints to the NFC Championship game in his first season. In his fourth season, his team won the Super Bowl, and has a pretty good chance of repeating the feat.

Possibly his most powerful trait is his inherent ability to assess whether the potential rewards of an on-field gamble outweigh the risk he is taking. Perhaps the best example of this would be the onside kick he called to open the second half of the Super Bowl. While most commentators said this was a risky move, especially considering that kicker Thomas Morstead was a rookie, Payton understood that the benefits he stood to gain outweighed the costs of failure on the onside kick. During film study, the Saints had noticed that the Colts' kickoff return team tended to take a few steps backwards on kickoffs in order to get in better position for the return. This put them out of position to recover the onside kick, so the Saints had a very good chance of recovering the ball. Also, Payton explained afterward that he'd rather at least have a shot at recovering an onside kick as opposed to giving possession to Peyton Manning to open the half right after Manning just finished studying photos and adjusting the gameplan during halftime.

Of course, there's nothing special about being too aggressive, but what separates Payton from the rest of the league is his ability to make sure his gambles don't hurt him too badly

when they fail. An example of this would be another play in the Super Bowl, this one taking place a minute and 55 seconds before halftime. On fourth-and-goal from the Colts' one-yard line, Payton sent running back Pierre Thomas off the right tackle. Thomas failed to get the touchdown, and Payton's decision was heavily criticized, even after the Super Bowl was over. However, failing to get the touchdown did provide a benefit: the Colts, possibly the best team in the league at scoring after the two-minute warning, were pinned within their own two-yard line, prompting Colts coach Jim Caldwell to play it safe and run the ball three times instead of trying to add another touchdown to the Colts' lead. At the time the score was 10-3, in the Colts' favor. Had the Saints simply kicked a field goal, chances are the halftime score would have been 17-6. In this case, going for it on fourth down was the perfect call regardless of whether Thomas scored, and Payton understood that better than anybody.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Heath Evans, FB; Scott Shanle, LB*

*Evans and Shanle are the only players on the Saints whose contracts are scheduled

to expire in 2011

Season Prediction

1st NFC South

The Saints are going back to the playoffs, though the Falcons will fight them tooth-and-nail for the divisional title. Due to an easier schedule, the Falcons might even win the division, but none of that matters once the playoffs start. As the offensive linemen continue to get used to playing together, the running game will get even better than it was last year, which in turn will create even more opportunities for the Saints' aerial attack to exploit. On defense, the loss of Charles Grant is the biggest concern, but coordinator Gregg Williams' defensive strategies should be able to compensate for the loss of Grant in most instances. That being said, the Saints would definitely benefit from one of their new defensive ends having a career year, especially once they're in the playoffs. The play of their defensive ends opposite Will Smith will determine whether the Saints repeat as Super Bowl champions or go home after the first round of the playoffs. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is an aspiring sports journalist who will be attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism starting this fall.

Be sure to check the right sidebar daily for new NCAA Football 2010 Season Previews and NFL 2010 Season Previews as we'll be adding them almost every day until the September kick-off's.

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