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NFL team preview: New Orleans Saints

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INSIDE SLANT

The Saints go into the 2010 season knowing full well the odds are stacked against them -- in more ways than one.

After winning Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints know the best way to get to the title game is to first win your division title and earn home-field advantage if possible to make the journey at least a little less difficult.

In other words, it starts with winning a second straight NFC South title -- which no team has managed to do since the division was formed as part of the NFL's realignment in 2002.

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If they can do that, the Saints will try to go from there and repeat as Super Bowl champions -- which only eight teams have done. Only 11 teams managed to even get back to the title game.

But the Saints aren't much thinking about any long odds.

After all, they were reminded time and again in the playoffs last year that no team had ever won the Super Bowl after losing its last three regular-season games. It served as motivation for their march to a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the title game.

Because they wanted to be ready for anything, coach Sean Payton and Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees spent time in the offseason asking coaches and players of championship teams in various sports about the obstacles they'll face.

The first priority was to let the 2009 season, as much fun as it was for them and their long-suffering fans, go completely.

"They have these greyhound tracks," Payton said this summer. "I don't bet on dogs at all, but they chase this (mechanical) rabbit and they never catch it. In our industry, all of a sudden when you win the Super Bowl, you have kind of caught this rabbit. Very quickly, you have to let it go and begin chasing again because that's what we do."

But while they know it's going to be difficult to repeat, Payton wasn't going to let his team think than it can't be done when they checked back in for the start of their offseason training program in mid-April.

"We talked as coaches and players, and a group collectively, of battling that challenge," Payton said.
"That's the thing that gets your blood going a little bit and getting you excited about the upcoming year is knowing it's been difficult. I think we have a smart enough locker room to understand the challenges."

For example, the Saints, who are well-equipped to make another deep run into the playoffs, know the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl after the 2005 and 2008 seasons. But they failed to make the playoffs the following year both times.

"It's something you have to pay attention to and see where they fell through, and make sure you don't make those same mistakes," said Brees. "It's really one game at a time. You're not entitled to anything because you did it the year before."

COACHING: Sean Payton, 5th year, 5th with Saints (42-27).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 13-3 (1st in NFC South); won Super Bowl XLIV defeating Indianapolis Colts, 31-17.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record 12-4 (1st in NFC South); lose in NFC title game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Barring some kind of miracle, All-Pro free safety Darren Sharper could start the regular season on the physically-unable-to-perform list.

The 34-year-old Sharper, who had knee surgery in early March, has not participated in training camp and did not play in any of the team's four exhibition games as he continued to work his way back.

With the final cuts coming Sept. 4, the Saints may elect to move the 14-year veteran from the active/PUP list to reserve/PUP. That would keep him on the sideline for the first six weeks of the season and allow him to continue his rehab.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Drew Brees will not play in the Saints' preseason game against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.

--QB Patrick Ramsey is scheduled to play the first half of the final exhibition game with the Titans as he tries to nail down the backup spot.

--MLB Jonathan Vilma, who injured his groin in a win over the San Diego Chargers last Friday, could return in time for the regular-season opener on Sept. 9 against the Minnesota Vikings.

--TE Jeremy Shockey will miss the game with the Titans after being hit in the head in the win over the Chargers on Aug. 27.

--RT Zach Strief, the team's most experienced backup offensive lineman, injured his right knee against the Chargers and his return is unknown.

--SS Pierson Prioleau, one of the Saints' top special teams players, left the Chargers game with a knee injury and his status was unknown.

--DT Kendrick Clancy, an unrestricted free agent who was not offered a contract this spring after missing almost all of last year with a knee injury, was signed on Monday to add depth on the inside.

--QB Sean Canfield, a seventh-round draft pick this spring, was waived when the team trimmed its roster to 75 players.

--WR Andy Tanner, an undrafted free agent, was waived on Tuesday.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/32, CB Patrick Robinson, Florida State -- While he's had an up-and-down training camp, he could be thrown into the fire early as the nickel corner.

Rd. 2/64, T Charles Brown, Southern California -- Hasn't had a chance to show a lot, but he quickly settled in as the backup at left tackle to second-year starter Jermon Bushrod.

Rd. 3/95, TE Jimmy Graham, Miami (Fla.) -- Former college basketball player was getting a lot of opportunities early in camp, but lost valuable time and two games after spraining his right ankle in the preseason opener.

Rd. 4/123, DT Al Woods, LSU -- An underachiever in college, he was unspectacular in training camp and is squarely on the bubble for the final cut-down.

Rd. 5/158, C/G Matt Tennant, Boston College -- Showed his versatility by playing both positions in camp and may be groomed for a starting job at center in the future.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Patrick Ramsey, Chase Daniel.

Brees will be looking to put up big numbers after another monster year in 2009, when he surpassed the 4,000-yard passing mark for the fourth year in a row and broke a league record in completing 70.6 percent of his passes. He hit on 363 of 514 attempts for 4,388 yards with 34 TDs and 11 interceptions, which resulted in a career-high passer rating of 109.6. After having Mark Brunell behind him the last two seasons, Brees will have a new backup as either Ramsey or Daniel will win the job after a long training camp duel.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Reggie Bush, FB Heath Evans. Backups -- Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Ladell Betts.

After struggling to run the ball in 2007 and '08, the Saints had a nice complement to their potent passing game when they won the Super Bowl a year ago. A running-back-by-committee approach helped them rank sixth at 131.6 yards a game, which saw Thomas lead the way with 793 yards and a 5.4 average with six TDs. Thomas didn't get the long-term contract he was seeking, but could still get it with another big season. Bush also had a solid season as a multi-purpose threat as a receiver and punt returner. The third tailback in Sean Payton's three-headed monster may wind up being Ivory, an undrafted rookie, after Lynell Hamilton was lost for the season with a knee injury. Evans is a versatile blocker and rusher who is coming back from a torn ACL.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jeremy Shockey. Backups -- David Thomas, Jimmy Graham, Tory Humphrey.

Shockey was bothered by a toe injury last season, but he is a force when healthy, with 48 receptions for 569 yards and three scores. He also played with a lot of emotion in the playoffs and was a key to the team's Super Bowl run. Thomas also came up big in catching 35 passes for 356 yards and one TD. The Saints are hoping they mined a nugget in Graham, much like the San Diego Chargers did years ago in signing All-Pro Antonio Gates. Graham, who played four years of college basketball before turning to the football field, showed some flashes in training camp before missing time with a sprained ankle.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Marques Colston, Devery Henderson. Backups -- Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Courtney Roby, Adrian Arrington.

Colston and Henderson were Brees' main targets once again in 2009, but Meachem emerged as a solid third receiver in his third season. Colston led the team in receptions (70) and yards (1,074) and tied for the lead in TDs (9), while Henderson was a solid complement in piling up 804 yards on 51 catches. Meachem had a breakout season with 45 catches, 722 yards and nine TDs. They should benefit from the return of Moore, a possession-type receiver who struggled with an assortment of injuries a year ago. Roby will try to earn some playing time behind the big four, but his main contributions will come on special teams.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jermon Bushrod, LG Carl Nicks, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Jahri Evans, RT Jon Stinchcomb. Backups -- T Zach Strief, C Nick Leckey, T Charles Brown, C Matt Tennant.

The Saints expect another big season with their line returning intact after giving up just 20 sacks and leading the way for a running attack that ranked sixth in the NFL. Anchored by Evans, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, and Stinchcomb, a Pro Bowler, the Saints have a solid foundation on the right side. Goodwin and Nicks were Pro Bowl alternates and Bushrod played well after being thrown into the lineup when Pro Bowler Jammal Brown was lost for the '09 season with a hip injury. The Saints have capable backups in Strief and Leckey and they bolstered the line by drafting Charles Brown in the second round and Tennant in the fifth.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Alex Brown, DT Sedrick Ellis, NT Remi Ayodele, RE Will Smith. Backups -- DL Anthony Hargrove, DE Jeff Charleston, DL Jimmy Wilkerson, DT Kendrick Clancy, DT Al Woods.

Smith had a big season in collecting a career-high 13 sacks and is the anchor of the front four as a powerful pass rusher and big run-stopper. Brown, who is known for his run-stopping ability, was signed to replace an injury-prone Charles Grant. Ellis, who shows good quickness from sideline to sideline, has to remain healthy. Ayodele worked himself into a starting role early last season. Hargrove, Charleston and Wilkerson are quality backups, with Hargrove and Wilkerson giving the Saints some flexibility with the ability to play both inside and out. Woods, a fourth-round draft pick, could be ticketed for the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Scott Shanle, MLB Jonathan Vilma, WLB Jonathan Casillas. Backups -- MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, MLB Anthony Waters, SLB Stanley Arnoux.

Vilma has had two solid seasons since joining the Saints in a trade and is a perfect fit for Gregg Williams' aggressive defense. Shanle has proven to be a steady player over the years and is making the switch from the weak side to the strong to replace Scott Fujita. Casillas came on strong in training camp, filling in admirably when Shanle had a knee problem. That trial on the weak side convinced the coaching staff to move the versatile Shanle into Fujita's old spot to get the speedy Casillas, who made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2009, on the field. Mitchell has proven to be a quality special teams player, but also sees playing time when Williams switches to a 3-4 defense.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Jabari Greer, FS Malcolm Jenkins, SS Roman Harper, RCB Tracy Porter. Backups -- FS Darren Sharper, CB Randall Gay, CB Patrick Robinson, S Usama Young, S Chip Vaughn, CB Leigh Torrence, S Chris Reis.

The Saints arguably fielded one of the top cornerback tandems Greer and Porter although both missed playing time with injuries. Still, they made a big difference in a revamped secondary that also got steady play from Harper, a Pro Bowl alternate. Jenkins, who played cornerback as a rookie a year ago, will likely be the starter in the season opener because Sharper continues to rehab from knee surgery in March. Gay and Young are decent backups and Robinson and Vaughn will vie for playing time in the nickel and dime alignments as well as Williams' exotic coverage packages.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Garrett Hartley, P/KO Thomas Morstead, LS Jason Kyle, KR Courtney Roby, PR Reggie Bush.

Hartley converted 9-of-11 in field-goal attempts in the regular season with one miss -- a 58-yarder. He was 5-of-5 in the postseason -- all from 40 to 49 yards -- including going 3-for-3 in the Super Bowl. Morstead has a big leg and averaged 43.6 yards per punt as a rookie, and he was also invaluable as a kickoff specialist, ranking fourth in the league with 27 touchbacks. Roby was outstanding as the main kick returner with a 27.5 average and a 97-yard touchdown, while Bush, despite averaging just 4.8 yards on punt returns in the regular season, busted loose for an 87-yard TD in the playoffs.

Tagged: Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Dolphins, Vikings, Saints, Redskins, Ravens, Steelers, Chargers, Keith Brooking, Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Jon Kitna, Brett Favre, Darren Sharper, Ryan Longwell, Jim Kleinsasser, Leonard Davis, Kendrick Clancy, Drew Brees, Heath Evans, Steve Hutchinson, Sage Rosenfels, Kyle Kosier, Lito Sheppard, Alex Brown, Jeremy Shockey, Javon Walker, Bryant McKinnie, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Ben Leber, Patrick Ramsey, Jonathan Goodwin, Jason Witten, Terence Newman, Kevin Williams, Jimmy Kennedy, Jon Stinchcomb, E.J. Henderson, Scott Shanle, Jimmy Wilkerson, Montrae Holland, Bradie James, Greg Lewis, Tony Romo, Anthony Hargrove, Igor Olshansky, Devery Henderson, Madieu Williams, Roy Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Bernard Berrian, Jeff Dugan, Jared Allen, Nick Leckey, Mat McBriar, Benny Sapp, Anthony Herrera, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Courtney Roby, Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber, Chris Kluwe, Greg Camarillo, Tarvaris Jackson, Brandon Williams, David Thomas, Jason Hatcher, Reggie Bush, Chad Greenway, Roman Harper, Cedric Griffin, Ryan Cook, Marques Colston, Zach Strief, Jahri Evans, Ray Edwards, Miles Austin, Stephen Bowen, Remi Ayodele, Alan Ball, Doug Free, Jermon Bushrod, Adrian Peterson, Anthony Spencer, Robert Meachem, Sidney Rice, Pierre Thomas, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Tyrell Johnson, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice, John Sullivan, Erin Henderson, Darius Reynaud, Jasper Brinkley, Thomas Morstead, John Phillips, Jason Williams, Asher Allen, Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, Percy Harvin, Phil Loadholt, Kevin Ogletree, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Dez Bryant, Everson Griffen, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Chris DeGeare, Matt Tennant, Jimmy Graham, Joe Webb, Charles Brown, Chris Cook, Sean Lee, Al Woods, Patrick Robinson, Toby Gerhart, Sam Young, Danny McCray, Bryan McCann, Barry Church

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