2009 team preview: New Orleans Saints

Inside Slant

Because they fielded the NFL’s top-ranked offense for the second time in three seasons a year ago, the theme throughout the offseason has been defense, defense, defense for the Saints.

And with good reason, considering the defense ranked 23rd last season and allowed 24.6 points a game. With their potent offense returning virtually intact, all eyes were on the other side of the ball from the moment the Carolina Panthers finished off the Saints on a long pass from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith late in their Dec. 28 finale.

That 39-yard jump-ball completion between two Saints‘ defenders set up John Kasay‘s game-winning field goal a few plays later. The 33 points the Saints gave up that afternoon was the ninth time they allowed 27 or more points, a significant number when you consider Sean Payton’s offense churned out 28.9 points per game to lead the league.

The hiring of Gregg Williams as the new defensive coordinator was a big first step for the Saints, who later added cornerback Jabari Greer and free safety Darren Sharper in free agency and made Ohio State All-American cornerback Malcolm Jenkins their first pick in the draft.

The Saints showed some signs that things would be different in the organized team activities and veteran minicamp, but things really started to come together when training camp commenced and they put on the pads for the first time.

The new-look defense set the tone early in camp, constantly challenging the offense every time they took the field. Even the Saints‘ offensive players, knowing all they need is a little help from the other side of the ball to get where they want to go, were similarly energized.

They also energized their rabid fans, who were just as frustrated by 7-9 and 8-8 finishes the last two seasons. When they sailed through their first three preseason games by outscoring the opponents by a combined score of 100-28, the expectations grew.

But starting next week, they know they have to do it when it counts in the competitive NFC South. And no one has to tell them that it’s a critical year after failing to get to the playoffs two years in a row after the magical 2006 season that took them to within one game of Super Bowl XLI.

“Every year is critical,” Payton said when the Saints reported for training camp in late July. “Certainly, there is a sense of urgency that we all have as coaches and players. We don’t take any season for granted … ever.”

As a result, they’re not getting ahead of themselves after their solid preseason start. They know a good start in the regular season is essential after slow starts in 2007 (0-4) and ’08 (2-3) helped keep them out of the playoffs.

That’s a feeling they all want — on offense and defense — to avoid at all costs this season.

“When you lose when you feel you have the talent, that’s disappointing,” said Drew Brees, the 2008 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. “But if you approach it the right way, like I know we are, it can light a fire under you.

“I could sit here and make all the excuses we want about our season,” he added. “But everything happens for a reason, and I think these last two years — as tough as they’ve been for us just knowing we had the talent and weren’t able to get there — that only motivates you.”

COACHING: Sean Payton, 4th year, all with Saints (26-24).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 8-8 (4th in NFC South).

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC South); lose in NFC Divisional Playoff Game.

Notes and Quotes

–The Saints may have shocked more than a few people when they released veteran defensive tackle Rod Coleman when they reduced their roster to 75 players on Aug. 31.

Coleman, a 10-year veteran who did not play football in 2008, didn’t have a great training as he mostly worked with the third-team defense. But he certainly was expected to make it to the final cut at least.

“It was probably a combination of the players that are playing in front of him and where he’s at,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Coleman.

Coleman was playing most of the preseason behind second-year pro DeMario Pressley and former free agent Remi Ayodele, who are backing up starters Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy.

–Payton got his roster down to 75 players by releasing wide receiver D’Juan Woods and cornerback Greg Fassitt. Both were waive/injured.

Woods missed most of training camp and the last two preseason games with a nerve problem in his neck.

Fassitt, who was signed when the team released veteran cornerback Jason David on Aug. 17, injured his hamstring in the third exhibition game at Oakland.

–Saints running back Mike Bell, who entered training camp as the third back behind Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, received a ringing endorsement from quarterback Drew Brees last week.

Bell had a solid training camp after dropping about 15 pounds during the off-season and getting down to the weight he carried when he had a big rookie season with the Denver Broncos in 2006.

In an Aug. 22 exhibition game at Houston, the four-year veteran rushed for 100 yards on 10 carries in the first half — capping his performance with a 46-yard touchdown dash.

“Mike’s a guy, ever since he’s been here, who’s gotten better and better,” Brees said. “He showed what he could do (in Houston). He ran extremely hard. He’s had a great training camp and he might be the MVP of camp. I think he understands what we need from that third running back position. I see him playing a role in what we do if he continues to run like that.”

–Through their first three preseason games, the Saints led the NFL with 100 points. They piled up 45 against the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 29 and had 38 more in a win over the Houston Texans one week earlier.

The Saints set a preseason scoring record with the 45 points they hung on the Raiders. That broke the old mark set back in 1968 in a 40-27 decision over the Cleveland Browns.

–Saints defensive end Charles Grant and tight end Jeremy Shockey recently asked a federal judge to allow them to join a lawsuit seeking forced bankruptcy against Louisiana Film Studios LLC.

The suit accuses studio CEO Wayne Read of selling $1.9 million in state movie tax credits to 27 people, including many with connections with the Saints. However, it says he never applied for the credits or returned the money.

Read has said he intends to pay the money back after securing other investors or by obtaining credits from a broker. A list of buyers obtained by The Associated Press says Grant invested $425,000 while Shockey paid $85,000.

–Former Saints running back Deuce McAllister is being sued by Whitney Bank. The bank says McAllister, who was released by the team in February, owes $753,183.08 plus interest after defaulting on three loans.

An attorney for Whitney National Bank would only acknowledge the lawsuit and would have no further comment on the matter.

McAllister said the loans are all a part of his failed Nissan car dealership in Jackson, Miss., that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. According to court documents, the debt by Deuce McAllister Nissan of Jackson, LLC was personally guaranteed by the Saints‘ all-time leading rusher.

Two of the loans for more than $300,000 “matured and became fully payable on Jan. 31, 2009” but neither has been fully paid, the suit claims.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5 — Losses of three points or less by the Saints in 2008, with two of those setbacks by two points.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Regardless of what you think prior to the year, it really comes down to what you do once the season gets going. We look forward to the challenge. We think we have gotten better and we have had a real good offseason. Overall, the off-season was clearly the best we’ve had here.” — Saints coach Sean Payton, on starting his fourth season with the team.

Strategy and Personnel

In a bit of a surprise, the Saints released veteran defensive tackle Rod Coleman on Aug. 31 when the team reduced its roster on the first mandatory cut to 75 players.

A former Pro Bowl pick with the Atlanta Falcons, Coleman, 33, was trying to make a comeback after missing the entire 2008 season with injuries he sustained in a jet-ski accident.

Coleman didn’t have a great training camp, spending most of the time with the third-team defense. His early release was perhaps an indication that the Saints were happy with the performance of youngsters Remi Ayodele and DeMario Pressley — the backups to starters Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy.

PLAYER NOTES

–LT Jammal Brown, who had sports hernia surgery on Aug. 21, missed his third straight game in the preseason finale and his status for the Sept. 13 season opener is unknown.

–LT Jermon Bushrod will start in the season opener against the Detroit Lions if Brown can’t return by then.

–RB Reggie Bush, who has been nursing a strained right calf since Aug. 20, should be ready for the season opener against the Lions.

–RB Pierre Thomas also did not play against the Dolphins, but the Saints are hoping that he’ll be back for the regular season.

–FS Usama Young sprained his right shoulder on Aug. 29 against the Oakland Raiders and his status for the season opener is unknown.

–WR Adrian Arrington, who’s in a battle for the fifth wideout spot, missed practice time last week after straining a hamstring against the Raiders.

–DT Rod Coleman, who was trying to make a comeback after being out of football in 2008, was released Aug. 31.

–CB Greg Fassitt, a long shot to make the roster, was waived-injured after injuring a hamstring against the Raiders.

–WR D’Juan Woods was waived-injured last week with a neck injury that had sidelined him for most of training camp.

–FS Chip Vaughn, a fourth-round draft pick, has been sidelined since having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Aug. 11. His status for the regular season is uncertain.

PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Robert Meachem — A first-round draft pick in 2007, Meachem may finally be ready to blossom as a big-time receiver in his third season after showing some flashes last year with 12 receptions and a healthy 24.1-yard average. Drew Brees took Meachem under his wing this offseason, aiming to build more confidence in another big receiving target with breakaway speed. Meachem, however, will have to earn playing time behind the big three of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/14, CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State — After missing the first 11 days of training camp while waiting to get his contract worked out, Jenkins has made up for lost time. He’s gotten some playing time with the first-team defense at cornerback and in the nickel package and should contribute immediately in a number of areas.

Rd. 5/164, P Thomas Morstead, SMU — The Saints waived incumbent Glenn Pakulak after just two games and handed the job to Morstead, who cost them a fifth-round draft pick next spring. Morstead showed much more consistency throughout training camp and also was impressive with his hang time.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Drew Brees. Backup — Mark Brunell.

Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees has thrown for 4,000 yards twice and last season became only the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards. In doing so, he helped the Saints lead the league in total yards in 2006 and ’08. The Saints should have a potent offense once again — if Brees remains healthy. Brunell, who’ll turn 39 just days after the season opener, has looked sharp in the preseason and would, although the team would rather not think about it, be a capable replacement for Brees on a short-term basis.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Reggie Bush, FB Heath Evans. Backups — RB Pierre Thomas, RB Mike Bell, RB Lynell Hamilton.

The Saints have had trouble running the ball the last two seasons, and no one has to tell them that they have to do a better job of it this season if they want to make a run at the playoffs. While Bush will likely get the lion’s share of the carries if he can stay healthy for the first time since his rookie season in 2006, coach Sean Payton has said that he could go with a running back-by-committee plan utilizing Thomas and Bell. Thomas was the team’s leading rusher last season with 625 yards and nine TDs and Bell has had a strong preseason. Hamilton could also be in the mix after spending last season on the practice squad. At fullback, Evans is expected to provide more athleticism at the position and be more than just a lead blocker.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jeremy Shockey. Backups — Billy Miller, Buck Ortega.

After a rough first season with the Saints, Shockey seems to have settled in nicely this summer and become yet another weapon for Brees. He should be a bigger part of the passing game along with the hard-working Miller, who added 45 catches to Shockey’s 50 receptions a year ago. Ortega, who spent part of the 2008 season on the practice squad, could get the third spot over Darnell Dinkins, who’s been injured for much of training camp and hasn’t been able to show what he can do after signing as a free agent this spring.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Marques Colston, Devery Henderson. Backups — Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Rod Harper, Courtney Roby.

Colston, Henderson and Moore form a solid three-man pass-catching corps for Brees, who doesn’t mind spreading the wealth around. Colston got off to a slow start last year after tearing a ligament in his left thumb in the opener, missing five games and being limited in a couple more. But he still had 47 receptions for 760 yards and five scores. Moore led the club in catches (79), receiving yards (928) and receiving TDs (10) and Henderson led the league with 24.8 yards a catch on 32 receptions. Meachem also proved to be a key threat as he averaged 24.1 yards on 12 grabs. Harper, an arenafootball2 find, and Roby are still battling for the fifth wide receiver spot along with Adrian Arrington.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Jammal Brown, LG Carl Nicks, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Jahri Evans, RT Jon Stinchcomb. Backups — G/C Jamar Nesbit, T Zach Strief, C Nick Leckey, T Jermon Bushrod.

This group didn’t get enough credit for helping the Saints lead the league in total offense for the second time in three seasons in 2008. They kept Brees on his feet in allowing a club record low 13 sacks, which tied for second in the NFL, and kept the passing game going for a team that threw it 636 times. Brown, a Pro Bowl pick last year, is a mauler and the unit’s top blocker, but Evans and Nicks, who started 13 games as a rookie, did solid work around Goodwin. Stinchcomb, who, like Evans, has started 48 straight games, is a solid run- and pass-blocker. Nesbit, Strief and Leckey are proven backups who could step into the lineup at any given time.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Paul Spicer, T Sedrick Ellis, T Kendrick Clancy, RE Bobby McCray. Backups — E Will Smith, E Charles Grant, E Jeff Charleston, E Anthony Hargrove, T Remi Ayodele, T DeMario Pressley.

Grant and Smith, who are expected to be suspended for the first four games for their part in the StarCaps saga, were bothered by injuries last season and didn’t live up to their huge contracts. The Saints, however, need a better pass rush this season and are hoping these two can provide it when they return from their expected early-season hiatus. McCray and Spicer give the Saints starting experience at the position, while Hargrove and Charleston will help out as well. The Saints like what they have in Ellis, an All-Rookie team pick a year ago, and Clancy in the middle. Hargrove, who was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2008 season, has had a strong training camp in his comeback bid and also turned heads when he was moved inside.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Scott Fujita, MLB Jonathan Vilma, WLB Scott Shanle. Backups — SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Troy Evans, MLB Anthony Waters.

Vilma, who never came off the field in his first season with the Saints in 2008, solidified this group with his arrival last year. He is the unquestioned leader of this group although Shanle was voted as the team’s top defensive player a year ago. Fujita has also been a dependable player for the last three seasons. Dunbar and Mitchell have turned into solid backups as well as top special teams players, as is Evans.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Jabari Greer, FS Darren Sharper, SS Roman Harper, RCB Tracy Porter. Backups — CB Randall Gay, CB Malcolm Jenkins, SS Pierson Prioleau, FS Usama Young, SS Chris Reis.

This unit underwent the biggest overhaul this offseason as the Saints will have two new starters in Greer and Sharper while another, Porter, started just five games a year ago before suffering a season-ending dislocated wrist. The Saints figure to be more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams after finishing 23rd in pass defense a year ago in allowing 221.7 yards a game. They also have up 65 completions of 25 yards or longer the last two seasons, which is where Greer, Sharper and Jenkins, their top draft pick, come in. Harper has been a starter, but has had his ups and downs. Gay and Young, who’s picked up the free safety position well after being moved from cornerback, will likely figure in the nickel and dime packages along with Prioleau.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK John Carney, PK Garrett Hartley, P Thomas Morstead, LS Jason Kyle, KOR Courtney Roby, PR Reggie Bush.

The 45-year-old Carney will fill in for at least the first four games for Hartley, who made all 13 of his field-goal attempts last season, while he serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Morstead, a fifth-round draft pick, won a training camp duel with incumbent Glenn Pakulak because he was more consistent with his high, booming kicks. Kyle has been a dependable long snapper during his 15-year NFL career. Roby and Bush figure to be the primary kick returners, Roby on kickoffs and Bush on punts with Lance Moore as his backup.