Saints out to improve run, run defense, in 2011
The New Orleans Saints look like they're ready to run.
They also hope their defense is better equipped to stop the run.
For New Orleans, improving in those areas while maintaining its already exceptional passing attack and pass defense could be the key to returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
''We certainly have an expectation level of wanting to win championships,'' coach Sean Payton said. ''Recognizing the challenges that go into that, how do we get better? How do we run the ball better?''
In attempting to answer the latter question, the Saints sent popular running back Reggie Bush, the first draft choice of the Payton era, to Miami in a trade, but appear to have gotten stronger at the position overall.
Pierre Thomas, who led the Saints in rushing in 2008 and 2009, has returned under a new, four-year contract. New Orleans added Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the first round of last spring's draft, then brought in speedy, versatile scat back Darren Sproles in free agency.
Chris Ivory, who rushed for 716 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie last season, is wrapping up rehabilitation on a broken left foot and sports hernia surgery, and is expected to be ready around the time of New Orleans' regular season opener at Green Bay on Sept. 8.
''That's the position you want to have a lot of depth at,'' Payton said, referring to injuries that sidelined Bush and Thomas for much of 2010, as well as Ivory for the playoffs. ''It's a hard position. It's one that has a lot of contact and wear and tear with our game today. We will try to pay attention to our depth there and make sure we are keeping these guys healthy. It's just one aspect of what we think we can do better to move forward.''
Stopping the run is another.
Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last season, the Saints ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per game. That was largely because of their fourth-ranked pass defense. Their run defense ranked 16th and endured its lowest moment when Marshawn Lynch broke off a tackle-breaking, 67-yard scoring run that salted away Seattle's upset over New Orleans in the first-round of last season's playoffs.
The Saints responded by giving Sedrick Ellis more help on the interior defensive line in the form of free agents Shaun Rogers (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and Aubrayo Franklin (6-1, 317).
New Orleans also added depth at defensive end by using their top draft choice on former California star Cameron Jordan (6-4, 287).
''We're going to look different getting off the bus,'' Williams said. ''You've got bigger people. We have to get those bigger people to play with the same tenacity that our smaller people have played with in the past, but we sure look different.''
Rogers sought out a chance to play for the Saints, a franchise whose long-held reputation for bumbling ineptitude has been left in the past since Payton arrived, taking the Saints to three playoff appearances - including two NFC title games and a Super Bowl - in his first five seasons.
''I'm just excited to be a part of a franchise with that kind of tradition,'' Rogers said, referring to the Saints' more recent history. ''I hopefully will be able to bring something to the table and contribute to a situation like that again.''
Meanwhile, the Saints hope Jordan and newly acquired veteran defensive end Turk McBride will improve their pass rush.
Starting ends Will Smith and Alex Brown combined for only 7 1/2 sacks last season, and Smith could miss the first four regular season games of 2011 because of his positive 2008 test for a banned diuretic. His suspension has been tied up on appeal and in the courts, but is expected to be served this season.
There will be less pressure on the defense, of course, if the Saints' keep living up to their reputation as one of the premier offenses in the NFL.
Quarterback Drew Brees has all of his top receivers back, and his offensive line appears solid, even with two new starters. The Saints brought in veteran center Olin Kreutz after three-year starter Jonathan Goodwin left in free agency, then promoted veteran Zach Strief to starting right tackle after releasing five-year starter Jon Stinchcomb, who was struggling to overcome leg injuries.
Brees is particularly eager to make use of Sproles, a running or receiving threat whom the quarterback helped recruit while the two worked out together in San Diego during parts of the past offseason.
''He is going to fit in great with this team, in this locker room and in this offensive system,'' Brees said. ''As I look at our offense ... we will plug him in the exact same way we would Reggie, and even be able to do more things.''