Monday, September 28, 2009

Saints Third Week Review: Defense Steals Brees's Thunder

It was a rare good week to have the Saints defense in fantasy play and an even rarer bad week to have quarterback Drew Brees in your lineup.

More so than any of the team’s four draft picks (of whom two are sitting out this season on the injured reserve list), Saints fans have spent months speculating about the impact newly signed defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would have on a squad that in 2008 was just as inept as the offense was prolific.

On Sunday, Williams’s touch was noticeable as the Saints defense stepped up in Orchard Park, NY limiting running back Fred Jackson to 71 yards on the ground while wrecking havoc on Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, sacking him four times and intercepting a deflected pass. The only touchdown pass of the game was thrown by Bills punter Brian Moorman to defensive end Ryan Denney on a field goal fake.

There would be no touchdown passes by Drew Brees during the windy Sunday afternoon contest.

Going into the Bills game, the Saints were viewed as an offensive juggernaut that had to be contained by a defensive unit just enough so the opposing offense could put just enough points on the board as time expired. As absurd as this might sound, this was the successful strategy that kept the league’s number one offense out of post-season play as the Black and Gold dropped enough close ones to barely miss out.

Against the Bills, viewers saw what appeared to be a different team out there. When the long pass wasn’t getting it done, the offense shifted gears putting the ball in the hands of running backs Pierre Thomas and Lynell Hamilton, both having their most significant playing time of the season.

Head coach Sean Payton didn’t win by razzle-dazzle plays but keeping the second-half gameplan simple, wearing down the Buffalo defensive line and burning the clock.

What I Liked

The Bookends FINALLY Produce The expensive Will Smith-Charles Grant tandem had their best showing yet this season, combining for 6 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception. While not performing at their level of play, it was good to see some production out of the defensive ends.

Saints Last Two Number Ones Also Produce Safety Malcolm Jenkins had his second straight special teams play involving a fumble; Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who doesn’t get much press, barreled through the Buffalo offensive line and picked up a sack.

T.O. Gets 1st 0 Since ’96 The Saints’ secondary steps up shutting down the flamboyant (yet talented) wide receiver, who went without a reception for the first time since he played for the 49’ers.

Sean Payton Play Calling Saints ran for more yards than they picked up in the air. Really Sean, I didn’t think you had it in you.

The P.T. Cruiser Is Back After being supplanted in the hearts and minds of most Saints fans (me being an exception) by Mike Bell, running back Pierre Thomas, sickness, iv and all, had a career day just in the second half of the game. Thomas, who was pegged to be the team’s number one running back prior to sustaining an injury in the Texans pre-season game, reintroduced himself to fans mourning the injury status of Bell. Thomas rushed for 126 yards and scored two touchdowns. Fellow underrated running back Lynell Hamilton rumbled for 24 yards on 5 carries, including a touchdown.

Every time I get to thinking Mickey Loomis was a genius for drafting punting Tom Morestead I remind myself that the Saints general manager was also feverishly looking to trade out future picks for Beanie Wells when the Saints already had a depth of talent in this department at a bargain.

But I digress.

Canadian Bills Fans Friendly folks with accents so thick that there was nooo waaaaaaay they could ever pass themselves off as Americans.

What I Didn’t Like

American Bills Fans 4 PM games bring out the Mr. Hyde in football fans thanks in large part to the vast quantities of beer they knock back London-style before the game. The stadium shuts down alcohol sales after half-time and Ralph Wilson Stadium reminds me of my college days at Tiger Stadium with security checking people for smuggling booze. Bills fans are an intense lot, with many standing right up until the part when they walked out when it was apparent they were not going to win.

The fans there also produce as much trash and litter as a Mardi Gras parade.

I actually felt sorry for one poor soul who had the audacity to sport Chicago Bears gear at the game as a pack of Bills fans cornered him and heaped violent rhetoric in his direction.

I also saw security bursting through crowds on several occasions when altercations broke out across the stadium. While it’s not fair to generalize an entire group due to the actions of a minority, I can say that the Bills had a higher proportion of angry drunks in their stadium than I have seen anywhere else. And yes, that includes Soldier Field.

Of amusement are their cheater chants whenever an opposing team gets penalized. To the credit of the passionate Bills fans, Ralph Wilson is one of the loudest NFL stadiums I have been in.

Ralph Wilson Stadium Perhaps the worst venue in the NFL for a football game. No mass transit. You need to park in someone’s yard (I’m not kidding). Located in the middle of nowhere. Bleacher seats. Narrow concourses. Terrible traffic ingress/egress. It would be considered a lesser college football stadium outside of the Big 10 and SEC.

Two positive marks: good staff and suites on the plaza level, something that could not be done in the Superdome.

Interesting Stat: Though the Saints scored their least about of points against Buffalo, the Black and Gold won by a slightly larger margin against a team that came within a hair (or fumble) of beating the vaunted New England Patriots compared to their rolling of the hapless Detroit Lions. The Saints beat Detroit by 18 and Buffalo by 20.

Interesting Fact: While waiting for traffic to clear in someone’s back yard near Ralph Wilson Stadium, I managed to pick up WWL 870 AM’s post-game show, though there was not shortage of static.

Nuclear Rhetoric: Two words that can counter the most profane screams from the locals: Toronto Bills

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saints Week 3 Preview: Shuffalo to Buffalo

Saints Week 3 Preview: Shuffalo to Buffalo

The Saints are fortunate to be making the trip to the Canadian border in late September while the weather is still mild. Though many fans have their eyes fixed on the Jets game in October, the Bills should not be dismissed. They have one of the most talented receivers to play the game on their roster (Terrell Owens) and the Saints secondary, never a strongpoint during the Payton regime, is going to be tested. The good news for the Saints is the Bills’ offensive line has been battered and the visiting team’s defensive line should have their best success yet at pass rushing.

The Bills had the New England Patriots beat until last minute errors allowed Tom Brady to get his team back into a game the Bills had dominated. Had the Bills held on, perhaps the media would be carping about them the way they have about the New York Jets…though probably not since Bills are a small market team like the Saints.

A major key to this game will be the Saints’ run defense; Bills running back Fred Jackson ran for an impressive 163 yards last week.

If the Black and Gold defense can contain Jackson and finally get their hands on a quarterback, the offense should put up enough points on the board for a comfortable win.

Since Mike Bell will most likely sit the game out, questions abound on how Sean Payton will react to the loss of his third-string star back.

Is Pierre Thomas ready to return at full-speed?

How many running snaps Reggie Bush will receive?

Will Lynell Hamilton, a big back who has shown in two pre-seasons he can make things happen, get his chance to prove in regular season games that he is as much of a find as Bell? Or will Hamilton’s poor ball control from pre-season make him the victim of a mid-season cut.

Or, heaven forbid, will Payton retreat to old form, compensating for a lack of confidence in the running game simply turn the offense into an air show.

A loss in Ralph Wilson Stadium would be a violent reality check going into what will be a tough opponent (Jets) the following Sunday in the Superdome. Grant needs to earn his considerable pay in this one or you can bet the Saints will start angling for a defensive end in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Saints are a 6 point favorite against Buffalo; judging by the team’s margin of victory in the first two games, a Saints win should easily cover the 6.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saints Second Week Review: Black & Gold Get Plucky in Philly

Addressing the Haterade Gulpers

Last week, critics, unbelievers and professional nay-sayers tried to rain on the Saints’ parade by discounting the team’s effort in their season opening win against Detroit. The Saints’ defense was mocked for giving up 27 points to the league’s worst team while the offense’s 45 points (the most scored by any team in first week play) was discounted because, well they were racked up against a franchise that hasn’t won since 2007.
For a team that has not accomplished much in their four decades of existence playing in one of the NFL’s smallest media markets, that kind of talk frustrates the fan base. It’s one thing for a team to take down Detroit but the Eagles would be a different matter. And the critics were right.
The Saints raised their score from against the Lions running up their tally to 48 against the vaunted Philadelphia defense while the New Orleans defense only allowed 22 points, of which two of those were generously donated to the Eagles in exchanged for better defensive positioning in the waning minutes of the game.
And what do the perpetual put-downing pundits have to say after one of the most impressive Saints wins in franchise history? Oh, had Donovan McNabb played things would have ended differently.
There’s no doubting that McNabb’s presence would have made a difference on the Eagles’ offense but unless the Philly quarterback had been moonlighting as either a cornerback or linebacker (or a bumbling kick returner), the Saints would almost certainly had prevailed with only the details being different. Saints fans will see their team get respect when it goes the distance instead of just showing the potential to being a playoff caliber team. Just having the talent didn’t put the Black and Gold into post-season. Until then, let Drew Brees, Mike Bell, Jeremy Shockey and Marques Colston’s fantasy stats is earning the team respect with the hoi polloi.

What I Liked

Drew and the Crew Quarterback Drew Brees should name his children after his offensive line as they have a lot to do with his earning potential as an athlete and the fact he will be able to walk when he’s 60. Brees was only sacked twice by the same defense that a week before has people talking about the end of Jake Delhomme’s career. His one pick was a combination of a bad decision (the first down would have been Brees’s had he scrambled forward) and a lucky snag by linebacker Akeem Jordan. Brees’s three touchdown passes and 311 yards in the air show that he is the best quarterback in the league not wearing a certain ring. One commentator (I believe with NBC sports) commented that Brees might just be the best free agent acquisition in the history of the NFL.

Loomis’s Folly Hits Again Tom Morestead once again proved his worth on kickoffs and booming punts. The gnashing of teeth that came with his selection has disappeared. Morestead is so good at what he does that it almost makes watching your own team punt an enjoyable experience. Almost.
Bell Rings Up Another Big Game Third-string running back Mike Bell looked like the running back the Saints have been lacking since 2006. Bell ran for 86 yards and made an awkward leap for a touchdown. Though he suffered a sprain that took him out the game and may sideline him until after the bye week, Bell’s performance has helped cement early on in this season the balanced offensive attack the team lacked last year. Had Bell been a bust, there’s a good chance head coach Sean Payton would have quickly retreated to airing the ball more than a team should. Drew Brees’s chasing Dan Marino’s record didn’t result in the Saints making the playoffs.

Reggie Runs and Catches The Saints “celebri-thete” did not have a stellar day but he did produce when he needed catching a critical pass (with a little help from a blatant Jon Stinchcomb hold that somehow did not get called) and with an impressive run between the tackles into the end zone. Bush finished the day with 42 yards receiving and 33 on the ground though did not impress with his failure to break out when the Saints had to start out from their own end zone. To his credit, he was on the verge of being tackled for a safety on one run but had the presence of mind to just escape the end zone. Bush lives in a different world than his team-mates because of his superstar status, superstar girlfriend and expectations that only Adrian Peterson could have possibly matched. Bush did nothing more than not fumble the ball as a punt returner though neither did the Eagles’ own prized punt returner. This game will hopefully build up Bush’s confidence and with time the second over all pick in the 2006 draft will blossom and breakout this year. Though Saints fans should be forgiven for eroding patience.

The Saints Defense Steps Up The much-maligned (particularly by this writer) Scott Shanle picked up his second interception in consecutive games. Darren Sharper showed his talent (and age) with a pick six. Sure the Saints defense gave up 463 yards, 378 of them in the air, but at the end of the game they surrendered only 20 points. Fans should remember the Cincinnati game when Brees passed for 510 yards in a LOSING effort. The only winners that day were the Bengals and whoever had the Saints quarterback on their fantasy team. The Saints defense showed the bend don’t break performance that wins the close ones that the Black and Gold struggled with in 2008.

Other Praise When you score 48 points against the Eagles defense there’s generally no shortage of people to praise. I was happy that the Saints’ front office reacted decisively after the mishaps of the Detroit game by re-inking Courtney Roby, who’s an asset on Saints kick returns and kickoffs. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who tackled air in his infamous mismatch with Calvin Johnson last week, helped set the tone of the second half slaughter by forcing a fumble on the kickoff. Also credit safety Chris Reis for acting fast and picking up the ball. Colston has shown that he is back in a big way. Finally, in another much criticized Loomis move in the off-season, fullback Heath Evans, the successor to the cut and much beloved Mike Karney, proved his worth getting his second touchdown in consecutive games with an outstanding reception and sideline hop into the pylon.

What I Didn’t Like

Aside from the Bush punt returns for negative yards and the Brees interception, it seems the Saints are still struggling laying their hands on opposing quarterbacks. Two sacks against a first-time starter won’t inspire comparisons to the Dome Patrol but some credit should go to the losing quarterback Kevin Kolb being patient and showing no fear under pressure. Kolb had to put the ball up in the air a lot while playing catch up making the three interceptions almost inevitable. The Philly “phans” should not be calling for this guy’s head when there’s enough blame/excuses to go around.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Latest Foreign Policy Blooper by the O-Team

September 17, 1939 Soviet troops plow into eastern Poland a little over two weeks after the Germans blitz across Poland’s western frontier started World War II.
Most people are unaware that Nazi Germany’s original ally in aggression was not Mussolini’s Italy but Stalin’s Russia, an inconvenient fact Moscow would like the history books to play down or forget altogether. Prior to launching his Polish conquest, Hitler wanted to secure his eastern front to avoid the dreaded encirclement nightmare that plagued the minds of Prussian kings and German Kaisers.
In addition to striking a peace-deal of convenience, Germany sweetened the arrangement with the USSR carving up Poland as if it were a turkey and assigned spheres of influence (occupation and absorption) in the newly redrawn Europe. The eastern half of Poland, the Baltic States, parts of Finland and Romania’s Bessarabia region (most of what is the country of Moldova) were “given” to Stalin while Germany enjoyed a free-hand in elsewhere.
During the time between the first Soviet invasion of Poland and the Nazi violation of the non-aggression/land grab pact, tens of thousands of Poles in the Soviet zone were arrested, tortured and/or killed, with the most infamous example of the first Soviet occupation being the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish military officers, civil authorities and other persons considered a threat to the new Soviet order perished in a mass execution.
I didn’t need a doctorate from an Ivy League university to know the significance of September 17th, a day of infamy for Poles as December 7th is for Americans.
Yet September 17th must have seemed like just another day on the calendar for the graduates of expensive colleges with bad football programs that signed off on that being the day the Obama Administration was to announce they were scrapping the missile shield the Bush White House had asked political leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic to expend political capital supporting in the face of Russian consternation and criticism from domestic proponents of appeasement.
How anyone in the US State Department or the White House intelligentsia could be ignorant of the significance of September 17th for our Polish allies when announcing a defensive position that would weaken the West’s capacity to respond to future Russian military aggression is astounding assuming it was indeed a blooper, which isn’t as unlikely as you would think.
The Obama Administration already had one high-profile diplomatic “d’oh” moment when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a novelty button to the Russian foreign minister that had the wrong word in Russian printed on it. The button was supposed to read “reset”, a thinly veiled jab at the Bush Administration’s assertive/realist dealings with the Kremlin. Their attempt at being cute backfired as the button had the Russian word for “over-priced”, something the Russian foreign minister undiplomatically pointed out to an embarrassed Clinton before television cameras.
These things can happen when engaging in Carrot-Top prop-diplomacy.
On the other hand, what if the September 17th announcement was not simply an “oops” moment but a crass signal of displeasure aimed at Poland and other eastern European’s for their gleeful accommodation of George W. Bush’s foreign policy?
Have the old Jimmy Carter days of trading allies for satellites of adversaries returned less than a year into Obama’s administration?
Regardless of intended or unintended public relations fallout for the kind of foreign policy bumbles Obama and his brethren had assured Americans would be relics of the preceding White House, there is the more serious matter of the real strategic consequences of the decision to back down from a defensive system that annoyed Russia (a frequent uninvited occupier of Poland over the past few centuries) and Iran, whose nuclear and rocket program should be a source of great concern to Europe.
Is there ever a time when it is better to accrue goodwill at the expense of actual strategic concessions?
That Russia welcomed the news should offer little comfort. The missile defense shield was in no way a threat to Russian security. That Russia took offense to the interceptor system had nothing to do with upset sensitivities a desire for their neighbors (AKA those countries Hitler assigned to Moscow’s spehere) to be more susceptible to Russian diplomatic and economic bullying.
Recklessly abandoning a missile system of a purely defensive nature in order to score points with the Kremlin makes little sense and is a sign to other countries that the current Oval Office has little regard for eastern Europe and that they cannot trust Washington to protect their interests.
Obama’s strategic gaffe didn’t make the United States any more popular with countries that didn’t like us before he ascended to the presidency. By making Russia “happy”, the president made us a lot less popular with new allies who backed America when many of our older allies did not.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Saints First Week Review

You’d think starting out as the league’s leading team in scoring offense (at least going into Monday Night Football) would be cause to express satisfaction in the Black and Gold’s extension of the Detroit Lions’ losing streak, but what’s good enough for the Lions is not going to be good enough for the Eagles or many of the other higher caliber teams on the schedule.

The best way to describe the 45-27 victory is to call it an ugly landslide.

The Saints did assure any doubters that so long as quarterback Drew Brees is healthy, expect the franchise to be one of the leading if not the top offense once again. Granted the Detroit Lions aren’t the Pittsburgh Steelers, but then again most teams aren’t.

Through their draft, free agency and new head coach, the 2009 edition of the Lions are a much better team than the death rattling squad that sleepwalked through the end of a nightmarish 2008 season.

And while most people never for a second imagined it was possible, a loss to the Lions would have had a nasty psychological effect on the Saints that would have haunted them the rest of the season and could have marked the beginning of the end of Payton’s tenure in New Orleans if the Saints were to miss the playoffs again this season. No hyperbole here.

Interesting Stats

Though the Lions put 27 points on the board, 20 more than they did when the Saints demolished them last season, Detroit’s offense racked up 24 fewer yards in this contest, underscoring how a few turnovers and errors can translate into big points.

What I Liked

Sean Payton’s Play-Calling Here’s a first coming from this corner. The preseason games proved to be an omen that the pass-happy Payton is committed to a more balanced offense by investing more in a ground game that will wear down opposing defensive lines, give our own defense more of a breather and contribute towards better clock management. Nobody was shocked by the razzle-dazzle play that unsurprisingly resulted in an interception, however the overall offensive game plan was sane and shows that the head coach has turned a corner. Consequently, this means Brees won’t be chasing Dan Marino’s passing record this season, it could result in the Saints chasing a far more coveted record-first appearance in a Super Bowl.

The Secondary Didn’t figure I’d be saying this one either. The Achilles’ Heel of the much violated Saints’ defense had good coverage and largely contained Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who finished the game with three receptions for 90 yards- 64 of those yards being attributed to a play that will be cited later in this screed. Safety Darren Sharper added two notches to his interception post. Why did it take so long for Mickey Loomis to sign this guy again?

Thomas Morstead Fans called Mickey Loomis crazy for chasing a punter in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft, not to mention trading up in the draft, to snag him. The front office caught grief for targeting a position that wasn’t considered a priority since the Saints only punted the ball 53 times in 2008, 27th in the NFL. However, punting is an important part of the game (it is called FOOTball…attention NFL Hall of Fame balloters) from the defensive standpoint. Get the ball high in the air and dropping where you want it is particularly helpful when you have a defensive squad that is lacking.

Since getting in the system, Morstead has not only unseated incumbent punter Glenn Pakulak but also showed in the regular season opener that he has the ability to drive the ball deep into the endzone, the very skill that Payton and the front office coveted so much they bounced reliable kicker John Carney in deference of a former player whose name none dare speak. The currently suspended Garrett Hartley might yet be latest victim of Morstead’s emergence when Payton weighs roster spots.

Bell Getting It Done, Coughing It Up Back-up running back Mike Bell made the most of his opportunity substituting for injured starting running back Pierre Thomas. Bell made a number of tough runs racking up 143 yards and helping his cause to get more touches when Thomas returns. Fans who would like to see a balanced offense throughout the season owe Bell much for being so productive against the Lions. Bell was impressive though not perfect, being responsible for a Detroit touchdown when he fumbled on one run. The tested Thomas should not be written-out the running act just yet.

Shockey Earns His Keep Nuff said.

What I Didn’t Like

Harper Not in the Game, Roby Not Being on the Roster When the Saints decided to part ways with proven kick-returner Courtney Roby in the final round of pre-season cuts, it was largely assumed because Rod Harper had taken the job from him. Lo and behold, Robert Meachem, not Harper, handled kick-returns against the Lions, very ably at that. Roby was not only a good kick returner but played well on special teams, something we could have used some serious help with on Sunday. While Harper has talent, I thought Roby could do more for the team.

Zero Sacks from Our Tandem of Overpaid Defensive Ends Nuff said.

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie Two dropped punts, one recovered, one not. Sunday was one of Reggie Bush’s worst games as a running back that did not end with him riding back to the x-ray room. That said, Bush is still a better value than Charles Grant.

First Installment of the Opportunity Cost of Malcolm Jenkins

The Buckeye cornerback (14th overall pick) had two plays of note: when Detroit’s Johnson slipped passed him on a botched tackle and when he ran down Detroit kick returner Aaron Brown a dozen yards short of the end zone. It was apparent the ball was coming to Johnson when Jenkins was assigned to cover him and it paid expected dividends.

Houston Texans’ outside linebacker Brian Cushing (15th overall pick) had five tackles and three assists in a losing effort against the New York Jets.

Next Week: Phlying into Philly

To borrow some Ignatius J. Reilly terminology, it seems Fortuna has spun her wheel very much in the Black and Gold’s favor this season in terms of schedule timing. Opening up against the hapless Lions and then facing the Philadelphia Eagles the weekend after quarterback Donovan McNabb sustained a rib injury and before Michael Vick can trade a luxury box for the sideline.

I don’t know what’s more amusing right now: listening to WWL sports-talk hosts “sincerely” share their thoughts about the need for McNabb to take it easy in light of his serious injury or Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid optimistically speculate that McNabb could very well play next weekend.

That’s the kind of selfless attitude that would have made Reid an excellent manager at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (wikipedia it).

Seriously, Philadelphia’s scoring offense doesn’t concern me nearly as much as their scoring defense, which had a field day with turnovers against Carolina. The Saints will not be able to get out of Lincoln Financial Field with a win committing the same mistakes they got away with against Detroit. Brees also threw a few passes into good coverage that some how found their mark though would have just as easily found themselves in the waiting hands of the Eagles’ secondary.

Philadelphia will mark a tougher test for the Saints and will show how far the team has come and perhaps how much further they still need to go.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Will This Be the Year for the Saints? Yes. No...Really?

Will this be the year that the Saints finally go all the way or will this just be the latest installment of a post-2006 season “great pumpkin-esque” Super Bowl vigil?

As a longtime follower of the Black and Gold dating back a tad prior to the team’s first taste of success in 1987, pessimism comes natural. And after the heady days coming from the team’s first conference championship appearance, the pattern is pointing to another let down.

I like what I saw this off-season with the moves made in free-agency (no undersized cornerbacks acquired at a premium this year) and to a lesser degree with the draft (defense, defense and special teams). And I like the play calling I saw on both sides of the ball in preseason.

To hell with heartbreak as it’s hard not to be optimistic, especially since the NFL’s most potent offense from last season is returning intact. Mostly.

Deuce McAllister, the best running back in team history, is gone as his “bodyguard” fullback Mike Karney. However, Deuce’s last year was more of a sad farewell tour as he played sparingly and Karney had his least productive year with the team. However both of these letdowns could just as easily affixed to Head Coach Sean Payton’s play calling than the cut duo’s capacity to play.

Another missing piece, albeit temporary, is Pro-Bowl Offensive Tackle Jammal Brown, who will be out of the first four to six games of the season. Brown’s presence will be missed as he contributed to a line that provided the protection that helped make Drew Brees one of the most prolific passers in NFL history.

But there’s a big upside to this season’s offense.

Running back Reggie Bush and tight end Jeremy Shockey go into the new season healthy and hopefully the injury prone “celebri-thetes” will avoid spending too much time on the back of a golf-cart heading towards an x-ray room.

Wide receiver Marques Colston seems to have returned to old form after struggling in 2008 with a finger injury and Lance Moore, who largely filled the receiving vacuum when Colston was sidelined, appears to have rebounded from an injury he sustained while lifting weights in the off-season.

Devery Henderson, whose reliability has steadily improved, and Robert Meachem, who has shown the stuff that led the team’s front office to use a first-round draft pick on him in 2007, give Brees the plethora of targets that will further confound opposing secondaries.

The return of John Carney as kicker should give the team the kind of stability they have been lacking since the infamous Orlindo Mare “upgrade”.

The biggest offensive concern for the Saints was the running game, which was underscored by the team’s interest in making a trade to land Buckeye running back Beanie Wells in the latter part of the first round in this year’s draft.

Wells was the last person I felt the Saints should have been pursing due to questions about his durability hovered over him during the draft and that the Saints should not have even considered mortgaging a future first round draft pick and complicating the team’s salary cap picture when they already possess the necessary talent at that position at a bargain.

Running back Pierre Thomas still holds the distinction of being the only Saints player to have achieved 100 yards of receiving and 100 yards of rushing in a single game and in my opinion was not given ample opportunity to prove his worth, but that problem was not the fault of Thomas but the man doing the play calling.

The Saints ranked 21st in average yards per carry but were 26th in rushing attempts. Payton’s refusal to balance the offense and obsession with a gunslinger approach resulted in a lack of clock control that kept his own defense on the field longer than they should have been.

Though Thomas will likely miss the first game of the season, Bush will be complemented with heavy-duty backs Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton, the latter could prove to be a true diamond in the rough if his preseason performances are any indication of his talent.

The biggest problem for every Sean Payton team has been the defense, which declined with every passing year. Last season they allowed 393 points. This year they finally did something about it.

To Mickey Loomis’s credit, the front office was fairly aggressive in addressing the team’s most glaring weakness, landing Gregg Williams as the new defensive coordinator- perhaps the most highly anticipated assistant coach in the history of the franchise, thinking defense and special teams in the draft, cutting players in the secondary that didn’t get the job done and bringing in new…scratch that…different players in free agency.

The Saints’ secondary has been virtually remade with two new cornerbacks and two new safeties in addition to shifting former cornerback Usama Young to safety. Cornerback is no longer the Achilles heel of defense and the two veterans (Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau) that were brought in would be hard-pressed to do worst than their predecessors, even if they’re short-term fixes.

Though defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith are suspended four games their presence won’t be terribly missed if they don’t improve from their combined 6 sacks in 2008, equaling what part-time defensive end Bobby McCray accomplished by himself last season.

Grant hasn’t broken into double-digits in sacks since 2004 and Smith hasn’t since 2006. Any improvement at all would go a long way for the Saints defense.

The Saints seem solid at defensive tackle with Sedrick Ellis continuing to justify the trade Loomis made to leap ahead in the 2008 first round to draft him.

Perhaps the greatest area for concern is at linebacker. While there is no questioning the ability of Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker, outside linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle have not exactly set the world on fire with their play. What’s ironic about the pair is that despite Shanle having made two sacks last season while Fujita had none, Fujita continues to enjoy wide popularity with the fans while Shanle has assumed the role of team “goat” now that the Black and Gold faithful no longer have Fred Thomas and Jason David to kick around anymore.

Hopefully linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who seemed to be a one-man army in the final preseason game against Miami, will have an opportunity to prove his value to the team during the year.

The team that will take the field against Detroit on Sunday will be a vastly improved squad over the one that opened up last season. Loomis has without much fanfare put together the pieces needed to compete at a higher level.

When looking at the schedule, which is hardly a walk in the park, I can still see this team finishing 11-5 and contending for the NFC South, which will be a duel with the rival Atlanta Falcons.

If ever there was a Saints team on paper that looks Super Bowl worthy, it’s this one.

Keys to success:

1) A healthy Drew Brees (teams that lose their star quarterbacks end up finishing behind teams like the Dolphins)
2) A commitment to running the ball to use the clock against opponents
3) Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush being healthy and productive, if only for distractive purposes in terms of opposing defenses and not tabloids
4) Putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks so they all don’t look like Michael Vick
5) Converting on the 3 and 1’s that were the bane of the team’s existence last season