NFL Kickoff 2013: Saints Season Preview

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

This week starts one of the most anticipated seasons in Saints history. Let's take a look at the last minute details.

The New Orleans Saints prepare to kickoff the season Who Dat Nation has waited for since falling to the Niners in January of 2011. Of course the Saints played football in 2012, although many would prefer to forget that, but we all know how that story played out. 2013 will kickoff with no excuses and renewed expectations for the Black & Gold. Anticipation is at an all-time high and the time for speculation is coming to a close, so let's get started.

Schedule

Looking at the schedule, it's likely the Saints could return to 13-3 should they remain relatively healthy in comparison to the league averages for the upcoming season. Adding an honest-to-goodness actual NFL head coach to this team could make the Saints a player this season, but returning an elite head coach to this improved Saints squad should return them to elite status.

At the lowest of expectations, the Saints should find themselves at least at 10-6 to finish the season. The NFC South competition will be as stout as ever, the Saints have just as much a chance of sweeping the division as they do going .500 in the division. I worry the Saints will struggle where they regularly have in the Payton/Brees era though, against the NFC West.

Although the Cardinals should be overwhelmed by Brees and company, the 49ers, Seahawks, and yes, Rams will provide difficult tasks for the Saints to overcome. As much as we hate to admit it, the Harbaugh 49ers have had the Saints number over the past few years and little has changed for either team to change that fact. Seattle has arguably the most difficult homefield advantage in the NFL to overcome, and they field one of the NFL's best teams. Lastly, the Rams, for all of their deficiencies, always give the Saints fits and it would be foolish for the Saints to continue to overlook them.

Offense

The best gets better and younger. The only questions remain at the tackle positions, but the Saints have undervalued tackle for years, hopefully this isn't the season where it becomes an issue.

Defense

New coach, new scheme, new players, new expectations. Thanks to a much improved defensive line, the Saints will be much tougher to run the ball on between the tackles. This is a defensive line that added heft with John Jenkins while trimming fat with Sedrick Ellis. Hopefully Jenkins can supplant Broderick Bunkley at nose tackle before the bye week. The defensive line featuring John Jenkins, Akeim Hicks, and Cam Jordan have been the standout surprise of this new look defense and has provided a strong pass rush as well as improved run defense.

Conversely, the lack of depth and reps at outside linebacker is the biggest area of concern for the Saints defense. The trio of Junior Galette, Martez Wilson, and Parys Haralson come into the position with plenty of potential but absolutely nothing to back it up this offseason/preseason. Fingers will be crossed that this trio can stabilize the volatile OLB position, otherwise, opponents will pick apart the Saints in the flats with both running and passing plays.

Inside linebacker has been an afterthought all preseason but looks stable with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne ready to start. Safety will see a tremendous upgrade with first round pick Kenny Vaccaro patrolling the defensive backfield. Cornerback has also been upgraded with the addition of Keenan Lewis, but the story of Lewis' early tenure may be told this Sunday when he will be asked to keep Atlanta's Julio Jones in check.

Rob Ryan will have his hands full with this roster, but Who Dat Nation will likely have to expect the unexpected with his defensive looks and packages this season. In 2012 the Saints featured a historically bad defense yet they still won 7 games. Now, believe it or not, better players have been added, a more flexible scheme has been installed, the offense has retooled, and the head coach has returned. Good times indeed.

Special Teams

Thomas Morstead is phenomenal, Garrett Hartley has been much improved this preseason, outside of that... well, we'll just have to see. Watching the Saints return kicks and punts as well as defend kicks and punts is going to put some Saints fans in the ER this year. The special teams unit is going to have to give the defense and offense reasonable field position this season.

Player under the most pressure this season: OT Charles Brown

If Brown flounders, Drew Brees will be the one literally under the most pressure this season. The Saints braintrust gambled at OT this offseason and felt the equal to Jermon Bushrod was already on the roster, and hopefully they are right. Brown is not the future for Brees' protection at tackle, but he needs to give Brees enough time to make the plays, and the Saints enough time to groom Terron Armstead for 2014.

Biggest key offensive players: Mark Ingram and Jimmy Graham

Ingram has to take advantage of every opportunity given this season, and most importantly not give Sean Payton any excuse to limit his role or telegraph the plays he is involved in.

Graham has to cut out the drops this season. Seriously, not kidding. Graham at max output makes his teammates better and makes the Saints virtually unstoppable.

Biggest key defensive players: John Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro

Jenkins was drafted to take up blockers and stuff the run, but he has been a surprisingly aggressive pass rusher this preseason. Jenkins can ultimately become the anchor necessary at NT for a dominant 3-4 defense.

Vaccaro is the wild card for the defense, a safety that can hit and cover, Sean Payton has never had one of those. He will likely be seen all over the field in multiple formations. His aggression and energy will hopefully be contagious, making defense better with his presence.

In summary

For the Saints to return to elite status in 2013, the offense needs to continue its dominance, the defense needs to go from all-time bad to roughly 20th in the NFL, and special teams needs to do something, anything positive. I like the Saints' chances this season and can't wait to see them get this season underway. Here's to the continuance of the golden age of the New Orleans Saints.

Who Dat!

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