When the NFLPA and owners decided to draw a line in the sand back in March, we were left with much uncertainty and angst concerning the upcoming season. When would free agency begin? How much room would we have under the salary cap, and what would the cap be? How many needs would the Saints be able to address? How much time would the coaches get to develop rookies and second year players who normally make the biggest "jump" or most progress in year two?
Many of those questions have now been answered. Football is back and it looks like we have a solid decade of "business as usual" ahead for our enjoyment. The off-season and training camp are the periods when each fans hope gets renewed, when expectations soar and when the team you rooted for last year becomes an entirely different and new fraternity, for better or worse. Now is the time when everyone is undefeated, with a great chance of molding itself into a championship contender. Now is the time we can sit back and observe the changes being made on our team -- the New Orleans Saints -- and get CRUNK!!
Are you ready for some football? The first pre-season game is less than one week away. The Saints have added many key players through the draft and free agency whom we hope will contribute greatly. Will this team be a legit contender, or are they "paper lions?" Below, we'll discuss what to expect from the pre-season, including what to watch for and what should garner your excitement. Don't expect much -- other than the biggest fix a junkie could ever dream of after being denied for months.
Pre-season games serve one purpose above all: giving the coaches a chance to see how much information a player has carried over onto the field. How much does the player have to think and react during a play, or is the player playing instinctual? Is the player doing everything right with his technique and fundamentals? How is the player reacting to things he's never seen and how well does he retain and learn from the things he has already seen? How well do the new additions integrate with the existing structure? How well do the units gel together? In short, how is the team developing? It doesn't make for exciting football after that initial rush wears off, but it serves its purpose.
Don't let the "quality" of the pre-season games tamper your excitement. Yes, the pre-season is designed more for general managers and coaches evaluations of player development (or decline) than for our entertainment. However, if you paid attention to the 2009 pre-season, you saw a Saints team that forced an average of nearly three turnovers per game. Sure, it was pre-season and everyone was playing "vanilla", but it was something we Saints fans hadn't seen in a long time. The offense started to get into a rhythm by the second week and it sure looked like they were hitting on all cylinders by the time the opener against Detroit rolled around. Conversely, we've had teams that look terrible in the pre-season come out of the gates hot when real bullets were flying.
So what should you be looking for? Pay attention to the mental errors the starters do or do not make against the opponent's starters. Focus your attention on the handful of positions you hoped the Saints would upgrade and watch the one on one match-ups; you don't need to watch the ball if you've got DVR -- it's pre-season after all and doesn't count. Look at how fluid one position group looks with the others. Does that safety "get there" in time to provide support for the corners? Did the defense force turnovers? Did the sack or turnover on offense appear to be a result of miscommunication or a player out of position, or did the player just get dominated or have a mental error? Most importantly, pay attention to how well the team does in situational categories that teams practice, like 3rd downs, two minute drills, the return game, and in the red zone. Sure, we want to see a fluid offense clicking on all cylinders and a defense causing turnovers -- pure domination from the starters -- but the biggest question each week is, "Was progress made from last week to this week in what is known as situational football?"
As a fan, we tend to look at our team's glaring holes from the previous year and conclude, "If we add X, Y and Z all our holes will be filled, and we'll be on the fast track to a championship." Let me first point out the holes in that logic. If your team fixes the holes from last year, all the team did was make itself able to compete against last year's competition. Schemes evolve, players see a decline in production or health, other players reach their potential while others stand still. This occurs on every team, every year. Like life, the only constant in football is change and the best you can hope for is a good foundation, continuity and a front office and coaching staff adept at finding and developing that new crop of talent. .
While we don't have a crystal ball to tell us how much the additions the Saints made will matter when compared against the moves and evolution of our opponents, we can take some excitement into our match-up with the 49ers on Friday night. The Saints have added Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, Martez Wilson, Cameron Jordan, Johnny Patrick, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Olin Kreutz among others. Key positions were filled and key players were retained.
Most of us feel the offense won't miss a beat in the passing game. The offense may have taken a giant step or three in getting the running game back to relevance. That's exciting. The ability to play balanced and run when they want to should make the Saints offense more formidable than it was in 2009. We'll be waiting eagerly for every run inside the tackles behind the starting offensive line. An interior offensive line with Olin Kreutz between Carl Nicks and Jhari Evans with Ingram, Thomas and Sproles waiting to bust through makes my mouth water. Yet, while I am sure everyone is pumped to see Drew return to MVP form with the addition of a viable rushing attack, I am more hyped about the potential progress the Saints defense has made from last year.
Adding Franklin and Rogers to pair with Ellis at defensive tackle gives the Saints (arguably) a top five starting DT rotation. Their play is significant because they will keep the Saints linebackers clean and allow them to reach the quarterback more efficiently on blitzes. Or make that tackle for a loss against the run because the 'Big Bad Voodoo Daddies' are occupying the blockers who'd love nothing more than to nullify Vilma and company. Simply put, those defensive tackles solidify the middle of the Saints defense. Having a top notch DT tandem, a top notch MLB and top notch safety duo makes it very hard for anyone to run on the Saints.
What about stopping the pass? The Saints have four -- count them: 1, 2, 3, 4 -- cornerbacks with man-to-man cover skills. Why is this important? Every team in the NFL has played nickel defense (five defensive backs) over 50% of their yearly defensive snaps for the past three years. This is very significant because that third corner is more of a starter than the guy he replaces. Most offenses are using multiple WR sets. Teams who make their money running the ball are soon forced to use three and four WR sets when attempting to overcome a two-score deficit. Because the Saints have an abundance of "cover" corners, they are built to excel in nickel defense as well as defend a lead.
Having four "cover" corners allows flexibility with the safeties and linebackers. In addition, the Saints have Malcom Jenkins, who has cover corner skills and is that unique hybrid type safety every team is searching for. Remember how Daren Sharper was the "ball hawk" in 2009? That's what I think you are about to see in Malcom Jenkins' play -- click here to see what football analysts has to say about Jenkins and the Saints thus far in training camp. With Porter, Greer, Robinson, Patrick and Jenkins, the Saints can use Roman Harper for what he's best at: providing run support, blitzing the quarterback and laying the wood. It allows the Saints to take chances on blitzes with their linebackers, leaving less men in coverage because they (those in coverage) are more capable of "covering."
Being solid in the middle (DT, MLB, and safety) coupled with being solid on the edges (CB) will go a very long way to mask the weakness (or unproven potential) at DE and OLB. It's near impossible to have a star player at every position (and depth) on one side of the ball without sacrificing the quality of talent on the other. The Saints have the right mix of veterans and youth and a great foundation on both sides of the ball. Can you imagine an explosive Saints offense that is also balanced? Can you imagine a Saints defense that can not only cover the opponents top four WR options, but shut down the run as well? This year will be fun to watch if the Saints are fortunate with health.
This is where it all begins to come together. If you needed any more reason to get pumped about a pre-season game, let me point out that the Saints first opponent has a new coaching staff, lost many important players in free agency and has major questions at quarterback.
So stand up and get crunk. Who Dat!!