It wasn't a complete disaster, but the 2012 New Orleans Saints season isn't likely one they'll hang their hat on. A 7-9 record and a year watching the playoffs at home is something the "new age" Who Dats will want to forget. Heading into last season, many thought the Saints would be fi ne without their head coach Sean Payton. They were wrong. The NFL's bounty investigation likely cost the Black and Gold another year in the postseason and a chance to win the Super Bowl in the Super Dome.
But it would be unfair to blame everything on the absence of Sean Payton. One a positive note, the 2012 New Orleans offense led the NFL in passing yards per game. That was mostly due to the fact that their defense put them in a hole early and forced quarterback Drew Brees and company to air it out and play catch-up. That defense was bad—really bad. They gave up just over 440 yards a game to opposing offenses. How bad? Historically bad. No team in the history of the game gave up more yards per contest than the one that took the fi eld wearing the fl eur de lis on their helmets.
But that was then and this is now. As soon as Sean Payton returned from his season-long suspension, he told defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to pack his bags. The Black and Gold decided they'd try and fi x that porous defense by switching their entire defensive scheme. In 2013, they'll run a 3-4 defense. It's a package that presents three down defensive lineman and four linebackers, as opposed to the 4-3 scheme that does the opposite. To help with that transition, the Saints hired Rob Ryan, who was fi red from the Dallas Cowboys after the 2012 season. The good news for the Who Dat Nation is that defense won't be asked to jump from 32 nd to 1 st in yards allowed a game. The Saints offense will help hide imperfections from the other side of the ball. Drew Brees is still the signal caller, and that means the Saints will more than likely have a chance to be in and win every game they play.
Moving forward to 2013, the only real concern for many is fi nding a reliable replacement at the left tackle position. It's considered the most important spot on the fi eld in football. That's certainly the case in New Orleans, as that guy is in charge of protecting Brees' blind side. Jermon Bushrod is now with the Chicago Bears after being a staple at the position since the 2009 season. In 2013, Charles Brown will be the most likely candidate to replace Bushrod. The often-injured Brown could have that spot locked in by the start of the season if he stays healthy. Rookie Terron Armstead and free agent signee Jason Smith are both fi ghting for that job as well. The rest of the line, barring injury, will be Ben Grubbs (LG), Jason De La Puente (C), Jahri Evan (RG), and Zach Strief (RT).
Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Pierre Thomas, listed in no particular order, are the top three options at running back. Tavaris Cadet isn't a bad fourth option if someone goes down. For the fi rst time since Brees has been in the Big Easy, he won't have Louisiana native Devery Henderson to look for at the receiver spot. Henderson is now with the Redskins, and the Saints will have to fi nd another deep threat option. Brees, however, will still have his usual targets in the air. Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and tight end Jimmy Graham caught over 55 percent of his passes last year. They'll once again be his go-to targets in 2013. There's plenty of competition between Joe Morgan, rookie Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, and Courtney Roby to fi ll out the remainder of the wide receiving corps.
The aforementioned switch to the 3-4 brings a big change to the Black and Gold defense. The Saints have lacked a consistent pass rush over the past couple of years. They'll hope the amount of different looks from their new scheme can help solve that problem. At the time of writing, very few spots on the depth chart were locked in. And there will be plenty of mixing and matching, trying to fi gure out who best fi ts where leading up to the start of the season.
Cam Jordan, Tom Johnson, Brodrick Bunkley, rookie Jon Jenkins, and Akiem Hicks should get most of the work at the defensive lineman spots. Will Smith will no longer be a hand on the ground defensive end trying to get to the quarterback. With the 3-4 look, he'll be at outside linebacker with Martez Wilson and Junior Galette. Free agent acquisition Victor Bulter could have played a huge role in his fi rst year in New Orleans, but his offseason injury won't allow him to do so. Curtis Lofton was one bright spot on the defense last year. He was second on the team with 123 tackles. He'll more than likely lead his unit again in 2013. Jonathon Vilma, Will Herring, David Hawthorne, and Chris Chamberlain are all in the mix there at the inside linebacker spot too. Like everywhere else on the defensive side of the ball, there is a ton of competition in the defensive backfi eld. Saints fans can only hope this group is improved from a year ago. Keenan Lewis could help. This offseason free agent signing will likely lock in one of the cornerback spots. He led the NFL with 23 pass breakups with Pittsburgh last season. Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer will battle for the cornerback spot opposite Lewis.
Roman Harper led the team with 125 tackles a year ago. That's not necessarily a good thing. That's a result of the strong safety making tackles after a big gain by the offense. Behind him are Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul-Quddus. The Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas with their fi rst-round draft pick. He'll fi ght off Malcolm Jenkins and veteran Jim Leonhard to get the starting at free safety.
This unit is pretty simple when predicting who will do what. Thomas Morstead will be back at punter. The Pro-Bowl selection from last season averaged over 50 yards a try in 2012. Garrett Hartley will do the kicking. He ranked 23 rd in the NFL last year and connected on 18 of his 22 attempts. The electrifying Darren Sproles will once again handle punt returns. He's a threat to score any time he has the ball in his hands. Sproles, Courtney Roby and Tavaris Cadet will be in the mix on kick returns.
If you're a Saints fan, your worries are free when looking at the 2013 offense. Drew Brees will be Drew Brees. That's enough to keep the Saints in playoff contention. But the massive overhaul on the defensive side of the ball will draw concerns. How soon can the personnel learn the new 3-4 system? Will the personnel fi t the new scheme? The questions are out there, but one must believe the defense can't be worse than the one that took the fi eld in 2012. Defensively, if the unit can be more in the 15-20 range in yards allowed rather than dead last, you can expect to see another playoff appearance under Sean Payton.
Along with playing everyone in the NFC South (Bucs, Falcons, and Panthers) twice, the Saints will play the NFC West (Cardinals, 49ers, Rams, and Seahawks), AFC East (Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, and Jets) and the Cowboys and Bears. Based on how their 2013 opponents fared in 2012, the Saints have the third toughest schedule behind the Panthers and Lions. With that said, there's still no excuse heading into 2013. There are no looming off-the-fi eld distractions with the bounty scandal. Sean Payton is back. The Saints hope they are too.