A Strong Draft and a Steady Brees Carry the Saints Through a Turbulent offseason
Following the New Orleans Saints' mystical run to a Super Bowl Championship in 2010, many card-carrying members of the Who Dat Nation made solemn pacts with a higher power to never again complain about whatever woes might befall the Black and Gold. But now, in 2011, it wouldn't be farfetched for the casual observer to assume the faith of some fans may be shaken.
Some have nightmares in which Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch's devastating march into the end zone to bounce the vaunted Saints from the playoffs still hasn't ended, and the gloomy clouds of labor unrest hung over the NFL in the form of a lockout with no resolution in sight. It would be easy to despair.
But this isn't your ordinary franchise, and the Saints and their legions of faithful have weathered far worse storms. With professional football now a guarantee this season after the lockout was lifted, New Orleans is poised to make another run at a championship, resting its hopes on a deep roster bolstered by a highly-touted draft class and a leader who kept his team prepared with the league in flux.
Though the Saints fell to the surprising Seahawks in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, they were one of the league's top teams during the regular season, posting a record of 11-5 without losing consecutive games at any point. Yet, despite posting a six-game winning streak that included big wins over Pittsburgh on Halloween and at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, New Orleans did suffer inconsistencies throughout the season that cost them games against hapless Cleveland and Arizona, in addition to splitting the season series with division rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay. A career-high 22 interceptions plagued Drew Brees in key moments, and the team posted a -6 turnover margin, nothing close to the +11 margin that led the Saints defense during their championship season.
Still, for the most part the Saints vaunted offense and aggressive defense remained intact. The Saints' possessed the league's sixth-most prolific offense last season, post ing 372.5 yards per game, the bulk of which was attributed to Brees and the passing game, featuring receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore and a breakout season by tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees threw for an average of 289 yards per game, third-best in the league, and 33 total touchdowns. The running game—decimated by injuries to Reggie Bush, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas all season long—was more capricious, averaging less than 100 yards per game.
The Saints defense allowed the fourthfewest yards per game and had little trouble stopping the pass, allowing the fourth-fewest yards per game in the air and the fewest passing touchdowns. Malcolm Jenkins emerged as a budding star after converting to safety, and the cornerback tandem of Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter was again one of the best in the league when both were healthy. Pressuring the opposing quarterback and stopping the run, however, were areas in which New Orleans struggled. The acquisitions of defensive ends Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson prior to the 2010 season were supposed to bolster the Saints pass rush, but this facet of the game proved to be one of the team's glaring weaknesses throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' frequent blitzes conjured only 33 sacks, and the team was 16th in rushing yards allowed.
Despite these holes, the Saints remain one of the league's elite teams and will likely return a majority of their starting lineup on both sides of the ball. With Thomas and Ivory rehabilitating their injuries during the offseason, questions exist at the running back position. However, if all goes well, the dynamic combination of Ivory's power game, which fueled Saints victories on multiple occasions, and Thomas' finesse will return to complement the offense. Bush's tenure with the Saints has ended after a trade with the Miami Dolphins, but the addition of running back Darren Sproles helps give both dimensions of Brees' frenetic offense yet another dangerous target in addition to Graham, Colston, Robert Meachem and the Saints' stable of receivers. On defense, look for Jenkins to continue to blossom and for Williams to prioritize improving the defensive front. Sproles will like-