How do you improve upon a season where you led your division for the majority of it, won every game at home, and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the second round? That is a question that the New Orleans Saints are asking this year after an offseason that saw them turn loose some familiar faces and bring in some big playmakers. A run of bad losses put them in an uphill climb that resulted in a tough loss in Seattle. Here's a look at what to expect from the New Orleans Saints this season.
Last season was a success for the Saints, as they won 11 games and made it back to the playoffs. The Saints were 4th in the NFC in point differential and 7th in the league, signifying that they are anything but a fluke. The Saints were top-5 last year in major categories such as Total Offense 399.4 YPG (4th), Passing Offense 307.4 YPG (2nd), Total Defense 305.7 YPG (4th), and Passing Defense 194.1 YPG (2nd). The offense is a byproduct of being headed by QB Drew Brees and led by Head Coach Sean Payton. The pass defense is a staple of Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints were the only team in the NFC to go undefeated at home. They won their Wild Card matchup versus the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, and lost to the defending champion Seahawks with the 12th Man in full gear.
The team has some holes to address. The Saints struggled on the road, winning only one of their last six road games (and not beating a team on the road with a winning record besides the Chicago Bears in week 5). The team struggled with the run, both on offense and on defense, and the offensive line had some trouble. The Saints stressed improving their play in the red zone and increasing their takeaways.
The team acquired playmakers this off-season. While there were needs at other positions, the team brought in some of the best and most-physically gifted players they could find. Players like S Jairus Byrd, DB Champ Bailey and rookies WR Brandin Cooks and DB Stanley-Jean Baptiste, all bring something special to the table. The Saints attacked their weaknesses not by position, but by bringing in playmakers, in hopes of putting the best 11 players on the field.
The Byrd, Jean-Baptiste and Bailey acquisitions afford Ryan the ability to get creative with his packages. Ryan didn't use a traditional 3-4 much last year, but instead used a lot of 3-3-5 and 3-2-6 (as well as some 2-4-5 and 2-3-6). As Ryan said, "We want to get our best players and our (best) combination of players on the field. So whatever it is, the great depth will allow us to be more flexible, and that's what we really want to be. We want to know what we're doing, we want to get there in a hurry, and that's our style of play."
The team has placed an emphasis on improving their turnover margin this year. Last year the team broke even, ranking 14th in the league. The top-6 teams in the statistic all made the playoffs, with the Super Bowl champion Seahawks leading the way. The Saints only had 19 takeaways, ranking as the fourth fewest in the league. "That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense. I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding," said Ryan. "We did pretty decent as a unit, but we want to be great, and to be great, you have to take the ball away." Both Byrd and Bailey are ballhawks, and the emphasis on turnovers was prevalent during OTAs, as Kenny Vaccaro jumped in front of a Drew Brees pass and picked it off the first day of OTAs.
Maybe the most important move the Saints did all offseason was keeping TE Jimmy Graham. Graham is one of Brees' favorite targets, and will help keep the offense rolling as the team introduces some new talent and some new roles for younger players. The Saints let go of some fan favorites in diminutive RB Darren Sproles and WR Lance Moore. But the team traded up in the draft to acquired Brandin Cooks, someone who Ryan said, "you can feel his speed." With Cooks and WR Kenny Stills, the team has two deep threats to complement the inside games of WR Marques Colston and Graham.
The team also has their front seven returning, a young unit that is excited to grow together and continue to learn Ryan's system. It is easy to get excited about this defense, which is something that hasn't been said in a while down here in New Orleans. But the team left the offensive line and running back positions essentially unattended, hoping players like C Tim Lelito and RB Mark Ingram can make the leap to shore up those positions. It is a gamble the Saints will have to live with this year, and bears watching. In particular, how the offensive line grows and handles elite defensive fronts such as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will be key in determining whether the Saints will be finishing their season hoisting a trophy in Glendale, AZ.
The Saints schedule doesn't look very hard on paper, as they have the 23rd hardest schedule in the NFL based on last year's winning percentages. The Saints start the season off hoping to correct their road woes, as three of their first four games are on the road (including the opener against the rival Atlanta Falcons.) The team has a very difficult stretch starting on October 19 at Detroit, then four straight games against teams that were in the postseason last year. If the team survives that stretch, they can potentially win the division and force the NFC through the Dome. The Saints only play one game against a team that ESPN currently has ranked higher than them, and that is a home game against San Francisco. The team plays four of their eight road games in domes, which may exacerbate the teams road woes.
The Saints are primed to make the jump they need to make it to the Super Bowl. The NFC is loaded with great teams, but with the Saints defense on the upswing and some new toys for Payton to play with, there is a good chance the team can make that jump. As Payton stressed during minicamps, the goal for the Saints is "to catch the leader." That is the Saints goal, and they got a hell of a lot faster, which should make this season an interesting chase.