Know Thy Enemy: New Orleans Saints

It’s now time for the second installment of my NFC South exposé, and I’ll be looking at the much beloved New Orleans Saints. (Perhaps not much beloved in Tampa, but beloved nonetheless.) While I have the utmost respect for longtime Saints fans, they certainly got hit with the bandwagon bug a few years ago when the Lombardi trophy found a cajun home. Looking at the Saints’ upcoming season is very different than analyzing the near future of the Atlanta Falcons. Unlike the Falcons, the Saints do not have the same glaring issues.

On paper, the Saints boast one of the most talented rosters they’ve had in recent memory. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s a lot of question as to what the offensive machine that is Payton and Brees will pump out. The defense was a major issue in recent years, but has already shown drastic improvement since the arrival of Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator. The Saints appear to have everything necessary to ride a Mardi Gras parade float of statistics into another Super Bowl, but the devil is in the details.

New Orleans Saints

I don’t think it’s any secret that the Saints have a potent offense. This isn’t offseason buzz, it’s a proven fact that an offense led by Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and Jimmy Graham can, and likely will, rip many unprepared defenses apart. However, the biggest threat in the 2014 season may turn out to be the Saints’ first round draft pick, Brandin Cooks. In his junior, and final, season at Oregon State, Cooks made himself the obvious number one receiver.

In their 2013 season, the Oregon State Beavers limped their way to a 7-6 record after a Sheraton Hawaii Bowl victory over Boise State. This lackluster season was mainly a result of an almost nonexistent defense and an equally unimpressive rushing attack. Oregon State ranked 118th overall in rushing yards for the year while giving up losses as lopsided as a 69-27 beating at the hands of the Washington Huskies. All the while, Cooks dominated the entire year. Cooks’ 1730 receiving yards on the season was just shy of a thousand yards higher than the next closest Oregon State receiver. This yardage led him to 15 touchdowns in the year.

The numbers are on his side, especially in a formidable conference like the Pac-12. Cooks also ran a lightning fast 4.33 40-yard dash at the combine, second only to running back Dri Archer’s scorching 4.24 time. Brees has already been quoted at press conferences that Cooks may end up filling some of the void left by Darren Sproles’ departure from the team. All the draft buzz may have been on Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, but the under the radar Brandin Cooks is potentially just a lethal, especially with a veteran such as Drew Brees delivering him the ball.

Combine Brandin Cooks with the incumbent cabinet of Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Marques Colston, and you’ll find that the Saints’ passing offense will be nothing short of terrifying. Within our division, there will be no greater test for our secondary than the New Orleans Saints. However, the offensive line play and rushing attack may not be so guaranteed. Any attempt to contain or slow down the Saints’ offense will start at the line of scrimmage. The Saints definitely don’t have the worst o-line in the league, but they’re certainly not without their faults.

Last regular season, the flawed line allowed the barely six-foot-tall Drew Brees to be sacked a total of 37 times. That’s not bad when compared to the league average, but if the Saints intend to do more than just get their toes wet with the playoffs, the line will have to hold tighter than that. From 2006 to their 2009 Super Bowl Championship season, Brees never got sacked more than 20 times in a single season. That’s the same amount of sacks that Peyton Manning had to endure last year in his record-shattering regular season.

In order for the Saints to be back to Super Bowl form, the line has to perform at a whole different level. The offseason re-acquisition of center Jonathan Goodwin will go a long way, as he was the starter which anchored their 2009 Super Bowl win. Goodwin spent the last three years in San Francisco, in which he started every game during his tenure. Goodwin goes into this season at 35 years old, and potentially one of the oldest starting lineman in the league.

Despite this, if he is in the same form he has been in, he’ll likely beat out the much younger Tom Lelito and rookie Matt Armstrong for the starting spot. Between Goodwin, the emergence of Terron Armstead at left tackle at the end of last season, and consistent play from guard Jahri Evans; the line should be able to hold together if they don’t continue to get penalties like they did last season. Last year, the Saints led the NFL in holding penalties at 31. Evans was definitely among the offenders.

This was not where the penalties ended, as Brees was the most penalized player on the team last year. Of Brees’ 12 penalties, he racked up eight for delay of game, three for false start, and one for intentional grounding. Regardless of how loud a stadium is, Brees can’t do this if he expects to get another ring. Even if he has to wear a hearing aide in his helmet, the 35 year old needs to get his clock and game management under control. Some of this rests on Sean Payton, but a veteran like Brees is also accountable. Every single loss the Saints suffered last year came on the road, and crowd noise clearly got to them. I know some places are loud, but that’s inexcusable.

The Saints running game is going to be a work in progress. The loss of running back Darren Sproles is tough, but his versatility can be made up for with a combination of the players they have. Since being drafted by the Saints in 2011, running back Mark Ingram has shown flashes of brilliance and talent. However, he hasn’t been extremely consistent with this. Ingram will have to step up, as will second year back Khiry Robinson. If the tandem can give solid performance, and the line holds up, the Saints offense will be nothing short of dominant. However, I have little faith in their line or running game.

Up against the Buccaneers defense, without consistency on all sides, the Saints may struggle. They will be a significant challenge, and it will come down to execution and lack of mistakes on either side when game time arrives. Gerald McCoy, who Brian Urlacher recently described as a ‘crackhead’ for his ability to find a crack in an offensive line and seek the quarterback, will exploit any slight misstep by the Saints untested o-line. In the secondary, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David will have his extreme speed put to the test up against the likes of Brandin Cooks. It would take a flawless performance to shut down the Saints offense, but the Bucs definitely have the talent to slow them down.

As for defense, the Saints are nothing short of exceptional. Rob Ryan doesn’t often get credit for being the defensive genius that he is, but he’s taken what used to be one of the worst defenses in the league and raised it anew from the ashes of defeat in a short time. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks anchor the front seven, as Jordan led the team with 12.5 sacks last season. The linebacking corps needs to stay consistent, but there are few glaring holes in the front side of the defense. Not much has changed about this group in the offseason, and many of the players are still young with long careers ahead of them.

The Saints’ secondary was not bad last season, but it has still significantly upgraded. The acquisition of free safety Jairus Byrd from Buffalo gives them a solid threat with deep coverage. Byrd will anchor this section of the secondary, but it is cornerback that may give opposing offenses the most trouble. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Keenan Lewis was impressive all throughout last season and no doubt will look to do the same this year. While there is more talent fighting for the spot, I have no doubt we’ll see the freshly signed 12-time pro bowl cornerback Champ Bailey on the field when the time comes.

One of the details, oft overlooked, that the Saints will have to upgrade to contend at the top is their Special Teams play. With Sproles’ departure, they need to find someone else to lock down their return game. While it’s yet to be seen, Brandin Cooks’ speed may make him a candidate for this. The Saints’ punt return average last season was a mere 7.5 yards. This put them 26th overall in the league. Their offense is great, but they can’t be expected to pick up the slack of special teams every single drive.

One of the few things that could cause major problems with the Saints’ upcoming season would be any significant injuries. They boast depth at some positions, but few have anywhere near the talent of the starters. This lack of effective backups may not be an issue, but only time will tell. The wrong storm of injuries, and the Saints’ 2014 season could turn out exactly like the Falcons’ 2013 season.

Barring this, they’ll be in top form in 2014. The Saints first lock up with the Buccaneers in week five in New Orleans. On one hand, I’m glad that this happens after the Buccaneers have had some games to really gel and get a rhythm. That chemistry will be critical to get the Saints off kilter and force some mistakes. However, it’ll also be the Buccaneers third straight road game following games in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. If the Bucs show the wear and tear of this and allow mistakes to surface, I shutter to think how this game will turn out.

The Saints will be coming home after likely trouncing the Dallas Cowboys at ‘JerryWorld.’ At week five, this may be one of the biggest challenges Tampa Bay faces 2014. The outcome of this game may go a long way in telling the story of the NFC South. The teams will end their season locking up once again at Raymond James Stadium. The Falcons may have a few deadly receivers, but it’s the Beast of Bourbon Street that will have to be slain for Tampa to head to the playoffs this year.