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Postcard from camp: Saints

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what John P. Lopez had to say about the Saints after watching them practice with the Texans in Houston. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.

The Saints moved camp from Metairie, La., to Houston, where two days of joint practices have been spirited, fast-paced and productive. And on Wednesday, all that frustration spilled over with six fights breaking out between the Texans and Saints. The headline event was a couple of Pro Bowl players, the Texans' DeMeco Ryans and Saints' Jeremy Shockey, going at it for several minutes with numerous punches landed. (See video of the fight here.)

Otherwise, the Saints got a lot out of the joint practices, arriving Tuesday to the expansive Texans' facility, which includes three full fields, a 100-yard indoor facility and an extra 50-yard workout field much to their liking.

Saints fans turned out in big numbers for every workout. After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Louisiana residents relocated to the Houston area. Those Louisianans may have changed addresses, but not allegiances. One fan began to choke up as he told me he's come to love living in Houston, but hadn't seen the Saints in person since prior to Katrina in 2005. He said he felt "a piece of home" watching the Saints practice. The Saints seemed to respond to all the support with much crisper workouts.

1. The Saints defense still needs improvement. The Saints and Texans ranked first and third, respectively, in total offense in 2008 and, well, they looked it practicing against one another. That's the good news. During 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 scrimmaging and individual offense-defense drills, both offenses made the opposition look bad.

The bad news is, both teams have put a premium on ramping up things on the defensive side and have been made to look silly in these joint workouts. That's not to say the Saints haven't shown some improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The secondary has been bolstered with talent, and Gregg Williams has brought a much more complex defensive style to the Saints.

But if having a joint practice was designed to show the Saints areas in which they still need improvement, mission accomplished. In 11-on-11 scrimmaging, the Saints' run defense struggled to stop Houston back Steve Slaton, while receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter made big plays against the Saints' secondary.

2. Reggie Bush has looked like he's taken to heart all the criticism of being overrated, just a third-down back and not tough enough or big enough to run hard between the tackles. I've watched a lot of Saints games in recent years and, frankly, don't recall seeing him look as determined. Of course, it was a series of drills and controlled scrimmages and coaches were behind the backfield imploring Bush to cut and go. Still, instead of the usual assortment of cuts to the outside when he hits traffic, Bush has squared his shoulders and hit holes much harder.

The problem is, he could be running like Jim Brown and it still wouldn't change the fact that Bush is coming off microfracture surgery on his knee and there are big questions about whether he will be able to stay on the field. Already in camp, Bush has missed time to ice his knee or undergo treatment. And after not missing a single game his rookie year, Bush has missed 10 games the past two seasons. That's a bad, bad sign.

3. The once and future missing ingredient to a Saints Super Bowl run, Jeremy Shockey, looks like he cares again. He also is playing terrific football.And that combination truly could turn this Saints offense into an unstoppable force.

It seems strange to say that about a four-time Pro Bowl player, but Shockey has been an NFL disappointment. With so much talent and promise, Shockey has largely fallen short. It alternately has been because of petulance, off-field troubles, injuries or Shockey simply being a contrary baby. But the fact remains, Pro Bowls and being an in absentia member of a Super Bowl champion (because of injury) has left Shockey's reputation in shambles. A year ago, Shockey was a nonfactor for the Saints.

He could not have looked better in the Saints' first preseason game, however, when he had three catches for 61 yards. And in the joint practices with the Texans, Shockey consistently has gotten open, made nice plays and finished blocks.

Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator. Did you ever notice that whenever a new defensive coordinator comes to town, he promises to be aggressive, intense and put more pressure on quarterbacks? Nobody ever says, "I promise we'll be lax, reluctant and meek."

At least new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has the track record to back up his promises of a better, bolder Saints D. And, boy, do the Saints need the help.

Williams is beginning his 20th NFL season with the task of transforming what was the league's 23rd-ranked defense in 2008 and 26th in scoring defense. His foremost responsibility is changing the attitude on the defensive side of the ball. He has been harping on his players to rely on aggressiveness and instincts throughout camp, over the measured reactive-type defense of before.

Williams' style is to put versatile players in position to make plays, but without compromising responsibilities. Several players already have endorsed the system and, though it has a long way to go, if nothing else the Saints defenders are buying into the system and look confident in it.

Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback. The rookie from Ohio State had the unenviable task of finding himself in coverage against Andre Johnson, arguably the best all-around receiver in football. Predictably, Jenkins lost the battle. But everyday, the Saints see something in Jenkins that offers hope he'll be an integral part of an improved defense.

For one thing, he does not beat himself up over a training-camp battle lost. After Jenkins joined camp 11 days late because of a holdout and having to catch up to get in football shape, it would be unrealistic to think he could step in and cover an All-Pro receiver. But he is a smart player who can play safety, corner or nickelback. He is athletic and willing to learn. He has enough size to tackle and the speed to cover.

Everyday, as so much is being thrown in his direction, Jenkins has been showing that he will be a keeper. Already, Saints coaches have thrown Jenkins in with the starting group and, for the most part, he has excelled.

It's inevitable, even here, that if Reggie Bush and Mario Williams are on the field together there will be mention of the controversial 2006 draft. The Texans stunned the league -- but ultimately have been proved right in their assessment -- by taking Williams over Bush and hometown hero Vince Young.

After the first joint workout with the Texans, naturally the subject came up again, with Bush initially sidestepping the question, but eventually saying:

"That's part of the territory. It comes along with it. It doesn't affect me at all ... We've done events together. We've seen each other. We talked today inside. He's a great guy. There's no tension between us. I think that's for the fans and the media. In all honesty, I think it makes for a better story. I think all it does is bring more attention to the game and that's what we want to do, bring attention to the Houston Texans and the New Orleans Saints."

• If Pierre Thomas is not a 1,000-yard rusher this season, it would be shocking. Reggie Bush's iffy status physically and Thomas' development into a frontline runner should make this a bona fide breakout year.

• There may not be a deeper stable of NFL quarterbacks anywhere, with Drew Brees, Mark Brunell and Joey Harrington. OK, so Harrington isn't exactly Brees, but he's started in the league. And Brunell is having a terrific camp.

• Receiver Marques Colston was not himself last year, due to knee and thumb injuries. And even though he had microfracture surgery in the offseason, Colston is showing no ill-effects.

• The highlight of joint practices with the Texans have been the line battles -- specifically Mario Williams against Saints tackle Jammal Brown. Lined up in the drill within 10 feet of a couple hundred fans, everyone got an up-close look at serious NFL contact. Williams won the majority of battles, but Brown certainly got his shots in.

• The first four games in the Saints' 2009 schedule could go a long way determining what kind of year it will be. If they cannot win at least three of their first four against the Lions, Eagles, Bills and Jets, it could spell trouble.

• Saints kicker Garrett Hartley has been practicing with the Saints alongside the recently acquired John Carney. Hartley will serve a four-game suspension when the regular season begins because he tested positive for a banned stimulant. He said he obtained Adderall from a former college friend and took it to stay awake while driving from Dallas to New Orleans for an offseason workout.

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