As the defense retools, Brees will again have to find the end zone early and often.
September 7 TAMPA BAY 14 at Washington 21 at Denver 28 SAN FRANCISCO
October 6 MINNESOTA (M) 12 OAKLAND 19 at Carolina 26 vs. San Diego (in London)
November 2 Bye 9 at Atlanta 16 at Kansas City 24 GREEN BAY (M) 30 at Tampa Bay
December 7 ATLANTA 11 at Chicago (T) 21 at Detroit 28 CAROLINA
Jeremy Shockey, Tight End: Last year the former Texas star showed signs of fulfilling his first-round promise. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham, now doubling as linebackers coach, is spending significant time honing Johnson's skills, especially on the pass rush. A strong season will give Johnson leverage as he heads into his contract year in 2009In six years with the Giants, Shockey never had 900 receiving yards, and he exceeded 70 catches only once. The Saints expect him to do both -- and block like a third tackle for Reggie Bush. "This offense is perfect for me," Shockey says. "And if you can't be happy working with Drew Brees, who can you be happy with?".
They were a playoff-caliber team last season -- for the last 12 games, that is. This year's goal: Go all-out for a full 16.
Sean Payton thought long and hard about what he wanted to say to his teamwhen he opened training camp. Many now see the Saints' run to the 2006 NFCChampionship Game as a fluke after last season's return to 7-9 territory. Andthe NFC South will be a lot stronger because of Tampa Bay's resurgent defenseand Jake Delhomme's return from injury in Carolina. The Saints coach wondered,How can we find that edge that will enable us to win the division again andreturn to the league's elite?
So he looked around the room and said, "Drew Brees, the Chargers gave up onyou. Scott Fujita, same thing with you and the Cowboys. Hollis Thomas, theEagles gave you away. Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma, New York teams gave upon you guys. Me? I wanted the Packers job, and they picked someone else. My point? We all havesomething to prove."
The first priority is to avoid last season's 0-4 start. "We spent all theenergy we had getting back to 4-4, and we didn't have much left," Payton says.He told his players they had to avoid what he called "the sins of '07." Mostcame during that horrible first month. Brees threw one touchdown pass and nineinterceptions in those first four games; the running attack, which lost DeuceMcAllister to a torn left ACL in Week 3, produced only 3.4 yards acarry; and the defense gave up 30 points a game. Brees then threw 27touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the team's 7-5 finish, but it wasn'tenough to overcome that bad start.
So the Saints acquired Shockey from the Giants and Vilma from the Jets, twoplayers happy to get out of New York. During his first two years in New Orleans,Payton didn't have a classic 4-3 middle linebacker who could make plays all overthe field; Vilma, coming off knee surgery that ruined his 2007 season, isexpected to fill that role. He ran freely and without pain through trainingcamp. Shockey, who suffered a broken lower left leg in December, was theforgotten tight end while New York made its stunning Super Bowl run. Stilllimited in practice in Saints camp, he should be ready Week 1.
The Saints were seeking a premier cornerback in the draft, such as Troy'sLeodis McKelvin, but couldn't pass on USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, whobeefs up the line. So they tried to patch the leaky secondary -- New Orleansallowed an NFL-high 32 touchdown passes last year -- by signing free-agent cornersRandall Gay, a nickelback, and Aaron Glenn, who is 36. It figures that theSaints' offense will have to score in the mid- to high 20s to give the team itsbest chance to win.
"We can score," says all-purpose back Reggie Bush. "We're one of theelite offenses in the league, but a turnover here or a turnover there and notbeing productive in the running game killed us last year. We have to get thatfixed." Bush, who in his two NFL seasons hasn't shown the explosiveness thatmade him a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, worked regularly on squat lifts in theoff-season in an attempt to improve his burst through tight holes in theline.
It's essential that the ground game produces more big plays. New Orleanscan't rely on Brees alone -- though it's tempting. Over the past two season he had8,841 passing yards, 404 more than Peyton Manning and 506 more than TomBrady.
"I feel good about this team," said Payton, who then pulled from his deskdrawer a book that Brees had given him in the off-season: 212° The ExtraDegree. Payton explained the message: At 211° water is hot, and at 212° itboils. Boiling water produces steam, and steam powers engines. Brees's pointwas, See what happens when we all work a little bit harder.
On the title page Brees wrote,
You are the reason I'm here, and I'm thankful for that every day. There is noone in this league I would rather play for. I want to win a championship here.
He's got some help this year. -- Peter King
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