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MERCILESS: Saints Offense Faces First 2017 Test vs. Tough Texans Defense

The New Orleans Saints will officially close out their 2017 Training Camp tomorrow morning, when they conduct a Joint Practice with the Houston Texans at the team's Practice Facility in Metairie in suburban New Orleans.

Following tomorrow's practice, the Saints will officially "break" Training Camp and are off on Friday, before hosting the Texans in the 3rd Pre-Season game at the Superdome on Saturday Night. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Central time.

One thing that Saints fans should be looking for: after facing teams in the Pre-Season so far with average defenses (Cleveland and the L.A. Chargers), the Saints offense will be matched up head-to-head with one of the NFL's toughest defenses in the Texans, who are led by All-Pro defensive ends J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (yes, that's his real name).

The Texans defense was ranked #1 in the NFL in 2016.

 Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters after today's practice that Saints offensive starters QB Drew Brees, and RB's Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram are expected to see their first action of the Pre-Season in Saturday Night's game, though it's uncertain how long they will actually play.

The 3rd Pre-Season game in the past has been the game in which most NFL teams will play their anticipated starters for the upcoming regular season, for at least the whole 1st half and sometimes into the 3rd quarter.

Additionally, after the 3rd Pre-Season game has been played, the starters are usually given the 4th Pre-Season game off to rest up and be ready for the regular season opener; while the 2nd and 3rd string players battle it out for final roster spots before the cut-down to the Final 53-man roster.

"I’m sure we’re gonna want to see them play some,” Payton said, via Mike Triplett of “How much, we’ll see,”

None of those players saw any action whatsoever in the first two Pre-Season games, and Peterson hasn’t played in the Pre-Season at all since 2013 -- dating back to his time with the Minnesota Vikings.

 Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The Saints also may see the Pre-Season debut of starting center Max Unger in the contest, and he's expected to play in the 4th and final Pre-Season game next Thursday Night at the Superdome, regardless of whether he plays against the Texans. Unger has just returned to practice this week, after missing time from an off-season foot surgery.

Tomorrow's Joint Practice and the game Saturday Night against the vaunted Texans defense should provide the Saints offense with their first true test of 2017, with the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings just 2 and a half weeks away.

It should also offer both observers and Saints fans a glimpse of what the team's offense will look like with Peterson and Ingram splitting carries as the "lead" RB, with sensational rookie RB Alvin Kamara thrown into the mix for good measure.

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But the "real" test if there is one, will be how the Saints offensive line -- and particularly rookie offensive left tackle Ryan Ramczyk --- fares against the "merciless" Texans defensive Front 7.

“I think we all know what J.J. (Watt) brings to the table,” Texans assistant head coach Romeo Crenneltold reporters about the team's defense a few weeks ago.

“For opponents to try to figure out where they’re going to send their protection – do they send it to J.J.? Do they send it to Clowney? Exactly how they’re going to do all that as far as from a protection standpoint, I think that’s going to make it extremely difficult on the offense."

"So, if we can keep both of those guys healthy, and Whitney (Mercilus) as well, I think it will be difficult for them.”

 Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Houston led the league in several categories, allowing a league-low 301.3 total net yards per contest, fewest first downs (17.0) and second fewest net passing yards per game (201.6). From Weeks 8 to 17, the Texans allowed an average 71.9 yards rushing per game with just three rushing touchdowns by opponents in that time span. 

Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel is also focused on creating more turnovers and improving red-zone defense for his unit this off-season.

Houston finished tied for 8th in the NFL in the red zone (52.27%) and 13th in goal-to-go situations (66.67%). Last year, the Texans recorded 11 interceptions and six fumble recoveries, after forcing 25 turnovers in 2015. 

For the Saints, who finished #2 overall in the NFL in total offense, the Texans provide the perfect "litmus test" as they make preparations in earnest for the upcoming 2017 regular season that is inching closer with each passing day.

 Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Even if Brees, Peterson, Ingram and company see limited action against the NFL's #1 ranked defense, it should be a perfect simulation of the upcoming weekly wars that they'll see as they attempt to break a 3-year streak of consecutive 7-9 losing seasons and missing the NFL Playoffs.

If the Saints offense can make a good showing in these next few days against the double-rough Texans "D" in front of their home fans in NOLA, it will certainly provide a boost of confidence for the team going forward --- especially in the season opener September 11th on Monday Night Football, when they will go up against a Vikings defense that's just as good as the one they will face tomorrow morning.......