1 NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

September 04, 2011

The '09 champs can run again—and their defense will not hide

The Saints were embarrassingly drummed out of the playoffs last January, their 41--36 loss to the 7--9 Seahawks almost enough to bring those old Aints-scrawled paper bags out of the closet. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, in an instant YouTube classic, stiff-armed half the spiritless Saints defense on a 67-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, unpressured, shredded New Orleans for four touchdowns. Riddled by injuries, the Saints had no running back to complement Drew Brees.

In ignominy, though, there are useful lessons. New Orleans addressed two of its biggest needs in the draft when it selected two-way defensive end Cameron Jordan and 2009 Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram with its first two picks. And still, the Saints needed more, much more. The front office went trolling in the free-agent market, cherry-picking four vital veterans: running back Darren Sproles and center Olin Kreutz to further bolster the run game; and defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin, easily the two best veteran tackles cut loose by their teams after the 2010 season. In 10 days of free agency the Saints did more to improve their talent level than they'd done since 2006, when they lucked into a quarterback with a bum wing.

Talk about a sea change. Even in the years after Katrina, the Saints had a hard time recruiting free agents because of their stadium (refurbished but outdated) and surface (artificial turf) and city (slow to rebound from the hurricane's devastation).

"If you asked me about free agency two or three years ago, I never would have picked New Orleans," says Sproles. That's what winning a Super Bowl does, as well as establishing yourself as a franchise built for long-term success. The personnel moves, guided by G.M. Mickey Loomis, have been smart and economical. The coaching staff, led by Sean Payton, is prepared and cutting edge. The chance to play with Brees helped persuade Kreutz and Sproles to leave the Bears and the Chargers, respectively. The chance to play for a winner helped persuade Rogers and Franklin, who had spent their careers doing nothing but losing in Detroit and Cleveland (Rogers), and San Francisco (Franklin).

Although they won the Super Bowl 19 months ago and were an 11-win playoff team last year and had a bountiful off-season, the Saints aren't a popular pick to win it all. But unless the alarming injury bug that swept through camp in late August (17 players didn't practice on the afternoon of Aug. 24) stretches into the season, there are reasons to believe that the Saints will again march into January. And those reasons begin with the run, on both sides of the ball.

Brees's brilliant 2009 was supplemented by the legs of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, who led a ground attack that churned out 2,106 yards. But because of injuries and a shakier line, that output plummeted to 1,519 last year. The injury-prone Bush, who never became the every-down back he wanted to be, was dealt to Miami. In his place came Ingram, the 28th pick in the draft, and Sproles, who signed a four-year, $14 million contract. In Payton's master plan Sproles will return punts and touch the ball 150 or more times, either rushing or receiving. "Darren creates mismatches all over the field," says Loomis. "And Mark—how do I temper my enthusiasm? When Ricky Williams was here in his prime, there were a few runs where he made you go, 'Whoaaaa.' Same thing with this kid."

The Saints are quietly concerned about the health of wideout Marques Colston—he's had microfracture surgery on both knees in the last two years—so the running game is going to be vital. "I see our backfield as the same three-headed monster we were in '09 with me, Reggie and Mike," says Thomas.

The two most excited newcomers, however, might be Rogers and Franklin. "I was having this conversation with Takeo Spikes, who I played with in San Francisco [and is now with the Chargers]," Franklin says. "He's played 13 years and never gone to the playoffs. We all know this is a job, but you play because you want to win too. What appealed to me was having a real chance to win a Super Bowl."

That goal, seemingly so distant for the Saints after last season's playoff debacle, is again within reach.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 6

QB DREW BREES

ATT 658

COMP 448

PCT 68.1

YARDS 4,620

YD/ATT 7.02

TD 33

INT 22

RATING 90.9

RB PIERRE THOMAS

ATT 83

YARDS 269

REC 29

TTD 2

FB JED COLLINS (R)*

REC 52

YARDS 512

AVG 9.8

TTD 3

WR MARQUES COLSTON

REC 84

YARDS 1,023

AVG 12.2

TTD 7

WR LANCE MOORE

REC 66

YARDS 763

AVG 11.6

TTD 8

TE JIMMY GRAHAM

REC 31

YARDS 356

AVG 11.5

TTD 5

LT JERMON BUSHROD

G 16

SACKS 6

HOLD 0

FALSE 6

LG CARL NICKS

G 16

SACKS 3

HOLD 4

FALSE 0

C OLIN KREUTZ

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 4

FALSE 2

RG JAHRI EVANS

G 16

SACKS 2

HOLD 9

FALSE 2

RT ZACH STRIEF

G 14

SACKS 0

HOLD 8

FALSE 1

RB MARK INGRAM (R)

ATT 158

YARDS 875

REC 21

TTD 14

WR ROBERT MEACHEM

REC 44

YARDS 638

AVG 14.5

TTD 5

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 4

DE ALEX BROWN

TACKLES 39

SACKS 2

INT 0

DT SEDRICK ELLIS

TACKLES 44

SACKS 6

INT 0

DT SHAUN MOORE

TACKLES 17

SACKS 2

INT 0

DE WILL SMITH

TACKLES 39

SACKS 5½

INT 1

LB SCOTT SHANLE

TACKLES 75

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB JONATHAN VILMA

TACKLES 105

SACKS 4

INT 1

LB WILL HERRING

TACKLES 26

SACKS 1

INT 1

CB JABARI GREER

TACKLES 61

SACKS 0

INT 2

SS ROMAN HARPER

TACKLES 93

SACKS 3

INT 1

FS MALCOLM JENKINS

TACKLES 62

SACKS 1

INT 2

CB TRACY PORTER

TACKLES 60

SACKS 0

INT 1

DT AUBRAYO FRANKLIN

TACKLES 39

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K GARRETT HARTLEY

FG 20

FGA 25

XP 40

PTS 100

P THOMAS MORSTEAD

PUNTS 57

GROSS 45.9

NET 38.4

*2007 stats

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 11--5

September

8 at Green Bay (Thu)

18 Chicago

25 Houston

October

2 at Jacksonville

9 at Carolina

16 at Tampa Bay

23 Indianapolis

30 at St. Louis

November

6 Tampa Bay

13 at Atlanta

20 BYE

28 N.Y. Giants (Mon)

December

4 Detroit

11 at Tennessee

18 at Minnesota

26 Atlanta (Mon)

January

1 Carolina

COACH SEAN PAYTON

AGE: 47

SIXTH SEASON WITH THE SAINTS (49--31)

He's been a great fit with G.M. Mickey Loomis, who trusts Payton's personnel acumen as much as his game plans. Payton's not afraid to use his gut—learned, in part, from his days in Dallas with Bill Parcells—and make risky calls. He put his neck on the line to hire defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose schemes generate pressure on the QB without premier talent.

SPOTLIGHT

DARREN SPROLES, All-purpose back

Last season in San Diego the sprightly Sproles touched the ball 24 times on punt returns, 51 on kickoffs, 50 on the ground and 59 through the air. That's 184 touches . . . 99 more than Reggie Bush had in New Orleans last season. But that's not the most important statistic the Saints considered when they went to Bush and told him he'd have to accept a pay cut if he wanted to remain with the franchise that drafted him second overall in 2006. And it wasn't the biggest factor when they began talking to Sproles about being Bush's replacement. These numbers weighed most heavily: six, two and eight. Those are the games Bush missed due to injury in the last three seasons. Sproles has not missed a game in that span.

The Saints said all the diplomatic things about the Bush-for-Sproles exchange, but in reality, they would have been foolish not to make a change. "We're pretty much the same player," Sproles says. Except for the staying-on-the-field part. Coach Sean Payton will especially appreciate that Sproles won't complain about how he's used. "The run game, pass, return, I don't care," he says. "I like them all. I just see the open lane when I have the ball and try to hit it. It's the way I've always played." On the fast turf of the Superdome, Sproles should be a good, and durable, match for the Saints.

PHOTOBOB ROSATO (PAYTON) PHOTOJONATHAN BACHMAN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (INGRAM)TIDE HAS TURNED The selection of 'Bama product Ingram gives a ground attack that sputtered a year ago a punishing every-down back in the mold of Ricky Williams. PHOTOANDREW RICHARDSON/CSM/LANDOV (SPROLES)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)