I understand why the hyped teams in the NFC are Philadelphia and Green Bay. The Eagles had the most dynamic football player in football last season, a reformed Michael Vick. Prior to 2010, no player had ever averaged 40 rushing yards per game and 240 passing yards per game in the same season; Vick averaged 252 passing yards and 56 rushing yards in a scorched-earth, twelve-game stint in 2010. Since then, the Eagles added arguably the best cornerback in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, in addition to bringing in DT Cullen Jenkins (from GB), DE Jason Babin (Ten), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Ari), Vince Young (Ten), Ronnie Brown (Mia) and Ryan Harris (Den). Joined by Asante Samuel, the Eagles have an embarrassment of riches at the cornerback spot, key for a team that will have to contend with a dominant passing attack to get to the Super Bowl.
But no one is doubting the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, either. In addition to being a young team, Green Bay lost more key players to more games due to injury than any Super Bowl champion in recent memory. The Packers recaptured the Lombardi despite TE Jermichael Finley, RB Ryan Grant, DE Mike Neal and S Morgan Burnett, among others, all spending most of the year on injured reserve. The Packers led the NFC in SRS by a mile -- don't be fooled by that 6 seed they earned -- and there's reason for optimism for the future. Eight of the top ten players in AV for the Packers were 27 years or younger last season: Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Tramon Williams, A.J. Hawk, B.J. Raji and Desmond Bishop are entering the primes of their careers. And while Charles Woodson and Chad Clifton will be 35 this season, both played well in 2010.
But I'm in love with what the Saints did this off-season. This team looks to be better than the '09 team that won the Super Bowl, and would be my pre-season favorite to win it all. Here's an extensive look at what the Saints have done over the last 2.5 years. Let's start by taking a look at the key contributors from the championship team:
QB Drew Brees RB1 Reggie Bush RB2 Pierre Thomas WR1 Marques Colston WR2 Devery Henderson WR3 Robert Meachem TE Jeremy Shockey LT Jermon Bushrod LG Carl Nicks C Jonathan Goodwin RG Jahri Evans RT Jon Stinchcomb LDE Charles Grant LDT Remi Ayodele RDT Sedrick Ellis RDE Will Smith LLB Scott Fujita MLB Jonathan Vilma RLB Scott Shanle LCB Jabari Greer RCB Tracy Porter SS Roman Harper FS Darren Sharper
Those Saints started the year 13-0 and ended the year as champions. The biggest difference between the '09 and '10 Saints can be explained in one word: turnovers. Through 13 games in 2009, the Saints led the league in takeaways and were second in turnover margin; the Saints also scored nine return touchdowns in those 13 games, by far the most in the league. You can't get to 13-0 without being lucky, and there's no doubt that New Orleans had some favorable bounces go their way the first three months of the season. But the Saints had a dominant offense, too: Drew Brees led the league in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and was second in Net Yards per attempt, in addition to first place rankings in completion percentage, touchdowns and quarterback rating.
But New Orleans wasn't a one-dimensional offense. Pierre Thomas had a very strong year in limited action, ranking in the top five in both yards per carry and in Football Outsiders' running back rankings. The team ranked in the top six of the league in rushing first downs, rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. A truly dominant passing attack and a strong running game provided the Saints with the best offense in football in 2009. Things were much worse on the other side of the ball, but forcing 39 turnovers cured a lot of ills. New Orleans ranked only 20th in net yards per pass attempt allowed while finishing in the bottom quarter of the league in rushing yards per carry, rushing first downs, and rushing touchdowns allowed.
The Saints only lost when all three phases of the defense broke down. Against Dallas in week 15, (1) Romo threw for 312 yards on 34 passes, (2) the Cowboys rushed for 145 yards and two scores, and (3) Dallas committed zero turnovers. The following week against Tampa Bay, rookie Josh Freeman had 271 yards on 31 passes, while the Bucs rushed for 176 yards. Tampa committed two turnovers, but that was offset by the 77-yard punt return by Micheal Spurlock to tie the game in the 4th quarter. In overtime, Tampa won the toss and ran 11 plays -- literally, as every play was a rush -- to set up the game-winning field goal. Still, New Orleans could have won the game if Garrett Hartley had connected on a 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation. That was the only other meaningful loss for the Saints, as they benched most of their starters in the season finale. In the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings rushed for 165 yards and gained 310 yards through the air -- but the Saints stayed even with Minnesota through 60 minutes thanks to five Minnesota turnovers. The moral of the 2009 Saints? Great passing game, strong running game, and an ugly defense with an incredible knack for taking the ball away.
Do you really need to guess what happened in 2010? The Saints ended the season with a -6 turnover margin. Let's take a closer look:
Pos 2009 2010 QB Drew Brees Drew Brees RB1 Pierre Thomas Chris Ivory RB2 Reggie Bush Reggie Bush WR1 Marques Colston Marques Colston WR2 Devery Henderson Lance Moore WR3 Robert Meachem Robert Meachem TE Jeremy Shockey Jeremy Shockey LT Jermon Bushrod Jermon Bushrod LG Carl Nicks Carl Nicks C Jonathan Goodwin Jonathan Goodwin RG Jahri Evans Jahri Evans RT Jon Stinchcomb Jon Stinchcomb LDE Charles Grant Alex Brown LDT Remi Ayodele Remi Ayodele RDT Sedrick Ellis Sedrick Ellis RDE Will Smith Will Smith LLB Scott Fujita Danny Clark MLB Jonathan Vilma Jonathan Vilma RLB Scott Shanle Scott Shanle LCB Jabari Greer Jabari Greer RCB Tracy Porter Tracy Porter SS Roman Harper Roman Harper FS Darren Sharper Malcolm Jenkins
A lot changed in 2010: the offense regressed and the turnover margin flipped, but the defense actually improved. The biggest culprit on offense was the running game.
With Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas both dealing with injuries, Chris Ivory was the only player to have over 300 rushing yards for the Saints. And while Ivory played well -- he averaged 5.2 yards per carry -- the running game as a whole was ineffective, dropping to 28th in rushing first downs, 27th in rushing touchdowns, and finishing in the middle of the pack in first downs and yards per carry. A year after finishing first in Football Outsiders' rushing rankings, New Orleans ranked 25th in the same category in 2010. According to Pro Football Focus, the run blocking declined significantly, going from top-five to middle of the pack, with players like LG Jahri Evans and RT Jon Stinchcomb having down years.
With Bush and Thomas sidelined often, the Saints changed their offensive strategy, utilizing Brees' arm even more than before. After averaging 34 pass attempts per game in '09, Brees threw 41 times per week in 2010. Some of that was due to the Saints playing from behind more frequently, but part of that was because of an ineffective running game. Brees' yards per completion -- stable at 12.3 and 12.1 in 2008 and 2009 -- dropped in 2010 to 10.3. Without an effective ground game, Brees was asked to throw more short passes, and New Orleans' 236 first downs gained through the air was tied for second in the league.
That's part of the reason Brees' numbers took a dive last year, as he averaged only 6.5 NY/A. His 6.0 ANY/A average was the lowest in his five years in New Orleans, thanks to Brees' uncharacteristically high 22 interceptions. Readers of this blog know that Brees is highly unlikely to match that number in 2011; he'll probably cut it in half. While it wasn't widely publicized, no doubt part -- maybe even a large part -- of the problem came from playing on a sprained MCL for much of 2010. Add it all up, and the great passing attack and dominant offense from 2009 took several steps back.
And while the defense ranked just 20th in takeaways in 2010, there was significant improvement in the pass defense. New Orleans' pass defense had the odd dichotomy of ranking last in interceptions (9) but first in touchdowns allowed (13). The Saints were 12th in net yards per attempt allowed, while the rushing numbers came in right around league average. New Orleans was helped by an easy schedule last year, so those numbers are a bit inflated. Let's take a look at each of the Saints' losses last year:
-- Atlanta: The Saints finished -2 in the turnover margin and allowed 202 rushing yards. Still, Garrett Hartley's missed chip shot in overtime could have given New Orleans the win and a first-round bye.
-- Arizona: The Saints allowed Kerry Rhodes and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to score decisive touchdowns on a day where New Orleans outplayed Arizona for much of the game. New Orleans channeled its innermost San Diego for a week, by outgaining Arizona by 164 yards but also missing a 27-yard field goal. New Orleans finished -3 in the turnover battle, and even when they forced a turnover, it didn't help much. A Max Hall fumble was recovered in the end zone by Levi Brown, producing the only offensive points of the day for the Cards. Strange things happen in the desert.
-- Cleveland: The week before Halloween, the Saints again dressed up like Chargers, outgaining Cleveland by 184 yards but also allowing the most embarrassing play of the season: a fake punt up the middle where the punter ran for 67 yards. David Bowens had two interception returns for touchdowns as Cleveland pulled away with the victory thanks to a +4 turnover margin. After the bye week, Cleveland kept the mojo going by upsetting the Patriots by 20 points in their next game.
-- Baltimore: A tight game between two powerhouses was 24-24 in the fourth quarter. But this loss matched the '09 formula: (1) Flacco had 172 yards and 2 TDs on just 20 passes; (2) Ray Rice and Willis McGahee rushed for 206 yards; and (3) the Ravens committed no turnovers.
-- Tampa Bay: New Orleans had locked up its playoff seed midway through this week 17 loss, but the Saints did play their starters for over half of the game. Still, three New Orleans turnovers (including a fumble inside the five-yard line) and an incredible 21-26-255-2-0 stat line for Josh Freeman were the difference.
-- Seattle: We all remember The Run, but this was a defensive embarrassment from start to finish. Hasselbeck threw for 272 yards and 4 touchdowns on 35 passes, while Lynch rushed 19 times for 131 yards and the 67-yard score. The Seahawks scored 41 points, and none of them were cheap.
All in all, the Saints were slightly better on defense, fell a few notches on offense, and saw Lady Luck do a 180. But this was still a strong team.
Now, how do the Saints look in 2011?
Pos 2009 2010 2011 QB Drew Brees Drew Brees Drew Brees RB1 Pierre Thomas Chris Ivory Mark Ingram RB2 Reggie Bush Reggie Bush Darren Sproles WR1 Marques Colston Marques Colston Marques Colston WR2 Devery Henderson Lance Moore Robert Meachem WR3 Robert Meachem Robert Meachem Lance Moore/Devery Henderson TE Jeremy Shockey Jeremy Shockey Jimmy Graham LT Jermon Bushrod Jermon Bushrod Jermon Bushrod LG Carl Nicks Carl Nicks Carl Nicks C Jonathan Goodwin Jonathan Goodwin Olin Kreutz RG Jahri Evans Jahri Evans Jahri Evans RT Jon Stinchcomb Jon Stinchcomb Jon Stinchcomb LDE Charles Grant Alex Brown Alex Brown LDT Remi Ayodele Remi Ayodele Shaun Rogers/Aubrayo Franklin RDT Sedrick Ellis Sedrick Ellis Aubrayo Franklin/Sedrick Ellis RDE Will Smith Will Smith Will Smith/Cameron Jordan LLB Scott Fujita Danny Clark Will Herring/Danny Clark MLB Jonathan Vilma Jonathan Vilma Jonathan Vilma RLB Scott Shanle Scott Shanle Scott Shanle/Jonathan Casillas LCB Jabari Greer Jabari Greer Jabari Greer RCB Tracy Porter Tracy Porter Tracy Porter/Patrick Robinson SS Roman Harper Roman Harper Roman Harper FS Darren Sharper Malcolm Jenkins Malcolm Jenkins
The Saints are ready to return to their power-running ways from 2009 thanks to Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner is a perfect fit for the Saints offense and is the most talented runner the Saints have had some Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister were in Black and Gold. The Saints let Reggie Bush sign with Miami but replaced him with Darren Sproles. For what New Orleans will ask of him, I actually like Sproles a bit more than Bush for this offense. He's a perfect complement to Ingram. Olin Kreutz was brought in from Chicago to replace Goodwin. While the six-time Pro Bowler is a year and a half older, he should be able to fill the center spot for at least 2011.
The passing offense remains largely unchanged, with the exception of Jimmy Graham now becoming the featured tight end. Graham, a rookie out of Miami last year, was a former basketball star turned tight end viewed as a high upside draft pick. In the second half of 2010 he had 307 yards and five touchdowns, and expectations are high for him as a sophomore. At this point, he's an upgrade over Jeremy Shockey. From 2008 to 2009, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem averaged 18.6 yards per reception; last year, the duo picked up just 14.1 yards per catch. With a healthy Brees and a restored running game, look for for a more explosive New Orleans offense this season. Brees' ANY/A average may not touch the 8.3 mark he set in '09, but it will be well above the 6.0 disaster from last year. Expect him to get back to 8 yards per attempt and to have a more impressive TD:INT ratio. In short, this should be a dominant offense. But this time around, they won't need a bunch of takeaways on defense to be an elite team.
I love with what the Saints did on the defensive line this off-season and admire the clarity and aggressiveness of the front office. The Saints spent years addressing the secondary, then spent this off-season turning the defensive line into one of the league's best. Here's what I wrote about New Orleans' defensive backs after the '09 draft:
Patrick Robinson is the last domino to fall in an evolving secondary; In '08, the Saints drafted Tracy Porter in the second round and last year they signed their other starting corner, Jabari Greer, from Buffalo. With their first round pick in '09, New Orleans drafted CB/S Malcolm Jenkins. He played nickel corner last season but most thought he'd be a better fit at safety; now that the Saints released 2009 hero Darren Sharper and drafted Robinson, they can keep their nickel package strong and move Jenkins back to safety. Robinson is an excellent athlete (4.38 40, 39" vertical leap), but was part of the worst Florida State defense in Bobby Bowden history. Robinson was one of the Seminoles' better players but he wasn't blameless in a secondary that got shredded on a weekly basis.
Porter and Greer have been productive at cornerback, while Jenkins and Roman Harper have locked down the safety spots. Robinson should be the nickel corner this season and gives New Orleans the speed to match up with teams like Philadelphia and Green Bay. But the weak spot for the Saints has been on the defensive line, especially up front.
Sedrick Ellis looked like the next great interior pass rusher as a rookie in 2008 (according to Pro Football Focus, his 28 QB pressures were second to only Kevin Williams), although he struggled to hold up against the run. But he's underwhelmed since then, and remains just mediocre against the run. Still, he was the Saints' best defensive tackle as Remi Ayodele was one of the league's worst starting interior lineman the past two seasons. So what did the Saints do in the off-season? Added the league's two best free agent defensive tackles.
Shaun Rogers has been one of the most talented tackles in the league for most of his career, and at times looked like a DPOY candidate despite wallowing in Cleveland and Detroit. Moving to a 4-3 defense is a great fit for Rogers, who is a fantastic pass rusher for someone his size. But the biggest need for New Orleans was plugged when they stole ex-49er Aubrayo Franklin. He's one of the league's best run-stopping defensive tackles and will be a huge upgrade at the position. The Saints should have a excellent rotation with Franklin, Rogers and Ellis at defensive tackle. Franklin's a fantastic two-down player, and the Saints have the luxury of playing him in that role in 2011. He'll also be a huge boon for a player like Vilma, who could have a monster year playing behind Rogers and Franklin.
The Saints also took California DE Cameron Jordan with their first pick in the draft. New Orleans received just 10.5 sacks from their defensive ends in 2011, and Jordan should help improve an uninspiring pass rush. Playing alongside Rogers, Franklin and Ellis will make life easy for the Saints' defensive ends, who should reach the quarterback much more frequently in 2011. Will Smith will finally serve his four-game suspension for failing a 2008 substance test, which means Jordan will be thrown into the fire early. But for most of the season, the Saints will be three deep at defensive end and defensive tackle, making life difficult for opposing offensive lines.
New Orleans has revamped the front and back of its defense: what about the middle? MLB Jonathan Vilma is a standout, but the two outside linebacker spots are up for grabs. Jonathan Casillas won the job to be the WLB for the Saints last year, but a foot injury caused him to miss the season. Either he or Shanle will take that role in 2011. To compete with Danny Clark on the strongside, the Saints brought in Will Herring from Seattle and drafted Martez Wilson. The Saints released Clark this afternoon; if Herring or Wilson struggle, Clark could be brought back, or the Saints could switch Casillas or Shanle to the strongside. While outside linebacker is the obvious weak link on the team, that's not a bad position to be in.
The Saints aren't exactly flying under the radar, but they're my pre-season favorite for Super Bowl champ. Adding Rogers, Franklin and Jordan to the line in one off-season will transform the defense, while Ingram and Graham should make the offense a lot more exciting this season. A lot of things went wrong for the Saints and they still won 11 games. I look for a lot to go right in 2011.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 at 1:48 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.