The New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots will help kick off the first full week of preseason action with a Thursday night clash. The Saints already have an exhibition game under their belts, having beaten the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame Game.
It has been a tumultuous offseason for the Saints. A bounty scandal shook one of the league's most successful franchises in recent years to its core. How the team responds will be one of the biggest story lines heading into the regular season.
As for the Patriots, it's been business as usual. The team's offense should once again be its calling card thanks to Tom Brady, but ultimately the defense's improvement will decide how far New England goes. The unit should be improved after a lackluster performance last season.
Here's all the key information for the preseason game followed by some things to watch for both sides.
Which team will win the preseason contest?
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
When: Thursday, Aug. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Watch: WVUE (New Orleans) or WBZ-TV (New England)
Radio: WWL 870 AM (New Orleans) or WBZ-FM 98.5 FM (New England)
Live Stream: Preseason Live
What's At Stake?
At this point in the preseason, it's nearly impossible to get a clear read on the direction of either team. The starters will only be on the field for a couple drives at most and even then the mid-season rhythm will be noticeably absent.
These early games are far more important for fringe roster players. They know the playing time will only become less frequent from this point forward, so if they want to make a major impact on the coaching staff, it has to happen soon.
Otherwise, the most crucial part of the game will be shaking off the rust without getting hurt. Every year, it seems like a couple of key players are lost to injury during the first week. If both teams can simply avoid that, the coaches will be happy.
Key Injuries (via CBS Sports)
Saints: Jabari Greer (out, hernia), Patrick Robinson (questionable, shoulder) and Nick Toon (questionable, foot)
Patriots: Brandon Lloyd (questionable, undisclosed)
Fantasy Prospect to Watch: Mark Ingram (Saints)
Ingram was a hot fantasy commodity prior to last season after New Orleans used a first-round pick on the Alabama product. The hype around the young running back has died down after an injury-plagued campaign, which gives him sleeper potential heading in to 2012.
His value will be based on his workload compared to Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Not only how many carries he gets, but where he gets them. If Ingram can establish himself as the back who plays near the goal line, his value will increase exponentially.
He had four carries for 14 yards and a touchdown in the opener. Watch his progress against the Patriots to get a better read on his potential value.
What They're Saying
Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt is looking forward to the challenge the New England offense will provide for his team's defense, according to James Varney of the Times-Picayune.
"When you're going against New England, now they're a real good screening team, which we're going to get work on," Vitt said. "They're a real good empty team - no backs with potentially two tight ends and three wide receivers, which we have not gotten work on yet. Defensively they're going to give us an even front and an odd front, which is going to give us great work."
Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich is just happy he'll get a chance to line up against an opponent rather than going against his own offense, based on a report from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.
"It will be fun to get some different competition, some different faces to go against," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "Obviously, when you’re going against (players who are) not your teammates, it’s always going to be a little bit more aggressive. It always is fun because you’re playing against an opposing team. It will be a good time."
New Orleans' Key Addition
Curtis Lofton joins the Saints' defense after racking up 492 tackles over four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. The middle linebacker should be able to step right in and make a major impact on helping improve the team's run defense.
New Orleans allowed opponents to gain five yards per carry last season, putting the Saints near the bottom of the league in that category. Lofton was brought in with the sole purpose of making sure they aren't as susceptible to the run moving forward.
He was a nice acquisition by the Saints since he's just 26, leaving plenty of productive seasons ahead of him to make his new contract worthwhile.
New England's Key Addition
Chandler Jones was selected by New England with one of the team's two first-round picks. He emerged as a high-upside pass-rusher during his time at Syracuse, and should find himself playing a lot of crucial downs in the regular season.
A lot was made last season about the Patriots' secondary and its inability to slow down opposing passing attacks. A more consistent pass rush would go a long way in taking pressure off the defensive backs, which is why the Patriots took Jones.
He's still somewhat of a raw talent who needs to gain experience against elite competition, but that's what preseason games are for.
Key Matchup to Watch: Drew Brees vs. Patriots pass defense
It won't last more than a couple series, but it will be interesting to see what type of progress the Patriots' pass defense has made. And there's no better way to do that than going up against the league's most explosive aerial attack.
As mentioned above, an improved pass rush would help the New England secondary, but the defensive backfield must hold up its end of the bargain as well. Drew Brees will provide a test few other quarterbacks can, which is good for the Patriots.
Brees was his usual efficient self during the Hall of Fame Game, completing four of his five passes for 41 yards. He's setting up to have another monster year.
Which team will have a better season?
Prediction: Saints 24, Patriots 21
As always, preseason games are nearly impossible to predict. Unheralded players will be in the game during crunch time, and one of them will likely make the play that seals the victory for one of the teams in the fourth quarter.
That being said, I give the slight edge to the Saints since they have already played a game. That should allow them to be in slightly better form at this point, as the Patriots will just be getting their first taste of game action in five months.
Both teams will just be happy to emerge without any major additions to the injury report as the continue to prepare for the regular season.