The Saints Are Coming: A 2009 Preview

Brian ScottAnalyst IMay 25, 2009

Last month, Regis and Kelly were filming their morning TV show in New Orleans for an entire week.  Keeping in line with the local theme, one of their featured guests was New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush

When Regis Philbin asked about the kind of success Saints fans could expect this year, Bush predicted that this was the year that the Saints would go to the Super Bowl. 

“We’re going all the way,” Bush told Philbin, “I’m feeling very good.”

Of course Reggie Bush was playing to the local crowd, but it is exactly this type of blind optimism that epitomizes the plight of every rank-and-file Saints fan. 

But is it that far of a stretch?  After all, the Black and Gold came within one game of achieving that very goal just three years ago. 

Additionally, Sean Payton’s working-class approach to the game, along with his roster of players that embrace his “culture of winning” mantra have only produced one of the league’s top offenses.  Oh yeah, and that offense is anchored by Drew Brees, who happens to be on of the league’s top quarterbacks.

If you ask the average Saints fan what it will take to get to the big game this year, most of them would probably tell you that it’s all about improving the defense.  While this is a relatively correct answer, as evidenced by Sean Payton’s replacing defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs with Gregg Williams, but it is also an incomplete answer.

The Saints lost at least three games in 2008 due to missed field goals and personnel mistakes on down-and-short situations. To be more precise on the latter, far too often the Saints found themselves failing to pick up 1 or 2 yards to convert a first down while a seemingly healthy Deuce McAllister stood on the sidelines.  This left many frustrated and confused ticket holders scratching their heads in the stands.

The fans can expect to see an entirely new defensive philosophy in 2009.  New coordinator Gregg Williams has already given us a preview of this new attitude in the team’s most recent OTA (organized team activity).  In fact, the first OTA that was open to the media this year got extremely lively on one particular pass play.

Wide receiver Skyler Green was being covered by cornerback Jason David on a pass route, but when Green slipped behind his defender to make the catch,  David knocked Green to the ground.  Before anyone knew it, offensive tackle Zach Strief came out of nowhere and tangled with Jason David in an obvious attempt to defend his offensive teammate. 

The scrum broke up quickly, but some of the local sports writers made quite an issue of it.  The next day I ran into Zach Strief and his wife at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience and asked him about the incident. 

He said that it was blown out of proportion and that all of the players were encourage to play at a high intensity level at all times during the OTA.  His wife was also quick to assure me that Zach was a big “teddy bear” that got along with all of his teammates, including Jason David.

As a journalist, it was great to get the real story directly from the source.  As a fan, it was great to hear that even in the early Spring these guys weren’t holding anything back.

Gregg Williams certainly has his work cut out for him taking over a unit that routinely gave up 3rd and 25’s last season, but he has also been given the keys to the kingdom to run his defense how he wants.  Saints management showed their confidence in Williams by giving him nearly all of their draft picks last month, and additionally made all the free agent moves he asked them to make.

While success may not be realized overnight, the “Who Dat” nation can rest assured that their defense is on the right track.  But Williams must realize that the surest path to the post-season runs right across his desk.

The problems on special teams seemed to almost auto-correct as the 2008 season went on, but there is always more room for improvement.  Place kickers Taylor Mehlhaff and Garrett Hartley were much more accurate and reliable than Martin Gramatica, who subsequently went out with an injury after a disappointing start to the 2008 season.

Perhaps the most interesting special teams story of the off season came during the draft, when the Saints surprised everyone by trading up in the fifth round to get…wait for it…a punter.  Yes, Thomas Morestead from SMU will be fighting for a punting slot on the special teams squad next season.  We’ll see of all the drama was worth it.

At the end of the day, all the defensive and special teams improvement in the world won’t matter if the Saints offense doesn’t continue their high output.  This is Drew Brees’ 4th year of a six-year deal in New Orleans, and he’s been worth every penny.

The most obvious change on the offense, on and off the field, will be the absence of beloved Saints running back Deuce McAllister who was released in the off season.  Several undrafted free agent backs have been brought in to try and fill that gap, but the most notable move to replace the “Deuce” has been a move that hasn’t been made yet - the Saints are reportedly negotiating a deal with Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James.  In the meantime, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas are expected to do most of the heavy lifting in the backfield.

Brees’ accurate arm will have to find some reliable targets in his receiver corps.  Robert Meacham has reportedly impressed the coaching staff in the off season and they expect big things this year out of their number one pick in the 2008 draft.  We’d also like to see the big man Marques Colston return to his 2006 form when he was Brees’ number one go-to guy.  Lance Moore was the leading pass grabber for the Saints in 2008 with 928 yards, and he is expected to repeat that performance in 2009.  And finally, we can’t forget about Devery Henderson, Drew Brees’ favorite deep ball target, who was 2nd overall in receiving yards in 2008 with 793.

Will all these new and old factors live up to Reggie Bush’s prediction to Regis Philbin?  The jury is still out on that one.  But one thing is for sure, the Saints are back and they are coming.  With a schedule that includes two Monday Night football games and a Saturday night prime time game, it is sure to be a season that won‘t soon be forgotten. 

The citizens of New Orleans just got the exhilarating news that they will be hosting their 10th Super Bowl in 2013, but it sure would be nice to have a reason to get excited about a Super Bowl before then.

Are you listening Boys?