3 Ways the New Orleans Saints Must Improve Before Week 1

Will Osgood@@BRwillosgoodAnalyst IAugust 25, 2011

3 Ways the New Orleans Saints Must Improve Before Week 1

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    It's still early in the overall time frame of the football season. Heck, we're still two weeks out from the first regular season game. Yet, there is a sense of urgency regarding the Saints' overall scheme as the number of practices dwindle down before official game No. 1.

    I've identified three key areas in which the Saints must improve if they are going to come out on top versus the defending Super Bowl champs, and beyond.

    The Saints are not so deficient that they must improve dramatically to defeat a team like the Redskins, but some things may need to change in order to beat a top-notch team like the Packers in the inaugural game of the 2011 game—which as I've said all along I fully expect the Packers to come out on top simply because they're the home team in the inaugural game, and each year since the NFL has opened the season with the Super Bowl Champ at home on Thursday night, that team has won.

    Still, the Saints are good enough to go into Lambeau Field and beat the defending champs. But these three areas must be improved upon at least to some visible degree.

Linebacker Play

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    As of now, it is not readily apparent who will or should start Week 1 at either outside linebacker spot. And that's a problem.

    While the Saints know what they have at middle linebacker—a very solid veteran player who leads by example and with his voice—the lack of definitiveness at the outside linebacker spots seems to be the one area that could cause the Saints headaches on the defensive side of the ball in 2011.

    But Saints fans may be able to take solace in one little fact: In 2006, the Saints entered the season relatively unsure of their linebacking corps yet rode a solid group to a 10-6 record and an NFC Championship appearance.

    But that was a magical year. In 2011, the Saints are expected—at least in my book—to go at least that far, and even that would be a disappointment.

    My solution: decide on two outside linebackers and go with them. I really don't care who they are. I would be completely satisfied with any of the four at either spot.

    My preference I guess would be Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas, simply because of their youth yet experience in Gregg Williams' defense. And having two veterans back them up and play sub-packages isn't a bad option for any team.

    No matter what though, I say a decision is necessary ASAP.

    I will be at practice Thursday and Friday and will be able to give a better opinion on this matter then.

Running Game

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    When you're fully expecting to compete for an NFL championship, I don't think your preference is to be starting a rookie tailback with a month of practice in the offense. Yet to this point, Sean Payton would have no other choice, as Mark Ingram appears to be the only guy who wants to run the football.

    Pierre Thomas needs to get back to being Pierre Thomas, and the Saints need a healthy Chris Ivory. Darren Sproles—as the Chargers can attest—isn't much more than a nice third-down back and returner.

    But between those four guys, the Saints must figure out a way to churn out 100-yard rushing games each week, or else Drew Brees is going to have to continue to force passes into triple coverage like he did a year ago.

    Ultimately though, it isn't as much up to the players running with the football, as it to the guys blocking for them. The big boys need to open more holes and just flat out play more physically. Some of their struggles in the run game can be explained by the Saints' flashy, finesse style of offense based on the large number of throws.

    But offensive linemen are still offensive linemen, and at the end of the day they must get in the trenches and knock their opponents off their feet. That is their job!

Pass Protection

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    Up until last season, the Saints had been known for being one of the best pass-protection lines not only in today's game, but perhaps ever. Then last year, Saints Drew Brees constantly had guys in his face and was throwing with men nipping at his feet and with hands pretty much in his facemask.

    Because of that, Brees had an off year—though by anyone else's standards still a very good year. Of course, Brees' ability to get a pass off under pressure—in almost literally no time—helps any offensive line.

    But Brees needs better protection, and the moves made along the offensive line were done in hopes of triggering such a renewal in Brees' confidence and ability to stand back and fire.

    Interestingly enough, Olin Kreutz anchored an offensive line that struggled the past few years in Chicago, but he was known as an elite center. This year we'll get a better feel for just how good he is. The two guards we know are good, and the jury still kind of remains out on the tackles.

    It makes sense that this unit has struggled a bit in the early parts of the preseason, as that unit more than any other has undergone significant change. At a position group relying so much on continuity, the Saints have gambled a bit on players they think to be better talents or better fits.

    Ultimately, the time they take to gel as a unit will be the deciding factor in how good the running game can be, and how comfortable Drew Brees feels when he drops back to pass. The quicker they gel, the quicker the Saints can dominate offensively, as we all expect them to do.