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As the 2008 regular season approaches, the so-called media experts have started to make their predictions of who will be playoff teams, division winners, and Super Bowl contenders. The vast majority of the analysts are choosing the New Orleans Saints to win the NFC South. Some are picking the Saints to go the Super Bowl, and a sprinkling of others are selecting the Carolina Panthers as the team that will come out on top of the NFC South.
This Pewter Reporter has not seen a single football analyst or member of the media pick the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to repeat as division champions. Most of the preview publications have the Buccaneers finishing second or third in the division with seven or eight wins. ESPN's Sal Palantonio predicted the Bucs would go 5-11. With Tampa Bay bringing back every major contributor from the 2007 team and adding some new talent, it seems that the media and analysts are underestimating the Buccaneers.
The reason for the Bucs being placed below the Saints in the eyes of the media is numerous. New Orleans was more active in free agency, and also made a trade up in the draft to select a high profile player. The Saints have more players that are perceived to be superstars than the Bucs do. More legitimately, the media sees that no team has repeated as division champions, so they take the view that this year will not be any different, and on paper, the Saints look better than the Panthers or Falcons.
With all the adulation and perceived greatness of the Saints, this Campbell's Cover 2 will examine if the boys from the bayou will be as good as the media thinks or if the team is overrated.
Cover 1 – The Saints Are Overrated.
The first reason why the Saints are overrated is the experts are not taking into account that New Orleans has not completely cured last season's ills. In 2007, there were four issues that prompted the Saints to start the season slowly and then miss the playoffs. Those four were a suspect offensive line, lack of rushing attack on offense, turning the ball over, and a very vulnerable defense. Let's examine each issue one at a time.
Looking at the numbers of the Saints offensive line does not tell the entire story. New Orleans did not allow a big sack total and that might indicate it did a great job of protecting starting quarterback Drew Brees. Last year, Brees was sacked only 16 times on the season. The 16 sacks allowed were the lowest of any team in the NFL. Five of those 16 came courtesy of the Buccaneers as well.
However, the Saints adjusted to a quick short passing game after Brees was rushed heavily and threw nine interceptions in the first four games of the season. The quick passing attack helped New Orleans avoid taking sacks, but the pressures allowed were substantial, and the edge rushers had particular success.
The Saints also lost their best offensive lineman in center Jeff Faine to the Buccaneers in free agency. Some would argue that tackle Jammal Brown is better, but Faine was a more consistent and complete player. When the Saints had more success running the ball in the 2006 season, they had the most success running up the middle behind Faine. Replacing Faine is a battle between two veteran backups: Matt Lehr and Jonathan Goodwin. Either way that is a downgrade for New Orleans. Losing a quality player there will not help the Saints improve their 28th-ranked rushing attack.
The New Orleans running game was so weak that the Saints set an NFL record for passes attempted and completed. That was the only way that they could move the ball. When Deuce McAllister went down with a knee injury, he took the running game with him. The Saints averaged only 92 yards per game, and were not a threat to control the game via the ground game.
Supposed superstar running back Reggie Bush has been a bust as runner, and really has only been a glorified third down running back. His 3.7 yards per carry average in his career indicates he has not been able to run productively on a down-by-down basis. A year ago and during the season, Bush apologists and Bush himself said he was transitioning to taking four-yard gains and not trying to break every run outside and go the distance. That has yet to materialize on the field, and some do not believe it ever will.
The other weakness of the Saints running game is their propensity to fumble the ball. In seven seasons, McAllister has 20 fumbles. That includes a year that he only played in five games and a season he only played in three contests. Bush also seems to be prone to fumbles. In 28 career games, Bush has nine fumbles. The turnover inclination is not limited to the running backs for the Saints. Last season, Brees threw 18 interceptions.
The turnovers did not help an already vulnerable defense. The Saints defense was okay against the run, but who needed to run against them? New Orleans had the 30th-ranked passing defense in the NFL last season. Bucs fans are very familiar with the success that wide receiver Joey Galloway has had against the Saints, but he wasn't the only one to light up the Saints secondary. New Orleans gave up 54 plays of 20 yards or more through the air. That is over three per game.
In order to upgrade their pass defense they traded up in the draft to get a pass rushing defensive tackle in USC's Sedrick Ellis. He was excellent in college, and he could be a good pro, but typically rookie defensive tackles do not make a big impact. Defensive end Bobby McCray was added for depth behind starters Will Smith and Charles Grant. The trio of ends combined for only 12.5 sacks last season. Perhaps they will bounce back, but the numbers don't lie and they indicate they were not pass rushing dynamos.
Outside of cornerback Mike McKenzie, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery, the Saints had room to upgrade their talent. New Orleans attempted to improve its secondary by signing the Patriots' Randall Gay, the Jaguars' Aaron Glenn, and drafting Indiana cornerback Tracey Porter in the second round. Gay, Glenn, and Porter will battle for second and third cornerback spots with holdovers Jason David and Usama Young. While they may not get a top-flight corner duo, they appear to have decent depth. It seems like they have added more quantity than quality in their defensive backfield.
Perhaps the best move made to improve the defense was acquiring linebacker Jonathan Vilma. He had some great years for the New York Jets, and if he is healthy he will upgrade the Saints front seven. However, he is coming off a season-ending knee injury, and there are those that doubt his knee will hold up in the long term.
Another hindrance to the Saints challenging to be a Super Bowl contender is their schedule. Upon first glance it looks pretty manageable in terms of the quality of their opponents. That is to be expected in a schedule for a team that finished second to last in the division from a year ago.
At this time of year, the strength of the opponents is unknown, but the logistics of the schedule are set. The Saints lose a home game in late October against the San Diego Chargers when they play that game in London. In fact the Saints don't play a game in New Orleans from Oct. 13 to Nov. 23. That span consists of three road games, the game in London, and a bye week. They also have short weeks twice due to Monday night games, and play a Thursday night game at Chicago in December.
The first three games of the season should be a big indicator as what kind of team the Saints will be. They host the Bucs in the opener and then go to Washington and Denver in the following contests. That is one of their biggest home games of the season and two tough road games to start the year. It is not a stretch to see them getting off to a rough start. The Saints live and die by their passing attack, and the Bucs and Broncos are two of the best pass defenses in the NFL.
The biggest offensive acquisition to the team was the trade for tight end Jeremy Shockey. Breaking down the statistics, bringing in Shockey may not be as a big of an upgrade as originally thought. Last season with the New York Giants, Shockey caught 61 percent of the 93 balls thrown his direction. None of the Saints hold over tight ends caught less than 71 percent of their passes. The New Orleans tight ends combined for 75 receptions with four touchdowns. Shockey hauled in 57 passes for six touchdowns.
With those numbers in mind, Shockey will be an upgrade, but exactly how much? Shockey also has had some stretches of dropped passes and incurring injuries. Head coach Sean Payton will have to transition to using the tight end more, and he came to the team late in the offseason. It remains to be seen how effective Shockey will be in a Saints uniform.
With their patchwork attempt of quantity over quality on defense, and still some significant flaws on offense, it is hard seeing the Saints as a Super Bowl contender. In fact, they could be more of an eight- or nine-win team.
Cover 2- The Saints Are Going To Be A Legit Contender.
New Orleans is not a flawless team, and there are definite areas that it needs to improve upon to be competitive this season. However, the Saints have a talented roster in a wide-open NFC. The two teams from last year's NFC championship Game, New York and Green Bay, had notable losses. In the NFC South, the Bucs were able to win the division with only nine wins. Thus, it is not exactly like knocking off the Patriots in order to win the division. There are numerous reasons why the Saints will be a legit contender to go deep into the NFC playoff picture.
Quarterback play is vital to any team's success, and New Orleans has one of the best signal callers in the NFL in Brees. With Brees at the helm, the Saints are not out of any game. Last year, Brees improved on his great numbers from 2006. In his first season with New Orleans, Brees threw for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns. Last year, Brees threw for 4,423 yards and 28 touchdowns.
In 2007, the Saints had the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL. They averaged 23.7 points per game and 361.2 yards per game. Their third-ranked passing attack and the Pro Bowler Brees carried the offense. The Saints scored the eighth most touchdowns in the NFL with 47. The passing attack will only improve by bringing in Shockey.
While Patyon did use the tight end often, he will now that he has one of the better tight ends in the NFL. Shockey gives the Saints a target in the middle of the field and running down the seam. Shockey is the kind of player that is very effective against defenses that run the Tampa 2. The Saints play eight games against teams that run a Cover 2 style defense, so Shockey should help New Orleans gain some mismatches.
Shockey will not have to do it alone. Wide receiver Marques Colston has had two great years to start his career. Last year, he hauled in 98 passes for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Saints offense would be better if Colston did not have to be relied on to provide so much production in the passing game. Shockey will help with that, and so might second-year wide receiver Robert Meachem. In 2007, Meachem was inactive for every game, but the 2007 first-round pick came back motivated and had a strong offseason. He has also had a big preseason for the Saints. Thus far he has made nine catches for 211 yards and a touchdown. If he can maintain that production during the regular season the Saints will have four dangerous passing targets for Brees in: Meachem, Colston, Shockey, and Bush.
It is impossible to argue that Bush has been a disappointment as a runner, but he is big contributor in the passing game. In 28 career games, Bush has caught 161 passes for 1,159 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, Bush had 73 receptions in 12 games, and probably would've surpassed his rookie total of 88 receptions in 16 games had he not been injured. Bush has to get better as running back for the Saints, but New Orleans is hopeful that a comeback by McAllister will give them a dual back threat to run inside and outside.
The running game would get a big boost with the healthy return of McAllister, and there is reason to think that he can make a comeback. In 2005, McAllister only played in five games before a knee injury ended that season. McAllister bounced back in 2006 with 244 rushes for 1,057 yards for an average of 4.3 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns.
Last year, the Saints had down years from Grant and Smith, but those are both talented ends that are due to have bounce back seasons. McCray is a quality end that will rotate in and keep the starters fresh over the course of the season. Ellis is a definite upgrade over the defensive tackles that the Saints have had in the past. Ellis will combine with Saints new corners to give the team an upgrade in their pass defense. If Ellis, Smith, and Grant rush the passer like they are capable of doing, then New Orleans' secondary will be under much less pressure.
The Saints linebackers were short on athletic ability and talent last season. They were taken advantage of in the running and passing game, so adding a talented vet like Vilma will make a difference this season in New Orleans' front seven. While Vilma may not hold up in the long term, he appears healthy and ready for this season and that makes the Saints much more formidable.
New Orleans' schedule has some tough parts in the beginning and towards the end of the first half, but the Saints get their bye week halfway through the regular season and in the second half it gets much easier. They only play two playoff teams from last year in the second half, home for Green Bay and at Tampa Bay in late November. Of the 13 opponents the Saints play, nine of those teams did not make the playoffs last year. It is not an easy schedule, but it is not a killer, either.
After examining the strengths of the Saints offense and the improvements made on defense, New Orleans should challenge in a wide-open NFC. It is not a stretch to see the Saints going deep in the playoffs considering they have one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and NFL.
In considering both covers, the answer lies somewhere between the two. This reporter's belief is that the Saints are closer to an eight or nine win team rather than an 11-13 win team like some in the media are predicting. The belief here is that more than one team will make the playoffs from the NFC South. Of Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay the last two look like the most likely. The NFC is down, and it is not out of the question for both teams to make the playoffs with nine or 10 win seasons.
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