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Gameday Preview: The New Orleans Saints

Doug Farrar
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New Orleans' Offense

The Saints are mirror images of the Packers in certain ways — both teams have head coaches that are among the game's most creative offensive playcallers. But while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy loves to go from five-wide spread sets to backfield power plays, New Orleans' Sean Payton enjoys taking traditional three-and four-receiver sets the turning them ion their heads. When he had Reggie Bush as an offensive weapon, Bush was Payton's ace in the hole — he would motion Bush out to the slot from the backfield and make him the seam threat that few defenses could contend with. Now that Bush is gone to Miami and has been replaced by Darren Sproles (another quick waterbug, but a slightly more traditional flat-to-seam player), Payton has kept his elevated route concepts while using the best pair of guards in the game and a first round draft pick to redefine the power of his offense.

Behind Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, the Saints finished sixth in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, but the running back yards fell slightly short at times, and the Saints were overwhelmed in too many power situations despite the fact that their passing concepts forced teams to play an inordinate amount of nickel coverage against them. But in first-round pick Mark Ingram from Alabama, the Saints not have a true every-down back with the kind of inline power that will eventually force opposing defenses to fill with that extra linebacker in a way they haven't since Deuce McAllister was in his prime.  Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles round out what should be one of the most versatile and effective running back combos in the NFL, but the 2011 Saints' offense isn't as much about what the rushing attack will do as it is how the defensive response to the rushing attack will open up the passing game.

Quarterback Drew Brees loves to roll right to open throwing lanes; the Saints are also very adept at zone slide plays and stretch runs that bend a defense to its limits. Brees can make every throw, but he's especially devastating with seam throws that can go to one of a number of dangerous targets — Marques Colston is the marquee name, but this year's star might be second-year tight end Jimmy Graham, a former Miami basketball player who showed ridiculous athleticism and agility in his rookie campaign.

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New Orleans' Defense

Blitz, blitz, blitz. If there's one constant to the career of Gregg Williams, it's that the Saints' defensive coordinator likes to bring the house as much as anyone in the league. Last season, no team set six or more defenders after the quarterback than the Saints — they did so a full 25.2 percent of the time, which is an amazing "sellout" percentage. But Williams' blitzes were more about pressure than quarterback takedowns in 2010 — defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis led the team with just six sacks. Williams is a bit more traditional from a formation perspective than Green Bay's Dom Capers — while Capers will throw the kitchen sink in a regular basis, Williams likes to run four-man fronts that show up more as three-man concepts, 3-3-5 stacks, and frequent safety blitzes that leave high-low coverages up the middle.

There will be changes up front this year. The Saints were tired of the failures of their third down defense, and went for some serious strength up the middle with tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin. Both are big men, but both also have some interesting athletic traits — Rogers is an underrated force as a two-gap nose tackle, a position that allows him to use his leverage to slide off the center and attack whichever side has the occupied guard. And when you have Franklin in the front as well, that's usually going to be his side. Jonathan Vilma is the centerpiece of the front seven, but the Saints could use some help with their outside linebackers. At end, Will Smith's StarCaps suspension could have rookie Cameron Jordan seeing more time against the Packers. Jordan was a special talent at Cal, and he fits this defense very well with his ability to play three- and four-man fronts equally well.

The Saints are relatively set in the long term at cornerback with Tracy Porter, the underrated Jabari Greer, and Patrick Robinson, but with Darren Sharper out of the picture and strong safety Roman Harper as the optimal box player and blitz weapon, the Saints should be expected to play as much nickel as possible and try to deal with any deep targets by positioning free safety Malcolm Jenkins for optimal success. From all accounts, Jenkins has been on fire this preseason, and if he can take that into the regular season (especially against Aaron Rodgers), that's a huge weight off Williams' back.

(Unless otherwise indicated, all formation data comes from Football Outsiders.)

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