NFL camp preview: Saints controversy is all football in 2013

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

METAIRIE, La. -- The Saints want nothing more to get back to where they were when they won 41 games over a three-year span from 2009-11 before stumbling to a 7-9 season in 2012.
After three consecutive distraction-filled offseasons, the New Orleans Saints report to training camp Thursday and the full squad hits the field Friday confronted with a whole new controversy.
Call it football-gate.
The Saints need to get back to playing well, which hasn't happened consistently since winning Super Bowl XLIV.
In successive summers, the Saints fought Super Bowl hangover after their offseason was compressed and in 2011 and dealt with the lockout of players before the bounty scandal of a year ago.
They know the defense must improve after yielding yards and points at an alarming rate in 2012. They set an NFL single-season record in allowing 7,042 yards last year and were also last in the league in rushing defense. They were also 31st against the pass and in points allowed, leading to the dismissal of first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Head coach Sean Payton brought in Rob Ryan and his 3-4 scheme from Dallas in addition to a half-dozen defenders they hope will make an immediate difference with an aggressive and attacking style.
Likewise, the Saints must be more aggressive running the ball, much as they were in 2009 and 2011 when they ranked sixth in averaging more than 130 yards per game.
With Drew Brees at quarterback, it is obvious that the passing game is still the bread-and-butter for the Saints' offense, but a strong running game is a must to take some of the pressure off the great quarterback.
Even though Brees threw for 5,000 yards and 43 touchdowns, he struggled at times because he had to do a lot more when the run game produced just 98.6 yards a game. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles will be asked to make sure that doesn't happen again
Ingram may be most firmly on the hot seat to perform. Even though they don't lean on one back to get things done in order to keep them fresh, the Saints need Ingram to have a big season in 2013 to get their running game back on track.
The Saints were 25th in rushing last year with 98.6 yards per game, their third-lowest average in Sean Payton's seven seasons. But Ingram, a first round pick in 2011, has the ability to help them get where they want to be.
Ingram was plagued by injuries to his heel, toe and knee in his first 1 1/2 seasons, but came on in the second half of 2012 when he fully recovered from offseason toe and knee surgeries.
The offensive line, regarded as one of the league's best for the past four seasons, will bear watching in training camp. That's because two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod departed in free agency and his spot hasn't been filled yet. Charles Brown, a former second-round draft pick who's been plagued by injuries, will likely get the first shot at protecting Brees' blind side.
Tackle Terron Armstead, a third-round draft pick, could be called on as well to join a line that includes four-time All-Pro pick Jahri Evans at right guard, Ben Grubbs at left guard and Brian d la Puente at center.
The Saints' new-look defense suffered a big blow in one of their final OTAs when outside linebacker Victor Butler tore his ACL after banging knees with Ingram. Butler was expected to start in the 3-4 that Rob Ryan installed, but that role will be up for grabs with former defensive ends Junior Galette and Martez Wilson vying for the chance to start opposite Will Smith -- another former defensive end.
With all those issues in mind, the Saints will now open camp and address football-gate 2013.

-- Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.