’08 Preview: Saints set to march back

The New Orleans Saints have been one of the NFL’s most surprising teams in each of the last two years. In 2006, they came out of nowhere to reach the NFC Championship game. But last season, the Saints crawled right back to a 7-9 record.

This year, they’ll prove which was the fluke.

The smart bet is that the Saints will return to peak form, battling for the NFC South title. New Orleans still has quarterback Drew Brees, receiver Marques Colston and tailback Reggie Bush leading one of the league’s most dangerous offenses. And now the Saints have a rebuilt defense that they hope will hold up its end of the bargain.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

“I think you have to go through an ’07 in order to achieve the things we want to achieve long term,” says Brees, who, in addition to being one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, is also the ultimate optimist.

When asked if he expects to be back in the playoffs, he responds with a look of disbelief.

“What do you think?” Brees asks. “Absolutely. There’s no doubt. Any expectation less than that, you might as well leave the building right now.”

Offense

As long as Brees is healthy and in his prime, the Saints are bona fide contenders. And he has plenty of weapons around him.

The biggest question marks are Bush and fellow tailback Deuce McAllister. Can McAllister return to form after his second major knee injury? And can Bush deliver on the promise he showed during his rookie season?

Maximizing Bush’s potential will be the No. 1 priority for coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Doug Marrone, as the Saints have one of the league’s most creative and versatile playbooks.

Defense

The Saints’ front office attacked this offseason with an aggressive but narrow-minded focus – to get more athletic, dynamic and disruptive on defense. They traded for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma on the eve of free agency and later signed defensive end Bobby McCray and cornerback Randall Gay.

New Orleans kept going in the draft, trading up in the first round to land defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and using its top three picks on defense.

With that kind of talent upgrade, the Saints can’t help but improve. But defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, who runs a conventional 4-3 scheme, still has a tough task on his hands. New Orleans needs to get more consistent pressure on quarterbacks, force more turnovers and stop giving up so many deep touchdown passes.

The book on: Reggie Bush

A rival sizes up the Saints’ third-year running back:

“You’ve got to love his versatility. He s a threat as a runner, pass catcher and return man, and he’s dynamic. When he touches the ball, there’s a sense of electricity in the building because you know he can do something special with it. He blends excellent vision with great maneuverability and anticipation, and he’s very slippery. He s pretty tough for a guy his size.

“He will fight for that extra yard. I just don’t know how durable he can be. You’d rather have him running outside for you because he’s going to take a beating running inside, which could limit him. He’s not an exceptional blocker, either. He gets outmatched there sometimes, but he’ll stick his head in there and give you an effort.

Bottom line

The Saints’ schedule might be the team’s biggest hurdle. Since they are “hosting” this year’s international game in London, they will spend nine weeks on the road. Still, they should be considered the front-runners in the NFC South.

New Orleans has one of the top five offenses in the NFL and its defense can’t help but improve after an offseason makeover. And big-time seasons look to be in store for Bush and Vilma.

SN prediction: 11-5, first in NFC South.

Mike Triplett covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008