The story of the 2012 New Orleans Saints can be summed up in very simple terms: They could score and they could not stop the opposition from scoring. At the end of the season the Saints found themselves out of the playoffs for the first time in three seasons with a record off 7-9.
New Orleans can put up points with the best of them, but we all know you need to have some semblance of a defense if you want to win the Super Bowl. When the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, they had a defense that gave up a lot of yards and 21 points per game, but they were opportunistic and created enough turnovers to offset their other deficiencies. In the seasons since that Super Bowl victory, teams have continued to pile up yards and points on the Saints while the defense hasn’t been able to force the turnovers.
The Saints also had to deal with the turmoil and controversy that surrounded “BountyGate” which led to the season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton. Payton returns to the sideline for 2013 and the franchise is hoping that his presence will bring a spark that was lacking last season.
Going into 2013, we should expect more of the same from the Saints offense. Drew Brees, who put up over 5,000 yards and 40+ TD passes for the second straight season, is still one of the best quarterbacks in football. There is no reason to think that he can’t put up similar numbers in 2013 with the weapons that he has at his disposal. However, if Brees should happen to get hurt then the backup will be career journeyman Luke McCown. So, basically, Brees should probably avoid getting hurt.
At running back, the Saints will continue to use a RB-by-committee approach. Last season, the backs had a decent enough per-carry-average (4.3) but they had the fourth fewest rushing attempts in the league (370) so New Orleans averaged just a shade under 100 yards rushing per game. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and the always shifty Darren Sproles form a versatile and capabale backfield. Ingram had the most carries of the three in 2012 with 156 but averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. Thomas carried the ball just 105 times with a 4.5 yard average and while Sproles saw a very limited number of carries and averaged 5.1 yards per attempt.
At tight end, Jimmy Graham is one of the best in football. He followed his 2011 Pro Bowl season with 85 receptions for just under 1,000 yards and nine TD’s. New Orleans signed veteran Benjamin Watson to serve as the backup. Watson has battled injuries for most of his career but has been productive when he’s been able to stay on the field.
At wide receiver, Marques Colston and Lance Moore each posted 1,000 yard seasons in 2012. While Sproles was used sparingly in the running game, he caught 75 passes with seven TD’s in 2012. He is a matchup nightmare when he lines up as a receiver. Brees is hoping to make good use of two new targets in 2013. Nick Toon, a 4th round pick from Wisconsin in the 2012 Draft, missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury but returns for 2013. In the 2013 Draft, they spent a 5th round pick on Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills. Those two will be expected to replace the production of the since-departed Devery Henderson and Joe Morgan.
The offensive line was hit and miss last season. Drew Brees was sacked 26 times (2nd most in his career) and there were stretches where they could not get anything going in the run game. Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod is gone and is expected to be replaced by Charles Brown with Zach Strief starting opposite him at RT. Pro Bowl RG Jahri Evans will return along with veteran LG Ben Grubbs, who started every game in 2012. Rookie LT Terron Armstead will hopefully gain some good experience off the bench and both Eric Olsen and Andrew Tiller should be valuable backups. Returning at center is Brian de la Puente, who started all 16 games last season.
The Saints defense was historically bad last season. Against the pass, they allowed 293 yards per game which was next-to-last in the league. When you couple that with a run defense that allowed close to 150 yards per game, its a recipe for disaster.
New Orleans will switch to a base 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. While a new scheme could help, it is yet to be determined if the Saints have the right personnel to make it work. They don’t have a true pass-rushing linebacker or anyone up front who can stymie the run. Cameron Jordan led the Saints with eight sacks to go with 66 tackles. He and first year starter Akiem Hicks will start at defensive end. Former first round pick Brodrick Bunkley will start at defensive tackle. Rookie defensive end Rufus Johnson and rookie DT John Jenkins will push for playing time as well.
The Saints linebacking corp suffered a serious blow on Monday as they learned that they would be without Will Smith for the entire 2013 season. Smith, who was transitioning from DE to OLB, will undergo surgery to repair a torn ACL. Martez Wilson will most likely start in his place. Junior Galette (5 sacks in 2012) will start at the other OLB position. Inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee earlier in training camp but is expected to be ready for Week One. Curtis Lofton, who led the Saints with 123 tackles, also returns at ILB. Rufus Johnson will also see time at linebacker and rookie Eric Martin should also see some action with the season-ending ACL injury to LB Victor Butler.
New Orleans went out and signed cornerback Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh to try to improve the pass defense. Lewis, a New Orleans native, led the NFL with 28 passes defended in 2012. Opposite him is Jabari Greer, who recorded 51 tackles and three interceptions. Roman Harper (115 tackles, 2 Int) and Malcolm Jenkins (94 tackles) are hard-hitting but were beaten in coverage several times last season and need to do a better job of forcing turnovers. Patrick Robinson (3 Int) and Corey White provide depth along with newcomers Jim Leonard and Chris Carr.
Garrett Hartley hit on 18 of 22 FG attempts and all 57 extra points and Pro Bowl punter Thomas Morestead averaged 50 yards per punt on 74 kicks. Both return for 2013.