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The New Orleans Saints are a finesse football team. That needs to change -- and it can -- if they are to become true contenders.
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|Darren Sharper helps make the Saints more physical on defense.|
Led by Drew Brees, the Saints are very well equipped to play their home games in the Superdome and three other road games at warm-weathered divisional foes Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. And with the exception of a Dec. 6 game in Washington, the Saints may not face a real cold-weather game during the 2009 regular season. But, do you think even the most loyal Saints' fans are comfortable with their favorite team traveling to New York, Philadelphia or Chicago to play in the NFC Championship Game? Historically, the Colts and Rams won it all under similar circumstances, but ideally, a team structured like these almost needs to avoid poor weather in the playoffs, which is tough to pull off.
The Saints are excellent in pass protection and Brees deserves a great deal of the credit for that, as does the offensive line, obviously, but New Orleans also has an underrated run-blocking group. The Saints presently lack a big power running back, but I can live with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush toting the rock, even in Philadelphia in the playoffs. Also, fullback Heath Evans could be a pounder in short-yardage situations. However, adding a bruiser certainly should be considered.
The Saints need to stay more dedicated to their run game overall. The allure of throwing the ball all over the field is clear to anyone considering the wealth of weapons that Brees has to distribute the ball to. But that generally does not put teams away late in games and makes it difficult to keep the Saints' defense fresh and aggressive. Even in fair weather, you need to be able to run the ball consistently to win on the road in this league.
The Saints can be -- and have been -- successful with their ground attack, but they need to increase the percentage they call run plays. Only six teams ran the ball less often than New Orleans in 2008. The Saints' offense did lead the league in yards per game by a substantial margin and criticizing them on that side of the ball is, in all honesty, difficult to justify, but eating some more clock and adding a more physical presence on that side of the ball would make New Orleans a better overall football team and surely would have aided them in winning more close games.
Being critical of the Saints' defense isn't nearly as difficult. New Orleans' secondary looks to be noticeably improved after adding Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer and first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins. Its pass defense should be better and I expect New Orleans to allow fewer big plays while generating more of its own. That is a great start.
But the Saints must be tougher at the point of attack. Their front seven was disappointing last season. They are thin at defensive tackle and linebacker. Sedrick Ellis could still develop into an excellent defensive tackle, and I do realize that defensive linemen often struggle in their rookie season, but he needs to step up in a big way as the other defensive tackles are quite ordinary.
Rod Coleman should be a fine upfield pass-rusher, but I have my doubts as to his overall physical presence in the run game anymore. Kendrick Clancy is better than many realize, but overall, I worry as to how well New Orleans can protect Jonathan Vilma. Vilma is an excellent run-and-hit linebacker but doesn't excel when the defensive tackles do not do their job. Do not overlook just how potent -- and physical -- the Panthers', Falcons' and Bucs' ground games should be next season.
Adding Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator should help the run-stopping ability and defense in general, but his squad in Jacksonville last year was far from overwhelming. But last year's Jaguars also did not have a running game from the offense to make life easier.
This is a talented team that can excel in shootout situations, but New Orleans' last three losses in 2008 came by just a combined eight points. Being a more physical football team could have been the difference.Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.