NFC South: Bernard Berrian

 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  Led by Drew Brees and Reggie Bush, the Saints have plenty of firepower on offense.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- To understand why the New Orleans Saints have a chance to do great things this season, you have to go back to the lowest moment of last season.

Believe it or not, there was some beauty in early October's 30-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Superdome. Do you need a reminder of the ugliness? Think of the Saints making Gus Frerotte and Bernard Berrian seem like Joe Montana and Dwight Clark just moments after Reggie Bush had made two miraculous punt returns for touchdowns in a "Monday Night Football" game.

As the Vikings kicked the winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining, defensive back Darren Sharper stood on the Minnesota sidelines. In hindsight, he glimpsed something special in the Saints.

"I think the main thing was I saw this team as being on the cusp of not only making the playoffs, but of making a championship run,'' Sharper said.

Cusp of the playoffs? Coach Sean Payton's Saints finished the 2008 campaign 8-8, and that came on the heels of a 7-9 season.

"Three or four games, they let big plays happen,'' Sharper said. "That's the difference between 11-5 and 8-8.''

As crazy as it might sound, Sharper's precisely right. The Saints might be the league's biggest disappointment the last two seasons, but that's also part of the reason they might be this year's most promising team.

They're loaded with names -- Drew Brees, Bush, Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston and Jonathan Vilma. The flashy marquee has not yielded dramatic results. The Saints were the trendy pick by a lot of media outlets to make the Super Bowl last season, but didn't even come close.

Blame it on bad luck, a rash of injuries or whatever. No matter how you look at it, the Saints underachieved. They're out to make sure it doesn't happen again. Maybe it's better that they're coming into this season without high expectations from the outside, because, on the inside, the Saints are expecting a lot more.

That's part of the reason Sharper decided to sign with the Saints as a free agent. That's part of the reason the Saints brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, cornerback Jabari Greer, defensive end Paul Spicer and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

"I wanted to go with the team that has the best chance of winning a ring,'' Sharper said. "I think New Orleans has that.''

On paper, the Saints do have that.

 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  The Saints will need Jonathan Vilma and the defense to improve this season.

They've got the league's top-ranked offense from last season. Keep in mind, all that happened with Shockey, Colston and Bush each missing significant playing time. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards in a season when the Saints had little consistency in the running game and didn't get Shockey into the end zone.

"As good as it was last year, No. 1, that's our goal,'' Shockey said. "I think our goal again is to be No. 1.''

How much better than No. 1 can the offense be?

Actually, a lot. If Shockey and Colston can return to anything like they were earlier in their careers and Bush can play like he did in the first half of last season, Brees could end up shattering records. The Saints also are hoping to do a better job controlling the running game with some sort of combination of Bush, Pierre Thomas and a short-yardage back to be named later.

But, more than anything, they need to improve defensively. Funny, but that sounds like the same story from the past two offseasons. The Saints made moves such as bringing in Jason David and Randall Gay to solidify the secondary. They signed defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to get more out of the unit.

Those moves never brought the desired results. The Saints overhauled their defense again this offseason. They spent a small fortune on Greer and still drafted Jenkins in the first round to beef up the cornerback position. They got linebacker Dan Morgan out of retirement and plan to play him on the weak side.

They signed Spicer and Anthony Hargrove to push starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. Orgeron left. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was fired and replaced by Williams, who has a reputation as one of the league's best defensive minds.

They're plugging Sharper in as the free safety and trying to build around Vilma and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the only two bright spots from the 2008 defense. They're also getting cornerback Tracy Porter, who showed some promise early last season, back from a broken wrist.

Maybe, like Sharper said, there will be even more big plays on offense and fewer big plays allowed on defense. That formula probably would be enough to put the Saints into the playoffs.

"It's an offense that's been at the top of the league the last couple of years and a defense that can
be a ball-hawking defense and the special teams are explosive when you can put a guy like Reggie out there,'' Sharper said.

"And the camaraderie that guys have. Guys like each other and want to play for each other. That goes for the coaches, too. Whenever you have that great chemistry, that goes a long way. Last year [the] Arizona [Cardinals], nobody expected they would be there at the end. When you have all the pieces in place, you know you have a shot.''

Maybe, with all the new pieces, the Saints will have a shot at more than they've accomplished the last two years.

 
 Chris Graythen/Getty Images
 Reggie Bush's record-tying two punt returns for touchdowns could not prevent New Orleans from losing, 30-27, to the Vikings on Monday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Five observations from Monday night's game.

1. Even if you've been a Saints fan for years, what happened against the Vikings has to rank near the top of the list of worst moments in franchise history. The Saints have lost a lot of games through the years because they were flat-out bad.

That's no longer the case because the Saints had enough talent to move the ball 729 yards (counting return yardage). They also wasted what could have been one of the most spectacular performances in the history of "Monday Night Football".

Reggie Bush, who never has been able to establish himself as a feature back, nearly established himself as a feature player. He single-handedly put the Saints in position to win. Then, they somehow lost, 30-27.

"We lost this game collectively from top to bottom,'' Bush said.

No, they did not. Bush did more than enough for the Saints to win.

Bush returned two second-half punts for touchdowns and gave the Saints a 27-20 fourth-quarter lead. When you've got that against a team quarterbacked by Gus Frerotte, you should be 3-2 and on your way to certain victory in Sunday's home game against Oakland.

"All for nothing because you didn't win the game, all over stupid stuff,'' quarterback Drew Brees said.

Bush had five punt returns for a franchise-record 176 yards and the Saints had a team-record 354 yards on punt and kickoff returns. But Bush's performance, which had the fans in the Superdome chanting "Reggie,'' is going to be forgotten.

It could have been a turning point in a career and in the Saints' season. It wasn't. Failure just about everywhere else means Bush's performance didn't really matter. What should have been one of the most glorious victories in franchise history will be one of the worst losses.

2. Even though he's young, Sean Payton is known as an old-school coach. I'm starting to wonder if that reputation is deserved. Payton is supposed to be a coach who puts a disciplined team on the field.

However, the Saints were anything but disciplined against the Vikings. They were flagged 11 times for 102 yards. Yes, there were a couple of controversial calls and non-calls, but you should be able to overcome that when you're setting records for return yardage, passing for 320 yards and holding Adrian Peterson in check.

"It starts with me,'' Payton said. "I've got to do a better job.''

Yes, he does. A few weeks back, the Saints gave Payton a new, five-year contract. It looked like a good move at the time. Now you've got to question if the move was premature.

Injuries -- and the Saints have had their share -- can't be an excuse for this one. The Saints had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown, lost two fumbles and had two passes intercepted.

"I felt like we were a better team,'' Brees said. "Without those turnovers, I think we win this game pretty easily.''

3. Give Frerotte a ton of credit. He's old, he took some shots and he got only 32 rushing yards out of Peterson. But, on his last two drives, Frerotte produced 10 points. His 33-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian was a perfect throw. He got some help from a pass-interference penalty on Kevin Kaesviharn to set up the winning field goal.

He kept Minnesota's season from getting out of hand and it's looking more and more like coach Brad Childress made the right call in declaring Frerotte his starter for the rest of the season. The Vikings have too much going for them -- Peterson and a very good defense -- not to be in contention this year.

4. Saints kicker Martin Gramatica, who missed a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, spoke with the media after the game. He didn't do that after missing a key kick against Denver.

"I hit it solid, but it went left,'' Gramatica said. "The worst thing about it is that I let the team down.''

Yes, he did. But the Saints have no one to blame but themselves for their kicking problems. The entire league knows Gramatica has a history of being erratic at times. The Saints went out and drafted kicker Taylor Mehlhaff. Then, they decided to go with Gramatica. It's starting to look a lot like they made the wrong choice.

5. I wouldn't read too much into the fact that running back Deuce McAllister got only six carries, a week after getting 20. McAllister did get the call, and produced, in some short-yardage situations.

The Saints came in knowing they probably weren't going to run a lot against a Minnesota defensive front that doesn't give up very much.

Rapid Reaction: Vikings 30, Saints 27

October, 7, 2008
10/07/08
12:14
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints wasted one of the greatest performances in "Monday Night Football" history.

New Orleans managed to lose 30-27 on a night when Reggie Bush returned two punts for touchdowns to give the Saints a fourth-quarter lead. A late pass-interference call on safety Kevin Kaesviharn set up a 30-yard field goal by Minnesota's Ryan Longwelll with 13 seconds left.

The Kaesviharn penalty and a touchdown pass from Gus Frerotte to Bernard Berrian came after Bush had put the Saints up 27-20. Blame a defense that fell apart late, an offense that couldn't hold onto the ball early, a couple of controversial calls by the officials and kicker Martin Gramatica, who had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown and missed another attempt late in the game.

That all helped the Saints squander a franchise-record 354 yards in punt and kickoff return yardage. This was New Orleans' chance to right its season. Instead, the Saints are 2-3 heading into Sunday's home game -- their last in the Superdome for more than a month -- with Oakland. After what happened against the Vikings, the Saints can't even take a game with the Raiders for granted.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

There hasn't been a lot of bulletin-board material in the NFC South this season. Well, that just changed.

Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian just did a pretty good job of ripping on the Saints' secondary. NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert has the full story, but Berrian said there are big holes in New Orleans' secondary and questioned how much skill veteran cornerback Mike McKenzie has left.

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