NFC South: Deuce Mcallister

Vote for 'Madden NFL 25' cover

March, 12, 2013
3/12/13
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The “Madden NFL 25’’ cover voting has arrived with a twist.

Instead of including only current players, one “legend’’ from each team is included. One current player from each team also is on the ballot.

Let’s start with the NFC South legends. Former Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme is matched up against Joe Montana. Delhomme is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever covered, but he’s got no chance of getting by a guy that might be the best quarterback ever.

Speaking of unfortunate draws, former Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks, who might be the best player out of the NFC South, is matched against Baltimore’s Ray Lewis. The timing here is horrible for Brooks because Lewis’ final act before retirement was to lead his team to a Super Bowl championship and that makes him a sentimental favorite.

Retired New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister also ended up with a tough draw. He goes against former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. Saints’ fans are passionate, so let’s see if they can pull off an upset against one of the brightest stars from America’s team.

The only NFC South legend that appears to be a favorite is former Atlanta cornerback Deion Sanders, who goes against former Seattle defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy.

Oh, and there’s one more total mismatch that’s tied to the NFC South in the legends division. Carolina coach Ron Rivera is representing Chicago against Detroit’s Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. No offense to Rivera, who was a nice player, but wouldn’t Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers or Walter Payton at least stand a chance to win against Sanders?

Switching over to the active players, two of the NFC South’s bright young stars are matched up. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham are paired against each other.

Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is matched against Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly is up against Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

Go do your civic duty and vote.

Today in NFC South history

February, 17, 2013
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On this date in 2009, the New Orleans Saints released one of the most popular players in franchise history.

They parted ways with running back Deuce McAllister. Age and knee injuries caught up to McAllister and he was barely used in the 2008 season. The Saints moved on at running back with Pierre Thomas and, later, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory.

But the release wasn’t the end of McAllister’s connection to the Saints and New Orleans, where he remains an iconic figure.

During the Super Bowl run in the 2009 season, the Saints re-signed McAllister. It was purely a symbolic gesture. But McAllister served as an honorary captain for the playoff game with Arizona and that helped fire up the Saints and their fans.

Fittingly, McAllister also received a Super Bowl ring.

Wrap-up: 49ers 31, Saints 21

November, 25, 2012
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 31-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday.

What it means: The Saints fall to 5-6. You can’t erase them from the playoff picture just yet, but it’s getting dangerously close to that point. With a schedule that looks challenging the next few weeks, the Saints have almost no margin for error. They almost have to run the table if they’re going to have any shot at the playoffs. A 10-6 record probably would put them into the postseason. A 9-7 record would give them an outside chance. Anything less than that won’t be good enough.

Not all on the defense: It would be easy to look at San Francisco’s point total and put all the blame on the New Orleans defense. That’s been the case much of this season. But not this time. Two of San Francisco’s touchdowns came on interceptions off Drew Brees that were turned into touchdowns.

Injuries pile up: Due to injuries to Zach Strief and Charles Brown, the Saints were forced to start rookie Bryce Harris at right tackle. That didn’t last long as Harris was injured and carted off the field in the first quarter. The Saints had to turn to recently-signed William Robinson. That’s not a situation you want to be in against a strong San Francisco pass rush and Brees had to deal with pressure all game and was sacked five times.

Milestone time: Marques Colston became the franchise leader in touchdowns scored when he caught a second-quarter touchdown pass. Colston now has 56 career touchdowns. Deuce McAllister held the previous team record with 55 touchdowns.

What’s next: The Saints face a very quick turnaround. They have to play the Falcons on Thursday night in Atlanta.

Around the NFC South

November, 16, 2012
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Time for a quick look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Kent Somers writes that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is likely to be a candidate for a job as a head coach after the season. That might happen, but Koetter can only help his chances at a bigger job if he can develop some sort of running game to go with Atlanta’s passing game.

Speaking of Atlanta’s running game, the Falcons came into the season saying they planned to limit the number of carries for Michael Turner. The running back said he still is adjusting to that role. He better adjust quickly, because the Falcons already are into the second half of their season.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that defensive ends Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews and Jonathan Massaquoi all have a chance at increased playing time after the release of Ray Edwards. Matthews is the guy I’d keep an eye on. He has the most value on special teams, and that means he’s likely to be active on game days and should get a spot in the rotation at defensive end.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Ron Green Jr. has a nice story on how linebacker Thomas Davis has made a successful comeback from his third torn ACL. Davis is believed to be the first NFL player to accomplish that, and that alone should make him a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. But Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson probably have a better shot at the award because they have higher profiles.

Although the Panthers named Richard Rodgers as their special teams coach after firing Brian Murphy this week, they’re using a committee approach, and other assistants are now involved with the special teams.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett writes that Sean Payton probably will take his time in getting a new contract done with the Saints. That would give Payton time to see if the Dallas job, which Triplett says is the only job that might lure him away from the Saints, does come open. If you’re a Saints’ fan, it’s time to start rooting for the Cowboys to go on a playoff run so that coach Jason Garrett keeps his job.

Deuce McAllister said he’ll be happy to see receiver Marques Colston break his franchise record for touchdowns scored. The two are currently tied with 55 apiece. McAllister said he has always admired how hard Colston has worked.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Erik Erlendsson has a feature on how fullback Erik Lorig has emerged as an important part of Tampa Bay’s offense. Lorig already has a career-high nine receptions, and has been doing a nice job blocking for Doug Martin.

Cornerback Aqib Talib spoke with the Boston-area media for the first time since he was traded from Tampa Bay to New England. Talib wouldn’t talk about his past troubles and said, when he met with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the focus was only on the present.
For only the second time in its history, the NFC South could finish a season without a 1,000-yard rusher.

A player needs to average 62.5 yards per game to reach a 1,000. At the moment, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin is the only NFC South player on pace for 1,000 yards – barely.

Martin is averaging 64.6 rushing yards per game. Atlanta’s Michael Turner is slightly off the pace at 59.5 yards per game.

No other NFC South running back has reached the 200-yard mark.

Since its inception in 2002, the only season in which the NFC South hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher was 2007, when Tampa Bay’s Earnest Graham led the division with 898 yards.

In the history of the NFC South, there have been, 17 1,000-yard seasons.

Here’s a look at who has reached 1,000 yards:
For a change, there is some positive news on the New Orleans Saints.

Team owner Tom Benson and former running back Deuce McAllister have been selected as the 2012 inductees to the Saints Hall of Fame. They were elected by a media selection committee.

McAllister is one of the most popular players in franchise history. He retired holding almost all of the team’s rushing records. Benson hasn’t always been a popular figure with fans, but that’s changed in recent years as the team has enjoyed a streak of unprecedented success since 2006. The Saints won their first Super Bowl title in the 2009 season. Benson, who bought the Saints in 1987, recently bought the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets.

The induction will take place Sept. 21 as part of Saints Hall of Fame/All Saints weekend.

Saints radio play-by-play man Jim Henderson will receive the Joe Gemelli Fleur De Lis Award for his contributions to the team. Henderson began working as a color analyst for the Saints Radio Network in 1982 and became the play-by-play man in 1986. Henderson also was the sports director at WWL-TV for 34 years, before retiring from that position in January.

The Saints Hall of Fame also has revealed it will include a legacy gallery in the museum to honor former New Orleans special-team standout Steve Gleason.

Tuesday’s news that Baltimore Ravens running back Ricky Williams is retiring comes with a bit of an NFC South angle.

Williams once was the biggest thing to ever hit the New Orleans Saints. Remember the 1999 draft, when the Saints traded away all their picks from that year, plus a couple more for the following year, for the right to draft Williams?

Yeah, it made headlines all over the place because it was one of the most daring trades ever -- we’re talking way more daring and dangerous than what the Falcons gave up to get Julio Jones or what the Saints gave up to get Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft.

It was the biggest deal coach Mike Ditka made and (along with a 3-13 record that season) it led to the end of his coaching career.

When coach Jim Haslett arrived the next season, Williams had some success. He had two 1,000-yard seasons, but there were issues. Williams was a unique personality. He didn’t interact a lot with teammates and often conducted interviews behind the shield of his helmet.

"Ricky's just a different guy," former New Orleans receiver Joe Horn once said. "People he wanted to deal with, he did. And people he wanted to have nothing to do with, he didn't. No one could understand that. I don't think guys in the locker room could grasp that he wanted to be to himself -- you know, quiet. If you didn't understand him and didn't know what he was about, it always kept people in suspense."

Haslett was in suspense or, at the very least, never quite could figure out Williams. That’s part of the reason Deuce McAllister was drafted. By the end of the 2001 season, in which Williams rushed for 1,245 yards and caught 60 passes, Haslett was pretty clear that Williams didn’t fit his long-term plans.

In the spring of 2002, the Saints traded Williams to the Miami Dolphins. They were able to get back some of what they initially gave up for Williams by getting four draft picks, including two first-round choices, in return.

Williams’ career would go on to have all sorts of twists and turns. He had success at times in Miami. He also retired from football in 2004, only to return in 2005. Williams was suspended by the NFL in 2006 and wound up playing for Toronto in the Canadian Football League.

Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2007. He finished his career with Baltimore and ended up with 10,009 rushing yards and 74 total touchdowns (66 of them on the ground).

Not a bad career, especially when you consider all the interruptions.

Would it have somehow worked out better if things had been handled differently and Williams spent his entire career in New Orleans? It’s impossible to say for sure.

Williams’ track record suggests he might have encountered some of the same, or different, problems if he had been with the Saints the entire time. Things worked out all right for him. They also worked out for the Saints, aside from the initial price tag to get Williams. McAllister ended up having a very nice career.

Reggie Bush came in and did some nice things at certain times. Along the way, the Saints also added Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, who have done some pretty nice things at running back.
SaintsDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireAubrayo Franklin (left), Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram will all be role players to start the season.
What had been suspected for a month or so became official when the New Orleans Saints made their roster cuts last week. They now have the deepest roster in franchise history.

Deeper than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl?

By far. Let’s start with two prime examples -- Chris Reis and Pierson Prioleau -- and work our way back up to the top of the roster. On that 2009 team, they were bottom-of-the-roster guys, but they were still important. Both were backup safeties, but they made their real impact on special teams. Although Jonathan Casillas officially was credited with recovering the famous onside kick in the Super Bowl, Casillas and others involved in the play said Reis actually made the recovery. Reis and Prioleau made lots of other important plays on special teams that season and also helped last year when the Saints went 11-5.

They’re gone now. Both were released in moves that demonstrated the Saints have upgraded the bottom of their roster.

They’ve also upgraded the middle and the top by adding guys like running back Mark Ingram, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, running back Darren Sproles, center Olin Kreutz, defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Sproles was the franchise player for the Chargers last year, and Franklin held the same tag with the 49ers.

On the Saints, they’re going to be role players. Same with Ingram and Jordan, a pair of first-round picks, at least at first. This roster is jammed with talent that runs from established stars such as quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, to rising stars such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, and right on down to rookies Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Patrick
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere's so much depth in the New Orleans secondary that rookie cornerback Johnny Patrick may only see playing time with special teams.
Wilson and Patrick are third-round picks, and the Saints have high hopes for Wilson as a linebacker and Patrick as a cornerback. But that’s down the road. The Saints are so loaded at those positions -- and everywhere else -- that Wilson and Patrick will probably be nothing more than special-teams players this season.

Think of them for the moment as replacements for Reis and Prioleau. A pair of journeymen have been replaced by third-round picks with the possibility of big futures. That’s called upgrading.

“I’d like to think we’re a little deeper in our roster,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We were able to, during that brief free-agency period, pick up a couple players. Each year is different, but I feel like we’re a little deeper right now.’’

Maybe that’s why observers repeatedly said Payton seemed slightly more relaxed during training camp this year compared to his five previous camps. He’s still intense, like just about every head coach in the league, but those who’ve watched him throughout his tenure say he showed signs that he knows he has the deepest team he’s had and one of the best rosters in the league.

Does that automatically translate into the Saints winning another Super Bowl? Of course not. The 2009 Saints were good but, like most Super Bowl champions, they also were a bit lucky at various times throughout the season.

There’s also the matter of a very well-stocked NFC; the Atlanta Falcons are loaded with talent in the same division, and many consider the Philadelphia Eagles the conference favorite. Oh, and there are the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions whom the Saints open their season against Thursday night at Lambeau Field.

The past two Super Bowl champions kicking off the season in an historic venue -- it’s the stuff movie-script writers come up with, not NFL schedule makers. But the Packers might be carrying more of a burden than the Saints. They’ll carry the title of defending Super Bowl champions, a load the Saints toted last season.

“You’ve got to answer all the questions about the hangover, and you feel like you’re being scrutinized every step of the way,’’ Brees said. “You lose a game and people are, like, waiting for something bad to happen to your team so they can say, 'I told you so.' There’s pressure with that and obviously the expectation level after winning a Super Bowl.’’

The Saints don’t have to worry about that this year. And the fact that their roster is so deep and talented could open the door for them to step right back into Super Bowl form. At least on paper, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Saints are so much better than they were in 2009 in many ways. Guys like Jenkins, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis were all very young players on that 2009 team. Now, they’re just hitting their prime.

The offensive backfield should be dramatically better. In 2009, the Saints used a combination of runners that included Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell. Thomas was the best of the bunch that year, but he should be just a role player this season.

Ingram might be better than the Saints have let on. He might be the most complete back this franchise has had since Deuce McAllister was young and healthy.

“He’s a really talented back,’’ Brees said. “He’s just got great instincts and he’s a pure runner. You watch him run and you say, 'Man, this guy was born to be a running back.'"

Throw in Sproles, who should be able to do everything Bush did, except get injured often, and the backfield should be much better. So should the run defense.

Rogers and Franklin are proven run-stoppers, and both made it clear they wanted to finally play on a team that has a chance to win big. That’s going to make life easier for Ellis, who was pretty good even when he was playing next to a very ordinary Remi Ayodele the last couple of seasons.

[+] Enlarge Jonathan Casillas
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints got younger at outside linebacker by giving Jonathan Casillas increased playing time.
That’s also going to make things easier for Vilma and a linebacker corps that should be better than it was in 2009 and last season. The Saints won the Super Bowl with Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle as their starting outside linebackers. They were nice complementary players, but not big playmakers. It looks like the Saints will go with Casillas and Will Herring on the outside this year. They’re younger, and fresh legs could lead to more big plays.

The secondary should be better than 2009. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are firmly established as the starting corners, and the Saints have high hopes for Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, as the nickelback. I know free safety Darren Sharper was a fan favorite in 2009, and there’s no question he was an important part of that team’s success. But he wore down at the end of that season and is gone now. For those who don’t believe me when I say Jenkins is now better than Sharper was early in 2009, let’s talk at the end of the season.

The receiving corps -- Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem -- is pretty much the same as it was in 2009. But Graham has replaced Jeremy Shockey as the pass-catching tight end. Graham is younger and more athletic than Shockey. Consider that another upgrade on a team that has plenty of them.

A lot of teams like to intentionally sell themselves short as they enter a season. The Saints aren’t doing that, and that’s probably because they’re looking at their roster and seeing what they have.

“We all know the potential here,’’ Brees said. “But we’re not going to take anything for granted and assume that we can walk out there with the talent that we have and we’re going to scare people away with our talent. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to go out and make plays and prove it every time out. I like what we have. I think we have the opportunity to be great. But we still have a lot of work to do.’’
The New Orleans Saints won’t be the only NFC South connection to Thursday night’s game at Lambeau Field.

The NFL just announced that 32 NFL alumni will take part in a pregame ceremony in which each will hold his team’s flag. Those players will form a chute onto the field with the AFC on one side and the NFC on the other. Green Bay Hall of Famer Bart Starr will walk through that gauntlet holding the Green Bay flag, followed by the Packers. A banner commemorating Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV championship will be displayed.

The alumni representing the NFC South are Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski, Carolina’s Muhsin Muhammad, New Orleans’ Deuce McAllister and Tampa Bay’s Mike Alstott.

In addition, the league announced that recording artist Jordin Sparks will sing the national anthem. She’s the daughter of Phillippi Sparks, a former cornerback for the Giants and Cowboys.

Don't forget about Pierre Thomas

September, 6, 2011
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He’s not the next Reggie Bush because Darren Sproles has that tag. He’s not the next Deuce McAllister because Mark Ingram's been handed that label.

Pierre Thomas, the lone holdover in the New Orleans backfield, is simply Pierre Thomas and that’s not a bad thing.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Pierre Thomas
AP Photo/Bill HaberPierre Thomas was limited to playing in just six games last season, gaining 269 yards rushing and 201 receiving.
“I think once the game starts, the player in Pierre’s case will have a very important role with us,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “There’s always that attention drawn to the first-round draft pick. But [Thomas] definitely has a significant role with what we do and was a big reason why, and his role is a big reason why the club signed him [to a new contract in the offseason]. There’ll be plenty of touches not only for Pierre, but for Mark and Darren and it’s our job to mix those up and also to let the running back get comfortable and get in a rhythm when he’s in the game.”

Sproles is expected to fill Bush’s old role, catching passes out of the backfield and getting some carries that mostly will go to the outside. There even has been talk that Sproles may be able to do more than Bush and make the offense more diverse.

“I think there’s some truth to it," quarterback Drew Brees said. “Darren’s a veteran player who when you really go back and study his role in San Diego, they did a really good job. First off, you see him in the kicking game and we’ll have an opportunity to see him play in those roles for us. You’ll see him in packages not only on third down, but on first and second down. He’s very intelligent and I think the one thing that surprised us that may be harder to see on film but we’ve seen in person is his ability as a running back not just outside but with a lot of the things we do with our running game. We’ll see, as the season goes on you develop a personality as an offense and you begin to settle in on things that you feel like you do well.”

But, despite all the attention on Ingram and Sproles, there’s no doubt Thomas will remain a part of the personality of the offense. Like Ingram, Thomas is a complete and versatile back. He can run inside and outside and also can catch passes.

One of the best things about Payton’s offense is a lot of people are going to touch the ball. That means Thomas will get his chances.

Previewing and predicting the Saints

September, 1, 2011
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For those who have been following as we’ve rolled out the predictions for the NFC South, you know by now that I’ve picked the New Orleans Saints to win the division.

It was a close call over Atlanta, and I suspect the race will be close throughout the season. I think both teams are going to be very good. But there are two reasons I chose the Saints. One is Drew Brees. The other is that I think they have a more talented roster than in the 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl.

Here’s the link to the complete preview page on the Saints. And here’s what I wrote about them.

Five things you need to know about the Saints:

1. Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis don't sit still: They recognized the main reasons why they got beat by Seattle in the first round of last season's playoffs and went out and addressed those areas heavily. The price wasn't cheap. After drafting defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. That led to the departure of Reggie Bush and the arrival of Darren Sproles, who will be used as a speed back. But the real key was adding Ingram. He should give the Saints the kind of consistency they've lacked in the running game since Deuce McAllister was still going strong. On the defensive side, the Saints knew they had to get better at stopping the run, so they went out and spent big money to get defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers.

2. Drew Brees isn't going to have a two-season "slump": Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions last season and that was totally out of character for a guy who has been the model of efficiency since his arrival in New Orleans. Brees had a knee issue surface early last season. It never sidelined him and the Saints never talked much about it. But you have to assume the knee played some role in Brees having an off year by his lofty standards. The knee has had time to recover and the arrival of Ingram and Sproles should bring new dimensions out of the backfield. Brees should bounce back to his old form.

3. The defense isn't going to sit on its heels: One of the other major reasons the Saints weren't able to repeat as Super Bowl champions was because last year's defense wasn't the turnover machine it was in 2009. Coordinator Gregg Williams knows that and he's not the type to sit back and let it happen again. Williams is a big believer that the best way to create turnovers is to apply more pressure. Defensive ends Will Smith and the rookie Jordan need to produce a consistent pass rush, but Williams will supplement them with plenty of blitzes. The Saints want to get younger at linebacker, and Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas could play bigger roles. They have fresh legs and will be asked to blitz and drop into coverage, which sometimes will allow members of the secondary to blitz.

4. There's a new star on defense: Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is still the unquestioned leader of this defense, but the best player on the unit down the stretch last season was free safety Malcolm Jenkins. He was in his first season as a starter, after playing cornerback as a rookie. He took over for Darren Sharper, who was a catalyst for the 2009 team, and took a little time to get comfortable. But Jenkins is a student of the game and has young, fresh legs. He should start off this season as an upgrade over what Sharper was in 2009.

5. Change can be good: It wasn't easy to let center Jonathan Goodwin leave via free agency and release veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. They were part of an offensive line that was great in 2009 and Goodwin still played at a high level last season. But the Saints didn't want to sign Goodwin, 32, to a long-term deal. Instead, they signed Olin Kreutz, 34, and plan to use him as a bridge until Matt Tennant is ready to be the center. Stinchcomb's level of play dropped dramatically last year as he played with a quadriceps injury. The Saints decided it was time to get younger at that position and they probably will go with Zach Strief. He has been a backup most of his career, but there's hope he can step up. If not, second-year pro Charles Brown could be an option.

DIVISION FINISH: 1 I'm picking the Saints for one reason -- on paper, they have more talent than they did in 2009. We know Sean Payton and Gregg Williams can coach and the roster is loaded. Plus, Brees is the only NFC South starting QB ever to win a playoff game.

Depth could make Saints' RBs better

August, 23, 2011
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If you go back and look at the film of New Orleans playing Houston in Saturday’s preseason game, it quickly becomes apparent the Saints don’t have a featured running back. They have three.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireRookie Mark Ingram adds depth to a versatile group of running backs for the Saints.
Rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles all got work with the first-team offense. That’s not some sort of competition or preseason experiment. The Saints are likely to use all three in a similar rotation during the regular season.

“I think it’s a great trio,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “When you look at all their strengths and their abilities with the diverse group we have, it’s hard when you give a defense that 1-2-3 punch because all of them can do so many good things and you’re able to rotate them and keep them fresh, and that’s only going to help us and our offense and how complex we’re going to be and what we’re going to be with formations and personnel groups. It’s really becomes a great weapon for us.’’

Although the trade of Reggie Bush made headlines, I’ll make a case that the Saints are better off at running back now than at any time since the 2006 season. That’s the last real productive year the Saints had from Deuce McAllister before age and injuries caught up to the veteran. That also was Bush’s rookie year, and he might have had his best season as he was used in tandem with McAllister.

Since then, the Saints have used a committee of running backs that has included the likes of Bush, Thomas, Mike Bell and Chris Ivory. They’ve won a lot of games, but the play of the running backs has been decent, not great.

With Ingram, Thomas and Sproles, things should change for the better. Ingram might be the most complete back the Saints have had since McAllister. At 5-foot-9, he’s built low to the ground, but he’s powerful. He’s also shown good speed and was able to catch the ball out of the backfield in college. That skill could be utilized even more in New Orleans’ offense.

But the Saints don’t need Ingram to do everything. Thomas is similar in a lot of ways -- he can run inside and outside and catch passes. Thomas was limited to six games last season, but was the closest thing the Saints had to a consistent running threat in 2009 when he averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

Ingram and Thomas are likely to split most of the carries out of the backfield, but the Saints didn’t go all out in recruiting the free-agent Sproles to have him come in and be a decoration. He’s going to be part of the backfield rotation with Ingram and Thomas.

Sproles will take on many of the roles Bush had. He’ll be used as a change-of-pace back, often going in motion and being used as a receiver. Sproles has the same kind of dynamic speed Bush had, but he might be better in some ways. Bush had trouble staying healthy throughout his time in New Orleans.

In his past three seasons in San Diego, Sproles did not miss a game. He also handled return duties.

Tampa Bay (LeGarrette Blount), Atlanta (Michael Turner) and Carolina (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) might have better individual running backs than the Saints. But put Ingram, Thomas and Sproles together and the Saints have a triumvirate of running backs that could make their offense more complete than it’s been since the days when McAllister still was going strong.

Observations on the Saints

August, 12, 2011
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We know the New Orleans Saints can play offense and there’s no doubt that will happen when the regular season comes along. But the Saints didn’t even need their offense in a 24-3 victory against the San Francisco 49ers in their preseason opener at the Superdome.

The defense and special teams gave the Saints a fast start as Drew Brees and most of the first-team offense didn’t even stay in long enough to get a first down.

New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams looked like he was prepared for a playoff game, not an exhibition. He blitzed like crazy and the first-team defense was all over San Francisco starting quarterback Alex Smith. Safety Roman Harper spent as much time in the backfield as any of San Francisco’s running backs. Heck, Williams was even calling run blitzes.

The Saints also got a big boost from undrafted rookie Joe Morgan, who returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown. People thought Darren Sproles would make everyone forget Reggie Bush, but Morgan might be making a case to stay on the roster to handle some returns.

Some other observations on the Saints.
  • Brees left the game with about five minutes left in the first quarter and only completed one of four passes for six yards. Smart move by Sean Payton to get Brees out of there quickly. When you have a quarterback like that, you don’t need to take any chance of getting him hurt in a preseason game.
  • Brees did throw one perfect deep pass, but Robert Meachem dropped it.
  • Backup Chase Daniel took a big hit out of bounds soon after replacing Brees. He got up, holding his side. Made me wonder for a second if the Saints have a phone number for Jake Delhomme? He’s a Louisiana guy and, if he’s going to play again, the Saints would be a tempting option. But Daniel seemed to shake off the hit and completed 13 of 21 passes for 129 yards.
  • The Saints didn’t even need the blitz all the time. With a bit of help from defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, Will Smith had a nice sack on Smith.
  • Nice debut by rookie running back Mark Ingram. He had a 14-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half that brought back memories of Deuce McAllister.
  • Linebacker Jonathan Casillas hasn’t been getting much work with the first-team defense. But he had a strong outing and that could earn him some work with the starters as camp goes on.
  • Rookie cornerback Johnny Patrick went down near the end of the third quarter with what appeared to be a leg injury. It was unclear how serious the injury is, but the Saints already are thin at cornerback. Tracy Porter and Fabian Washington already have missed camp practices with injuries.

Camp Confidential: Saints

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
10:45
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- Jonathan Vilma grabbed the question and treated it much the same way he would a running back.

He grabbed it forcefully and drove it straight to the proper destination.

“It’s really very, very simple,’’ the middle linebacker for the New Orleans Saints said. “If we want to get back to being the Super Bowl champions, we have to play defense the way we played it in 2009, not the way we did in 2010. We have to go out there and start making turnovers happen again.’’

[+] EnlargeJonathan Vilma
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma, right, wants the Saints' defense to return to its 2009 playmaking form.
It's not as though the 2010 season was a complete disaster for the Saints. They went 11-5 and made the playoffs. But they went out to Seattle for the first round of the postseason and got upset by a team that didn’t even have a winning record. That ended New Orleans’ defense of its first Super Bowl championship, and Vilma put the reason for that squarely on the defense.

“Look, we still had [quarterback] Drew Brees and all sorts of weapons on the other side of the ball,’’ Vilma said. “Last year’s problem wasn’t our offense. It was our defense. We just didn’t make things happen the way we did in 2009. We played well at times, but we also left a lot of big plays on the field because, for whatever reason, we just didn’t make the same plays we did the year before.’’

Vilma pointed to one statistic to demonstrate his point. In 2009, the Saints were plus-11 in turnover ratio. In 2010, they were minus-6.

They have the personnel to reverse that trend, and Vilma said a little more help from the defense could be all it takes to get back to the Super Bowl.

“You think of McDonald’s and you think of Burger King, you know what you’re going to get across the world,’’ Vilma said. “So we want people to think of Saints defense, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get takeaways, hitting, relentlessness, running to the ball. I think we’re starting to build that brand, we are still working toward it, and one thing we won’t do is take a step back.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can the defense really get back to 2009 form? Yes, it’s very possible. Gregg Williams is one of the league’s best and most aggressive defensive coordinators. When I visited camp recently, the defensive players were picking up every loose ball, even well after plays were done. That’s something Williams brought when he arrived in 2009. It didn’t really stop in 2010. But you can tell the Saints are approaching loose balls with much more gusto in this camp.

That’s great, but just taking that mental approach won’t be enough. The Saints have made some personnel moves that should make the overall defense better and should help produce turnovers. The Saints added defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin and suddenly are much bigger on the defensive line. Rotate Rogers and Franklin with a healthy Sedrick Ellis, and the Saints suddenly could be much stronger than they’ve been in the middle of the line in recent years.

That should help the pass rush, particularly Will Smith, Alex Brown and rookie Cameron Jordan. Smith and Brown didn’t get as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as the coaches would have liked last season. Pressure is the key to a Williams’ defense. If the Saints can get pressure, the turnovers will come naturally.

2. Is the defense really to blame for last year? Not quite as much as Vilma claims. He’s right that the defense wasn’t the turnover machine it was in 2009. But the offense wasn’t exactly the perfectly tuned machine it was in the Super Bowl season. The Saints scored 64 touchdowns in 2009 (and five of those came on interception returns by the defense), but that number dropped to 44 last season. Maybe the defense could have helped a bit more with field position, but this offense had some flaws.

It’s tough to criticize Brees, who has carried the Saints since his arrival in 2006. But numbers don’t lie, and they’ll tell you Brees had an off year last season. His passing yardage and touchdowns were similar to 2009, but the huge difference was interceptions.

Brees threw only 11 interceptions in 2009 but had a career-high 22 last season. He never missed any playing time or complained about it, but Brees never seemed to be quite the same after injuring his knee in a Week 3 game with Atlanta. That might have had more to do with his "slump'' than we'll ever know.

But Brees has had a whole offseason to recover, and I expect him to bounce back. His cast of receivers remains largely the same, and replacing center Jonathan Goodwin with Olin Kreutz should not hurt an offensive line that already is very good.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMark Ingram, right, should become a workhorse for the Saints right away.
3. How will the Saints use their running backs? Whether you loved him or not, Reggie Bush is gone, and that’s going to have an impact. Although he never put up huge numbers, Bush was the kind of player who made defenses account for him every time he was on the field.

It’s easy to say the Saints will try to replace Bush by committee and, to some degree, that’s true. They brought in Darren Sproles to do a lot of what Bush did -- run outside, catch passes out of the backfield and work as a return man. They also have Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who are pretty solid all-around backs.

But the biggest offensive move the Saints made this offseason was drafting Mark Ingram. He’s a running back who can do everything well, and he'll probably be used the way Deuce McAllister was in the early years of coach Sean Payton’s tenure. Sproles will inherit the packages Bush was in on, but Ingram’s going to get most of the playing time -- and carries.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Nobody got very excited when the Saints added Will Herring. That’s understandable, because he spent four seasons in Seattle as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. Herring has only seven career starts, but a coaching staff and front office that have been known to find some steals might have another one. Herring has been getting most of the first-team work on the strong side in training camp, and the coaches have been raving about him. He’s quick and he’s smart, and the change of scenery apparently has him playing better than ever.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

When he’s healthy and on the field, Tracy Porter is a solid cornerback. But Porter hasn’t been on the field this training camp. He’s been walking around the sidelines with his left knee wrapped as he recovers from offseason surgery. There’s hope Porter will be ready for the regular season, and there is even higher hope he’ll be motivated to have a huge year because he can become a free agent after the season.

But there’s also some skepticism, because this isn’t the first injury for Porter. He missed four games last year and four the year before. Fellow starter Jabari Greer also has a history of injury problems. If Porter and Greer have more problems, the Saints could be thin at cornerback. They signed veteran Fabian Washington, but he has missed some camp time with an injury.

The upside is the absence of Porter and Washington has given second-year pro Patrick Robinson and rookie Johnny Patrick more work. Williams has been praising both of them. If either or both continue to impress and Porter’s recovery lingers, we could see a change in the lineup. That also wouldn't help Porter's chances of earning a big contract and staying with the Saints next season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Wide receiver Robert Meachem was a close runner-up for the biggest-surprise category above. Meachem is coming off ankle surgery for an injury that slowed him last year, and he's having an excellent camp. He has caught just about every pass thrown his way and seems to be moving much better than a year ago. Meachem was a force as a deep threat in 2009, and it looks as if he might be returning to that form.
  • Herring has been working on the strong side and Scott Shanle on the weak side. But nothing’s settled yet. Herring appears headed for a starting job, but Shanle is aging. The Saints have liked what they’ve seen from Clint Ingram and Jonathan Casillas, and they know what they have in Jo-Lonn Dunbar. They’ll probably go through several preseason games before deciding firmly on their starting linebackers. Even then, they could still rotate linebackers because the coaches view all of them as pretty close to equal.
  • One linebacker who is struggling a bit is third-round pick Martez Wilson. You can see he has good athleticism, but he looks lost at times during team drills. The Saints aren’t anywhere close to being ready to give up on him, because he has lots of upside. But a lot of fans thought he’d be an instant starter. That’s not going to happen.
  • The Saints never have been afraid to take a shot on a reclamation project, and that’s what they did with Rogers at defensive tackle. He came into the league with a lot of hype back in 2001 but has spent his career stuck with some pretty bad teams in Detroit and Cleveland. Rogers even lost his starting job with the Browns last year, and there have been questions about his conditioning and attitude throughout his career. But this might be a perfect fit. Rogers is on a good team for perhaps the first time in his career, and Williams is a master motivator. Even if Rogers doesn’t work out, I like how the Saints hedged their bet by bringing in Franklin.
  • The Saints also took a shot on another former first-round pick. That’s offensive tackle Alex Barron. But he’s not off to a great start. He has been sidelined by injury, and unless he comes back soon and makes a big impression, he probably won’t make the roster.
  • Since entering the league in 2009, punter Thomas Morstead has been known as a guy with a big leg. That hasn’t changed. But Morstead put in a lot of work on his directional punting in the offseason, and you can see the results in practice. That should help the defense with field position.

Three things: Saints-49ers

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
10:26
AM ET
Three things to watch for in New Orleans’ preseason opener against visiting San Francisco on Friday. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

Drew Brees. Normally, Brees is the last guy you have to worry about on the Saints. But he’s coming off a season in which he threw a career-high 22 interceptions and spent much of the offseason dealing with the labor situation. If Brees comes out and is sharp, it’s a good omen for the Saints.

The outside linebackers. The Saints have been working Scott Shanle on the weak side and Will Herring on the strong side through most of camp. But guys like Jonathan Casillas and Clint Ingram are still in the mix for starting jobs. How the linebackers perform in the preseason games will carry a lot of weight when the big decisions are made.

The debut of Mark Ingram. I doubt the Saints are going to flash too much of their rookie running back tonight. They want to save him for the regular season, but he’ll probably get a couple of carries and fans might be reminded of Deuce McAllister.

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