Gus Kattengell: The Saints kick of the preseason schedule on the road Thursday night at Cleveland. It’s the first of four games in the preseason slate with the next one being on Sunday the 20th in Los Angeles to face the Chargers. Saturday August 26th brings the Saints to the Dome for the first time this season to face the Texans and the exhibition season wraps up on Thursday the 31st against Baltimore.
A new season is here and with it the excitement that this fresh start may lead to a first Saints post-season appearance since 2013. Three straight 7-9 seasons have created a palpable sense of urgency.
The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 and followed that 13-3 season with a 11-5 campaign in 2010. 2011 saw a team many believe was a Super Bowl winning team as they once again went 13-3 but lost in the Divisional Round at San Francisco. Since that year the Saints have had just one post-season appearance coming in 2013 as they went 11-5 and once again lost in the Divisional Round. 2012, 2014,2015 and 2016 saw the team however finish 7-9.
The lack of winning has created that urgency and also uncertainty as rumors the past two seasons about head coach Sean Payton being courted, or contemplating a fresh start, combined with QB Drew Brees and the team seemingly being ok to go this season with out a new contract have fans on edge. Add that the past two seasons an NFC South team has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl to go with the fact many analyst believe Tampa Bay is the team to watch for this season and well you get the picture. Oh and almost forgot the daunting start to the season as the team’s first four games are at Minnesota on a Monday night, then host the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots, travel to Carolina and then it's off to London to face Miami before the bye week.
Also it could be a positive that if the Saints need to make a move for the division title they could have it in their own hands as they will face NFC South opponents in four their final five games hosting Carolina, then travel to Atlanta on a Thursday night, host the Jets, host the Falcons and finish the season at Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.
The Saints enter the preseason with a handful of questions and while none can fully be answered in the preseason opener, we may start to see how some of those questions will unfold.
DEPENDING ON YOUTH
I truly believe that if the Saints are to be a playoff team then this draft class must not only workout but it must shine by virtue of position and availability. Five of the seven players selected in April were on the defensive side of the ball. First round picks CB Marshon Lattimore and T Ryan Ramczyk will have the opportunity to play now and in camp when healthy have given us reason to believe that they can as Lattimore has seen snap with the first unit and Ramczyk if healthy could be the starting left tackle. Second round pick S Marcus Williams has been impressive so far as he has showed signs of why many call him a ball hawk and seems to add to a group of safeties that may be a strength on this team. His ability to cover large areas of the field may allow defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to really attack offenses with riskier calls and strategies. 3rd round selections linebacker Alex Anzalone and DE Trey Hendrickson have seen work with the first unit during training camp and both are positions where depth are needed.
Let’s not forget the 2016 class and how their development will impact the team’s chances of winning. Sheldon Rankins, David Onyamata and Tyler Davidson are the defensive tackles that have gotten the work with the first unit. S Vohn Bell is the starting safety opposite of Kenny Vaccaro and from two classes ago LB Stephone Anthony continues to try and find a way to help the team and if he can he will add depth to an improved linebackers group.
CULTURE OF WINNING
Winning teams can flip the proverbial switch and turn up their gameplay a notch when it really matters. The Saints are not at that point so the importance to winning in any shape or form possible is evident. Defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn has been heard during training camp practices yelling “win the play,” and to “spike the ball” to his defensive backs in an attempt to create a culture of winning. It’s important that this team find some winning ways as it will create confidence and with so many new and young faces on this team that have NOT won together it may be vital.
FREE AGENT PIECES MUST FIT IN
Three big pieces were added via shopping free agency this offseason and their contributions I believe will be upgrades at their respective positions.
RG Larry Warford was introduced to us via Sean Payton as Mr. “Ass and Mass” and at 6-3 317 we see why. He has been solid at practice clearing holes in the run game and seems genuinely excited to be on the team when speaks to media. Jahri Evans was big last season coming in late in the preseason to shore up the offensive line and it seems as if Warford will pick up where Evans left off and then some.
RB Adrian Peterson won’t play Thursday but we may still see him in the preseason with it likely being against Houston. OTAs, Mini Camp and now Training has shown us a healthy and eager running back. I think teams will be surprised at how the Saints use Peterson. He was all smiles at the start of camp when speaking about all of the options the Saints offense has and how that likely will leave him initially taking on the fewest defenders he has to as teams can’t simply stack the box to try and stop him.
LB A.J. Klein was seeking a place to start after spending four seasons in Carolina. Klein is a noticeable upgrade as he has played the SAM linebacker since arriving to New Orleans. Players have talked about his leadership qualities and we can see and hear how he sets players in the right positions to make plays and his all business attitude will be a welcome site to fans.
Cleveland is coming off of a 1-15 season in 2016, that earned them the top pick overall in the 20-17 NFL Draft. The Browns went with Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. The top player taken overall said this week that he is looking forward to making a statement in his first NFL action as looks to show he can “play with the big boys.”
Right now Garrett is listed as the starting right defensive end. ESPN’s Pat McManamon who cover’s the Browns reports that Garrett had two sacks in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage but that head coach Hue Jackson told him he should have had four.
One of the big storylines in Cleveland once again heading into the season is who will play quarterback. Head coach Hue Jackson said the competition for the Week 1 starter job is open but did mention that who starts the preseason opener could be the guy come September. Brock Osweiler is getting the start against the Saints with rookie DeShone Kizer vying to give Osweiler competition for the top job. Cody Kessler is also competing for snaps but has seen his second team snaps reduced recently.
The NFL didn’t do any favors to the one win team from a season ago as they open the season playing divisional opponents in three of their first four games. Cleveland hosts Pittsburgh, is then at Baltimore, at Indianapolis and then hosts Cincinnati.
The last time these two teams met was back on September 14, 2014 in a game where Browns kicker Billy Cundiff won it connecting on a 29-yeard field goal with three seconds left. The Saints dropped to 0-2 on the season.
Twice before have the teams met in the preseason but the last time came back in 1982. Cleveland won 20-17 and the Saints won the only other preseason matchup in 1968, a 40-27 Black and Gold win at Tulane Stadium.
HOW THE SOUTH IS WON: DIVISION IN ACTION
Houston 0-0 @ Panthers 0-0 -1
Atlanta 0-0 @ Miami 0-0 +1.5
Tampa Bay 0-0 @ Cincinnati 0-0 -2.0
PLAYERS TO KEPP AN EYE ON
RB Alvin Kamara – The Rookie is fun to watch at practice. Yes he can catch the ball extremely well but I feel it will be his ground game that will be a pleasant surprise to many. He runs hard and loses none of the athleticism you see as a pass catcher.
WR Brandon Coleman – He has been called the MVP of training camp by some of his teammates. Consistency is still an issue with him for me and while he has had some good moments at practice, it’s practice and until he shows he can translate that into a game he will remain on the All-Potential Team.
WR Travin Dural – The LSU rookie was not drafted and as the offseason began I thought what a great accomplishment it would be to get on the practice squad and have a season of learning under WR coach Curtis Johnson. I still don’t see Dural on the final 53 but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he is improving by the practice. With Michael Thomas being so valuable, Ted Ginn Jr being a veteran and Willie Snead already having been nicked up, Dural will likely get a healthy amount of snaps. Let’s see if he can shine
The whole defensive line – If Osweiler, Kizer and whoever the heck else Cleveland has look like Brady, Montana and Brees it won’t be good. In particular, the trio of Rankins, Onyamata and Davidson as the ability to stop the run was an issue last season much less rushing the passer from the interior line.
Alex Okafor and Hau’oli Kikaha – Both have gotten the work at right defensive end and have flashed that speed needed to rush the passer from the outside and both have made some nice plays at practice. The Saints need the side opposite of Cam Jordan to improve and if it does watch out for Jordan can could have a monster year.
CB Ken Crawley – Delvin Breaux’s injury has allowed #20 to get a ton of snaps with the fist unit and when you pick off Drew Brees in consecutive practices people start to notice.
S Marcus Williams – This kid is good. Williams just looks like a natural at the position and has the ability and will have the chance to bring to the team something it’s desperately lacked for many years and that is a play making safety.
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