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New Orleans Saints Preview

   by Ben Burns - 07/13/2006

It's the beginning of a new era in New Orleans.
The Louisiana Superdome, which provided shelter to thousands during the horror of Hurricane Katrina, has been repaired and the team is returning 'home' while bringing the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner with them.
The talented but inconsistent Aaron Brooks has been replaced at quarterback and lame duck coach Jim Haslett has been shown the door.
In his first year, Haslett led the Saints to the playoffs and won the 2000 Coach of the Year award. However, it was virtually all downhill from there.
Despite having some talented players, the Saints haven't managed a winning season since 2002. They closed out a turbulent 2005 by losing 11 of 12 games en route to a 3-13 record.
Haslett has been replaced by Sean Payton. Like it was for Haslett, this will be Payton's first head coaching position. He most recently served as an assistant and quarterback coach in Dallas under Bill Parcells.
Payton will have plenty to work with on the offensive side of the ball. Receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth return as does running back Deuce McAllister.
Additionally, the Saints landed an extremely talented and explosive player, Reggie Bush, in the draft and signed free-agent quarterback Drew Bress to a long-term deal.
Oddsmakers are expecting that the offseason changes, combined with the return to the Louisiana Superdome, will result in a significant improvement from last season. Some sports books are projecting that the Saints will win 6 1/2 games. Others have their total number of regular wins set at seven.
Will this year's team live up to those expectations and flirt with a .500 record? A closer look at the Saints' chances and schedule appears below.
Offense
Once all the players get on the same page, the offense has the potential to be among the best in the league. After recording back-to-back superb seasons in San Diego, Brees was the top available quarterback on the free agent market.
He completed 65 percent of his passes the past two years while throwing for 51 touchdowns, (he rushed for another three) 22 interceptions and more than 6,700 yards. Those numbers are huge when compared to the stats recorded by the inconsistent Brooks.
However, there is some concern that Brees won't have fully recovered from a shoulder injury suffered in the final game of the 2005 season. He underwent surgery in January and is reportedly almost fully recovered.
Should Bress falter, the backup situation appears relatively solid. Todd Bouman started the final three games of last season for the Saints while Jamie Martin, acquired in the offseason, completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and was 4-1 in five starts for the Rams.
Although they will be operating behind somewhat of a suspect offensive line, the combination of Bush, McAllister and Michael Bennett at running back should give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Horn and Stallworth form a potent tandem at the receiver position. The 34-year-old Horn is coming off his worst year as a Saint but has made the Pro Bowl four times. The speedy Stallworth, on the other hand, is coming off his best season and is poised for another strong campaign.
Defense
The defense was porous last season and gave up a generous 24.9 PPG. That was the fifth worst mark in the league. This year's unit appears to still have some serious holes.
The 2005 Saints were solid against the pass but gave up more than 134 YPG on the ground. They don't appear to have done enough to address the issue in the offseason and will likely have some trouble stopping the strong ground attacks that they'll face throughout their challenging schedule.
Schedule
Anything is better than last year, but the schedule-maker certainly didn't grant any favors. In fact, based on last season's win/loss records, the Saints have the most difficult schedule in the league.
The NFC South is extremely competitive and was one of only three divisions that had three teams with records of .500 or better. Naturally, all division games figure to be difficult. After going 1-5 within the division last season, a 3-3 mark would have to be considered a major accomplishment.
The Saints open with back-to-back road games at Cleveland and Green Bay. It's never easy to win at either of those venues and the Saints figure to be slight underdogs in both.
Unfortunately for Saints' fans, those first two games are arguably the most winnable road games of the entire year. Other non-divisional road opponents include Pittsburgh, Dallas and the New York Giants.
The non-divisional home schedule is also tough. Opponents include Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Washington.
Talk about brutal! Thirteen of 16 opponents are projected to finish with records of .500 or better, and the home game at San Francisco is the only 'easy' game of the entire year.
Burns' Bottom Line
The Saints will be exciting to watch this season. They should also be greatly improved, at least on the offensive side of the ball. However, they were just 3-13 last season and still have concerns on defense.
The combination of a first-year coach and an extremely difficult schedule should keep them from reaching the .500 mark. Consider laying the price with the 'under' 7 victories.

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