2010 NFL Question Marks: New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Sedrick Ellis #98 of the New Orleans Saints looks on against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisiana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints won 31-28 in overtime. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the defending champs’ weakness up the middle on defense.

You’re not going to find too many Saints fans that will complain about last year’s Super Bowl. It was an impressive, well-deserved win for Sean Payton’s team, which could easily find itself back in the big dance again this year.

That said, there was one element of the Super Bowl that Payton and his coaching staff can’t be pleased with. And it’s something that could wind up costing the Saints this season, especially considering the run-first teams that they face in the NFC South.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took the Saints’ defense last year to new heights. His aggressive, attacking style of play was a perfect fit for New Orleans’ high-powered offensive attack because it kept the pressure on the Saints’ opponent all four quarters.

But Williams’ use of a three-man front early in the Super Bowl nearly put the Saints in a bigger hole then the 10-0 deficit that they found themselves in at the end of the first quarter.

Williams used a four down linemen set only once on the team’s first two defensive drives, which resulted in the Colts putting 10 points on the scoreboard quickly. Credit Williams for making a fast adjustment, but just because the Saints wound up winning doesn’t mean that their problems at the defensive tackle position have been fixed.

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Saints inquire about Albert Haynesworth

Even though the Lions and Titans have dropped out of the running, the Redskins remain open to trading Albert Haynesworth and according to Jason Reid of the Washington Post, the Saints have inquired about the defensive tackle.

The Saints have the No. 64 overall pick and it would take at least that selection and possibly one more to acquire Haynesworth from Washington. That said, he has already voiced his displeasure over playing nose tackle in the Redskins’ new 3-4 alignment and the team recently acquired Adam Carriker from the Rams. Thus, maybe the Skins would be willing to take less value for Haynesworth, even though they just forked over $21 million in bonuses earlier this month.

While neither played poorly, the Saints didn’t get a lot of production out of either Tony Hargrove or Sedrick Ellis last season. Ellis is the better pass-rusher while Hargrove is sounder against the run, but neither is the player Haynesworth is. He would instantly upgrade the interior of the Saints’ defensive line and would cause panic for contenders in the NFC that already have a hard enough time keeping up with New Orleans’ potent offense.

The second round will certainly be intriguing.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

NFL Divisional Round Playoff Prediction: Cardinals vs. Saints

Arizona Cardinals (10-6, 6-2 away) at New Orleans Saints (13-3, 6-2 home)
Kickoff: 4:30PM ET
Odds: Saints –7

The Saints have plenty to be concerned with entering this game, none bigger than the fact that they’ve stumbled into the playoffs by losing their last three regular season games. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have the momentum after beating the Packers last week and the more recent postseason experience after earning a trip to the Super Bowl last season.

That said, people tend to forget how good New Orleans was in the regular season. And now that they’re at full health, we’re going to see a different Saints team this Saturday then we did in the final three weeks of the season. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis appears healthy, which will help NO stop Beanie Wells and Arizona’s running game. With Ellis in the lineup, the Saints are a different team and one that can force opponents to be one-dimensional. Kurt Warner is excellent at making reads and getting the ball out of his hand quickly, but he and the rest of the Cardinals’ offense will have a harder time scoring in the red zone than they’re used to. New Orleans has the second best red zone defense in the league and safety Darren Sharper has shined when the Saints have their backs against their own goal line.

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Cowboys end Saints’ run at perfection

Here are five, quick-hit observations from the Cowboys’ 24-17 upset over the Saints on Saturday night.

1. The Saints might be a team of destiny, but they’re not perfect.
There’s a reason why there have only been two undefeated teams in the history of the NFL: Because it’s freaking hard to run the table. It doesn’t matter that the Cowboys had lost two in a row or have always struggled in December under Wade Phillips; they had a great chance coming into Saturday night because the law of averages were eventually going to catch up with the Saints. And that’s exactly what happened.

2. The Saints have a problem defensively.
Three weeks ago when the Saints narrowly escaped Washington with a win, I noted that they better get healthy defensively or else they would have problems down the road. Not having DT Sedrick Ellis really hurt the Saints tonight, as Dallas churned out 145 yards on the ground and seized control of the game in the first half. New coordinator Gregg Williams has done a great job turning around the New Orleans’ defense, but this is not a unit that can overcome injuries and win a Super Bowl. They’re just not that deep.

3. Jermon Bushrod had a tough night.
Not to pile it on, but every defensive end that lined up across from Saints’ right tackle Jermon Bushrod abused him tonight. DeMarcus Ware was beating him so bad to the outside that on the final play of the game, Bushrod just fell over because he couldn’t get into his backpedal quick enough. (The play resulted in Drew Brees fumbling, which sealed the win for Dallas.) If Phillips’ defense can play with that much aggressiveness, energy and focus in the playoffs, the Cowboys are going to be a tough out.

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Daily Six-Pack: NFL Preseason Friday

NFL preseason action continues tonight with four games on the schedule. Below are six quick-hit thoughts and things to watch for during tonight’s slate of games.

1. Are the reports true about Palmer?
All indications from Bengals camp is that Carson Palmer is in the best shape of his career after missing virtually the entire 2008 season with a right elbow injury. Palmer is expected to get 12-15 snaps tonight when the Bengals travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints. Just as the Patriots were hoping for a strong showing from Tom Brady last night (he threw for 100 yards and 2 TDs, by the way), Cincinnati is hoping that Palmer flashes the arm strength that once made him the top overall pick. Another thing to keep an eye on is how the young Cincinnati offensive line looks in protecting Palmer. The Bengals have a physical unit in Andrew Whitworth, Anthony Collins, Kyle Cook, Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams, but they’re an inexperienced unit on a whole and Cincy would love to see some cohesion from the group tonight.

2. The starting quarterback battle for the Vikings begins tonight.
Head coach Brad Childress reported that Sage Rosenfels will get the start Friday night against the Colts, which isn’t a huge surprise considering Tarvaris Jackson missed some time in camp with a sprained knee. Still, Rosenfels getting the starting nod tonight may be an indication that he’s pulled ahead in the race for the Vikes’ starting quarterback job. Rosenfels doesn’t have a high ceiling in terms of potential, but he’s steady and could be a good game manager for a Minnesota team that is expected to keep the ball on the ground a lot with Adrian Peterson. While Jackson will certainly get his opportunity to start in preseason, a strong first impression tonight would go a long way for Rosenfels.

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