NFL Analysis: A Fresh Start For The Saints

The New Orleans Saints long year of purgatory is finally over. After they were torn asunder in the 2012 NFL season over BountyGate and all the attendant suspensions, the Saints can start fresh for this year. They do so with a crying need to stop the number of big plays opponents are making.

Drew Brees still put up the numbers in the passing game, throwing for over 5,100 yards and posting a 96.3 QB rating. But Brees threw 19 interceptions. Considering how often this team throws the ball—second-most in the NFL—that’s not terrible, as reflected by his still solid passer rating. But we’ve also seen the 34-year-old Brees do better, and it’s a number that must come down in 2013.

In addition to throwing interceptions, the Saints also give up huge chunks of yardage through the air, being the worst in the league in yardage allowed per pass attempt. Furthermore, they don’t get any sacks. Thus, you have a situation where every game is a shootout and you’re the team making more mistakes.

New Orleans’ defensive line was a massive problem area last year, and the Saints have responded by a drastic change. Rob Ryan has been brought in at defensive coordinator and installed a 3-4 scheme. I suppose if you don’t have good defensive linemen, one way of coping is just to reduce their number by one.

However they line up, Ryan has to figure out a way to defend the run, and to get Will Smith some more sack opportunities, as he moves from end, to outside linebacker.

Head coach Sean Payton is as good as any in the game at orchestrating the passing game and his absence for all of last year likely explains some of the problems with the interceptions. I’d also like to see Payton work some more rushes back into the play-calling.

No one is suggesting that New Orleans play smash-mouth, but when this team did run the ball a year ago, they were respectable, ranking 13th in yards-per rush. That stat can be a little misleading, because when you rush infrequently (only three teams ran less often), the per-carry average can be higher and that won’t necessarily hold if you increase volume.

But the Saints can at least run well enough to be respectable and keep defenses from getting too comfortable in laying back. Furthermore, Mark Ingram might finally be ready to be a consistent between-the-tackles threat that this offense has lacked.

TheSportsNotebook’s team-by-team NFL analysis always measures a squad against it’s Over/Under win prop in Las Vegas, and the Saints are posted at 9.5. My compliments to the bookmakers, because it’s hard to see this team doing worse than 9-7, given the return of Payton and the offensive firepower. It’s also hard to see them doing better than 10-6 unless the defense improves.

I’m choosing Over. We’ve seen that under this head coach New Orleans is at least capable of big win totals, even if the weaknesses right now seem a little overwhelming. Brees is going to reduce his mistakes, and of all of last year’s other problems—running the ball, stopping the run, not pressuring the passer, allowing too many big passing plays—I find it impossible to think the Saints won’t improve one or two of them. That gets them to at least 10-6 and cashes an Over. 

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