I’ve seen some real improvement from our entire team since the rebuilding effort of 2006. Granted, we went 10-6 and reached the NFC Championship game in 2006, and we’ve failed to make the playoffs or post a winning season since then.
But our offense has returned to #1 status despite losing our most prolific running back ever (Deuce McAllister… to injury and limited play over the last two years) who was released this year, and our defense, which caught everyone by surprise in 2006 with hungry new additions like Hollis Thomas, Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, and Mark Simoneau, has acquired a great deal over the last two years (including Jonathan Vilma, Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter, Kendrick Clancy, Bobby McCray, and Randall Gay), and has shown some improvement vs the run as well as a slight improvement in turnover differential (-4 in 2008 after finishing -7 in 2007).
Enter 2009, we have even more to be excited about regarding our defense… mainly defense coordinator Gregg Williams, but not solely.
We’ve added some quality players in the secondary and quality depth on the DL in the form of Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, Pierson Prioleau, Rod Coleman, Paul Spicer, Anthony Hargrove, and returning youngsters Usama Young, Leigh Torrence, DeMario Pressley, and Jeff Charleston.
Now, I realize we are in a wait-and-see mode as far as the new additions on defense are concerned, but let’s not forget where we were in 2006 when we almost made it to the big game. Some relied-upon contributors for our defense during the 2006 season included Josh Bullocks, Fred Thomas, Omar Stoutmire, Jason Craft, Terrence Melton, DeJuan Groce, and Jay Bellamy. And the guy we relied on the most was DC Gary Gibbs.
On offense, the biggest difference from 2006 to now is without question the loss of Deuce McAllister, but there is hope for the running game for the Saints.
In 2006, we gained 1,761 rushing yards (and 19 rushing TDs), mostly due to McAllister’s 1,000-yard effort, and we finished a few games with the run despite our tendancy to pass (including coming from behind vs the Packers and edging out the Eagles in the regular season and in the postseason).
In 2007, we gained 1,466 rushing yards (and 14 rushing TDs) with Reggie Bush leading the team with 581 rushing yards, but we ran the ball 80 times less than in 2006. Most of that was due to falling behind early and often in several games. We gained almost 200 yards less with 80 less carries. I’d hope our RBs could muster 200 yards on 40 carries, which I’m sure they could on a decent day.
In 2008, we gained 1,594 rushing yards (and 20 rushing TDs) on only 6 more carries than in 2007. That’s 128 more rushing yards on only 6 more carries, with Pierre Thomas leading the way with 625 rushing yards while Deuce gained 418 yards.
There was surely a changing of the guard for our running game over the last three years, and it’s a tricky situation when you’re factoring out the team’s greatest RB ever and finding that best fit for a vesatile guy like Bush (who can’t carry the load) all while fielding a passing team led by a great QB in Drew Brees with a pass-happy head coach. I think we’ve done ok given the circumstances. Last year, we had our best TD total in three years both rushing and passing.
The real question goes back to defense. Despite the improvements I’ve mentioned before, the fact of the matter is we’ve allowed more points every year since 2006 (2006 – 322, 2007 – 388, 2008 – 393).
However, I am hopeful. We had a point differential of -9 in 2007 and a point differential of +70 in 2008. This is due to our explosion on offense, but any defensive improvement in 2009 would put the Saints way over the top… especially considering the following:
As a team, we were handled pretty badly in several games over the last three years.
In 2006, who can forget the spanking we got at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens (35-22)? We turned the ball over 5 times and managed just 35 rushing yards. And again vs the Cincinnati Bengals, we were spanked 31-16 after giving the ball up 4 times.
This was our NFC Championship game season, yet there were indications we were not quite ready for the big dance. We eventually fell flat in the Championship game to da Bears (39-14).
In 2007, we went 0-4 after being crushed in our first 3 games (41-10 vs the Colts, 31-14 vs the Buccaneers, and 31-14 vs the Titans). Later, we followed up a stellar effort vs the Jaguars (a 41-24 victory) with egg-laying vs the lowly Rams (37-29) and the Texans (23-10). And the whipping we got vs the Eagles (38-23) and the Bears (33-25) was the sorry way we ended that forgetful season.
In 2008, we rebounded in a big way, although our record improved by only one win. Opponents passing TDs fell from 32 in 2007 to 21 in 2008. And we remained in almost every game despite our defensive shortcomings.
The only two real disasters were against the Panthers in the first meeting (30-7) and the Falcons in the first meeting (34-20). Everything else came down to a FG-made here, a first down run-made there, or a defensive stop made in the final minutes.
I think it all comes together this season, with even more improvement from the defensive side of the ball in the coming years. Imagine a few more drafts (with more than 4 picks in each) focused on the defensive side of the ball. A re-stock of defensive linemen and linebackers as well as a few gems here and there on the offensive line and at running back will go a long way towards our continued dominance should we turn that corner this season.
We are a relatively young team when you consider some of our best players (Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter) as well as some guys who can come into their own over the next few years (Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Usama Young, Carl Nicks, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Jeff Charleston).
Geaux Saints all the way… this year and for years to come.