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The Revival of the Saints

The Saints appear ready and willing to reinvent themselves, and if the first six weeks of the 2009 football season are any indication, it seems that they already have. They've shed the image of themselves as the pass-happy, offensive dynamo with little or no help on the other side of the football, and are embracing the role of one of the reigning contenders in the NFC. Some may argue that it's too early to tell how effective the Saints will be down the stretch, but the 48-27 victory on Sunday over the then unbeaten Giants proves that they can contend with, and even unabashedly dismantle, one of the league's premier franchises. This year they've also quelled promising upstarts, the Jets, made sound defenses the object of ridicule, the Eagles, and, perhaps slightly less laudable, slaughtered the hapless, Lions.

In Sunday's big win, Drew Brees showed us nothing new, that is to say he was extraordinary. Passing for 360 yards on 23 of 30 throws, and scoring 4 Tds in the process, Brees’ consistency is astounding. If he doesn’t enter into a discussion of the league’s best Qbs, then it isn’t a legitimate discussion. If his numbers from last season, up through the first six weeks of this one, haven’t convinced even the most stalwart of his critics of his deserved place among the league’s elite players, then there must be something else about the Saints which is staining his reputation. Well, the Saints are fourth best in the league in rushing yards per game, with the continued consistency of Pierre Thomas and the surprising explosiveness of Mike Bell, and the entire offense is ranked first in the NFL. Again. So, I guess it must be the defense.

That brings us to my next point. When, in recent memory, have you seen a Saint’s team, or any team for that matter, so complete and effective? The ‘07 Patriots come to mind, and maybe the Colts in previous years (perhaps even including this one), but should we even be compared to these teams? If so, that is an honor in and of itself. It does seem to be a valid comparison, however, considering the way in which the newly invigorated defensive corps, no doubt revitalized by the genius of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, terrorizes any offensive threat. The Saints offense still posts big numbers, but the games are no longer even close, as they were so often last year. In terms of this past Sunday’s game against the Giants, Eli Manning certainly shined at moments, as did the potent running game of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, but most of the time they just seemed stifled. The two sacks Manning had, coming from NT Remi Ayodele and Safety tackle-machine Roman Harper, aren’t a particularly impressive statistic by themselves, but the story of this defense is more about its oppressive tenacity.

The Saint’s secondary is a study in this new defensive vigor. Darren Sharper, perhaps the best off-season acquisition by the Saints, has been the quintessential ball-hawk, with a league-leading 5 interceptions, not to mention two Tds off of these picks and nearly a dozen other passes defended. He would’ve tacked on another interception on Sunday, were it not for a penalty which recalled his grab. Jabari Greer, who was able to get an interception on Sunday off of a shaky pass from Manning, has also exhibited some outstanding ball coverage. For an area of the defense, which as of a season ago appeared deservedly suspect, the Secondary seems to have addressed its issues with the help of Williams and stellar individual talents.

The only aspect of the Saint’s team which gives me cause for concern is its special teams, which from the very first game has exhibited some poor tackling ability and some, at times, baffling decision-making. Against the Giants, Domenik Hixon threaded the defense with ease, racking up 230 yards on 7 kickoff returns and 51 yards on two punt returns, with return averages of 32.9 and 25.5 respectively. On one of his returns, Saint’s kicker Thomas Morstead had to make the tackle himself, preventing an almost certain touchdown run. Now, tackling doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for the defensive group on downs, but, as evidenced by Hixon’s numbers, it is a huge concern on special teams. Another problem involves Reggie Bush, as the team's designated punt returner. I’m sure that by simply mentioning his name I’m drawing down a hornet’s nest of criticism upon me, but honestly, despite strangely being able to retain the mantle of a solid offensive threat, what’s he done this season? And if you only consider his special teams play, he appears to be more of a liability than a real strength for the Saints. For one, he doesn’t like to protect the ball. He has three fumbles this season, on generally limited touches. This, coupled with especially limited production on returns over the past few games ( an average of 3 yards per return over the last three), probably makes him look more like an easy meal to a defense, rather than a force to be reckoned with. Above all, however, what confuses me the most is his propensity to return the ball despite not only the almost certainty of a no-gain, but also a high probability of a loss of yardage, a fumble, and/or injury. Seeing him get leveled by Giant’s defenders a couple of times, rather than call for an understandably necessary fair-catch, made me question his football (or otherwise) IQ. Other times he appears indecisive, deciding too late to move clear of the ball, or committing other acts of questionable judgment (Is running backwards still a Bush concern, or have we given up on that one?). In any case, no matter how explosive he sometimes can be rushing the ball or catching a pass, his behavior on special teams is that which is of the most detriment to his team, and should therefore be addressed by the Saint’s coaching staff.

Despite, in my opinion, the one glaring flaw in their squad, the Saints seem poised to enjoy one of their most successful seasons ever. Should they continue to dominate their opponents, with an especially notable game against New England in late November, who would be remiss to state what was for a longtime unutterable: The Saints are unstoppable.