With camp starting today I started thinking about what this team really wants to accomplish as they get ready for week 1 of the regular season. They want to avoid injuries, of course, but some of those will come. It’s the nature of football. Beyond that I see three clear areas where the focus needs to be heightened.
1. Developing an identity for their offense with a less predictable back rotation
We’re talking about life after Darren Sproles. Sproles was a key player with game breaking ability in this offense. On paper losing a guy that dynamic is a big blow to the offense. But going with a glass half full take here I think this could be a good thing. There’s clearly still a lot of talent at running back with Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas. The Saints offense had become a little predictable in the last year with the clearly defined roles each back had. Whenever Sproles was in the game, it was almost always a pass. Whenever Thomas was, the Saints’ offense probably had the most variety, but passing, play action and screens were common. Whenever Mark Ingram or Khiry Robinson were in it was almost exclusively run plays. Each back had their specific role on the team but their mere presence in a formation gave a big tell to the opposition pre snap about what was coming. On some level that was by design to expose a defense into believing something was coming, but unfortunately the Saints didn’t really have enough field stretching ability last year to expose that. Having Brandin Cooks will help. But I think the Saints should lean on Thomas/Ingram/Robinson in a much more versatile way this year. They should be all three able to do everything in the playbook, and who is in the game should not affect the play call. The Saints will use this camp to form their offensive identity, figure out which rotation works best, and make the offense less predictable. If that means Robinson needs to pass protect a little more, or Ingram needs to catch more passes, so be it. Keeping that element of surprise will help Sean Payton make everyone’s job a little easier.
2. Building on year one with Rob Ryan
Ryan’s impact as defensive coordinator was felt immediately last year. In fact, it felt a little bit like Gregg Williams’ first year in New Orleans in terms of immediate success. But Williams soured quickly. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison because they are so different, but none the less it is critical for the Saints to build on that success and not regress. This year the expectations for that unit are much higher, especially given the additions of Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. There’s more faith in the personnel and talent, and there’s more belief that Ryan will maximize that talent and put them in a position to succeed. Establishing early momentum to build off last year is important.
3. Developing chemistry on the offensive line
There’s a few things at play here, and while the struggles last year are well documented I think many of us feel very hopeful given the momentum the line has based on really solid play in the playoffs. I think the back rotation and identity I mentioned earlier may make life easier on the line, for starters. Too many times last season teams pin their ears back and went guns blazing on the pass rush because Sproles or Thomas were in the game. If the running game is effective, the defense is getting stops and the personnel doesn’t tip the play as much, pass protection will become easier. The Saints did lose Brian de la Puente, though, and while between Tim Lelito who was on the team last year and Jonathan Goodwin knows the offense, some chemistry will have to happen during camp to get the unit on the same page. If Goodwin is healthy and maintains his level I’m pretty confident the center position will end up being upgraded versus last year. Lastly, I think Charles Brown was a big reason for the line struggling so much last season. One guy is all it takes to off set the balance of the line and make the whole thing wobbly. The best lines are the ones that are equal parts solid. It’s less about one dominant superstar guy and more about everyone working together and being solid. If Terron Armstead can continue to develop into what many of us believe he can be, then Grubbs, Goodwin, Evans and Strief will be solid. We know this, and we’ve seen this.