Q: I expected an improved Saints defense with some new additions including that of top pick, Kenny Vaccaro, but then in the Saints' game last week, the Chiefs drove right down the field to score a touchdown on their first drive and then drove for a field goal on their second. What gives?
Delery: What can I say, it's preseason! *groans* The Saints are coming off a 2012 season where they featured a defense that surrendered the most yardage in NFL history. NFL HISTORY, so I'm glad they didn't give up two TD's on two drives. But seriously, that was disappointing to see but not completely surprising. This is a defense that is undergoing a dramatic overhaul from the 4-3 into a 3-4 under one-time Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Unfortunate injuries and a lack of all-pro talent hurt the Saints to start the Chiefs game. This is a team that is making a functional 3-4 defense out of mostly 4-3 pieces, I mean did you see former DE Will Smith out there at OLB, dear lord, avert your eyes! Coach Ryan will attempt to make this a working man's defense, a real lunch pail unit because there's not a lot of high-end talent to work with. They don't have to be pretty, just pretty effective at getting Drew Brees back on the field.
Kenny Vaccaro will be expected to start at safety this season and has already shown the Saints he was worth the first round pick. Vaccaro has played the role of training camp agitator this preseason, and has been among the most passionate and productive players on this new look Saints defense. Expect to see a lot from Kenny Vaccaro against the Raiders first team offense.
How much are the Saints relying on Mark Ingram to be the guy? Is he ready/capable? What's the backup plan?
How much are the Saints relying on Mark Ingram to be the guy, you say? Completely. The time of saying "next year Ingram will break out" is over. The time for results is now and Sean Payton has insisted since his reinstatement that the Saints must get back to running the ball effectively. Balance on offense is paramount for the Saints to succeed and Ingram will be given every opportunity to be the leader in the backfield.
Is he ready/capable, you say? Yes. The key will be for the Saints to put him in a position to succeed. Using a four back rotation in the past became a hinderance for the running game and mostly for Ingram himself. The Saints began to telegraph their running plays in a sense, depending on which back was in the game. If Coach Payton trusts Ingram fully and allows him to rush and receive out of multiple formations, he may become one of Brees' most important weapons.
What's the backup plan, you ask? That's the most encouraging part. Behind, or along side, Ingram is the Saints most versatile back in veteran Pierre Thomas and a player your community is familiar with, shifty speedster Darren Sproles. No one fights for tough yards as well as Thomas, and he's downright lethal in the screen game. Sproles is a multi-dimensional threat that Coach Payton just loves to have in his offense. The Saints will rely heavily on Ingram, but the "three-headed monster" will remain firmly in place.
John Jenkins and Baraka Atkins both looked to be good pass rushers last week. Is that what was expected of them or was that a surprise/fluke?
Jenkins' performance was a slight surprise, but Saints fans hope he can develop into the starting nose tackle by the time the bye week comes up. He's got all of the raw skills but stamina is definitely an area of concern. Atkins, on the other hand, was very much a surprise considering nothing exceptional was expected from his performance. Excitement for him has been tempered though, since his performance came against backups on a franchise undergoing a complete overhaul. More will be expected of Jenkins than Atkins against the Raiders.
A lot of ties to New Orleans and the Saints on the Raiders this season. Dennis Allen, Tracy Porter, and Usama Young all from the Super Bowl team and former National Champion LSU Tiger, Matt Flynn, at quarterback. You expect the Saints fans to greet these guys warmly when they come to town Friday?
Tracy Porter should be greeted very warmly from the moment he arrives in New Orleans. In fact I wouldn't expect him to play very well at all since he'll never have to buy food or drink in New Orleans as long as he lives! Well, as long as he doesn't get Brees with a corner blitz, then all bets are off. Young, while being marginally successful in Black and Gold, will be greeted kindly also. Barring injuries, I'd expect both Porter and Young to have more productive seasons than they've shown recently since they are rejoining Coach Allen, who oversaw their best seasons. As for Flynn, I'm sure there will be the LSU contingency that has fond memories but I think time and distance will be a factor regarding a hero's welcome.
What young player(s) on this Saints team should we watch out for in this game?
Even though there has been an emphasis on defense for the Saints this offseason/preseason, the player to watch in this matchup is the fifth round pick out of Texas, WR Kenny Stills. Stills is expected to compete for the 3rd spot in the receiving corps after field stretcher Joe Morgan was lost for the season last week in practice. Stills' debut was a mixed bag, terrible drop followed by incredible catch sort of deal. The Saints need to see Stills improve and play up to his potential in this game, expect to see Drew Brees target him early and often. He'll likely draw Mike Jenkins or our old friend Tracy Porter since Marques Colston and Lance Moore will see limited action.