As Saints fans from across Who Dat Nation read this very article with their coffee this morning, the thought that football is finally here in only four more days is indeed a welcome one. The Saints will embark on what they hope is a season-long journey that will eventually land them in Glendale, Arizona (site of Super Bowl XLIX), which for them officially starts when the 2014 NFL Pre-Season gets underway this Friday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The Saints of course still have the lingering memory of an overall poor team effort in a painful loss this past December to the Rams. Though it was “unofficial” at that time, for all intent and purposes that loss cost them home-field advantage and a #2 seed in the NFC. So as the Saints return to the scene of one of last year’s bitter disappointments, here are 5 things to watch for both teams this Friday night.
St. Louis Rams (2013 Record and Finish: 7-9, 4th in NFC West)
The Rams return in 2014 with arguably one of the better young teams in the League that are currently “on the rise”. Their defense is reminiscent of some of the Saints’ old Jim Mora Era “Dome Patrol” teams; a unit which potentially can become almost dominant, bolstered by one of the fiercest pass-rushing defensive lines which this year will under the guidance of long-time NFL defensive guru Greg Williams, who of course helped the Saints win a World Title in 2009. The only thing I can envision holding the Rams back at this point in time is the fact that they play in the same division with 3 other teams that are all serious NFC playoff contenders — with San Francisco having played in THREE consecutive NFC Championships and Seattle winning it all last season. Here are the 5 things I’ll be watching for the Rams on Friday night:
5) A New and Improved Offensive Line: OT Jake Long will actually return healthy this year, and emerging lineman Rodger Saffold is back as well. The Rams built upon that foundation even further when they used the 2nd overall pick for Auburn OT Greg Robinson. A problem the Rams have continually struggled with in the past has been a strong and healthy offensive line to protect their quarterback. If I were a Rams fan, I’d have to bet that this is the most excited QB Sam Bradford has been with his offensive line in a while. I think that the biggest question mark will be how the rookie Robinson adapts to playing at the guard position since he spent his college career at tackle. (Robinson has said it’s been tough so far for him adapting to the position switch). Nevertheless, this unit will be the best that it’s been since the days of “The Greatest Show on Turf”.
4) The Dynamic Duo RB’s: Running behind that offensive line that I just mentioned above will be 2nd yearRB Zac Stacy; who was magnificent last season for the Rams (and my Fantasy Football team, too) at tailback. Meanwhile, rookie RB Tre Mason was brilliant for Auburn in the SEC. Now add those two together and you have one EXPLOSIVE running game. The agility of Tre Mason and strength of Zac Stacy will make for one heck of a 1-2 punch for the Rams in the upcoming 2014 season. Mason in particular can do some serious damage (similarly to what Brandin Cooks will do for the Saints), since he can line up in the slot, at tailback, and even on the special teams unit. The Rams may have found themselves an absolute steal (like the Saints did as well with Terron Armstead, in last year’s draft), in the third round of this year’s draft.
3) The Michael Sam Show: Everyone that’s associated with the Rams has been caught up in the hype surrounding Michael Sam throughout the Rams’ OTAs and now into their training camp. Prepare for the hoopla surrounding Sam to REALLY take off starting Friday night. Sam has proven he is a dominant force in the SEC (2013 Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri), but now at the NFL level he’ll have to prove himself once again. The Rams already have a tough defensive front four that makes it tough for anyone to make it into their line-up, and with the added competition he’ll face with number# 1 pick Aaron Donald of Pitt also in the mix, Sam has one really tough fight on his hands. Sam is currently listed as the 3rd Team DE, so a good performance against the Saints could certainly bolster his chances.
2) The Return of Gregg Williams: New Rams (and former Saints) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will take an already scary defense and turn it into a scarier unit. It’s almost hard to imagine having to play in a division with THREE outstanding units (the Rams, Seattle, and San Francisco), like the NFC West will have in 2014. The biggest question will be if Williams can get it done. This is Williams’ first time going against the Saints in competition, since he was given his walking papers by Saints head coach Sean Payton (and the subsequent Bountygate mess). Outstanding pass-rushers Robert Quinn, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis (who likely won’t play this Friday because of a mild ankle sprain) all return to a unit that will have quarterbacks worried for their health. Do NOT be shocked if this unit almost by themselves propels the Rams to a wild-card berth in 2014.
1) The Passing Game: A friend of mine that I play Fantasy Football with scoffed at my comparison recently of Rams QB Sam Bradford to former Saints QB legend Archie Manning. Bradford reminds me personally a lot of Archie in that he is a promising young QB with all of the tools to become an elite QB – but is being held back and constantly hampered by the lack of quality talent round him; along with the continued problem with avoiding injuries. There’s no question that Jeff Fisher loves to use the running game; but when combined with this defense and now having Bradford back and healthy, this may be the Rams’ window of opportunity to begin climbing their way eventually to the top. Bradford will likely only play a few series Friday night, but I’m curious to see how he looks thus far playing in coordinator Brian Shottenheimer’s offense; along with his new “toys”: former West Virginia All-American WR Steadman Bailey, who’s been their standout performer of Training Camp, thus far; and veteran WR Kenny Britt, whom they signed as a free-agent from the Tennessee Titans.
New Orleans Saints (2013 Record and Finish: 11-5, 2nd in NFC South; lost Divisional Playoff to Seattle)
The Saints “reloaded” what had been a roster that had looked to some (including myself) last season as having regressed just a bit; in spite of posting an 11-5 record and making it to the Divisional Playoff round. In my eyes, it not only has restored their position as one of the NFC’s top teams, but it makes them one of the prohibitive favorites to win it all. The selection of Oregon State All-American WR Brandin Cooks brings an infusion of much-needed speed and “game-breaker” ability back to that Saints offensive attack. When added to a returning future Hall-of-Fame QB in Brees and the best TE in the game with Jimmy Graham; the Saints offense should regain its record-setting form of 2011.
Saints management made a rather obvious commitment to the defensive side of the ball during the off-season, much to the delight of defensive guru Rob Ryan — who turned the Saints’ defense around from the absolute worst in 2012, to the Top 5 in the entire NFL (4th overall) in 2013. Ryan’s squad boasts one of the League’s emerging young defensive units; which got a huge veteran boost with the signing of superstar free safety Jairus Byrd ; and returns key veterans in DE Cam Jordan. LB Junior Galette, SS Kenny Vaccaro, and CB Keenan Lewis. In my eyes, there is no reason why this team shouldn’t contend for the NFC crown. 5 things to watch for this Friday night are:
5) The Kicking Competition: So far in Training Camp it would appear that Derek Dimke, the young free agent from the University of Illinois, has the upper-hand on long-time veteran Shayne Graham — who was last year’s replacement for the departed 2009 Super Bowl team hero Garrett Hartley. Like most observers, I had assumed that Graham would hold onto the job to at least begin the season (I still continue to hold out hope that Payton will give free-agent veteran Rob Bironas a much-needed phone call), but the impressive young Mr. Dimke has outdueled Graham thus far, and looks to have a pretty good chance to take the roster spot away from Graham. Consistency is the key for any kicker with the Saints, because they need to COMPLIMENT the Saints’ high-powered offensive attack by compensating for the times when they don’t get into the endzone.
4) The Progression of Terron Armstead: Part of the offensive unit’s problems last year seemed to stem from poor play by the offensive line; which in turned bogged down the Saints rushing attack and forced Drew Brees at times to run for his life. As I wrote in my article yesterday, the play of the offensive line improved dramatically near the end of last season; boosted in part by the rapid rise and progression of 2nd year left OT Terron Armstead. Armstead worked out over the summer with Hall of Famer and former Saints OT Willie Roaf, and the benefits have been evident thus far as Armstead has looked great in Camp. Facing the Rams’ ferocious pass rush in the first few series will be something that I’ll definitely have my eye on. If Armstead can hold his own against these guys, it will bode well for the protection of Brees’ “blindside” and for an improved rushing attack in 2014.
3) The Running Backs: Speaking of an improved rushing attack, Saints head coach Sean Payton has said that the Saints would be looking to re-establish the “power” running style that the team employed earlier in the Payton Era, particularly during the 2009 Super Bowl season. Veteran 4th year RB Mark Ingram (over whom I got CRUSHED by fellow commenters on a Saints message board; for my criticism of Ingram blatantly failing to live up to the expectations (in my eyes) of a 1st Round draft pick and an All-American, Heisman Trophy winning RB from the SEC) is the man expected to be the focal point of that attack, as there is a renewed sense of optimism on both his and the coaching staff’s part that he can finally “break through” this coming season. Ingram will be paired along with 2nd year back Khiry Robinson, who has shown flashes of great potential to become a very good tailback. UDFA’s Derrick Stozier from Tulane and Timothy Flanders of Sam Houston State each have had their moments in Camp; and veteran Trevaris Cadet returns in what I describe is his “wild-card option” role as a play-maker – particularly as a receiver out of the backfield for Brees.
2) Rob Ryan Gets “Freaky”: One of the more interesting news stories surrounding the Saints surfaced last week; when it was suggested that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is secretly cooking up a “freaky” and unorthodox scheme in his defensive laboratory – potentially changing the way defenses play in the future, by employing more three-safety sets this season. But that actually happened already last year when the Saints suffered a slew of injuries at linebacker (like losing Victor Butler to a torn ACL), which then forced Ryan to deploy three or even sometimes four safeties at a time. With the Saints having adding more safeties (Jairus Byrd and Marcus Ball) in various packages, it allows the scheme to be used on passing downs to confuse offenses now proficient at calling out protection schemes before the snap. Of course, this IS pre-season after all; so I don’t expect Ryan to “tip his hand” just yet — especially this Friday (although with Ryan, we should NEVER ASSUME anything).
1) Can Ryan Griffin Take the “Next Step”? Speaking of tipping one’s hand (as in that possibly being the title of one of my future articles), I want to see if indeed 2nd year QB Ryan Griffin (out of my beloved hometown Tulane University) can take the next step in his progression as the back-up to Brees and possibly a starting role if Brees were to get hurt or when he eventually retires (if Griffin is still around by then). Like Ingram, I have been critical of Griffin because I felt that after observing him during his time as the Green Wave QB (myself and older generations of my family are long-time Tulane fans), I personally doubted his ability to be a “starting-caliber” (a la Matt Ryan or a Joe Flacco) QB in the NFL. What I forgot to take into account was that he’s being mentored by both Brees and Sean Payton (himself a former QB at Eastern Illinois in the mid 1980′s), and it has paid dividends considering how great he has looked at times, so far in Training Camp. With Brees possibly not starting this game because of a strained oblique muscle, Griffin will likely play the entire first half.