Gauging the Saints’ strengths and concerns entering 2013

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- As Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) blocks, running back Pierre Thomas (23) looks for running room as Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (59) pressures during the second half Sunday Sept. 9, 2012, in New Orleans.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- As Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) blocks, running back Pierre Thomas (23) looks for running room as Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (59) pressures during the second half Sunday Sept. 9, 2012, in New Orleans.

With the regular season just a couple of weeks away, every NFL team has been working in training camp and preseason games to prepare for the long, hard grind that lies ahead.

All of the teams have two things in common: strengths to emphasize and concerns to sort out going into the season. While some have more than others, there’s only a limited amount of time to get better at the former and eliminate the latter.

With that in mind, here are some perceived strengths and weaknesses for the Saints with only 19 days to go before the Sept. 8 season opener with the Atlanta Falcons:

Strengths

1: Play-caller/quarterback tandem — Since being joined at the hip when they arrived in New Orleans in 2006, Sean Payton and Drew Brees have helped the Saints put up some incredible offensive numbers.

With Payton dialing up plays and Brees and his teammates executing them, the Saints have led the NFL in total yards four times and are averaging 402.5 yards per game. They’ve led the NFL in passing four times and in scoring twice while averaging just above 50 offensive touchdowns per season.

Payton is back from his season-long suspension and is reunited with Brees, which has Saints fans thinking big again.

2: Diverse passing attack — One of the reasons the Saints have been so successful on offense is the ability to utilize eligible receivers. Brees routinely completes passes to between 10 and 12 players each game.

Wide receivers, tight ends and running backs share equally in the wealth, thanks to Payton’s ability to dissect opposing defenses and come up with the right call for the right situation.

Of course, Brees has to make it happen, which he has done so well in completing 67.1 percent of his passes while with the Saints. It doesn’t hurt to have weapons like Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, either.

3: Offensive line play — The names have changed over the years, with the only constant since 2006 being right guard Jahri Evans, a fourth-round draft pick who has started all 112 regular-season games since his arrival.

Led by Evans’ four Pro Bowl appearances, six Saints linemen have earned 12 berths for the annual all-star game. That explains why the Saints have allowed just one sack in every 30.8 dropbacks under Payton.

While they can protect Brees, they also are solid at run-blocking: They ranked sixth in rushing in 2009 and ’11.

They have only one starting lineman left from their Super Bowl season — Evans — but they just plug in someone new each year and keep going.

4: Punting and kicking — The Saints have one of the game’s top punters in Thomas Morstead, who last year became only the seventh player to average more than 50 yards; he finished at 50.1.

Morstead’s high, hanging punts also help keep the opponents’ return yardage down: He averaged 43.2 net yards per kick. He ranked second in the league in gross and net punting and has 150 touchbacks in his four-year career.

Kicker Garrett Hartley also has a strong leg that has helped him make 84.5 percent of his field-goal tries. He has had problems with his shorter attempts as seven of his 11 career misses have come between 20 and 39 yards, but he is still an asset overall.

5: Youthfulness on defense — After a dreadful 2012 season, the Saints have a new 3-4 scheme and lots of young players who will get a chance to help make it work.

Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks are talented youngsters up front, while outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson also have three years of experience or less.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis, a fifth-year pro, was the team’s top pickup in free agency. Two of their top three draft picks — safety Kenny Vaccaro and nose tackle John Jenkins — are eager to make a splash as well.

Concerns

1: Defense, defense, defense — The big question: How much will the Saints be able to improve after a historically bad season in which they allowed an NFL record 7,042 total yards?

Payton has to believe there’s plenty of upside, which is why he brought in Rob Ryan to change the scheme to a 3-4. The Saints ranked 32nd in total defense and against the run and were 31st against the pass and in points allowed. They also ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks, another area where they must show improvement.

2: Left tackle — This was actually a bigger concern than the defense most of the offseason after two-time Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod departed in free agency.

The reason: Four-year veteran Charles Brown, the logical replacement for Bushrod, had been plagued by injuries in his first three seasons, and the Saints didn’t know if they could count on him to protect Brees’ blind side.

Some of the angst has been relieved because Brown was solid in training camp, but it could still be a source of concern throughout the season if he can’t handle the job.

3: Running game — After finishing sixth in rushing in 2011, the Saints fell off dramatically last season, ranking 25th at 98.6 yards per game.

Payton said from the start of offseason workouts that they would emphasize the running game and, more importantly, be effective in doing it with his stable of halfbacks — Mark Ingram, Thomas and Sproles.

Along with an improved defense, the running game could play a vital role in helping take some of the pressure off Brees and the passing game.

4: Rushing the passer — The Saints were in the bottom fourth of the league with only 30 sacks a year ago, a stat that concerned Ryan when he took over the defense.

To be successful in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme, the Saints have to stop the run and be disruptive by pressuring the quarterback. Jordan, who led the team with eight sacks last season, and Hicks will have that ability, as will outside linebackers Galette and Will Smith.

5: Injuries — The defense has already lost outside linebacker Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman, both likely for the season, and the offense lost wide receiver Joe Morgan to a season-ending knee injury.

While Morgan was a blow because of his speed, Butler and Coleman were key components of the defense since they have played under Ryan the past couple of years — especially Coleman, who was considered key to fixing the run defense.