NFL pre-season gameday preview: Saints at Rams

Bringing the summer heat

The Saints remember how they approached their 2011 preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers. They blitzed, blitzed again and then blitzed some more.

So while most exhibition games have a friendly feeling, New Orleans is expecting its former (and current Rams) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to throw everything St. Louis has at them — just like he did when the Saints lit up the 49ers three years ago.

That expectation could turn out to be wrong. Saints coach Sean Payton said he did not expect to be in contact with Williams this week, so the team prepared with the assumption that St. Louis is not going to hold back. That meant spending time during Wednesday’s practice putting the running backs through blitz pickup drills.

That might not be the way the Saints prefer to begin the preseason, but the silver lining is that it will provide practice for an offensive line that is still trying to figure out how the pieces are going to come together.

And even if St. Louis decides to go vanilla, it still has good enough pass rushers to turn the heat up — especially defensive end Robert Quinn, who had 18 sacks last season.

Know your opponent

There’s no need to be scared of an opponent during the preseason, but the Saints have an eye on Rams second-year receiver Tavon Austin.

Austin finished with 40 catches for 418 yards last season, but he’s better than his numbers and has the speed to open up a game.

When asked about the receiver, Saints coach Sean Payton pointed to Austin’s performance against Oklahoma while in college at West Virginia. During that game, Austin collected 572 all-purpose yards.

“He’s a fast receiver. He has great speed,” Payton said. “He’s someone they use very well in the reverses, misdirection. He’ll play inside. He’ll line up in a few different spots. Obviously he’s an explosive player.”

Austin likely will see a reduced number of snaps Friday night, but the Saints secondary will be mindful of where he’s at on every play he’s on the field. If they get caught napping, Austin has the ability to make them pay.

Roster watch: Five players to keep an eye on

T Bryce Harris: Harris has struggled mightily in one-on-one pass-blocking drills in camp. He’ll have a chance to rectify that in snaps during the preseason.

WR Brandon Coleman: Coleman has rebounded from weak offseason practices with a strong training camp, running good routes and mostly catching the passes he’d been dropping.

FB Austin Johnson: With Erik Lorig out injured, Johnson is poised to get a close look at fullback. The Saints also signed Greg Jones this week to solidify their depth.

S Marcus Ball: Ball has come on recently, but the Saints are stacked at safety with Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush followed by Vinnie Sunseri and Pierre Warren.

WR Robert Meachem: Meachem has the inside track on one of the final spots at receiver, but if youngsters outperform him in the preseason, the Saints could go with upside.

Predictions

Ramon Antonio Vargas: The Saints appear ready to start their preseason opener with two members of the 2013 practice squad (Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones) at the guard spots due to injuries and a contender to start at center in Tim Lelito (two NFL starts). So things could get complicated for Ryan Griffin or Luke McCown, one of whom will start in place of Drew Brees and cope with the vaunted Rams pass rush. Rams 20, Saints 13

Nick Underhill: The Saints’ starters should outplay the Rams’ starters, but that isn’t really what matters. I’ll be more grading New Orleans against itself. Which center looks better? Which receivers are standing out? Who is winning the kicker battle? How do the unheralded rookies look? The score is secondary. But that’s what we do in this business, so I’ll go with Saints 24, Rams 20.

Scott Rabalais: So many questions. How will the Saints fare without Drew Brees? Will Sean Payton and Gregg Williams speak to each other? (Payton: “You nearly ruined my life.” Williams: “Well, at least you’re not stuck in St. Louis.”) How will Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam handle the spotlight? Expect Williams to blitz, making it good if Drew Brees doesn’t play. Rams 24, Saints 16