Mickles: Five observations from the Saints’ preseason opener

Thanks to the nature of NFL exhibition games, it’s difficult to get a really good idea of what’s happening when teams are shuffling as many as 80 to 90 players onto the field.

Especially the first game.

You get a good indication when it’s the first-team offense and defense going against each other — which usually means a quarter, or sometimes less, of quality football.

Then again, it’s the preseason, so you have to take that for what it’s worth, too.

You may even get a little bit of an idea when the second-stringers square off because some of those players will be backups when the season starts or playing in certain rotations in the first weekend of September.

After that, it’s pretty much a hit-or-miss proposition when the third- and fourth-teamers get on the field late in the third quarter or fourth, a chance to show what they’ve got.

With all of that in mind, here are five things we learned about the Saints from their 17-13 victory Friday night against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. The running game still has a ways to go

From the start of offseason workouts, Sean Payton talked about how the Saints will run the ball more often and effectively this season after ranking 25th last year, averaging just 98.6 yards.

The Saints netted 119 yards Friday, but they averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Take away fifth-stringer Khiry Robinson’s team-leading 52 yards on 12 tries in the final quarter, and the average drops to 2.8.

It wasn’t great. But the Saints played without Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles made cameo appearances. Give it time.

2. The competition for the third and fourth wide receiver spots will be fun to watch

Before Joe Morgan tore his left ACL in a scrimmage last week, the battle for the third and fourth spots was just starting to heat up with Morgan, Nick Toon, Kenny Stills and Preston Parker in the mix.

With Morgan now out of the picture, the door opened for another player to step in — and several took advantage against the Chiefs.

Toon averaged 16.5 yards per catch on four receptions, Parker caught four balls for 43 yards with two TDs and Stills made a nice 22-yard catch after dropping a deep ball from Drew Brees on the fourth play.

Don’t forget Andy Tanner, a scrappy and speedy receiver who had 59 yards on three catches with a 37-yarder, and veteran Steve Breaston, who’s still learning the offense.

3. Despite some opening-game bugs, the offense is still pretty good

Payton wasn’t happy about some general sloppiness, like having only 10 players on the field, players who didn’t know formations and not being able to line up properly at times.

Still, the offense managed to pile up 427 total yards — with 264 coming in the second half, long after the starters and top reserves put away their helmets.

One of the mistakes came at the end of the first half, when the Saints wanted a kneel-down to get to the locker room but Parker was called for illegal formation. The coaches will quickly get those things fixed.

4. The early, early reviews of the defense are positive

After last season, when they shattered a three decade-old NFL record by allowing 7,042 total yards, the Saints are looking for any improvement on that side of the ball.

There were some signs early in training camp and in the Black and Gold Scrimmage a week ago, but even that could be a mirage for anyone looking for even a glimmer of hope.

But after allowing 80 yards and a touchdown on the Chiefs’ first possession Friday night, the Saints gave up only 136 yards in the final 3 1/2 quarters with four sacks — including one that resulted in a fumble recovery.

5. Special teams will be busy during the final week of training camp

All-Pro punter Thomas Morstead was solid as usual in averaging 49.8 yards per kick, but the coverage teams had some trouble.

It’s not unusual to have some breakdowns — especially early in the preseason, when a lot of guys that never did it in college or guys that won’t be around in the regular season are put on those teams.

But the Saints allowed 45.3 yards per kickoff return and 17.7 yards per punt return, which didn’t sit well with Payton, who noted that his team gave up some big returns and “some near-misses.”