Keys for 2013 Saints
The New Orleans Saints will open their 2013 training camp when players report on Thursday, so it is that time of year to figure out the team’s keys to success this season.
For a team that is still enjoying the “Golden Age of New Orleans Saints football,” the keys for success aren’t really that hard to figure out this year, especially with the Saints football boss Sean Payton back in town in 2013.
Here are eight keys I think are important for the Saints this year.
1. KEEP DREW BREES HEALTHY
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the best football player to ever wear the team’s black-and-gold jerseys.
In a time when you have signature quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and a growing group of “read-option” signal-callers in the NFL, Brees is still considered one of the elite players in the game and don’t kid yourself.
Without Brees, the Saints would’ve been luck to win four games last year.
Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he has led the team to four playoff appearances, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl title.
He has thrown for over 4,400 yards in six of his seven years in New Orleans, which include three 5,000-yard seasons.
Brees has passed for 244 touchdowns in seven seasons, and he has completed 65 percent or more of his passes in five of those seven years.
Brees has led the team to score over 500 points twice (2009 and 2011). There have only been 17 teams since 1960 to reach that mark.
The Saints have been jackpot lucky to not have him go down to a serious injury in that span and that is again the most key for this team in 2013.
That means everyone will be watching closely what happens at the left offensive tackle spot. With Jermon Bushrod taking his talents to the Chicago Bears, Charles Brown has the opportunity to seize the moment and become the full-time starter.
Brown, the former Southern Cal standout, has had a long history of injuries since entering the league, but it is his job to lose, if he can stay healthy.
If not, then rookie Terron Armstead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff could be inserted into the starting lineup.
If the Saints can keep Brees healthy, I think they are a playoff contender, especially with Payton back in the mix.
2. GENERATE A CONSISTENT PASS RUSH
This feature has been lacking on the Saints since the 2006 season.
The Saints don’t have a signature pass rusher on the team today, and while they have some “maybe” players, there is not much on their resumes at this point.
It is amazing today to think that the Saints have been such a successful team without having a consistent pass rush. The most sacks the Saints have had in one season in the Payton-era was 38 in 2006.
Since then, they have recorded 32 sacks in 2007, 28 sacks in 2008, 35 sacks in 2009, 33 sacks in 2010, 33 sacks in 2011 and 30 sacks in 2012.
In today’s game, you need to have the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback at crucial times in a game.
Right now the Saints don’t have that type player on the roster.
In all honesty the Saints thought that Victor Butler, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys, might give them that element.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury during offseason workouts, and again, this part of the Saints is a mystery.
New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is going to find out quick that not having someone like he did in Dallas in DeMarcus Ware means he will have to find some very innovative ways to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
3. DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS ON DEFENSE
The Saints have a host of young and talented players on the defensive side of the ball.
I liked what I saw with the development of defensive end Cameron Jordan last season, and defensive end Akiem Hicks has the athleticism to one day be a very good starting defensive end in the NFL.
Those two young defensive ends, along with development of outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, rookie nose guard John Jenkins, cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White and safety Kenny Vaccaro are keys for this defense to get better in 2013.
4. CONTROL THE CLOCK BETTER WITH RUN GAME
Last season, the Saints got away from what was so successful for them in 2011 and 2009. The Saints were sixth overall in the league in rushing in 2011, but last season they again became the Brigham Young of the NFL.
You can’t always have Brees throwing 45-50 times per game and expect to win.
The percentage of winning games when you throw more than 47 times per game drops off dramatically.
Expect the Saints to again go back to more of a run-oriented attack and balance the scales more with the rushing attack.
It also keeps a developing defense without a signature pass rusher off the field.
Watch for Mark Ingram to be the “bell cow” rusher for the Saints in 2013 with also a big dose of help from Pierre Thomas.
5. UTILIZE LEWIS AND VACCARO
New additions in Keenan Lewis and Vaccaro will have to play big for the Saints.
Lewis, a former O. Perry Walker High standout and New Orleans native, was the biggest free agent addition to the Saints in 2013.
He is the perfect size for what Rob Ryan wants in a cornerback. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has the size, physicality and arm length Ryan craves in a cornerback.
I just wish he could catch the ball better when it is thrown in his direction. He makes a lot of knockdowns as a cover man, but making the big interception could really bolster this defense.
I have to admit I was and still am a big Jarvis Jones advocate. Jones was a superb college pass rusher at Georgia and I think that will translate very quickly to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I also think highly of safety Vaccaro.
The former Longhorn standout is physical, very strong in run support, he has excellent football instincts and he matches up well in one-on-one coverage spots against the very athletic tight ends.
Vaccaro doesn’t have great hands for the interceptions, but he has top-of-the-line football instincts and a knack for putting himself in a position to make a play.
I expect big things and quickly from the former University of Texas standout.
6. BEST TANDEM OF TIGHT ENDS IN THE NFL
With the numerous injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the very serious court issues surfacing for Aaron Hernandez with the New England Patriots, the Saints one/two punch of Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson gives them the best tight end tandem in the NFL today.
If there is a superstar on the Saints team other than Brees, it is Graham. He has great size, tremendous length, excellent hands and athleticism and he is a nightmare to cover in the red zone.
In Watson, the Saints are getting a crafty veteran who has excellent athletic gifts, sure hands for the catch in the medium range areas of the field and he is a very good blocker.
NFL teams have trouble matching up against one very athletic and sure handed receiving target at tight end, and the Saints have two of them to go up against.
7. FINDING A STRETCH RECEIVER
As good as the Saints offense is, it is really effective when they can stretch the deep part of the field. Devery Henderson was an effective “deep threat” for a number of years with the Saints, but last season you saw some dropoff in his play and also some loss of speed.
Joe Morgan has the speed to be that type player, but he needs to show more focus and understand the complicated Saints playbook better.
Last season, Morgan made some highlight film catches, but he was not in the lineup more because he didn’t always know what to do from play-to-play.
If he gets a better grasp of this offense, he is the guy to really help stretch the field. Without him doing that, the Saints will have to develop rookie Kenny Stills, who is more of a faster version of Lance Moore than a “stretch” receiver.
The Saints will also have to see if Jarred Fayson, who really impressed me in the team’s offseason workouts, or a real speed-burner but rough around the edges route runner in Saalim Hakim, can fill that void.
Teams will adjust and try to cut off the short-to-medium range areas of the field, so the Saints must find that “stretch” receiver.
8. SHORE UP SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter/kickoff artist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the business and the best special teams performer for the Saints since Morten Anderson, but this team broke down at times last season with their coverage units and also in the return game.
Just take a glimpse of the New York Giants game and see that opposing teams spotted a vulnerable part of the coverage units.
While the return numbers for Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet were good, there weren’t enough to be those big returns to shorten the field for the Saints offense.
Other than a turnover on defense, nothing gets a team pumped up more than a special teams score.
Kicker Garrett Hartley has shown he has the skills to be a very good kicker in the NFL, but at times, he has some focus issues. With Payton back running the show, he better not miss too many because Payton will pull the plug on him quick.
Throughout the years covering the Manning Passing Academy, there has been a host of top quarterbacks working with Eli, Peyton and Archie Manning as counselors for the more than 1,000 high-school football players.
Quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Matt Stafford, Jake Locker, Matt Barkley, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, E.J. Manuel, Christian Ponder and Colin Kaepernick have all made it to Thibodaux to watch how to play quarterback from the First Family of Quarterbacks in the NFL ... the Mannings.
This year, the most decorated college quarterback of 2012 and the most dynamic personality, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, was the most significant member of the Manning Passing Academy counselors, other than Eli and Peyton.
"It's great to be here and to soak in the knowledge and the technical side of the game Eli and Peyton bring to the table," Manziel said. "I have been here as a high-school quarterback, but this is a great experience for me to observe and just watch how two of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today operate and why they are at the top of their field. Some just feel like you just go out there and play, but there is a lot of hard work and repetition to this game. To just watch how they run the same drills, almost precision wise, on each snap is really something special. I need to learn how to compartmentalize on and off the field distractions better. It's part of the growing up process."
Manziel, the only freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, has worked hard in the off-season to improve upon one of the greatest seasons ever for a Texas A&M Aggie.
"This offseason, I have worked really hard on improving my footwork and also my set up and delivery in the pocket. I will always use my foot speed and quickness to elude defenders and buy some time, but I knew I needed to work on getting more accurate throwing the ball from the pocket better. I have also worked hard to get stronger in the weight room and just trying to play smarter on the field. It also involves a lot of film room work and understanding defenses and different alignments better. The defenses will know me better this year, so I need to know them a lot better to grow upon what we accomplished last season."
The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner says he spends a lot of time watching other top quarterbacks in both college and pro football.
"I watch a lot of film, and I try to pick up little things from watching what Eli and Peyton do and also guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady," Manziel said. "Growing up in Texas, I tried to emulate what I saw Vince Young and Colt McCoy do at Texas, Robert Griffin at Baylor and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma. Everyone has a little different way of making things work, but all those great players have a superb workout ethic and they pay attention to the little things on and off the field. For me, it is about focus and learning how to deal with the distractions. That is what makes the Mannings so impressive, and they can compartmentalize this game so well."
Manziel, the 2012 Davey O'Brien Award and Manning Award winner, said that the Aggies played with a chip on their shoulders after hearing so much last offseason that they could not compete in the SEC.
"It's something we heard and read about from just about everyone, but we knew we were a pretty good team too and we just wanted to show we belonged in the SEC," Manziel said. "The strange thing is that most of our players were recruited by a lot of SEC teams, so if they thought we were good enough to be recruited by them, then why couldn't we play well against them. We were the team on the hunt last season, but this year we have to adjust to be the ‘hunted' team. I can tell you as a team we didn't accomplish everything we wanted to and we are still a very hungry team. Playing against LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas won't get any easier."
Manziel said adjustments, personnel and scheme wise makes the off-season important to college football teams.
"Every year you have to adjust and just get better overall as a team," he said. "Everyone asks about teams taking away things from my game or what we do best, but our coaching staff works hard and the players work very hard also to make it difficult to take every feature away from our team. If teams try and scheme to take away certain elements of our passing game I can tell you we are just going to run the ball more. People forget we have a strong rushing attack too and our offensive line is really strong. We lost a great player in our left tackle Luke Joeckel to the NFL and Patrick (Lewis), who's from down here in south Louisiana graduated, but we feel real good about what we have returning."
The 2012 AP College Football Player of the Year says he is excited to get to play again with offensive tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mike Evans.
"Jake's a superb football player. He got overshadowed a bit because Luke Joeckel got so much publicity, but he's a terrific football player and great technician," Manziel said. "He's going to take Luke's place on the left side this year after starting on the right side the past two seasons. His younger brother, Mike, is our starting center, so I am glad for the Matthews family and to have them on our team.
"Mike (Evans) is something special. He was more known in high school for basketball, but he has turned into a great college end. He's a big target for me to find downfield at 6-(foot-)5, and he's a real physical guy. Mike has really worked hard also to improve his route running skills and so he's a weapon I am glad we have him. Mike was not a heavily recruited guy and he says he almost went to Tulane until A&M came into the picture."
Manziel should know all about being passed over by some of the heavyweights in college football.
Despite throwing for 3,609 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushing for 1,674 yards and 30 touchdowns as a prep senior, Manziel, a Parade Magazine All-American selection, was bypassed by both the University of Texas and LSU during the recruiting process.
"I knew a lot about LSU because of Matt Flynn," Manziel said. "When I was in Tyler, Texas, Matt was the quarterback at Robert E. Lee High School, so I knew a lot about the team and the tradition. They didn't show a lot of interest in me. It really wasn't much. For me, it came down to Stanford, Oregon and Texas A&M during the recruiting process."
Manziel said he is looking forward to playing against LSU this season in Tiger Stadium.
"Last year, we didn't play very well against LSU and a lot of it was because the Tigers were so good," he said. "They were just so impressive in how they ran to the ball and how fast they could converge on a ballcarrier. They had the most athletic defense we played last year and they gave us a lot of problems. It's going to be great to play in Tiger Stadium this year. I have heard so much about playing there and the crowd noise. I am just looking forward to playing there in late November. It can't get any better than that playing college football."
But before Texas A&M and Manziel play the Tigers, all eyes in college football will be watching when the Aggies play the back-to-back national champion Alabama on Sept. 14.
"I am roommates here with (Alabama quarterback) A.J. McCarron, who is a really cool guy and a terrific player, but we can say we were the only team to beat them last year," Manziel said. "But we have to put that aside and understand this is a totally different year and be fully prepared to play the best team in the country. It's going to be great to play them again, and we play them at home this year. Our coach, Kevin Sumlin, always talks about just playing this one game at a time and be fully prepared for every team's best effort, and that is what we strive to do in 2013. I want to be like A.J. and play for the national title and win it. That is our goal as a team."
For Manziel the NFL scouts are watching and it is not so much what he has done on the field that is in question, but some of his actions off the field.
It is very important when you are the face of an NFL franchise.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winning running back and Tennessee Titans All-Pro halfback Eddie George talked about the difference he sees in college football today in comparison to when he played.
"The game today is like basketball on grass," George said. "Offenses today run about 80 plays on an average per game. And offensive coaches talk about stretching that to 90 plays per game. In my day, that was a game and all of overtime. It takes a different level of training and conditioning and also it changes the type athlete you are recruiting. The SEC has dominated because this has now become a wear down type game and teams break your will. Those SEC teams have great depth across their offensive and defensive lines. That is the difference. Just look at the talent and depth teams like Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas A&M, South Carolina and now look at Ole Miss, and you can see why they are playing for the national championship every year."
South Louisiana has produced many great athletes, but very few have been able to have the privilege to say they are professionals at their respective sports.
One of the elite professional athletes from our region today is Quincy Verdin, a professional volleyball player from Central Catholic High School in Morgan City.
Most of us remember former Assumption High School star volleyball player Kim Willoughby, who was a three-time college All-American, the 2003 NCAA National Player of the Year and a member of the 2008 United States Olympic squad.
But Verdin is one of the few women from Louisiana to be playing professional volleyball overseas.
Verdin has been a professional volleyball player for the past four years playing in Slovenia, Slovakia and in Finland for two years.
Many in our area remember Verdin as the catalyst that led the Central Catholic volleyball team to its first ever state championship in volleyball when she was a junior defeating Episcopal School of Acadiana for the Class 1A state title match.
“Really ESA was to woman’s volleyball like John Curtis is to football in the state of Louisiana,” Verdin said. “The feeling in the moments leading up to our championship was something that still gives me chills today. To know all our hard work and dedication would have us win a state championship and do it against the most dominant team in volleyball was just so special.”
Not only was Verdin a star volleyball player, but she was also a top basketball performer and track and field athlete, who competed in the high jump, long jump, triple jump, discus, javelin and shot put.
“I guess I was born with really good athletic genes. I was also the most competitive one in the family too. It didn’t matter what I did. If it was playing games as a kid or running or anything I was up against someone I had to win. My Mom, Debbie, was a terrific tennis player, my Dad, Clyde Sr., was an outstanding basketball player, my brother, Clyde, was a tremendous basketball player and baseball athlete and everyone knows my cousin, Clarence Verdin, who was a great track athlete, and he played over 10 seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver and return man. I was offered college scholarships in track and also basketball, but I grew to love volleyball so much.”
The very competitive Verdin, who earned All-American honors in volleyball as a junior and senior, had over 30 scholarship offers and narrowed her selections to LSU, Nebraska, Penn State, Missouri and Minnesota, until an unexpected visit came from the head coach of Long Beach State in California.
“I had verbally committed to play for LSU as a ninth grader and had no idea that Long Beach State was interested. Volleyball is huge in California. You look at those teams like Long Beach, Stanford, USC, UCLA and even Pepperdine, and they are really the top of the field in volleyball. I was playing in a club volleyball tournament in New Orleans and the head coach at Long Beach State, Brian Gimmillaro, came over and introduced himself and told me he was very impressed with my game, and he extended a scholarship offer to me. He had traveled there to watch me play, and I was stunned. This school had such a great reputation for producing great volleyball teams and also players like Danielle Scott and Misty May that were Olympic athletes. I couldn’t tell him no. So I changed my mind and headed out West instead of Baton Rouge.”
Verdin was not expected to play as a true freshman for Long Beach State, but it didn’t take long for Gimmillaro to see that she could take her talent to another level.
“I really thought they were going to redshirt me, and during one of the early games, I still had my warm-up gear on and Coach Brian must have called out for me four or five times until one of my teammates told me he wanted me in the game. He put me in as a freshman, and I never left the lineup after that,” Verdin said. “Coach always called me his “secret weapon” and if we needed a spark or needed a big hit I was the one he counted on to deliver. Playing against those great teams out West where volleyball is so big was a great experience. Here I was someone from south Louisiana playing against the top volleyball players in the country, that was something special.”
In Verdin’s four seasons at Long Beach State the school won the Big West Conference championship all four years and made it into to the NCAA tournament all four years, but one school Verdin couldn’t leap over still stands strong in her mind today.
“We were conference champions all four years. We made it into the playoffs all four years, and we got bounced out of the playoffs all four years in the second round,” Verdin said. “It still bothers me today because we knew we had the talent to win it all, but we broke down a couple of times late and it cost us that chance for the national championship. Along with that, the memory of playing against those Stanford teams stick out for me. They were like six robots out on the court. They were amazing to watch, and I had played against all of those girls in club volleyball, but they were an unbelievable team, and they were six parts moving as one. I will always remember how tough they were to go against and to be honest some of my best games were against the Cardinal.”
After college Verdin worked one season as an assistant for Naomi Washington, currently the head volleyball coach at Southern University of New Orleans, before deciding to pursue a professional volleyball career in Europe.
“I worked with Naomi Washington, who was a terrific volleyball player at Long Beach State also, before I decided to play pro volleyball,” Verdin said. “I had never been overseas before, and it was a bit scary at first, but I adjusted to the places I got to play and the different cultures. I played one season in Slovenia, one season in Slovakia and this will be my third season in Finland. I am playing for a different team this season.”
Verdin said the European game is very competitive.
“It’s very competitive there, and I don’t want to lose my spot, so I work hard at my game and hopefully this could take me to another level of volleyball abroad,” Verdin said. “There is a quota system on the amount of people not from Europe that can be on the volleyball court at the same time and the level of competition here is like the top level of college volleyball in the states. I also have given some consideration to possibly trying out for the next United State Olympic team and so I have some options in the future, but I do know one day I would like to coach. I really enjoy that element of teaching and coaching fundamentals to the sport. We joked about it, but I would love to be an assistant coach and be involved with teaching. I know one day I want to be a head coach in either high school or college. “
Verdin says that volleyball is looked at as an upper-tier sport in Europe.
“In the states it is football, basketball and baseball. In Europe soccer and hockey are the two most prominent sports, but volleyball is looked at right there behind those two along with track and field,” she said. “It’s huge there and in breaks during games they have those sideline reporters come up and ask for comments just like they do in football and basketball in the states. But I really believe because of the real upswing in people’s interest in beach volleyball that the sport is getting a lot more interest in the United States. Also places like Nebraska, who have won back to back national championships in volleyball and also what is happening at the University of Texas has given the sport a lot more interest to so many more people here.“
Verdin did say she misses the food and entertainment of the states and in particular south Louisiana.
“Oh my God. I miss the food so much,” Verdin added. “I lose 20 pounds without even trying when I go back to Europe. And it is a long season. We start practicing in late July and our season lasts from August all the way until April, and it is playing two to three games per week. But I do try to bring some things to eat and cook with from Louisiana. The entertainment is different also. They have television, but it is difficult to find something you like, and there are subtitles, but I spend most of my little spare time on the Internet. With the travel and practice it is very demanding, but I enjoy the sport so much, so it is worth it, and the financial part of playing is pretty good also. I would really like to be a part of something to bring more awareness to volleyball in the states and in particular to Louisiana. One day when my playing days are over with I would love to return to coach either in California or back in Louisiana.”