NFL

Saints seeking a return to the playoffs

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Quarterback Drew Brees will try to follow up a season where he threw 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Photo by Michael C. Hebert.

In 2015-16, the black and gold finished the season black and blue.

There wasn’t much to celebrate as the Saints finished the year with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.

Due to their exceptionally bad defensive performances throughout the schedule, three-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired midway through and replaced by Dennis Allen. Even head coach Sean Payton’s future was uncertain.

It appeared he might have been on his way out of town after coaching in New Orleans for nine years. However, the organization finally came to their senses and held on to the Super Bowl winning coach.

Now with the coaching staff in place, the Saints will try to get back to the New Orleans team of old and make a return to the postseason.

Offensively, the Saints should once again be one of the best units in the NFC.

Quarterback Drew Brees didn’t get a lot of recognition last season due to the team’s struggles, but he put up more gaudy numbers to add to his Hall of Fame resume. He threw for 4,870 yards (led the league) with 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, while completing 68 percent of his passes.

During the offseason, Brees lost two of his favorite targets in Marques Colston and Benjamin Watson.

In nine years with the Saints, Colston caught 72 touchdown passes.

With the trade of tight end Jimmy Graham, Watson stepped up and had the biggest year of his career in 2015, coming away with 825 yards receiving and six scores.

To replace Watson, the Saints signed tight end Coby Fleener during the offseason. Fleener played his first four years with the Colts. Last season, he had 54 catches for 491 yards.

Along with Fleener, third-year receiver Brandin Cooks will return after having a career year in 2015. He finished with 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns.

Willie Snead returns after a rookie season that ended with nearly 1,000 yards, and the Saints will also feature impressive Ohio State draft pick Michael Thomas.

The Saints will have to improve their running game. Last season, they ranked just 25th in rushing as they averaged a pedestrian 93 yards per contest.

Mark Ingram returns as the team’s leading rusher. He rushed for just 769 yards last season. Tim Hightower will also see carries.

C.J. Spiller will return after a disappointing 2015. Spiller spent most of the season fighting through injuries. He was only able to produce 251 total yards and two touchdowns.

Offense wasn’t the problem for the Saints last season. They ranked second in total offense and eighth in points per game with 26.

If New Orleans wants to make a return to the playoffs, the defense must make drastic improvements.

Last year, they ranked second-to-last in total defense—yielding 476 yards per contest. They ranked dead last in scoring defense as they surrendered 30 points each game.

In the offseason, the Saints made two big defensive acquisitions to try to improve those results.

They snagged linebacker James Laurinaitis. He departs from the Rams as their all-time leading tackler.

New Orleans also signed Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley. When healthy, Fairley has been productive, but injuries have plagued him throughout his five-year career.

He, Cameron Jordan and the rest of the Saint defensive line will have to pick it up. New Orleans ranked just 25th in sacks last season—coming away with just 31 for the entire year.

Pressure will help a secondary that struggled mightily in 2015. They were ranked 31st in the league as they gave up a booming 284 passing yards per contest.

Delvin Breaux will return as their top cornerback after a nice rookie season.

Veteran safety Roman Harper makes his return to New Orleans. He’ll add depth to the position after inconsistent play by Kenny Vaccaro and two injury-riddled years for Jairus Byrd.

Promising second-year linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha had his season end before it even began when he went down with a torn ACL. Fortunately for the Saints, impressive second-year linebacker Stephone Anthony is back after piling up 112 tackles, a sack and an interception in his rookie season.

The Saints will have another tough schedule to navigate through in 2016.

Besides the division, they’ll have road games against the Giants and Chiefs. They’ll host both the Seahawks and the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos.