| As the defense retools, Brees will again have to find the end zone early and often.
7 TAMPA BAY
14 at Washington
21 at Denver
28 SAN FRANCISCO
6 MINNESOTA (M)
19 at Carolina
26 vs. San Diego (in London)
9 at Atlanta
16 at Kansas City
24 GREEN BAY (M)
30 at Tampa Bay
11 at Chicago (T)
21 at Detroit
Jeremy Shockey, Tight End: Last year the former Texas star showed signs of fulfilling his first-round promise. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham, now doubling as linebackers coach, is spending significant time honing Johnson's skills, especially on the pass rush. A strong season will give Johnson leverage as he heads into his contract year in 2009In six years with the Giants, Shockey never had 900 receiving yards, and he exceeded 70 catches only once. The Saints expect him to do both -- and block like a third tackle for Reggie Bush. "This offense is perfect for me," Shockey says. "And if you can't be happy working with Drew Brees, who can you be happy with?"
They were a playoff-caliber team last season -- for the last 12 games, that is. This year's goal: Go all-out for a full 16.
Sean Payton thought long and hard about what he wanted to say to his team
when he opened training camp. Many now see the Saints' run to the 2006 NFC
Championship Game as a fluke after last season's return to 7-9 territory. And
the NFC South will be a lot stronger because of Tampa Bay's resurgent defense
and Jake Delhomme's return from injury in Carolina. The Saints coach wondered,
How can we find that edge that will enable us to win the division again and
return to the league's elite?
So he looked around the room and said, "Drew Brees, the Chargers gave up on
you. Scott Fujita, same thing with you and the Cowboys. Hollis Thomas, the
Eagles gave you away. Jeremy Shockey and Jonathan Vilma, New York teams gave up
on you guys. Me? I wanted the Packers job, and they picked someone else. My point? We all have
something to prove."
The first priority is to avoid last season's 0-4 start. "We spent all the
energy we had getting back to 4-4, and we didn't have much left," Payton says.
He told his players they had to avoid what he called "the sins of '07." Most
came during that horrible first month. Brees threw one touchdown pass and nine
interceptions in those first four games; the running attack, which lost Deuce
McAllister to a torn left ACL in Week 3, produced only 3.4 yards a
carry; and the defense gave up 30 points a game. Brees then threw 27
touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the team's 7-5 finish, but it wasn't
enough to overcome that bad start.
So the Saints acquired Shockey from the Giants and Vilma from the Jets, two
players happy to get out of New York. During his first two years in New Orleans,
Payton didn't have a classic 4-3 middle linebacker who could make plays all over
the field; Vilma, coming off knee surgery that ruined his 2007 season, is
expected to fill that role. He ran freely and without pain through training
camp. Shockey, who suffered a broken lower left leg in December, was the
forgotten tight end while New York made its stunning Super Bowl run. Still
limited in practice in Saints camp, he should be ready Week 1.
The Saints were seeking a premier cornerback in the draft, such as Troy's
Leodis McKelvin, but couldn't pass on USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who
beefs up the line. So they tried to patch the leaky secondary -- New Orleans
allowed an NFL-high 32 touchdown passes last year -- by signing free-agent corners
Randall Gay, a nickelback, and Aaron Glenn, who is 36. It figures that the
Saints' offense will have to score in the mid- to high 20s to give the team its
best chance to win.
"We can score," says all-purpose back Reggie Bush. "We're one of the
elite offenses in the league, but a turnover here or a turnover there and not
being productive in the running game killed us last year. We have to get that
fixed." Bush, who in his two NFL seasons hasn't shown the explosiveness that
made him a Heisman Trophy winner at USC, worked regularly on squat lifts in the
off-season in an attempt to improve his burst through tight holes in the
It's essential that the ground game produces more big plays. New Orleans
can't rely on Brees alone -- though it's tempting. Over the past two season he had
8,841 passing yards, 404 more than Peyton Manning and 506 more than Tom
"I feel good about this team," said Payton, who then pulled from his desk
drawer a book that Brees had given him in the off-season: 212° The Extra
Degree. Payton explained the message: At 211° water is hot, and at 212° it
boils. Boiling water produces steam, and steam powers engines. Brees's point
was, See what happens when we all work a little bit harder.
On the title page Brees wrote,
You are the reason I'm here, and I'm thankful for that every day. There is no
one in this league I would rather play for. I want to win a championship here.
He's got some help this year. -- Peter King