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5 - New Orleans Saints
The defense will get its sacks, which, by the way, is what Saints fans could be wearing again unless a punchless offense comes around
But a fortnight immersed in the slop pail of mediocrity that is this division (one team excepted) has left us weary of leveling criticism. So we vowed, during a visit to the Saints training camp in La Crosse, Wis., that if we had nothing nice to sayother than to point out that if ex-Seahawk Lamar Smith fails to goose his new team's ground game, Saints fans can break out the grocery bags they wore over their heads in the bad old dayswe would say nothing at all. In that case meet Kendall Gammon, long-snapper extraordinaire. Gammon has produced his own instructional video, Snap Right, and is widely regarded, in long-snapping circles, as one of the best in the business. "The guy's automatic," says punter Mark Royals, whose 45.9-yard average led the league last season. Between these two and kicker Doug Brien, who made all his extra points and all but four of his 27 field goal attempts, including three game-winners, the Saints have some crack special teams.
Brien was in a position to win those games with his leg because, after a tentative start, the Swamp Dog attack of defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian came on strong, leading the league in sacks (59) and finishing fourth in total D. That's not easy to do when your team's offensewe aren't being critical here, just stating a facthad the most three-and-outs in the NFL. "We don't get down on the O," says outside linebacker Mark Fields. "We like being on the field."
Fields, who in his fourth year stands on the cusp of superstardom, will need to put up big numbers this season to offset the loss of middle linebacker Winfred Tubbs, who signed with the 49ers after making 160 tackles in '97. No problem, says Fields, "I've got a few things going for me." To wit: He is 6'2" and 244 pounds, dashes a 4.55 40 and last year chased down speedy Rams wideout Isaac Bruce from behind to prevent an 80-yard TD run. So swift is Fields that Saints coaches have no qualms about putting him in pass coverage on slot receivers. "He's so fast he can run in the wrong direction, adjust and still make the play," says middle linebacker Brian Jones, who moves into the starting lineup. Before blowing out his knee in camp a year ago, Jones was pushing Tubbs for his job. Saints coaches are confident he'll be just fine.
Yaralian's fondness for the blitz results in chronic loneliness for his cornerbacks, who are often left in man-to-man coverage. So it will be interesting to see how former 49er Tyronne Drakeford performs. Drakeford is a jamming, aggressive player of the sort coach Mike Ditka prefers. The problem with Drakeford's style is that receivers sometimes elude those jams and burn him: He had more than his share of bad days with the Niners.
Classy, relentless Wayne Martin gives opposing offenses bad days. Martin had 34 1/2 sacks in his last three seasons and may be the NFL's most underrated defensive lineman. He and linemate Joe Johnson combine to create much mayhem in the trenches. The problem is that at press time Johnson was a huffy holdout, having told the Saints he was insulted by their offer of $21 million for five years. Replied team president Bill Kuharich, "I wish someone would insult me like that." Good one, Bill, but it won't be so funny if you have to go into the season with a yawning breach in your front four.
Even if Hobert or his backups, Heath Shuler and Danny Wuerffel, could throw a decent deep ball, it wouldn't matter: They lack a speed receiver to run under it. The absence of a blazer on the Saints receiving corps was underscored early on the morning of Aug. 2, when wideout Keith Poole was arrested after allegedly hitting a man with whom he'd had words on the hip with an eight-iron. When the Saints scheduled a press conference three days later, there was speculation that it would be to announce that Poole had signed with Callaway.
The big news, instead, was that Ditka, who last season questioned whether he was the right guy for his job, had been signed through 2002. Who knows how good New Orleans' offense could be by then? All we knowagain, we aren't being critical here, just stating factis that right now it could hardly be any worse.
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