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Party's over: Defending champion Saints focus on task of repeating

METAIRIE, La. -- This region has spent recent years living under the credo of rebirth. Now, the message is repeat. While the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints are the basis for this new way of thinking, the team is very much part of the region's soul, so this is a big picture way of life now. And as much as the Saints used their run to inspire a city, the inspired city is now hoping the Saints don't dim the lights.

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This is why it's so hard to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies. There are expectations and hopes, not only of the city but in-house, too. It happens with every champion in every sport. The distractions are constant and one slight misstep, injury or flaw resorts in a panic that typically -- especially with an organization like the Saints -- wouldn't register.

Coach Sean Payton and his players began their first wave of OTA workouts this week with the message being everyone has had enough time to celebrate. It's time to get back to business. It's pretty much the same mantra every Super Bowl champ tries to live by. We'll see.

The Saints got after things during OTAs with the same intensity they did this time last year, when then-new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams arrived to provide a much-needed shot of bad-boy attitude. But the Saints are going to have to take it up a notch because every opponent wants what they have.

Reasons for optimism

QB Drew Brees: There's not a more respected leader in the NFL -- and with good reason. Brees doesn't put himself above the team. He's at every workout. He works harder than anyone and he pushes his teammates the right way, not by big-footing them. In addition, the guy is as good as it gets. Check the numbers.

The secondary: CB Tracy Porter became the latest Super Bowl hero with his pick-six of Peyton Manning -- a game after intercepting Brett Favre to force overtime in the NFC title game. Injuries were the only things that side-tracked his development before then. If he can stay healthy, Porter and the incredibly underrated Jabari Greer could form one of the most skilled cornerback tandems in the NFL.

The coaching staff is waiting to see how first-round pick Patrick Robinson performs in pads, but the cornerback is fast and a skilled cover player who will work behind Porter and probably be groomed to play in nickel sets. There is solid depth in the defensive backfield.

There's some trepidation that free safety Darren Sharper might have some issues with his surgically repaired knee, although he should be fine to start the season. Plus, he's 34, a deterrent, along with his knee that limited his free-agent appeal. Moving Malcolm Jenkins to play behind Sharper was a great decision because Jenkins seems like more of a natural fit there, provides insurance and can be groomed to take over the starter's role. Roman Harper is a very solid strong safety.

The offensive line: G Jahri Evans, C Jonathan Goodwin and RT Jonathan Stinchcomb were Pro Bowlers last season, deservedly so. LT Jermon Bushrod and G Carl Nicks are pretty darn good, too. Brees got sacked 20 times last season -- more than any point in his four-year stint with the Saints -- but that's not a high number. Still, Brees needs to remain upright for the Saints to have a chance. What this group showed is that they can grind it out in the running game, which was key with New Orleans' being able to execute one of the most diverse and difficult offenses to stop.

Continuity: Unlike a lot of championship-winning staffs, Payton's assistants weren't poached by other teams. That is huge -- especially not losing Williams. That consistency will pay dividends for a roster that remains mostly intact. The Saints lost OLB Scott Fujita, RB Mike Bell and released DE Charles Grant but having so many other key members back is important. There always is the risk that some of those players won't push themselves as much because of a comfort level, but this coaching staff won't tolerate that -- and neither will most of the players, especially Brees, who demands excellence.

Reasons for concern

Distractions: Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and linebackers coach Joe Vitt were mentioned in a civil lawsuit, which is now in confidential arbitration, alleging the theft and improper distribution of prescription Vicodin pain killers as well as a cover up of the situation. There doesn't seem to be too much overt concern that this will linger or mushroom into an ugly mess, but this is not something -- true or false -- that any team wants to have to deal with.

The schedule: While it's not exactly murderer's row, the Saints' opening round of games is no joke: Minnesota, at San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina, at Arizona. Payton said last season's run was keyed by the quick start against Detroit, Donovan McNabb-less Philadelphia, Buffalo and New York (Jets). If New Orleans stubs its toe early, that will create a groundswell of concern and open the door for the 2010 hot team (beware the Falcons). Four of their final six games are at Dallas, at Cincinnati, vs. Baltimore and at Atlanta.

Depth at LB: Losing Fujita on the outside was a blow but not catastrophic since he's missed so much time with injuries. However, he was a big-time leader. Veteran Clint Ingram was signed to replace Fujita but he's coming off knee surgery. While he should be fine, the Saints really can't afford any setback at either OLB spot. Meanwhile, MLB Jonathan Vilma is one of the best in the NFL and is the heart of the defense. This is the defensive unit that will really be tested, though. Teams should be able to run at times against the front and if there isn't ideal pass rush, the underneath areas could be vulnerable.

However, Alex Brown could be an upgrade at left defensive end and should help the overall play of the front four.

Other news and notes

» With starting running back Pierre Thomas absent from OTAs because he's hoping to land a long-term contract, Reggie Bush was taking first-team snaps. That's expected. Working behind Bush was P.J. Hill, the second-year player from Wisconsin who will compete with Lynell Hamilton for the No. 3 spot that was held a year ago by Bell (signed by Philadelphia as a restricted free agent). Hamilton (6-foot, 235 pounds) was pretty effective at times last season in short-yardage situations, but Hill (5-10, 218) looks like he's going to get a chance.

Photo gallery: Saints at OTAs

Thomas, undrafted out of Illinois in 2007, has been at the offseason conditioning program. Though there is concern that he might not show at next week's mandatory minicamp, look for him to show up at all things mandatory and eventually get a deal done.

» Second-year quarterback Chase Daniel is working as Brees' backup with undrafted rookie Sean Canfield (Oregon State) serving as the No. 3. It's hard to believe that pecking order will stay the same. It seems improbable that the Saints go into the season with Daniel as the backup.

Payton mentioned some of the gains and strengths that Daniel has made in a year, but he didn't sound overly enthusiastic about going with him at this point. How Daniel performs in training camp and the preseason will dictate his spot on the depth chart. Indianapolis rolled the dice using this method (with Curtis Painter as Peyton Manning's backup) and it's worked, but I still envision a veteran being signed by training camp.

» Vilma, who is of Haitian descent and has several family members in the earthquake-ravaged nation, said that he plans to go visit in June on his own and might go again in a possible venture through the league. Vilma was a leading spokesman for the NFL in the aftermath of the January earthquake. Vilma said one of his uncles suffered damage to his home near Port-au-Prince during the earthquake but nobody was harmed.

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