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Saints must tackle backfield, defense to return to Super Bowl

There was no bottom to the depths of despair for Saints fans Saturday afternoon. What is being coined as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NFL history -- Seattle's silencing of New Orleans' repeat plans -- also became Day 1 of the Saints' offseason.

With that, we continue our series of exit interviews. What issues are confronting the Saints?

1. Workhorse or any horse?

Injury problems killed this team at tailback. Reggie Bush broke his leg. Pierre Thomas hurt his ankle. Rookie Chris Ivory couldn't stay healthy either, and ultimately, Julius Jones got nicked up in the wild-card game.

These injuries didn't just hurt the run game, they greatly impacted pass protection, with exhibit A being Saturday's playoff loss. As much as fans want to think a great quarterback like Drew Brees can do it alone, he can't. With all the injuries, New Orleans ended up using five backs regularly: Thomas, Bush, Ivory, Jones and Ladell Betts. Playing musical chairs with your backs in pass protection often leads to playing musical chairs at quarterback. The last thing the Saints need is for Brees to get hurt because some free-agent-off-the-street back doesn't know who to pick up on third down.

So what's the answer? Can Thomas be a workhorse, or at least get 15 carries a game and stay healthy? He's a free agent, one of a possible 28 unrestricted players the Saints have on their roster, and he's never carried the ball 150 times in a season. Bush is a hit-or-miss player. That leaves Ivory, who has a Lisfranc injury that leaves his ability to work in the offseason in doubt.

Coach Sean Payton has gotten away with the committee approach thus far, but it might be time to draft or acquire a guy who is capable of logging it 200 times, or at the very least, be an effective third-down option. And not be in the trainer's room.

2. Where did the takeaways go?

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williamswithdrew from consideration for the Broncos' head-coaching job. That's not good news, Saints fandom. That's awesome news. Despite the defense's failings in the Great Northwest, this guy is a commodity. The Saints have established a reputation as an attacking defense that forces mistakes under Williams the last two seasons.

But that brings up the next question. How did that same unit get dismantled by an offense that had about as much punch as Kirk Cameron? That will be issue No. 1 as far as coaching and scheme are concerned this offseason.

While Williams' unit was actually better overall than in their Super Bowl run, closer inspection shows an interesting disparity: Takeaways were down. So were the points scored off those takeaways. That means fewer short fields for Brees and the offense. Fewer game-altering plays, like a Darren Sharper pick-six.

For Williams, the task of getting the attack mojo back is key, as well as putting the black hole that is the Seahawks game film behind him. If this club is going to win it all in 2011, it could very well start with the defensive coordinator.

3. Who to target?

With Thomas possibly gone, Bush a poor man's Eric Metcalf, and Ivory's status for training camp uncertain, it might be time to draft a back high. Ditto right tackle.

This is a team that's won 27 games, including the playoffs, the last two seasons, but won't have a Super Bowl contending offensive line until it shores up the right tackle spot. Either that, or 31-year old Jonathan Stinchcomb will have to play much better.

At safety, Sharper, 35,  played on a one-year deal and some questionable knees. Pierson Prioleau will be 34 in August and had some injury problems this season. With Roman Harper being a free agent, the club might draft insurance here.

And then there's linebacker.

4. Help for Vilma?

The Saints outside linebackers have struggled. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Scott Shanle made two impact plays all season between them: One sack, a forced fumble and no interceptions. Meanwhile, Jonathan Vilma had four sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception from the Mike spot.

Not every position can be addressed in the draft, so pending the CBA issue, this could be an area New Orleans addresses in free agency or via a trade.

5. Kicked to the curb?

This is perhaps the most nitpicky of the offseason questions, but is any Saints fan totally comfortable with Garrett Hartley? Last year's NFC Championship Game hero made 20 of 25 attempts this season, but had some key misses -- all of which were from makeable range. The club even activated 46-year old John Carney in Hartley's stead during the season.

As mentioned, this is a Super Bowl-contending team that can't contend if its kicker is shaky -- the competition is so close these days that there exists a premium at this position. The jury is still out on Hartley, although he made his last 13 kicks this season, including the playoffs. It should be interesting to see what happens at this position if Hartley falters in training camp, or a better option becomes available.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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