Here are my observations from watching the New Orleans Saints' 40-20 preseason win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday night:
» Sean Payton has the Saints' offense rolling. The unit appeared in midseason form against the Raiders while amassing 514 yards of total offense, including 388 passing yards.
The first unit, in particular, was sharp in their execution during three series. Drew Brees set the pace by connecting on 15-of-23 passes for 189 yards, distributing the ball to six different receivers. From a series of quick slants to Marques Colson to a few deep shots to Jimmy Graham and Devery Henderson, the Saints stretched the field with quick rhythm throws delivered off three- and five-step drops.
Payton's clever utilization of various personnel packages and formations led to the impressive showing. The Saints trotted out five different personnel groupings during the first three series, using a variety of formations and pre-snap movement to create mismatches in the passing game. By altering the alignment of some of their key weapons, like Graham and Colston, the Saints were able to quickly identify the Raiders' coverage and exploit the favorable match-ups in space.
While the Saints didn't spend a lot of time establishing their running game during the first half, it still looks vastly improved with the combination of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles set to split carries in the backfield. Ingram, in particular, looks prime to fill the role as the power runner. His numbers weren't impressive (six carries for seven yards and a score), but he flashed strength and power while breaking tackles at the point of attack.
» Jimmy Graham is the Saints' No. 1 option in the passing game. The second-year tight end demonstrated why he has quietly become the focal point of the team's aerial attack against the Raiders. A former basketball player, he possesses a combination of size, speed and athleticism that makes him indefensible in space. His movement skills overwhelm linebackers, while his superior size is too much for defensive backs to handle.
The Saints exploited those advantages by frequently aligning Graham on the outside of formations to create isolated match-ups. This sets him up for big plays against smaller defenders on fade routes when Brees uses back-shoulder throws. Payton also featured Graham prominently as a slot receiver over the middle of the field. By running the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder down the hashes on seam routes or across the field on digs, Brees has a big target to pinpoint between the hashes. This was especially effective when the Raiders opted to bring zone-blitz pressure, which left only one defender in the middle without a safety to provide help.
Graham finished the night with five receptions for 73 yards on nine targets in only three series of work. While it is important not to read too much into preseason statistics, the Saints' utilization of an emerging playmaker during a regular-season tune up suggests he is prime for a big role in 2011.
» Taiwan Jones needs to be in the mix. The preseason debut of Jones revealed why coaches were so effusive in their praise of the rookie running back during my training camp visit.
The fourth-round pick was spectacular with the ball in his hands, rushing for 81 yards on 13 carries, including a sensational 22-yard touchdown run. He displayed a remarkable blend of speed, quickness and burst while exploding through small creases on the perimeter. Jones' elusiveness and wiggle allowed him to frequently avoid the first defender and pick up positive yardage when holes appeared closed at the point of attack. More importantly, he flashed the ability to score from anywhere on the field and that is enough to merit serious consideration as a change-of-pace runner in the Raiders' rotation.