Saints preview: Reworked defense teams with explosive offense

One year after the best season in franchise history, the Saints were one of the NFL's biggest disappointments last year, primarily because their defense was one of the worst in the league.

So the solution, they hope, was to put major emphasis on the defense, particularly the front seven.

New Orleans traded up in the draft to choose defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis with the seventh overall pick, and he looked like a potentially dominant player in training camp, something the Saints sorely need. Last season, their defense allowed opposing passers to compile a 96.9 rating, highest in the league.

The Saints also signed free agent pass rusher Bobby McCray, who is something of a gamble because he made nearly half his sacks in a four-year career in a single season, and added depth to the secondary by signing cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn and drafting cornerback Tracy Porter in the second round.

New Orleans, which has had an explosive offense for two years with Drew Brees at quarterback, put virtually all its offseason money into the defense, until it traded for tight end Jeremy Shockey, who should add to an offense that didn't need much more help.

But early returns on all the defensive moves have been mixed at best. In the first two preseason games, the opposition's starting quarterbacks, Matt Leinart of Arizona and Matt Schaub of Houston, completed 21 of 24 passes for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Offensively, this should be a big year for running back Reggie Bush, who the Saints plan to use in a variety of roles, similar to the way they deployed him as a rookie in 2006. After losing Deuce McAllister to an ACL injury early in '07, the Saints tried to make Bush an every-down back, and it didn't work well.

McAllister looks fine so far this summer, so Bush's workload will be reduced. He will be used in a versatile role, and counted on to emerge as a frequent playmaker. The Saints have good depth in the backfield, a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Marques Colston (no longer a seventh-round surprise in his third season), and a quarterback in Brees, who has established himself in the top rank.

On the hot seat

Coach Sean Payton. He has a year remaining on his contract after this one, but this is the season he needs to bring the Saints back to earn a big-money extension. Some of that heat will deflect to defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs. So far, Payton has stuck by Gibbs, but the defense needs to show results from the team's investments.

Difference-maker

Ellis was the first-round draft choice the Saints targeted and he looks like the best of the defensive acquisitions. He is the player the Saints are counting on to upgrade their defensive line.

Hard road to hoe

The Saints need to get off to a good start on a schedule front-loaded with home games because from early November until Christmas they play five of seven on the road, including potential cold-weather games at Kansas City and Chicago.

Saints will be better than you think if ...

The defense improves from dreadful to at least mediocre, particularly the pass rush.

Saints will be worse than you think if ...

The pass defense fails to show the significant improvement that is expected. In 2007, New Orleans gave up more than 30 points six times.

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