As everyone knows, the Saints are the first team in NFL history to have their coach suspended for the season. Whether or not they can overcome the loss of Sean Payton and make a run to the Super Bowl is unanswerable. There’s no precedent, so there’s no way to know for sure.
Aside from the bounty scandal, New Orleans should be in good shape. The Saints are coming off a 13-3 season and return almost every significant offensive player after shattering the NFL record for yards. They also went undefeated at home and were a few seconds away from playing the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome when a late touchdown from San Francisco handed them the most disappointing defeat in franchise history.
Questions to be answered in exhibition season:
Will the front four get pressure on quarterbacks? The Saints’ pass rush was subpar a year ago, particularly up front. The defensive linemen combined for 16.5 sacks in 16 games, forcing blitz-happy former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to gamble even more often than his norm.
Unlike Williams, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo relies on pressure from his linemen, but it is unclear if he will get it. The Saints’ best pass-rushing lineman, Will Smith, is suspended for the first four games for his role in the bounty scandal, so they will need help from unproven sources.
Third-year end Junior Galette (4.5 sacks in 2011) has been impressive in training camp along with converted linebacker Martez Wilson, who matched his season total from last year with a sack against Arizona in last Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game.
Can the defense force more turnovers? The Saints forced 39 turnovers in their Super Bowl championship season of 2009, one off the league leader. Last year, they forced a measly 16, one more than the league-worst total. Big difference.
Spagnuolo’s emphasis on zone coverage should help the interception totals after Williams’ primarily man-to-man scheme left his DBs with their back to the quarterback most of the time. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins intercepted the first pass New Orleans faced in the Hall of Fame Game after he finished with zero picks in 2011.
Turnovers are partly a function of luck but largely the result of alertness –- the Saints forced 20 fumbles in 2011 but recovered only seven. They are making a conscious effort to turn around those numbers.
Are the new linebackers an upgrade? It sure appears that way. MLB Curtis Lofton, signed from the Atlanta Falcons, is a younger, healthier version of Jonathan Vilma, who played through knee problems last year and is suspended for the season (at least for the moment) for his role in the bounty scandal.
David Hawthorne had 115 tackles and three interceptions for Seattle last year while the Saints tried five players at his spot. Chris Chamberlain, who made 81 tackles for Spagnuolo in St. Louis, is competing with incumbent Scott Shanle for the third spot. If they get comfortable in the preseason, the Saints should be stronger defensively than in 2011, when they finished 24th in total defense, 30th in pass defense and tied for 29th in yards per carry allowed.
Follow Saints reporter Guerry Smith on twitter@CBSSportsNFLNO.