When I reach back into the dusty corners of my brain, just past a smattering of images left over from driver's ed films, to try and make sense of the NFL season ahead, I'm just not sure what to think about the New Orleans Saints. There's still Drew Brees and a pack of offensive weapons. Sean Payton is back on the sidelines, no longer leading via Soviet-esque motivational posters.
But there's that defense. The defense that gave up an NFL-record 7,042 total yards last season. Rob Ryan takes over in his second defensive coordinator job in two seasons, and he's switching the unit to a 3-4 scheme. Injuries have already hit the group pretty hard. Most notably, the team lost Victor Butler, who was being counted on as the top pass rusher.
So there they were Friday night, getting their first test of the year against the Kansas City Chiefs. The results were not encouraging.
Kansas City chewed up almost six and a half minutes of clock time with classic Andy Reid football. Led by Alex Smith, it ended the 14-play, 80-yard drive with a touchdown from Jamaal Charles. Of those 14 plays, the Saints forced one incompletion and one coverage sack. Those plays were the only two snaps the defense had any real pressure on the quarterback.
Smith threw eight passes, bootlegs, screens and play actions that exploited big holes in the middle of the field where the linebackers should have been. According to the official stats, Chiefs receivers had a total of 66 yards after the catch. Charles himself had more than 30.
Now before we go and get too alarmed about the Saints defense, let's remember that this was the first game of the preseason. There's always rust. Jonathan Vilma wasn't playing, and his speed could have helped the linebackers.
I still believe that the Saints defense will be better this year. It needs to get rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro up to speed and ready to start. Cameron Jordan is a much better fit in a three-man front, and the corners can be decent in coverage. The Saints aren't likely to have a very effective pass rush, but they can scheme their way into occasionally harassing opponents.
Remember, last year's Saints team won seven games even with a historically bad defense. If Brees and the offense hit their stride, all the defense has to do is tread water. That should be enough to make New Orleans a threat in the NFC races this year.
Will Cincinnati screw it up with Geno Atkins?
Confession: I think "Hard Knocks" is dull. For television shows to stay relevant they need to stay compelling. And maybe it's not the Bengals. Maybe the show's formula has just gotten stale. Either way, the real show this season is what the Bengals are doing on the field.
The first-team offense looked pretty flat this week against the Falcons. Andy Dalton was 3-of-7, sans A.J. Green. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard weren't particularly effective. But this was just the preseason, where enthusiasm and execution can be hard to find in the first quarter of the first game.
That was not the case on defense in general for the Bengals, and for Geno Atkins in particular. Atkins played just eight snaps. With those eight snaps, he gave the Bengals yet another reminder of why he deserves the hefty long-term deal that he's seeking. He hurried Matt Ryan on one of those snaps. His best play happened on third-and-2 at the Bengals' 16-yard line. He manhandled his way through blockers and stuffed Steven Jackson for a three-yard loss.
A fourth-round pick in 2010, Atkins is playing out the last year of his rookie deal, worth a grand total of $2.62 million. He has more than 20 sacks over the last two years. He had more than 60 quarterback hits and hurries last season alone. The Bengals are reportedly trying to get Atkins locked up, but the two sides are still said to be far apart.
They have time. A franchise tag after this season could give the two sides more urgency on a deal. Still, you just want to reach through the wires and smack some sense into the front office there, because it cannot screw this up. There might not be a more important player to this team's overall improvement and ability to finally compete in the AFC North.
Preseason play of the week
It always takes teams some time to get back into the flow of things. Throw in a new coaching staff, and it makes preseason games feel like even more of a glorified scrimmage. Mistakes are made. It's not always pretty. Mario Williams getting blocked by his own teammate sums it all up rather nicely.
Preseason hero of the week
This is that time of year when we celebrate the backup running backs, or at least the guys trying to become backup running backs. Once upon a time, LeGarrette Blount was a starting running back. Now he's in second chance city, Patriots camp, trying to catch on again.
And he made a pretty good show of it against Philadelphia's hapless defense. His 51-yard touchdown "run" after a dramatic cutback from the left to the right looked like it happened in slow motion, which means it looks really hilarious when sped up (you'll have to apply your own Yakety Sax to really make it hum).
Go ahead, take him in the third round of your fantasy draft.
Mark Sanchez moment of the week
Mark Sanchez started off exactly like you would have expected him to, with a pick-six on his first pass of the game. Making it even better was that it was technically a fat guy touchdown, but Ziggy Ansah doesn't really look like he has any body fat.
Rex Ryan admitted after the game that he didn't see it. He didn't have to see it. He's been seeing the same thing for four years now. He sees it in his sleep.
I don't need to include this, but I feel compelled to. Remember all that work Tim Tebow was doing on his mechanics during the offseason? Remember how New England was going to be the perfect spot for him to get a fresh start?