New Orleans Saints reserve safety Chris Reis knows first-hand how important tonight's exhibition finale against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field can be, especially for players still seeking to impress the coaching staff enough to land a spot on the final 53-man roster.
In his first season with the Saints three years ago, he entered the last preseason game having not played much and clearly on that proverbial bubble.
Nervous about his NFL future and practically an afterthought to most camp observers, Reis played the game of his professional life, making six unassisted tackles and intercepting two passes.
Although he was released two days later, the coaching staff noticed him. He was quickly re-signed to the practice squad and promoted to the active roster less than a month later.
"I remember my first year coming in here, I didn't get to play a lot, " Reis said. "But that last game really helped me make the team and make an impression on them. This last preseason game can definitely help you in a lot of ways."
METAIRIE, La. ― The Saints again can boast to having an unstoppable force on offense.
Of course, it is only the preseason, but the numbers don’t lie – New Orleans is No. 1 in yards per game (422), No. 1 yards per play (5.89), No. 1 in passing yards per game (279.7), No. 4 in rushing yards per game (142.3) and No. 2 in time of possession (34 minutes, 7 seconds).
Say what you might about defenses being vanilla and backups being shuffled in, but every team is dealing with the same facts of life.
And you know who is benefitting the most?
Once again, the Saints’ defense.
“You know, when it’s a little bit even or it’s a tie score it’s a little bit different game,” Saints defensive end Will Smith said. “You’ve got to play and expect certain things. But teams kind of become predictable when you have a lead.”
Yet, it’s not like everything is sunshine’s and smiley faces for the Saints on defense.
In the past two games, Houston and San Diego both strung together two long scoring drives to get on the board. In each drive, the Saints’ defense was gashed in the red zone on the ground.
The Texans picked up runs of seven and 10 yards to close out a seven-play, 60 yards touchdown drive. The Chargers used runs of five, four and six yards to finish off a 12-play, 82-yard scoring possession.
The Saints brought in Kendrick Clancy to see if he can help stuff the middle on run downs. Clancy, who went on IR a season ago after having microfracture surgery on his right knee, worked out for the second day in a row for the Saints and could see some time in Thursday’s preseason finale at Tennessee.
But even without Clancy, Smith said the Saints are progressing each day in learning how to shut down the run game.
“Our numbers are getting better,” he said. “We’re rotating a lot of guys in there, seeing how they fit in in certain schemes and different defenses. It’s working out pretty good.”
For now, the Saints are tied for 15th in the NFL in total defense (314.3 ypg), tied for 8th against the run (80.3 ypg) and 25th against the pass (234 ypg).
Strongside linebacker Scott Shanle said those numbers don’t tell the full story.
“We have a lot of stuff that we were doing last year towards the end of the regular season that we really excelled at that we haven’t really done much,” Shanle said. “A lot of teams keep it basic in the preseason. It’s always hard to put your finger on numbers during the preseason.”
He added, “I think one of our strengths last year every week we had a game plan that seemed to confuse a lot of teams. I point to the New England game on Monday night. They were kind of rolling at the time and we put in a couple of new defenses.”
1. Core still intact: This is the same team that won the Super Bowl. Aside from letting linebacker Scott Fujita and running back Mike Bell walk and showing defensive end Charles Grant the door, the Saints have pretty much everyone back from last year's magical season. It's fair to say they've upgraded on Grant by bringing in Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson, and they're confident they have some talented young linebackers to take over Fujita's spot. This is a team that knows how to win, and there's a lot to be said for continuity, especially if it doesn't cross the line into complacency.
2. Secondary is solid: The secondary just might be the most talented in the NFL. Yes, what was considered a major weakness just two seasons ago might be the team's biggest strength (besides Drew Brees). The world hasn't realized how good cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are yet, but scouts and coaches around the league will tell you there aren't many better duos in the NFL. Greer and Porter each missed significant time with injuries last season. But when they were healthy, they were close to dominant. Backup Randall Gay could start for a lot of teams, and first-round pick Patrick Robinson will work his way gradually into the rotation. The Saints feel good about second-year pro Malcolm Jenkins taking over for Darren Sharper at free safety, and strong safety Roman Harper is underrated. If Sharper can get healthy as the season goes on, the Saints will have incredible depth in the secondary.
3. Bush in top form: Reggie Bush is healthier than he's been in a long time. Think back to the way Bush ran in the preseason. At times, he put his shoulder down and ran straight at defenders, and it worked nicely. That could be a sign of things to come. Bush is never going to be a 25-carry-a-game power runner, and his biggest strength is in the open field. For the moment at least, Bush has put his history of nagging injuries behind him, and you might see a little more from him this season than in the past. He'll share carries with Pierre Thomas, and that's not a bad combination, but Bush is the one guy on this offense who's a home run threat every time he touches the ball.
4. Ellis poised to emerge: Sedrick Ellis might be ready for a breakout season. The defensive tackle has been pretty good when he's been on the field in his first two seasons. The run defense is noticeably better when Ellis is on the field. The problem, however, is Ellis has been slowed by a series of nagging injuries and hasn't truly become a dominant force. That could change simply if Ellis stays healthy. He's as talented as any defensive tackle in the league. Last year's emergence of Anthony Hargrove should help. The Saints can use Hargrove in a rotation that will limit Ellis' playing time a bit and help keep him fresh.
5. Evans a key: Don't underestimate the importance of fullback Heath Evans. The Saints brought him in last season because they felt he was a jack-of-all-trades, and he started off very nicely. But Evans got hurt and missed the second half of the season and the postseason. That forced the Saints to do a lot of shuffling on offense, and the coaching staff did a masterful job of that. Having a healthy Evans this season will make things a lot easier for the offense. He's a big-time blocker, and that will help the running game. He also is capable of handling a few short-yardage carries and catching some passes out of the backfield. When the Saints say their offense can be better than last season, a healthy Evans is one of the reasons they believe that.