By Ryan Leong
The New Orleans Saints have gotten a lot of attention in the offseason. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, unless the publicity is entirely negative to your team.
The word ‘Bountygate’ has become part of the lexicon of American popular culture. Mention it and it instantly evokes the infamous speech by then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams before the Saints-49ers playoff game (Caution, contains harsh profanity). As a result, the Saints organization was involved in a scandal that was the first of its kind in the NFL and the sports equivalent of Watergate, hence the ‘Bountygate’ name.
Much debate has followed about the nature of football since the game itself is inherently violent. The line is blurred between hard hitting to tackle an opponent for the sake of competition, and a hard hit with the intent to injure.
Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year and general manager Mickey Loomis received an eight-game ban. The current interim coach Joe Vitt served a six-game suspension, so offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was at the helm for the first six contests.
After a rocky start in which the Saints lost their first four games, New Orleans has won four of five to improve to 4-5. A win against the Raiders on Sunday would make it a season-high three straight victories.
The Saints have always had one weapon: Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. He is having another consistent season, throwing 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions during the team’s 4-1 stretch. Overall in 2012, Brees is completing 61.5 percent of his passes for 2847 yards and 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Brees has thrown at least one touchdown in an NFL record 52 straight games.
Their running game has been dormant but with the emergence of Chris Ivory and the return of Darren Sproles, who has recovered from a broken left hand, it’s shaping up to be a stacked backfield for the Saints. New Orleans is 27-4 since the start of 2010 when their running backs get at least 21 carries, compared to 1-9 with 20 or fewer carries.
The unsung hero is Ivory, who has become the team’s top running threat. Last week vs. Atlanta he ran the ball seven times for a total of 72 yards, averaging 10.3 yards per carry, including a game long 56-yard scamper. Ivory didn’t even play in the first seven games. He has averaged 120 yards rushing on 7.1 yards per carry and two touchdowns in the last two games.
Veterans Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas are also still very good at their positions and will definitely a challenge for a Raiders defense that has been less than adequate.
It only gets more daunting as Jimmy Graham had a monster game last week. The Pro Bowl tight end caught seven passes for a career-best 146 yards and two scores.
The team seems to have turned the corner after beating the previously undefeated Atlanta Falcons who were 8-0.
One more stat, Brees is 6-0 in his career against the Raiders while with the Saints and previously the Chargers, with 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Maybe the only good news is that the Saints don’t play very well outside of the Superdome when they have to play outdoors and on grass. Add that it’s going to be raining over the weekend and it could be very sloppy on the Coliseum field, which is 22 feet below sea level.
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Ryan Leong has reported on over 2,800 games in the Bay Area since 1998, covering the Sharks, Giants, A’s, Warriors, 49ers, Raiders and the local college teams for radio networks and wire services. Having the best seat in the house to watch sports has been a thrill and Ryan still enjoys going to the games giving fans some insight and perspective on the players and coaches. His work can be found on Examiner.com.