Playoff Preview: New Orleans Saints

A year ago, the New Orleans Saints were a nomadic sob story struggling to survive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, rookie Reggie Bush fell right in their lap, free agent signee Drew Brees made a run at MVP, and they are now the No. 2 seed in the playoffs as champions of the NFC South. Bear Report takes a look at Sean Payton's club as they get an extra week's rest down on the bayou.

Rushing Offense
The Saints are 19th in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 110.1 yards per game. Tailback Deuce McAllister tore a knee last season and only played five games, but he came back strong in 2006 to rush for 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 30 passes out of the backfield in the Saints' high-powered aerial attack. It took rookie Reggie Bush a little while to get into the groove, but he rushed for 565 yards sharing the load with McAllister and also grabbed 88 balls out of the backfield as a receiver. Week 13 against San Francisco was his coming out party as he rushed for three TDs and scored a fourth on a 5-yard shovel pass.

Passing Offense
The Saints are 1st in the NFL in passing offense, averaging 281.4 yards per game. There were myriad questions about Drew Brees after he shredded his throwing shoulder late last season, but he proved to be 100% healthy and orchestrated the single-best quarterback performance in New Orleans history. The former Charger led the league with 4,418 yards through the air and delivered 26 scoring strikes while compiling a sizzling passer rating of 96.2. Veteran Joe Horn has been the main receiving threat in the Crescent City for quite some time, but rookie seventh-round pick Marques Colston came out of nowhere to record 70 receptions for 1,038 yards and eight TDs. Former no-names Devery Henderson and Terrence Copper also made big impacts at receiver this year, and Bush's versatility in the passing game can not be understated.

Rushing Defense
The Saints are 23rd in the NFL in rushing defense, averaging 128.9 yards allowed per game. New Orleans has been getting it done on defense with smoke and mirrors the majority of the season, but they have had troubles defensing the run since Week 5 against Tampa Bay. Linebackers Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita are the team's leading tacklers, making 98 and 96 stops, respectively. Safety Josh Bullocks has also been very active in run support, racking up 72 tackles while intercepting two passes. Charles Grant is one of the better tackling ends in football these days, and tackle Brian Young has also played fairly well with 46 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Passing Defense
The Saints are 3rd in the NFL in passing defense, averaging 178.4 yards allowed per game. End Will Smith has emerged as a star and will be headed to the Pro Bowl after posting 10.5 sacks in 2006. Grant came up with six QB takedowns of his own, but their backups, Josh Cooper and Willie Whitehead, had only one sack each. Starting cornerbacks Fred Thomas and Mike McKenzie totaled just three interceptions between them but did a good job limiting big plays in the passing game. As a team, the Saints picked off 11 passes this year, tied for the third-least in the NFL.

Special Teams
42-year-old kicker John Carney shows no signs of slowing down, booting 23 of 25 field goals this season and scoring a total of 115 points. He's still got plenty of leg strength, making six of his seven attempts from 40 yards and beyond, including a 51-yarder. Rookie punter Steve Weatherford averaged a respectable 43.8 yards, although only 19 of his 77 punts ended up inside the opponent's 20-yard line. At 35 years old, Michael Lewis is ancient for a return specialist but still managed to average 24.7 yards on kickoffs. Neither Lewis (6.9 yards per attempt) nor Bush (7.7) impressed on punt returns, although Bush did take one back 65 yards for a game-winning touchdown in Week 5.


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