Week 1: Scouting the Saints

Some people expected the Saints to have a tough time this season competing in the NFC South with the Carolina Panthers, who some are picking to win the Super Bowl, and Atlanta Falcons, the defending division champions. But their task became even tougher when Hurricane Katrina blasted their city. The Saints will likely have to play all their "home" games away from the Superdome after its roof was severely damaged.

On top of that, it may be months before the coaches and players get to go to their own homes since the storm flooded the city and surrounding areas. But coach Jim Haslett will likely use the circumstances as a rallying point for themselves as well as a town that needs a severe pick-me-up.

Whether the Saints can get their inconsistent offense and shaky defense to take them for a happy ride remains to be seen, but getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 would be a good start to the healing process.

*Three keys for the season:

1. The defense has to step up and play the way defensive coordinator Rick Venturi thinks it can play. The Saints ranked last in the NFL in total yards allowed last year, but he saw something in a four-game winning streak to close the season -- which is why the Saints did not make wholesale personnel changes during the off-season.

2. The Saints have to run the ball with more authority in 2005. Considering they have a powerful running back in Deuce McAllister, who has rushed for 4,103 yards the past three seasons, the offensive line has got to make things happen for him to make sure they average more than 100 yards a game this season.

3. Quarterback Aaron Brooks has to turn the corner. Even though he became the first player in club history to throw for 3,500 yards and 20 TDs in four straight seasons, Brooks has to cut down on the silly mistakes he's been prone to making.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

RB Deuce McAllister: There are times when McAllister, who is only 74 yards away from becoming the team's all-time leading rusher, puts the team on his shoulder and just takes off. There's no doubt he is the key to what the offense is and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard plans to take advantage of it by putting greater emphasis on the running game.

WR Joe Horn: A four-time Pro Bowl pick in his five seasons with the Saints, it would seem that the 33-year-old Horn's best years are behind him. But the Saints believe he's far from finished, which is why they gave him a six-year contract extension this spring. Horn is coming off his two best pro seasons and doesn't appear that he'll slow down anytime soon.

FS Dwight Smith: The Saints are banking that Smith will do what his predecessor, Tebucky Jones, couldn't do -- and that's make plays in the back end of the secondary. Smith is expected to give them a strong presence, both in pass coverage and run support.

RT Jammal Brown: Several Saints already believe that Brown could be the next Willie Roaf, which is why the team traded up three spots in the first round to get their hands on the towering 6-foot-6, 320-pounder. A solid drive blocker, he is the linchpin for the new-look running game.

PLAYER NOTES

--DT Johnathan Sullivan is likely to start in the Saints' season opener at Carolina after a good training camp and exhibition season.

--RG Jermane Mayberry missed the team's final exhibition game because of a strained left calf muscle, but could be ready for the season opener.

--RG Montrae Holland will start against Carolina if Mayberry isn't able to return this week.

--MLB Alfred Fincher has a fractured right wrist and will be out indefinitely.

--SLB James Allen continues to be sidelined by a bone bruise to his left knee. His return is uncertain while he continues to rehab the knee.

--SLB Sedrick Hodge will likely start for Allen in the season opener next week.

--WR Az-Zahir Hakim missed the entire preseason with a right hamstring injury, but the Saints kept him on the 53-man roster.

--TE Shad Meier lost lots of ground in his bid to be the backup to Ernie Conwell because of a knee injury to required arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 2.

--TE Zach Hilton will probably be the backup to starter Ernie Conwell when the Saints open the season at Carolina.

--WR Chase Lyman, who tore his ACL in the Saints' rookie minicamp in May and missed all of training camp, was put on injured reserve.

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