Football returns on Sunday with the Hall of Fame game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints. The Saints finally get to play football after a tremulous offseason that included a prolonged contract dispute with quarterback Drew Brees and the bounty gate scandal.
This game will be the first game of head coach Sean Payton’s yearlong suspension due to bounty gate. The Hall of Fame game also marks the debut of Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
Before the game, here is a look at five things to watch during the game:
Saints offense on third down and goal line
This will be something to watch all preseason long. When the Saints offense reaches third down and/or the goal line, the effects of Payton’s suspension might hit New Orleans the hardest.
Payton’s play calling helped the Saint offense stay at its high-powered best -- but his best play calls came when the Saints reached third down or the goal line. Brees will be able to carry Payton’s thought process onto the field, but it will not be the same as having Payton on the sideline looking at the play sheet and having his unique feel for calling games.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. will take over the play calling duties, as he did when Payton broke his leg last season. The Saints offense struggled at times in Payton’s absence, suffering two of their three losses last season after the injury.
How the Saints offense converts third downs and goal line situations in the preseason could be a key indicator to how the New Orleans offense will operate during the regular season. While Brees is directing the first team offense, play-calling in key situations is must watch.
Another effect of Payton’s suspension will be gamble plays -- like going for it on fourth down either for a score or a first down -- and gutsy calls like the on-side kick from the Super Bowl. It will not be until the regular season that New Orleans would feel the pain of not having their riverboat gambler head coach making big calls.
As discussed above, Steve Spagnuolo takes over the defensive coordinator job after Greg Williams moved on to St. Louis Rams for the same position (Williams was later suspended for the year for bounty gate). Spagnuolo is taking over the New Orleans defensive unit after he was fired as head coach of the Rams.
As defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Spagnuolo became a head coaching candidate after his defense held the record-setting New England Patriots offense to just 14 points in Super Bowl XLII.
Much like former defensive coordinator Greg Williams, Spagnuolo uses a base 4-3 defense. Spagnuolo will blitz, but not as much as Williams did. He will also try to disguise his blitzes more than Williams did.
In the NFL, it can take a year to two years before a defense learns the ins and outs of a defensive scheme. Learning assignments and executing those assignments are a big part of playing defense in the NFL.
The Saints success this season could be tied to how quickly the players learn those ins and outs of Spanguolo’s defense. Defensive mistakes will happen when a player blows an assignment, but how often those blown assignments happen can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Chase Daniel’s play in relief for Brees
Chase Daniel signed a one year contract with the Saints in this offseason. Daniel will be the man behind Brees and his preseason is just as important as the starters.
While no one hopes anything happens to Brees, injuries happen in the NFL. Drew Brees is one of the most durable quarterbacks -- but if the Saints lose Brees for a stretch of games, Daniel will have to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive.
Daniel needs to be sharp this preseason with the suspension to Payton. Having faith in the quarterback behind the starter is important for every NFL team.
More than likely, Brees will take every snap in the regular season (discounting blowouts), but if Brees gets hurt it gives the team even more confidence knowing Daniel could win games.
For instance, if Brees is out for four games with an injury, the team needs to know that Daniel could earn them a split. That would keep New Orleans playoff hopes alive until Brees returned.
Mark Ingram and Cam Jordan in year two
Mark Ingram was well on his way to a solid rookie season until an injury forced him to miss the final game four games of the season and the playoffs. Ingram missed a total of six games due to injury in his rookie campaign.
The powerful back had found a nice place for himself in a very crowded New Orleans backfield. This preseason will be a chance to see how well he has healed from his injury and what kind of shape Ingram is in.
Don’t expect Ingram to get a ton of work in the preseason, but it'll be interesting to see if he gets quality out of his touches. Does he have power, burst, and stamina? That's what to watch for when Ingram runs the ball.
Cam Jordan was the Saints other first round pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Overall, Jordan underwhelmed as a player taken so high, but defensive players sometimes have to adjust to the speed and learning curve of the pro game.
Jordan needs to turn a lackluster rookie year in to a good, solid and productive second year. If the defensive lineman is not more of a playmaker, the dreaded word “bust” will start to float around him.
Last season, Jordan had 31 tackles with just one sack and three pass deflections. Jordan needs to be more of a disruptive force in 2012.
Bounty gate is supposed to be over and done with on the field -- but one of the biggest questions is how the officials will treat New Orleans. Will the officials be quicker to flag Saints defenders and less likely to give the benefit of the doubt on close plays?
New Orleans could be scrutinized on defense harshly this preseason to set the tone for the regular season. In a perfect world, the officials would be able to put bounty gate out of their mind while they call games. But they are humans and, as such, are affected by things like bounty gate.
The Saints will also not have the normal NFL officials in their first preseason game. Replacement officials are going to be used as the normal NFL officials and the NFL keep fighting on a new collective bargaining agreement.
There is no telling how replacement officials will treat the Saints. If the NFL and the regular officials ever come to an agreement, this question will start all over again.