NEW ORLEANS -- Of the four exhibition games, the third is the most important because teams typically play their projected starters into the second half.
That's why I am looking forward to next Sunday's matinee matchup between the Saints and Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. Kickoff is 3 p.m.
Two good teams, each with Super Bowl aspirations, going head to head, on a national stage (Fox).
Finally, we get to see some real football ... sort of.
Now to the post-game analysis from Friday night's 28-20 victory against the Oakland Raiders:
It seems clear that the defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan will more closely resemble the defense played under Gregg Williams from 2009 through 2011 than the defense played under Steve Spagnuolo in 2012.
All in favor say aye!
Defensively speaking, in two games, the Saints have registered 11 sacks, yielded 400 yards and two offensive touchdowns, held the opposition to 27.6 conversion rate on third down (8 of 29), and played with emotion.
Granted, the Chiefs and Raiders are not among the league's elite, but it's a good start.
Offensively, quarterback Drew Brees appears to be locked and loaded and oft-injured Charles Brown seems to be settling in at left tackle and will do just fine if he can stay healthy. I like the addition of veteran tight end Ben Watson, the two young receivers, Nick Toon and Kenny Stills, and the reincarnation of Tampa Bay-reject Preston Parker makes for a good story.
OK, here is my biggest concern:
The depth on defense was suspect even before players started dropping like flies. Losing two of Ryan's loyal and trusted foot soldiers from Dallas, OLB Victor Butler (knee) and DE Kenyon Coleman (torn pectoral muscle), certainly didn't help matters. Then, throw in the temporary losses of ILB Jonathan Vilma (knee), OLB Martez Wilson (elbow) and OLB Junior Galette (knee) and the problems are compounded.
Yes, Vilma and Wilson are due back in September but they will have missed valuable on-field time in Ryan's 3-4 scheme. Only Coach Sean Payton knows Galette's status and he isn't saying.
The good news is there appears to be enough talent on defense to be competitive, most notably DE Akiem Hicks, DE Cam Jordan, ILB Curtis Lofton, hybrid OLB/DE Will Smith, CBs Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer. and Galette, Wilson and Vilma when healthy.
Plus, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro seems to be a perfect complement to veteran safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper. And rookie DT John Jenkins shows promise.
Don't misunderstand: The 2013 defense is not the second coming of the Dome Patrol but it definitely can make some noise this season.
Keep in mind: The preseason has nothing to do with wins and losses and everything to do with staying healthy and coming up with the "right 53,'' although Payton cannot be pleased with nine penalties and three turnovers by his reserves in the second half against the Raiders.
"Look, it's important we get a good evaluation on these players," Payton said. "The most important thing is the right 53 (players). That's the most important thing we have to do right now. It's not get all of our calls in on defense or offense or get all of our different returns in. It's getting the right 53.''
ROSTER PROJECTION: With cuts to 75 (Aug. 27) and 53 (Aug. 31) looming, here is my best hunch. Drum roll please...
BAW's 'Right 53'
QBs (2) -- Drew Brees, Luke McCown.
RBs (4) -- Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas*, Darren Sproles, Khiry Robinson.
FB (1) -- Jed Collins.
TEs (2) -- Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson.
WRs (5) -- Marques Colston*, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, Preston Parker.
OL (8) -- T Charles Brown, T Zach Strief, T/G Marcel Jones, T Terron Armstead, G Jahri Evans, G Ben Grubbs, C Brian de la Puente, G/C Eric Olsen*.
DL (7) -- DE Akiem Hicks, DT John Jenkins, DT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Cam Jordan, DT Tyrunn Walker, DE Glenn Foster, DE Tom Johnson.
OLB (5) -- Junior Galette*, Martez Wilson*, Will Smith, Rufus Johnson, Jay Richardson.
ILB (5) -- Curtis Lofton*, Jonathan Vilma*, David Hawthorne, Roman Humber, Will Herring.
CB (5) -- Keenan Lewis, Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson*, Corey White, Chris Carr.
S (5) -- Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush, Jim Leonhard.
SPECIAL TEAMS (4)
K (1) -- Garrett Hartley
P (1) -- Thomas Morstead
LS (1) -- Justin Drescher
ST (1) -- Courtney Roby.
* Currently Injured
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