Thankfully the preseason is about to come to a close, and considering the number of players the Saints have already lost for the entire season I wish they could just forfeit this game. There will be very little to no starters playing in this game, so while no injury is welcome, ever, at least we know something serious probably won't happen to a starter. Yeah, I probably just jinxed the Saints. This game is just about getting out of it and getting focused on the Falcons. Here are five things I will be paying attention to, though:
1. Do the Saints avoid any major injuries?
Once again, this is #1 on the list during preseason. If a player gets injured in a regular season game, so be it. It's the injuries that happen before you even get there that frustrate me so much. The Texans game cost the Saints Will Smith and a 7th round draft choice. You might suggest the Saints are better off apples to apples with Parys Haralson than they would've been with Smith and the 7th rounder and I might even agree… but still, we'll never truly know how Smith would've done this season at OLB. I think his liability in coverage would've trumped anything positive, though, so hopefully Haralson will be a major upgrade. Regarless, OLB is very thin so the Saints can't afford injuries at that position. I would be fine if they played this game as two hand touch.
2. Do the Saints go undefeated in preseason?
Since the Saints HAVE to play this game, might as well try to win it, right? I guess? The stat that always makes me uncomfortable is the 0-16 Lions going 4-0 in preseason. That is the ultimate proof that the preseason means absolutely nothing. That said, the Saints are 3-0 so we might as well go for the perfect record. I'll be rooting somewhat passively for a win, moreso than the other three games. Sean Payton is 1-6 career in game four of the preseason (vs. 7-1 in game 3!) so it's pretty clear which games the team tends to "try" in when Payton is the coach. He's never had a shot at a perfect preseason, though, so maybe he approaches this differently.
3. Does Ryan Griffin play his way onto another roster?
I noticed the Buffalo Bills will be starting an undrafted rookie, Jeff Teul, at quarterback in week 1. The guy had a 4-22 record in his college career as a starter at Washington State and now he's a starter in the NFL after going undrafted! How does that happen? That made me realize just how bleak the quarterback situation is for some teams out there. Luke McCown has played extremely well in preseason and by far surpassed my expectations, so he has locked up the backup role regardless of how he does in the first quarter of this game. Griffin will get to play three quarters, though. The Saints will almost assuredly waive Griffin and add him to the practice squad when he clears waivers. But will he clear waivers? At first I felt pretty good about this, but what if he plays out of his mind for three quarters? What if he throws 4 TD's and leads the Saints to a blowout win? I'm thinking a team desperate for QB help might actually give him a roster spot. It would be a huge bummer to lose out on Griffin as a prospect because he's shown a lot of promise.
4. How do the bubble players perform?
I currently view 43 roster spots as completely locked up. I think you can look at all the players on the roster and you'd agree with me on these 43. Then I count 10 guys that definitely won't make the roster. That leaves 22 players that I consider "bubble players" that are competing for 10 roster spots. I'm counting Vilma in this list of 22 because of his knee status. This game represents their last chance to state their case for inlcusion in the final 53 man roster.
The bubble players are: Jonathan Vilma, Eric Olsen, Chris Carr, Rod Sweeting, Tom Johnson, Austin Johnson, Tim Lelito, Andrew Tiller, Will Herring, Kevin Reddick, Baraka Atkins, Rufus Johnson, Travaris Cadet, Khiry Robinson, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Jim Leonhard, Jerico Nelson, Marcel Jones, Michael Higgins, Preston Parker, Andy Tanner and Courtney Roby.
I'm sure most of you are reading this list and picking out at least 4 or 5 names and saying "that guy is DEFINITELY making the team!" but I think the 22 players I just listed above are not 100% certain of making the roster. I also don't think we can say with certainty that any of the players on this list of 22 will be cut. I feel pretty much certain that the other 43 are "in" and certain the other 10 are "out". So these are your "bubble" guys, fighting for 10 roster spots. Some are ahead of others, of course, but you can't rule out a huge play or monster special teams performance in this last game be enough to help them make the team.
5. How does special teams perform?
The coverage units have been largely horrendous in preseason. If you asked me what my biggest worries are coming out of training camp and preseason, they'd be linebacker health, offensive line depth and kick/punt coverage. If you count the times the Saints have been saved by a block in the back penalty, I would say the times they have given up a huge return are close to 50%. I don't want to act like a raging bull in a china shop about this, but it's kind of been a disaster. I'm hopeful it's just because the Saints are trying a bunch of different guys out instead of their usual gunning go to unit. Still, since the Giants game last year kick coverage has been the elephant in the room. With the defense still possibly shaken from how last year went they need all the help they can get. Good special teams play, coupled with great offensive play, would provide more stability around the defense to play with confidence. It's critical the Saints get this figured out asap. We saw how really poor special teams can affect an otherwise good team in the Chargers the last few years.
Enjoy the game! WHO DAT.