Like every NFL team, including the Super Bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints spend lots of time in the offseason self-scouting themselves to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
At least, that’s the goal when players are away and coaches have more time to pore over game tapes with a fine-toothed comb, leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to find the things that kept them from being successful.
If they had a poor or mediocre season, they want to see if they can take the next step to the playoffs. If they were in the playoffs, they try to identify things that will get them deeper into the postseason with the ultimate destination, of course, being the Super Bowl.
After coming up short in their wildcard playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks last January, which was a shocking and frustrating end to their reign as Super Bowl champions, the Saints aim to get back there.
As a result of a lockout of the players by the owners this spring and early summer, the coaches had much more time to dissect the game tapes and form opinions on what they must do to get better.
When they open the regular season Thursday night against the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, the coaches hope to see signs that they have what it takes to challenge for another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
With that in mind, here are some things the Saints can be better at in 2011:
1. RUN THE BALL MORE EFFECTIVELY: Because of injuries that sidelined Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory for a combined 22 games, with all three active for the same game just once all season, the running game suffered big-time in 2010.
After ranking sixth in the NFL in 2009 during their run to a Super Bowl title, the Saints plummeted to 28th last year in averaging 94.9 yards — more than 36 yards fewer than the previous season.
The return to health of Thomas, whom they signed to a long-term deal in March, plus the bold move of getting back into the first round of the draft to get Mark Ingram and the signing of unrestricted free agent Darren Sproles showed that the coaches and front office meant business.
2. STOP THE RUN ON A CONSISTENT BASIS: The Saints ranked 16th in allowing 112.3 yards a game last season, a slight improvement from when they gave up 122.2 yards per game en route to the Super Bowl XLIV title, but they know they have to do even better.
Opponents averaged 4.3 yards a carry last season and coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would like to see them come in at least south of 4.0 yards per attempt this year.
They hope the addition of two of the league’s top run-stoppers in wide-body defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin is a solid start. The hope is they’ll team up with Sedrick Ellis to help clog up the middle and allow the ends and linebackers to clean things up on the outside.
3. CREATE MORE TURNOVERS: The best thing a defense can do for an offense that’s as productive and dangerous as the Saints is to give that side of the ball more scoring opportunities.
The Saints had the right formula in 2009 when, under the direction of the aggressive Williams, they piled up 39 takeaways to rank second in the league before adding eight more in the postseason.
Last season, they fell way off with just 25 takeaways — including a league-low nine interceptions. So a return to the ball-hawking ways of two seasons ago would likely go a long way to doing their part.
4. CUT DOWN ON INTERCEPTIONS: Quarterback Drew Brees would be the first to admit that he threw way too many interceptions last season, which, combined with the lack of takeaways by the defense cut down on their scoring chances.
Brees served up a career-high 22 interceptions, just one year after throwing just 10 in 18 games in leading the Saints to the title.
Being more careful with the ball was one of the things he focused on during the offseason, so it would be a surprise if he didn’t turn that around this season.
5. DO A BETTER JOB IN THE KICKING GAME: A year ago, the Saints ranked 23rd in returning punts and 28th in covering them, while finishing 15th in kickoff return average and 24th against kickoff returns.
They were proactive in parting with some of the players who had served them well in those areas the past few seasons and bringing in some young players who they think can make a difference with speed and fresh legs.
A healthy Courtney Roby could be a difference-maker on kickoff returns, while Sproles may be an upgrade in replacing an often indecisive Reggie Bush.
The Saints practiced Sunday for the first time since the squad was reduced to the regular-season limit of 53 players as they began locking in on Thursday night’s opener at Green Bay. They’ll practice again Monday and Tuesday and have a light walkthrough on Wednesday before flying to Wisconsin. … The Saints filled out their eight-man practice squad by signing eight players who they released over the weekend. They are LB Nate Bussey, QB Sean Canfield, TE Michael Higgins, CB Terrail Lambert, DT Swanson Miller, LS/TE Kyle Nelson, C Cecil Newton and WR Andy Tanner. … ESPN reported the Saints had agreed to terms with TE John Gilmore, who was released by Pittsburgh on Saturday, but Payton said the team would make an official announcement on Monday.