Saints' 'perfect' offense will be better this year

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We've spent months upon months talking about how the New Orleans Saints need to get better on defense. At the same time, we've barely talked about the offense.

That's because the offense is presumably perfect. Truth is, it was close to perfect last year as Drew Brees was throwing for 5,000 yards and the Saints had the league's top-rated offense.

How do you top the No. 1 ranking? I'm not sure you can quantify it, but I'm going to make the argument the Saints are going to be better on offense this season. Much better.

"I see those guys in practice every day and it's scary how good they are,'' middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "I don't think you can call it an upgrade over last year because the offense already was so good, but I think you're going to see a boost in our offensive firepower.''

I'm with Vilma. I'm not sure Brees will be eclipsing the 5,000-yard mark again because some of his numbers came because the Saints often were playing from behind. I think they'll be winning more this year and that may drop Brees' numbers just slightly.

But I think the offense, as a whole, will be much better than last year. Here are five reasons why:

1. Marques Colston is healthy. I'm starting with this one because I think it's the most significant change in New Orleans' offense. Colston wasn't at full strength last year. He hurt his finger in the opener, missed some time and wasn't anything close to the Colston of old until near the end of the season.

I saw the Colston of old a couple weeks ago when I visited the Saints in camp in Metairie, La. In a morning session, I saw Brees gun a ball to the back of the end zone. The throw was very high and very hard. There probably are about three human beings in the world that could have caught that ball. Colston grabbed it.

I asked Brees after practice if the throw had gotten away from him and if Colston had bailed him out.

"No, that's exactly where I wanted to put it,'' Brees said. "I knew that was the only spot I could put it and I knew he was going to get it.''

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Brees' 2008 season is that he put up huge numbers without a true No. 1 receiver. The Saints didn't even have a 1,000-yard receiver, although Lance Moore was close. Brees tied an NFL record by throwing touchdown passes to 11 different people.

That's not going to happen this year and that's a good thing. The Saints have a healthy Colston, which should equate to about 1,200 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns. They also have Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, who should be able to thrive as role players and give the Saints a group of receivers that's as good as any in the league.

2. Jeremy Shockey is healthy. Remember how everyone talked about Shockey being the missing link when the Saints traded for him last offseason? It didn't quite play out that way. Much like Colston, Shockey was banged up most of last season. He'll tell you he never was at full strength, but is now. Shockey still caught 50 passes last season, but never reached the end zone.

He's going to get there some this season and that's only going to help Brees and the rest of the offense. Look back at Shockey's best years with the Giants. In a typical season, he'd give you about 60 catches for 700 yards and six or seven touchdowns. Plug numbers like that into the New Orleans offense and imagine the possibilities.

3. The offensive line is going to be better. Numbers would suggest the offensive line was very good last season, but that's not entirely true. Brees was sacked just 13 times, but a lot of the credit for that goes to his quick release.

The Saints used some smoke and mirrors on the offensive line last year. They opened the season with guard Jamar Nesbit suspended for the first four games and they had to throw rookie Carl Nicks in before he was fully ready. Center Jonathan Goodwin missed three games with injury problems and left tackle Jammal Brown missed a game.

Although Brown is dealing with a groin injury in camp at the moment, the rest of the line is healthy. Nicks came on faster last year than anyone expected and he and Jahri Evans now form one of the best guard tandems in the league. Pass blocking shouldn't be an issue with this group and the run blocking should improve.

4. There will be a running game this season. The Saints aren't going to suddenly take the ball out of Brees' hands because that would be flat-out stupid. But coach Sean Payton and his staff have spent a large chunk of the offseason thinking about ways to improve the running game. With an offensive mind like Payton, you have to believe he's come up with some ideas that will work.

Payton will be the first to tell you the Saints were way too inconsistent in the running game last year and he'd like to have a ground game that can eat a little bit of the clock. The plan is to use Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush as the main running backs and settle on a short-yardage runner from a bunch of guys who have been competing throughout the preseason.

Bush often gets criticized for not living up to his status as a second overall draft pick. But he was showing signs of being very productive before running into injury problems last season. He's never going to be a guy who you want to pound between the tackles 20 times a game.

But, if he can stay healthy, he can give the Saints big production as a runner and a receiver. Thomas is steady and he and Bush can give the Saints enough of a running game to balance things out.

5. The defense will be better. Ah, you knew we couldn't get through an entire column on the Saints without dwelling a bit on the defense. But we couldn't leave the defense out because it's going to make the offense better.

The Saints are going to make
some stops on defense this year. Under new coordinator Gregg Williams and with a lot of new personnel, they're also going to come up with some sacks and turnovers. That's only going to help the offense.

Brees put up those huge numbers last year without any help from the defense. Imagine what he can do when he gets a short field from time to time? Imagine what he can do with a better offense around him?