1. JONATHAN VILMA AND VICTOR BUTLER. The two linebackers possibly can return during the final 10 games, but health will dictate that. So far, the defense hasn’t appeared to have been affected by their absences but the fact is this: They were penciled in as starters for a reason. If they’re healthy and up to speed, their additions only can help a defense that already has been a pleasant surprise. Vilma’s knowledge, and Butler’s potential as a pass rusher, will add elements or enhance ones that already are present.
2. PUMP THE BRAKES.
3. FULL SPEED AHEAD. Defensively, the Saints have been opportunistic and efficient. How they adjust to opponents’ counters will be critical, now that there’s sufficient reason to believe that this isn’t a fluke. New Orleans already has eight interceptions (after finishing last season with 15) and 20 sacks (30 last year). If it can maintain that pace, and continue getting off the field (opponents are converting 35.2 percent on third down), then it can continue to limit the points (17 per game) and continue giving the offense more opportunities.
4. LANCE MOORE. The sure-handed receiver has missed the last three games with a hand injury. Getting him back on the field for the stretch run will be big, because he’s a reliable target for Brees who’ll be able to take advantage when defenses crowd tight end
5. JIMMY GRAHAM. You didn’t think he’d be left off the list, did you? Probably, the tight end this season already has seen every coverage an NFL tight end can see. As he continues to mature, he’ll continue to learn how to deal with them. We’ll count as an exception him being shut out against New England, rather than the rule, because few teams have a player as talented as Talib Aquib to counter Graham with. He’s averaging 99 yards and a touchdown per game. That pace may slow but his impact shouldn’t.
6. THE NEW BLOOD. Three players – running backs
7. AND SPEAKING OF KHIRY. The undrafted rookie has worked his way into the rotation and it’s not going to be easy to displace him. He leads the team in yards per carry (5.3, the only one above 3.9) and has shown toughness between the tackles and speed to turn the corner. He has been a good compliment to what
8. KENNY VACCARO. Vaccaro has been exactly what the Saints thought they were getting in the first round when they picked him. He starts, can play multiple positions, is physical, can cover, can make plays in critical situations and only should get better as he gets more familiar with opponents’ tendencies. He has 38 tackles, an interception, a sack and three passes defensed (including the end-zone deflection on Atlanta’s final offensive play, which led to
9. ROAD WARRIORS. New Orleans is 2-1 on the road, with future visits scheduled to the Jets, Falcons, Seahawks, Rams and Panthers. Good teams, Coach Sean Payton said, win on the road and the Saints will need to continue to be successful there if they hope to secure home-field advantage in the NFC. So, assuming they handle business at home – and that won’t be a small task – road wins likely will determine how many home playoff games, if any, the Saints get to play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
10. WELCOME BACK. The possible return of Vilma, Butler and Moore was mentioned earlier. They’re among 10 projected starters who won’t play, haven’t yet played or have missed playing time due to injury this season. So while the Saints have maintained and thrived without them, it certainly would be nice if several are able to return for all, most or some of the final 10 games. Quality depth would be a strength, as either a projected starter would work his way back into form as a reserve, or a reserve who has been starting would be able to use the experience he gained off the bench. But it all starts with players getting healthy again, and the team remaining relatively injury-free down the stretch.