With two weeks of training camp in the books, the New Orleans Saints are set to return to the field by facing the San Francisco 49ers in their first preseason game.
The preseason opener marks the first time the Saints will take the field after a loss at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, a loss that has fueled competition at virtually every position in Saints' training camp.
"It's been a long and different off-season to say the least," said Saints' veteran defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. "We are ready and excited to get this started tonight. We've been going at each other for two straight weeks in camp. We're ready to see someone different and see how we stack up."
This is the first time since 2003 and the third time overall that the Saints have faced the 49ers in the preseason. The last contest was held in San Francisco on August 23, 2003, which the Saints lost, 27-12.
The first meeting, which the Saints won 24-10, was on August 26, 1967 in Portland, Oregon. The last time that these two teams faced off was in week two of the 2010 NFL season.
The Saints traveled to Candlestick Park for Monday Night Football and came out with a win, 25-22. Despite winning the last six contests, four of which were held in the Louisiana Superdome, the Saints trail the 49ers all time with a combined 24-45-2 record in regular season games.
Under Head Coach Sean Payton, the Saints are 11-10 in the preseason, yet the Saints' leader has always been adamant about giving his players an opportunity to test themselves under game conditions.
Since joining the club, Payton's best preseason came in 2009, finishing 3-1, and eventually leading the team to its first Super Bowl victory against the Indianapolis Colts. The Saints enter the start of the 2011 season looking to build on their 2010 successes.
After leading the league in both categories for the previous two years, the team saw a minor drop-off in the offensive attack, ranking 6th in yardage and 11th in scoring at the conclusion of the 2010 season. The team finished first in third down conversion percentage, converting on almost half of their attempts.
"The 49ers had an up-and-down season last year, but they have made significant changes to their roster and coaching staff," said Payton. "We went out there on a Monday night last year and had our hands full until the final seconds. Jim Harbaugh did a great job at Stanford and I am sure he and his team, much like us, are anxious to get this started. There are a lot of new faces for both teams, and this will be a good first test."
One player, while not a fresh face in the Crescent City, is ready to get rolling on the Superdome sod. QB Drew Brees finished third in the league with 4,620 passing yards and tied for second with 33 touchdown passes. The quarterback led the league in completion percentage, connecting on 448 of his 658 attempts (68.1%).
Brees has found success in New Orleans, having thrown for over 4,300 yards with 25 TDs in every season since joining the Saints in 2006. RB Chris Ivory, out of Tiffin University, emerged as the team's leading rusher last season. Ivory saw his first action in week three and got his first start in week four after numerous injuries to the team's running back position group.
Ivory recorded 716 yards with five TDs while only starting four games for the team. Overall, the Saints finished 28th in rushing while averaging almost 95 yards per game. Ivory returns in 2011 to help a strong running back group improve.
Yet, he is far from alone in the team's backfield. In the first week of training camp, the team traded RB/PR Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins. Hoping to step up is the club's second selection (No. 28) in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft: Mark Ingram.
The Saints also signed free agent RB Darren Sproles, who has spent his entire pro career as a San Diego Charger. Sproles looks to contribute not just offensively, but on special teams as well. The former Charger leads all NFL players with 8,260 all-purpose yards since 2007.
Pierre Thomas appears healthy after a season in which a nagging injury helped keep him under wraps.
"The loss to Seattle in the playoffs left us with a bad taste in our mouths," said Brees. "We're ready to get out there and play. This is what we have been waiting for. I'm excited to see what the new additions to the team will add to our offense, especially at the running back position with Darren and Ingram. But I suspect there are some other young guys who will be battling and trying to maximize each opportunity they get."
The team was also able to reach a deal with unrestricted free agents T Jermon Bushrod and WR Lance Moore.
Bushrod returns to his left tackle spot on the offensive line. In 2010, Moore was a major contributor on offense, leading the team with eight TD catches while adding 763 receiving yards.
Moore joins receivers Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and TE Jimmy Graham as targets in 2011 for Brees.
On the defensive side of the ball, Coordinator Gregg Williams returns for his third season. Williams' defense finished fourth in the NFL in total defense in 2010.
The defense is led by LB Jonathan Vilma. For the third straight year, he led the team with 131 tackles, while also recording a career-high four sacks. Vilma has led the team in tackles in all three of his seasons in New Orleans, recording more than 100 stops in each.
The team was able to re-sign multiple free agents from the defensive side of the ball including: S Roman Harper, LB Scott Shanle, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and LB Danny Clark.
The Saints also added DT Shaun Rogers, LB Will Herring, CB Fabian Washington and DT Aubrayo Franklin as unrestricted free agents and acquired S Jonathon Amaya in the trade with Miami.
"New faces and change is part of the business," Harper said. "It's usually about which teams make the changes the quickest that have the most success."
In his first year as head coach, Harbaugh looks to lead the 49ers to an improved record after the team finished 6-10 in 2010. He will make his NFL coaching debut against the Saints in week one of the preseason.
The 49ers offense is led by RB Frank Gore, WR Michael Crabtree, and TE Vernon Davis. QB Alex Smith was re-signed in free agency. LB Patrick Willis leads the defense. Willis recorded 128 stops in 15 games last season. In 2010, the 49ers finished ranked 24th on offense and 13th in total defense.
The team finished third in the NFC West but only one game out of first place.
"The 49ers have a very physical run game led by Frank Gore, who I have seen run plenty of people over as a teammate in high school and college," said linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
"We've worked hard the past two weeks in training camp and this will be an indicator of where the defense stands and what we need to improve on. I'm ready to get out there again."