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Inside the Game: Saints vs Browns preview

THE MATCHUP

The New Orleans Saints open their 2017 preseason against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. CST. This is the first matchup between the two clubs since they met in Cleveland on September 14, 2014, when a Billy Cundiff field goal with three seconds remaining gave the Browns a 26-24 win.

New Orleans will be eager to open its four-game preseason slate after two weeks of practices, meetings and weight and conditioning workouts with the complete focus on improvement from 2016’s 7-9 record. The Browns finished 1-15 in 2016, earning the top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, with which they selected Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett, who will make his National Football League playing debut Thursday night.

The two teams have faced one another only twice in exhibition play and not since 1982. That year, the Browns won 20-17 in New Orleans. The Black and Gold won the only other preseason matchup, 40-27, on Aug. 8, 1968 at Tulane Stadium.

Coach Sean Payton has posted a 19-22 overall record in the preseason, using the time to evaluate the entire roster and prepare for the regular season, while also providing players the opportunity to showcase their talents and compete for roster spots.

QB Drew Brees will once again lead an offensive unit that finished first in the NFL in net yards per game (426.0) in 2016, the team’s sixth time as league-leaders since 2006, when he and Payton first joined forces. Brees completed 471-of-673 passes (70.0%) for an NFL-best 5,208 yards with 37 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a 101.7 passer rating, capturing the league passing title for an NFL-record seventh time. Brees notched his fifth career season with over 5,000 yards through the air; no other quarterback has accomplished the feat more than once. The running game will be headlined by a dynamic duo, featuring Mark Ingram, who posted the club’s first 1,000yard rushing season since 2006 in 2016 and 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. WR Michael Thomas is coming off of a fantastic rookie campaign, racking up 1,137 yards on 92 catches with 9 touchdowns. He will be joined at wideout by veterans Willie Snead IV, Brandon Coleman, and NFL stalwart Ted Ginn, Jr, who joined the Saints as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason after enjoying two of the most productive seasons of his career in Carolina.

DE Cameron Jordan, whose 7.5 sacks in 2016 led the team for the second consecutive year, once again anchors the New Orleans defensive line, where he will be supported by 2016 draft choices Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata. The young, talented linebacker corps includes Craig Robertson, who led the team with 131 stops, Stephone Anthony, A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o, Nate Stupar, and 2017 third-round pick Alex Anzalone. The secondary is led by a veteran quartet in CB Delvin Breaux, S Rafael Bush, CB Sterling Moore and S Kenny Vaccaro. They are joined by a group of youthful defenders in S Vonn Bell, CB P.J. Williams, 2017 first-round pick Marshon Lattimore, and 2017 second-round pick Marcus Williams.

The special teams unit is highlighted by P Thomas Morstead, who boasts the third-highest career net punting average in NFL history (41.2). K Wil Lutz returns after a rookie campaign in which he hit 28-34 field goals (82.4%) and 49-50 PATs. Travaris Cadet, Ginn, Alvin Kamara and Tommylee Lewis are all competing for kickoff and punt return roles.

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