We've been clamoring, and now the 2018 regular season finally is here.
Remember this: To paraphrase what a wise veteran says, past success doesn't guarantee a carryover. The work has to be done, steps can't be skipped, the process can't be circumvented. Those are keys to a successful season. Here are a few keys to success in the opening game, against Tampa Bay on Sunday:
- It's not all that sexy to talk about third-down conversions and rushing yards, but if you want a decent barometer of who'll win Sunday's game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, check on the status of those categories. In six games over the last three seasons, the winner of the Saints-Bucs game has had more rushing yards five times and a better third-down conversion rate four times. It's not an absolute must to win in those departments, but it has been a good indication of success. The Saints have to do a better job getting off the field on third down this season (opponents converted 41 percent last year), and have to be better on third-down conversions (37.6 percent last year). It'll be interesting to see how New Orleans fares running the ball minus Pro Bowler Mark Ingram, but it'll have to be effective against what appears to be an improved Bucs defense.
- Speaking of running backs, Alvin Kamara publicly hasn't gone around lobbying for a heavier workload, but he also hasn't been shy about saying he's ready if that's what the team needs. The second-year back, and 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, very well may have a noticeable bump from the 7.5 carries and five catches per game he had as a rookie, especially during Ingram's four-game absence. Last year, his touches increased from four carries and five catches per game in the first four, when Adrian Peterson still was on the roster, to 8.8 carries and 5.1 catches per game in the last 12, after Peterson was traded and the rotation was paired to Kamara and Ingram. If the Saints are going to roll with two running backs in this game – as of Friday, only Kamara and Mike Gillislee were on the 53-man roster – then Kamara's visibility should be even higher as a runner, receiver and decoy.
- If ever Cam Jordan needed his defensive line mates to help him wreak havoc, this would be the season. Jordan was an All-Pro last year, with 13 sacks and 11 passes defensed among a litany of numbers that jumped off the page. More than ever, opposing offenses will know where he is and when they aren't giving him special attention, they likely will attempt to avoid him altogether. Sheldon Rankins could be poised for a breakout year at defensive tackle, and David Onyemata has high-impact ability. If Alex Okafor totally is healthy and Marcus Davenport is what he appeared to be during preseason, then the right defensive end position will be fine. Let's see how they fare in their first test, against Tampa Bay's offensive line and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
- I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to the matchup between Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Bucs receiver Mike Evans – and not just because of the animosity that was sparked by an Evans cheap shot last year. He's one of the premier receivers in the league, and Lattimore has all the makings of a shut-down corner. There also is the matter of the rest of the secondary against Bucs speedster Desean Jackson (cornerback Ken Crawley may get lots of work there). New Orleans appears to have an improved secondary, and it'll be tested in Week 1.
- Don't be surprised if rookie receiver Tre'Quan Smith has a significant presence. He just appears to be ready for this, and not overwhelmed.