In all honesty, there's just too much happening to jam it all into five key ingredients for the New Orleans Saints entering their regular-season opener against the Falcons in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday. There are enough storylines and plots to pull out 10, 15 elements that will be worth focusing on. But since we're going to stick to the script, five it'll be. These five, for our money, will be the most prominent ones:
1. HE'S BACK, PART 1: The return of receiver Michael Thomas cannot be overstated. The NFL's Offensive Player of the Year from 2019 hasn't been this healthy since that season – he didn't play at all last year and the Saints sorely missed him on offense. Simply, Thomas commands extra attention from a defense. He's open even when he isn't "open," has a set of the best hands in the league and if a team dares to cover him one-on-one, he'll have a field day. His presence shouldn't just help a passing game that struggled last season, but also should help alleviate some of the pressure on running back Alvin Kamara. If there is one less set of eyes on Kamara due to Thomas' presence – and there should be – then that's a huge plus.
2. HE'S BACK, PART 2: Jameis Winston speaks as if he almost looks at 2021 as a season in which he didn't play, but the quarterback started the first seven games before tearing his left ACL. Like Thomas, he's back and those seven games of acclimation should help Winston this season. True, he didn't play with any of his primary receivers (Thomas, free agent signee Jarvis Landry and rookie Chris Olave) last year. But Winston has the talent to do whatever the Saints ask of him offensively, and there's no reason that the entirety of the playbook won't be at his fingertips. As always at his position, minimizing turnovers is the key. He has a good enough defense that he doesn't need to take unnecessary risks.
3. READ ALL ABOUT IT: Speaking of the defense, it'll have to be at its sharpest mentally. The Falcons have a new starting quarterback in Marcus Mariota, and Mariota is capable of executing the zone read offense that, at times, has been problematic for the Saints. And when he does drop back to pass, he's able to buy time for receivers to break free. The pass rushers have to be disciplined enough to hem in Mariota, and the secondary has to be disciplined enough to stick with receivers perhaps a second or two longer, and the linebackers have to be disciplined enough to make the right reads against the zone read. A lot of discipline involved in this one.
4. HE'S BACK, PART 3: Can't forget about kicker Wil Lutz. He missed all of last season, too, and New Orleans' kicking game was a mess without him. Inaccurate kicking probably cost the Saints a couple of wins and playoff berth last season; having Lutz back and healthy alleviates that concern and give New Orleans a weapon that it won't hesitate to use in game-winning scenarios. If Sunday's game comes down to a kick for the Saints, there's confidence that Lutz will handle the situation.
5. PITTS CREW: Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts is kind of a unicorn; he's much more receiver than tight end, and he'll line up all over the place. Who gets the assignment to cover him? Who's capable? The Saints are a little thinner in the secondary with cornerback Paulson Adebo sidelined (Bradley Roby will start in his place, and P.J. Williams goes to the nickel). There are several candidates for the duty of tracking Pitts, and don't be surprised if Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore doesn't match up against him a few times. But pressuring Mariota will be just as vital, because if he's under duress, he won't have as much time to seek out Pitts. Defensive end Cameron Jordan set an NFL record by sacking Matt Ryan 23 times, the most one player has sacked another in league history. He and his crew need to get to Mariota just as successfully.
Go behind-the-scenes at the Saints hype video shoot with New Orleans rap artist Rob49 ahead of the team's season opener against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season.