The New Orleans Saints are looking to the start of their 2013 preseason schedule with tremendous anticipation.
The 7 p.m. game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the Kansas City Chiefs will be Head Coach Sean Payton's first game back in the iconic stadium since a Jan. 7, 2012 playoff victory over the Detroit Lions.
"I think this time of the year people are excited because the sea- son is getting ready to start and there is some uniqueness
to it because our whole team is intact, including the coaching staff," Payton said. "It's good to be back though. I know I'm excited and our staff is."
Under Payton, the Saints are 13-12 in the preseason, as he uses this time to allow players to showcase their talent and fight for a roster spot. The active roster must be reduced to 75 players on August 27 and on August 31 it will be narrowed down to the final 53.
"The goal this year is to find the right 53," Payton said. "That's the number one thing and we as coaches need to have the proper teaching installation that allows guys to be up to speed so that we can evaluate and that we can make the best decisions concerning the roster."
In his first year as head coach of the Chiefs, Andy Reid looks to lead his team to an improved record after their 2-14 finish in 2012. Reid comes to Kansas City after 14 years with the Philadelphia Eagles where he compiled a 130-93 record.
"We were blessed to be there and sometimes change is good; change will be tremendous for the Philadelphia Eagles, and on the other hand, it will be terrific for the Kansas City Chiefs," Reid said during his introductory press conference.
Reid looks to revamp a Kansas City offense with new quarterbacks Alex Smith and Chase Daniel. Smith joined the Chiefs in an offseason trade with the San Francisco 49ers.
The last time the Saints met Smith was during the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers when Smith connected with tight end Vernon Davis with 9 seconds left for a 14-yard touchdown pass to end the Saints' playoff run.
Daniel also signed with Kansas City in the offseason and will return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for his first contest in red and white.
Daniel first joined the Saints in 2009 and spent four seasons as an understudy to Saints quarterback Drew Brees, appearing in 45 career contests and completing seven-of-nine passes.
The Saints look to rebound after a disappointing 7-9 record in 2012. The offense finished ranked second in the league in net yards per game (410.9) and third in scoring (28.8 points per game) but the defense gave up an NFL record 7,042 yards.
Brees surpassed the 5,000-yard mark once again, becoming the only quarterback to surpass the mark three times.
The defense is hoping to gain valuable experience in the preseason as the team adapts to a new scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan joined the Saints in the offseason after serving as the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys the last two seasons. Ryan brings 26 years of coaching experience, including the past nine as a defensive coordinator, to his post where has installed his 3-4 defense.
Saints inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he is supportive of the new system.
"I think guys are really understanding the (concepts of) defense and what Rob Ryan wants," he said, "and we're coming out here, we're executing and we're mak- ing plays off of it."
"I think he has brought that enthusiasm," Payton said of Ryan. "It's contagious to that room. I think they have responded very well. I think the coaches on defense have worked very hard at just teaching the scheme and making sure the players understand what goes along with good defense and the points of emphasis such as tackling and blocking. Some of those things are hard to do without the pads but pursuit, effort and energy, all of those things that accompany a good defense, we saw glimpses of."
The Saints made another important addition to their defense when cornerback Keenan Lewis was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers. During his four years in Pittsburgh, the New Orleans native appeared in 45 games with 17 starts, recording 111 tackles (95 solo), one interception, 34 passes defensed and one forced fumble.
"I am playing for my city," Lewis said. "Other places, you go out, you are playing because you like the game, and it is what you do. Playing for your city, I think just means much more for me. I know I have to go out there and show up."
Another group of players eager to begin their career tonight will be the Saints' 2013 draft class: safety Kenny Vaccaro, tackle Terron Armstead, nose tackle John Jenkins, wide receiver Kenny Stills and outside linebacker Rufus Johnson.
Stills, for one, is excited to play in front of his new fans.
"It's great to be in a place where football is so important and you feel like they are counting on you to play so well," he said. "It's been great to be surrounded by such great fans."