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Lynne Firmin

After more than four months of the NFL lockout that seemedendless and unnecessary, we’ve reached the midpoint of thepreseason where game and player analyses and season predictionshave worked their way back into typical football discussions.

The New Orleans Saints took down the San Francisco 49ers duringtheir kick-off game on Aug. 12 to get the Who Dat Nation fired upfor the fall, but the latest competition against the Houston Texanssparked some doubt. Perhaps the time quarterback Drew Brees and histeammates spent on Tulane’s practice field this summer wasineffective without their leader Sean Payton. The team might bestill coping with the release of running back Reggie Bush. Whateverthe excuse may be, the Saints managed to turn the ball over threetimes against the Texans.

There’s really no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Texanswalked all over the Saints last Sunday. Brees was successful forthe most part, but he had some weak moments that can end up beinggame-changers in the ones that matter. A clumsy fumble, a lobbedpass that was nearly intercepted and a ball poorly thrown behind awide-open Darren Sproles serve as a few examples of performancethat is subpar for a Super Bowl champion. On the other hand,running back Pierre Thomas gave a promising glimmer of a strongrunning game, averaging more than 5 yards per carry. Thomasremained alert and quickly demonstrated the talent and confidenceof an experienced Saints player. Fans have high hopes for rookieMark Ingram, who managed one touchdown against the Texans andSproles.

The biggest concerns arose when the Saints offensive line was onthe bench and Matt Schaub took the spotlight. During the firsthalf, New Orleans’ defense gave up more than 300 yards and 24points. The absence of starters Tracy Porter and Maclolm Jenkins isno excuse for the sloppiness and sluggishness that the Saintsdefense demonstrated. It seemed as though the defensive linewillingly parted ways to allow gaps for Houston’s rushing game.Texans running back Arian Foster scored two touchdowns in the firstquarter, before the Saints earned any points at all. Defensivecoordinator Gregg Williams, who has barely spoken to the presssince the win against San Francisco, certainly has some work to doto get these players ready for prime time.

“It was just far too many inconsistencies for our liking,”Payton said. “I thought we weren’t as ready maybe as I thought wewere the last week we played. I thought we were sluggish and Ithought they looked sharp.”

While shrugging a preseason game off as meaningless is common,the loss to the Texans demonstrated reasons to be concerned aboutthe upcoming season. The final two weeks of preseason are importantand the Saints deem their most recent performance asunacceptable.

The team flew out to Oxnard, Calif. on Monday to spend the weektraining before competing against the Raiders on Sunday. Theflawless weather has provided the team with a refreshingalternative to the heat, humidity and thunderstorms that are commonduring August in New Orleans. A “refreshing” final week oftraining, however, marks the beginning of a lot of work that needsto be done.

So far, Thomas is looking healthier than ever and provinghimself to be a critical part to the Saints anticipated strongrushing strategy. The Saints seem optimistic about this week oftraining. The better weather and cooler environment will hopefullyallow the team to get more done with less water breaks. The neutralground allows fewer distractions, and the living arrangements andfacilities are in closer proximity of each other than in Metairie,La. The players hope to quickly redeem themselves against Oaklandon Sunday before returning to the Big Easy to play their lastpreseason game and gear up for the prime-time kickoff at LambeauField on Sept. 8th in the team’s season opener.