It’s week 2 of the preseason and in come the Oakland Raiders, the New Orleans Saints’ second straight AFC West opponent. Last season, the Saints blew out the Raiders with the defense having one of its better performances. The Raiders will present similar challenges to the Saints defense that the Kansas City Chiefs did the week prior. Here are some things to look out for.
1) David Hawthorne
Jonathan Vilma underwent knee surgery this week and won’t play the rest of the preseason, but will be ready for the opener. Hawthorne, a forgotten man it seems, will step in and start in his absence. Don’t think of Hawthorne as place holder, keeping the seat warm for Vilma until he gets back. He has a real chance to snatch the starting inside linebacker job from Vilma. Vilma is older, slower, oft injured, and doesn’t fit well in the 3-4; so his job is anything but safe. Hawthorne was signed last offseason to come in and start, but was slowed by injuries. Before he was with the Saints he was a 100 plus tackle guy in the Seahawks’ 3-4 defense at the same inside linebacker position. Don’t sleep on Hawthorne, who led the Seahawks in tackle for 3 seasons, because I fully expect him to be starting Week 1.
2) Pierre Thomas and the running back competition
Thomas returned to practice this week and says he is ready to play. It is unclear how much work he will get, if any at all. However, in his absence, Mark Ingram hasn’t exactly taken the job with any authority. Assuming he plays this week, it will be interesting how the battle for the starting running spot plays out. The coaching staff really wants to make Ingram a factor, but the fact remains that Thomas is a more complete and talented runner. If Thomas gets work, I expect him to pick up where he left off and prove to be that solid starting running back. As for Ingram, he is going to get his chances this week; however, with Thomas back and active he better step his game up or he will be left behind.
3) The Wide Receiver Battle Continues
Last weeks’ game didn’t provide any separation between any one of the competitors at the wide receiver position. If anything, more names have been added to list of possible contenders for the 3rd wide receiver spot. Preston Parker, Andy Tanner, and Nick Toon showed up and gave impressive performances, while Kenny Stills made his share of mistakes but also flashed big play ability. This week, in addition to those guys, there is a chance we will see some more veterans with Steve Breaston and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Crayton getting some plays in. I still expect the competition to be fierce, however I believe Toon will have a chance to turn heads as I expect him to get more first team work with Drew Brees.
4) The Will Smith Project
Let’s face it; Will Smith was awful last week. His inability to get to the edge was embarrassing, and simple swing passes went for first downs. He will get a second chance against the Raiders who feature Darren McFadden, one of the most talented backs in the league. He will test the edges the same way Jamaal Charles did last week. Expect a heavy dose of dink and dunk offense from the Raiders, the same strategy the Chiefs used to go on an 80 yard drive to score. Smith isn’t the only culprit, just the most obvious one. Jay Richardson and the rest of the first team outside linebackers all showed deficiencies. The lack of speed will be remedied to an extent with the eventual return of Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, however, it is still unacceptable to have the perimeter guys be burned this badly.
5) Kenny Vaccaro
Against the Chiefs, Vaccaro played first team nickelback and second team safety. If the first game is any indication, Vaccaro will be the Darren Sproles of the defense just lining up everywhere. Against the Chiefs, he was everywhere and recorded 6 tackles. He also had a huge special teams hit that was called back because of an illegal procedure penalty. Vaccaro shows a lot of energy and is always where the action is. I want to see Vaccaro play on the back end for an extended period of time to see how he holds up, but for now Rob Ryan is just sprinkling him everywhere. I love Vaccaro’s energy, passion, and attitude, and I can’t wait to see how he does against the Raiders.