Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
Training camp and preseason football games are like one of those blank paintings you see at a modern art exhibit. You can see whatever you want to see and you can decide if it matters or not.
Did Junior Galette look awesome in the Saints scrimmage? Or is the offensive line going to be terrible? Both answers are correct, at least until the Saints start playing games that count.
The last three years I’ve basically ignored the exhibition games. Why? The Saints in 2010-11 were 24-8 and in 2010 had just won the Super Bowl. The Saints could have given up 100 points to an elementary school during the 2010 preseason and I’d have overlooked it. The shine of the Lombardi trophy has that effect.
Not this year. No, this year I’ve decided the exhibition games matter for the Saints defense.
If the offense looks terrible I’m still willing to believe my eyes are lying to me because there are seven years of Drew Brees being awesome which makes it fine to say, “They’ll be good once the real games start. They always are.”
The defense gets no such leeway.
This defense has been atrocious for two years, and if they look horrible again this preseason, expecting them to suddenly look good once the games count against Atlanta is a wish wrapped in dream.
Sometimes the preseason is a mirage and doesn’t matter. The 2006 Saints looked every bit the four win team a lot experts thought they’d be. Five months later they were in an NFC Championship and no one saw it coming.
Then there was last year where Blaine Gabbert went 13-16 for 112 yards and two touchdown passes against the Saints defense in the preseason. Blaine Gabbert has trouble going 13-16 in pregame warm-ups and will be in Canada in 2014 so the fact he took to the Saints defense like an ax murder in a 1970’s slasher film was a giant neon sign screaming, “THIS DEFENSE IS A DISASTER. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.”
If we had wanted to see it, the evidence of how 2012 was going to go was right in front of us.
On the flip side, the defense could look really good like it did in the 2009 preseason, and if it does, I’ll write a love letter to Rob Ryan. I might even include a haiku about his long flowing hair.
Just know if Alex Smith looks like he did in the playoff game in San Francisco or Matt Flynn makes the Raider offense look NFL-quality, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a sunny outlook for the 2013 defense.
Here are some specific things I’ll be looking at this preseason…
1. How do the nose tackle and inside linebackers hold up against the run?
My sense is Brodrick Bunkley won’t be very good in the 3-4. So that means the Saints will be counting on a couple kids to hold down the nose tackle spot.
Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins are going to have to not get pushed around. I won’t be watching to see if they make tackles. It’s more to see if they can win one-on-one match ups. For the 3-4 to work, the nose has to demand a double team which frees up inside linebackers to make plays. If Hicks and Jenkins can look good and force double-teams, the defense has a chance to be better against the run.
I want John Jenkins to be good so bad it’s borderline unhealthy. Is there anything more fun than a fat guy defense player who is good? Of course not. Oh look, Jenkins just sat on Matt Ryan like a sumo wrestler. Somebody buy that man a Domilise's po-boy to celebrate.
2. Does Kenny Vaccaro show more potential to be the most disliked Saints defender by opposing teams and fans in a generation?
Mr. Vaccaro is making quite the name for himself so far. He’s flying all over the place, jawing with Jimmy Graham, being overly aggressive and might have become a player Saints fans love and everyone else loathes. The rest of the NFL already hates the Saints because of the bounty fiasco and because Sean Payton is both brilliant and arrogant. Kenny Vaccaro can be the player who represents every reason other fans and media hate the Saints. Embrace the dark side Kenny. We’ll love you for it.
Offense is about precision and timing, but defense is about aggression -- blowing things up and playing on the edge. The Saints had no edge last year. Maybe it was because Bountygate stole their aggressiveness or not having Sean Payton around. Whatever it was, they need it back and players like Vaccaro do it. He only gets to talk smack and annoy other teams, fans and media by being good though.
3. Does Rob Ryan show everything or nothing?
Gregg Williams blitzed like crazy in preseason games sometimes. In 2011, he tried to break Alex Smith in half in an exhibition game and ticked off Jim Harbaugh. Will Rob Ryan break out some real exotic stuff?
Some coaches think you show nothing during preseason so teams have no idea what you might do in the regular season. Others think you run a ton of stuff and force teams to prepare for everything and the kitchen sink.
Those first 10 minutes Friday with players we recognize are important and for the rest of it just get on Twitter and make jokes about Andy Reid’s mustache and Sean Payton’s tan.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.