NEW ORLEANS If the New Orleans Saints second preseason game feels like a homecoming, well, that's because it is.
The Saints escaped the oppressive summer heat for three weeks, leaving behind their Metairie digs in favor of the cool mountain air at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.
The city, meanwhile, has been sweating it out, waiting for a glimpse of the team many believe will be among a select few legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Finally, Friday's 7 p.m. preseason home opener against the Tennesse Titans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome offers that first look for all those unable to catch one at 'America's Resort.'
For the Saints, though, it's a homecoming that's been three weeks in the making. And despite an affinity for its new summer getaway, the team is thrilled to have returned.
'The facilities (Greenbrier owner) Mr. (Jim) Justice put together for us and the hospitality that we've been shown in West Virginia by the local fans and people traveling from all over the country, that's awesome,' wide receiver Nick Toon said Wednesday.
But, he added, 'We're ready to come home. We're ready to come home and get back to the local crowd so they can come out and check out practice, get back in the dome and hopefully get this W on Friday.'
The Saints will probably have to eke this one out without quarterback Drew Brees, though. He's been out since injuring his left oblique on Aug. 1. Moreover, head coach Sean Payton doesn't want to hasten his return.
'He's progressing well,' Payton said. 'All of those things are good signs and each day he does a little bit more with the training room and then (on the practice field). We just keep working on the rehab and making sure functionally that we aren't stressing it to where it sets him back.'
Brees is smart, he added, 'and he understands that the type of strain he has is something that can reoccur if you are not careful if you don't let it heal properly.'
In Brees' absence, former Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin and veteran Luke McCown have split the majority of the reps at practice. Nevertheless, the challenge, Payton said, lies in getting them equal reps with the first unit in games.
It's important, he said, to see them both with the ones because 'when you are evaluating the quarterback in a preseason game, you want to make sure he's getting protection.
'Sometimes in the second half,' he added, 'there might be a breakdown in protection and then it really blurs the evaluation of the player because he wasn't able to set his feet. So, who's around him, no different than in our starting lineup, is important.'
McCown started last week in St. Louis, where he was 7 of 10 for 49 yards and an interception. Griffin, meanwhile, was 16 of 23 for 179 yards and a touchdown, proving to be the more effective of the two while playing on more than twice as many snaps (39 to 17).
So does Payton have any interest in seeing Griffin start?
'Obviously yes,' he answered. 'Now, whether (Griffin) receives work with the ones in this game is to be determined.'
With competition at nearly every position, players such as running back Mark Ingram (eight carries for 83 yards and a touchdown), wide receiver Brandon Cooks (five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown), defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker (five tackles, three for a loss and a sack) and offensive lineman Jason Weaver (who led the way on Ingram and Khiry Robinson's touchdowns) will be on display, hoping to build on their strong outings in St. Louis.
However, what won't be is the upgraded Saints secondary, most of which has been banged up since Day 1.
After a more than two-week absence, Champ Bailey returned on limited basis Tuesday, participating in non-contact drills only.
Then, Patrick Robinson, who looks to be Bailey's primary competition to start opposite Keenan Lewis, left practice Sunday and has yet to return.
'I don't anticipate him being out a whole lot of time,' Payton said Monday. 'He's in good shape and he was smart enough yesterday he just felt it get tight and he pulled off.
'Patrick's coming off a major surgery (after injuring his knee in Week 2 against Tampa Bay last season) and Champ's someone that's smart enough to know his body and obviously wants to make sure he's 100 percent,' he added.
With those two out, the next man up, and waiting in the wings is Corey White, a fifth-round pick out of Samford in 2012. He says he wants to start, and Friday will be as good an audition as any.
As for Jairus Byrd, the team's prized free-agent acquisition who had offseason back surgery, he likely won't suit up either. He began camp on the physically unable to perform list and didn't return to the active roster until July 29. The team is taking every precaution with him, and he's avoided all live team drills to date.
Consequently, rookie Vinnie Sunseri and CFL discovery Marcus Ball have impressed the coaches by taking advantage of the extra reps.
Taking notice, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who said he's 'excited' about Sunseri's progress.
'He's got a great bloodline,' Ryan said. 'He takes coaching (well), obviously a coach's kid.'
Payton, meanwhile, has singled out Ball for his strong play on numerous occasions, including an interception and a sack during the Black and Gold Scrimmage.
Yet, Ball chooses not to focus on that.
'I can only hope to get better each and every day and give the coaches what they've asked of me and do what I have to do to improve myself and be the best I can be for my team,' he said.
With so many players vying for so few roster spots, there's no shortage of players who've echoed Ball's sentiments.
Still, there are even more who've repeated his message to Saints fans anxious for their first peek at this year's team.
That message: 'Who Dat!'