The Saints might look the same as they did in Super Bowl XLIV, but there are some major differences.
Sure, Sean Payton is still in the driver's seat, with his crutches in the passenger side. And the chassis looks the same: Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Will Smith, the offense of a thousand formations and the Gregg Williams defense of a million blitzes. But there has been a lot of redesign under the hood. The Saints are winning with the help of a lot of players who were not around, or who had minor roles, during the team's Super Bowl run.
Here's a closer look at some of the new features available only on the 2011 Saints. Some are already well known. Some are less visible. All are making an impact.
Jimmy Graham: Graham is no stranger to fantasy football players. He's that tight end who mysteriously appeared near the top of the cheat sheets in August, the one your brother-in-law drafted in the fifth round. ("I'll take this Graham guy, whoever he is.") Graham got some attention with four touchdowns in the final three games of 2010, but with just 11 catches for 80 yards in those games, it was hard to tell if he was anything more than a red zone flash-in-the-pan.
This season, Graham has grown from a goal-line surprise into the best pass-catching tight end in the league. He had four straight 100-yard games early in the season. He is on pace for 1,392 yards. Most amazingly, he has become the best deep threat for a team with four very good wide receivers. On passes marked "deep" by the official play-by-play (15 or more yards in the air), Brees and Graham are 17-of-24 for 469 yards and three touchdowns. As Jon Gruden noted in the Monday night game, the 260-pound Graham often runs deep routes to draw coverage so Devery Henderson - one of the league's fastest receivers - can run shorter routes underneath.
The Saints drafted Graham in the third round of the 2010 draft, even though Graham played only one season of football at Miami and caught only 17 passes. Graham focused on basketball in college, and although there's nothing new about scouting the hardwood for tight end prospects (see Antonio Gates), the Saints showed how it should be done. Their weapon-loaded offense allowed Graham to improve without pressure, and his role as an end-zone mismatch allowed him to contribute before he absorbed the full playbook. Graham is now a focal point of an offense with so many focal points that it can be dizzying to look at.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar: You probably remember the Saints' big fourth-and-1 overtime stop against the Falcons a few weeks ago. You might not remember the play that set it up: on third-and-1, Mike Cox caught a short pass in the flat, but Dunbar delivered a textbook open-field tackle. Cox tried to stretch for the first down, but with his momentum stopped, he could not extend far enough. "The fourth down play never would have had a chance had Dunbar not made such a great play on third down," Gregg Williams said.
Dunbar was a special teams standout for the 2009 Saints, but he was on injured reserve for the Super Bowl. Dunbar started a few games at outside linebacker between injuries last season, but with Johnathan Vilma recovering from knee surgery Dunbar is finally able to play his natural middle linebacker position. It's a tough job in Williams' system, which features a lot of presnap calls and adjustments. "It didn't take me long to realize how smart he was and how sharp he was. Jo-Lonn Dunbar is smart and he is tough as nails," Williams said.
Dunbar is second on the Saints with 48 total tackles. He had 10 tackles against the Giants on Monday and forced a fumble, his second of the season. When Vilma returns, Williams will have a dilemma on his hands: the defense has played better with Dunbar in the middle, particularly against the run.
Luckily, Williams' defense has enough looks and formations to keep everyone involved. And finding roles a smart, hard-hitting linebacker who can play multiple positions is the kind of problem most coaches would kill to have.
Brian De La Puente: The Saints took a big risk when they let center Jonathan Goodwin leave as a free agent after the lockout. The only true center on their roster when Goodwin left was Matt Tennant, a former undrafted rookie with little experience. Veteran Olin Kreutz arrived to take Goodwin's place, but the Saints soon learned what the Bears already knew: Kreutz was a shadow of his former Pro Bowl self. Kreutz retired, leaving a dangerous void in the middle of the Saints offensive line.
Enter De La Puente, a 26-year old "rookie" who has been involved in 20 roster transaction and zero games during a three-year non-career. De La Puente had two separate stints on the Seahawks' and 49ers' practice squads, and he also had cups of coffee with the Chiefs and Panthers. The former undrafted rookie from California appeared destined for the hinterlands of the CFL or UFL, not a starting job on one of the league's best offenses.
De La Puente learned enough during his practice squad world tour to make him more game-ready than Tennant, so he took over for Kreutz before the Colts game. He made a few mistakes in his early starts - the Rams mixed him up a few times in their upset win - but he has since settled down. Brees has not been sacked in three games, despite facing very good Giants and Falcons pass rushes. De La Puente has committed only one penalty. The center position is especially critical when blocking for Brees, who is barely 6 feet tall. De La Peunte is not only keeping his quarterback upright, but keeping hands out of his face.
Mark Ingram: If De La Puente is the most obscure rookie in the NFL, then Ingram is among the most famous - a Heisman winner whose face has graced the boxes of video games. Ingram's numbers (420 yards, four touchdowns, 4.0 yards per carry ) will not win him many Rookie of the Year votes, but he has made a major impact for a Saints team that had to throw shoulder pads on street free agents last season.
The Saints have a three-headed monster at running back, with Pierre Thomas handling all-purpose chores and Darren Sproles playing the speedster role. Ingram's job is to bang out tough yards in short-yardage situations, and he is good at it. Ingram is 12-for-16 on third and fourth down conversions, including a 5-yard run on fourth-and-3 against the Bears.
Ingram also gets the call frequently in the fourth quarter, when the Saints are trying to sit on the ball. He has carried 37 times for 161 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter this year, usually when the Saints are killing clock and looking for insurance touchdowns.
These are not mind-blowing numbers, but you must remember what life was like before Ingram to understand his importance. Last year, the Saints had to use retreads Julius Jones and LaDell Betts in important roles. Even in 2009, the team offered far too many carries to the likes of Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton. Ingram has replaced the one huge minus in the Saints offense with a solid plus.
Built for the Future: The Saints are far from a has-been champion trying to saddle up for one more Super Bowl run before Brees, Smith, Vilma and others pass their expiration dates. Graham, Ingram, De La Puente and Dunbar are just part of a young core that also includes defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson and defensive end Cameron Jordan. The Saints are built to be a very good team for several more seasons.
The Saints were upset in the playoffs by the Seahawks last year, partly because they lacked a playmaker at tight end (Graham was hurt), partly because they could not tackle (Dunbar was hurt) and partly because they were counting on fifth stringers at running back (Ingram was in college, everyone else was hurt). Any team expecting to see the same-old Saints in this year's playoffs will be in for some surprises.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.