1. The Bucs and Saints played in week two of this season. What's changed for New Orleans since then?
Wow, that is such an interesting question. Since then, the Saints lost two games and looked out of it. They then won four in a row and many Saints fans were fooled into believing that the team could go somewhere this season. But the defense, even in their wins, was abysmal. Outscoring teams and hanging on for dear life was the M.O. and we all know that it is a model that never lasts. So of course after getting to 4-4, the offense couldn't keep bailing the defense out. The rest is (bad) history in the making.
2. Has firing Rob Ryan done much to fix the Saints defense? And what do you expect them to do get the unit corrected this offseason?
Firing Rob Ryan may eventually lead to improvements in the Saints' defense, but so far, we haven't seen them. Ryan was let go after a 47-14 drubbing by the Redskins and the Saints had a bye week to start learning Dennis Allen's new system. In the two games since Allen has taken the defensive reins, the Saints lost 24-6 to the Texans, giving up 4.4 yards per carry (167 total rushing yards) and a 107.6 quarterback rating to Brian Hoyer. Then last week, they allowed 41 points to the Panthers, 497 net yards, a five touchdowns, no picks, and 122.1 quarterback rating to Cam Newton. Sooooo...nowhere to go but up?
3. The Saints really haven't had much success the last few years. Is Sean Payton coming under pressure, or does everyone still believe he's the right man for the job and the problems are not his fault?
Since making the playoffs in 2013, after going 11-5 and winning a playoff game in Philadelphia. The Saints have gone 11-17 and haven't been above .500 for nearly two full seasons. In the middle of this decline, Sean Payton bears the brunt of the blame. He has made some terrible moves, let some players go that were still essential to the team (Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham come to mind) while bringing in some free agents that turned disastrous (Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner, Dannell Ellerbe...). Payton has also completely whiffed on several draft picks. Although most people think that Payton is still a good coach, he just seems to have lost the fire in New Orleans. At this point, I think that Saints fans are almost split 50-50 on wanting Payton to leave or stay this offseason. That's a long way away from when people would have elected him mayor of New Orleans after the Super Bowl win in 2009
4. How big of a blow is losing Mark Ingram for the Saints offense? Who will they turn to fill the hole he leaves behind?
It's big. Ingram was having perhaps his best season in a Saints' uniform, one that was overshadowed by the team's ineptitude. He was averaging 4.6 yards per carry, with six rushing touchdowns and 769 yard on the ground. On top of that, Ingram was third on the Saints with 50 receptions for 405 yards. Hard to replace such an asset.
To replace him, the Saints will turn to C.J. Spiller, another free agent signing that has turned out to be a bust for the Saints (at least so far). They'll also use Tim Hightower, the seldom used former Arizona Cardinals running back who was with the team during training camp and was recently re-signed. Spiller can pick up the slack on the receiving portion of the game, but as far as running between the tackles, I believe the Saints will try and rely on Hightower. Or, you know, they could just start passing the ball 80% of the time, which wouldn't be too far from what they usually like doing anyway.
5. Who have had breakout seasons for the Saints this year? Are there any unexpected stars or major disappointments on the roster?
I'm going to focus on players on the defensive side here, which is somewhat paradoxical, given how terrible the Saints' defense has been as a whole. But in the midst of a disappointing season, the Saints (and their fans) are really encouraged by the progress of the 2015 defensive draft class. It starts with middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, who right now looks like he'll be a starter at that position for New Orleans for a while. Anthony has started since week one and keeps improving. Defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha is another player who has been a bright spot on a bad defense. Another notable success story is rookie cornerback Damian Swann, who was playing really well before being besieged by concussion issues.
The main breakout star for the Saints in 2015 however is undrafted free agent cornerback Delvin Breaux. He is a player who overcame a devastating neck injury, played in the CFL, and was signed by the Saints in training camp without much fanfare, only to win the starting cornerback spot across from Brandon Browner and Keenan Lewis. Breaux was on the field even when Lewis and Browner were both healthy enough to play, that's how much the Saints' staff thought of him. Breaux suffered a hamstring injury against the Panthers last week, so you may not get to see him at full strength (if at all) this week, but he's definitely a player to keep an eye on.