By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Bayou Bounty Hunter

In 2011, the Saints brought in Darren Sproles. They drafted Mark Ingram. They unleashed Jimmy Graham on unsuspecting defenses. Drew Brees threw the ball 657 times, set new standards for NFL offenses, and left the league trembling in the wake of his warpath. 

For the second time in three seasons, New Orleans reeled off 13 regular-season victories and further established themselves as the toast of the NFC.  By season's end, they were the league's most feared team; they secured the NFC's second seed and were an Alex Smith anomaly away from a shot at the conference championship.

The 2011 storyline: Somehow, Drew Brees managed to excel – to really set himself apart – in the most lopsidedly offensive season in NFL history.  He tore a trail of fire through his opponents, throwing for 5,476 yards over 16 games.  Five thousand four hundred and seventy six.  He eclipsed Dan Marino's 27-year-old yardage record with a week to spare, and completed a record 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own record for accuracy in the process.  He posted 13 passer ratings over 90.  Eleven above 100.  Three over 140.  No one came close to stopping Brees in 2011, and the end-of-season stat sheet reflects his historic dominance.  Poor defense, however, spelled another early exit from the playoffs.
The Vital Signs
Coach (record): Sean Payton (62-34 with New Orleans; 62-34 overall)
2011 Record: 13-3 (34.2 PPG – 21.2 PPG)
Record against the spread: 12-4
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 6-1 (35.2 – 24.5)
Record last five seasons: 52-28 (.650)
Best Quality Stat in 2011: Relativity Index, Offensive Hog Index (1st)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011: Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (25th)
5 2 6 7 3 16 2 25 2 22 2 1 21 1
Overall =Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS= Quality Standings; SCOR = Scorability; Bend = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

Statistical curiosity of 2011: The Saints scored an NFL-record 329 points at home during the regular season. Twelve NFL teams fell short of 329 points in all 16 of their games last year. New Orleans topped 40+ six times in the Superdome – including a 62-point hatef***ng of the hapless Colts in Week 7 – and became just the fourth team to average 40 points per game at home for an entire season, joining the 2011 Packers (40.1 PPG), the AAFC's 1949 San Francisco 49ers (42.8), and the 1950 Los Angeles Rams (46.5).

Best game of 2011: 62-7 win vs. Indianapolis (Week 7).  Strange thing about breaking major league records en route to a 13-3 season: looking back through the archives, you find a plethora of ridiculous performances and it becomes hard to designate one 30-point victory as superior to another. The Saints raped the record books in 2011. They smashed the Bears and Texans early in the season, swept the playoff-bound Falcons, and performed a midseason bloodletting of the Super Bowl champion Giants in front of a national audience.

All in all, Drew Brees and company destroyed six Quality Opponents in 2011, but it was their degredation of the 0-7 Colts that occupies this "Best of" vacancy.  The Saints won by eight touchdowns, and Brees was a near-perfect 31 of 35 (88.5%) for 325 yards, 5 touchdowns, and a 144.9 passer rating.  Eight Saints receivers caught passes. The defense forced three turnovers and scored on a 42-yard interception return.  They ceremonially slashed-and-burned the Indianapolis Colts and salted the earth around their remains in one of the most legendary ass-whoopings of the last 40 years.
Worst game of 2011: 31-21 loss at St. Louis (Week 8).  Unfortunately for New Orleans, they followed up their Biblical beat down in Week 7 with the biggest disappointment of their season. The Saints, 5-2, rolled into St. Louis to face the woefully outmatched 0-6 Rams. Entering the contest, St. Louis's defense ranked fifth worst in the league, and through the season's first seven weeks – before the Colts raised the white flag against New Orleans – the Rams boasted the NFL's worst scoring differential. They were without their starting quarterback, opting instead to deploy AJ Feeley – a 34-year-old journeyman making his fourth start in seven seasons.

Everything spelled disaster for the Rams.  Luckily for St. Louis, the Saints forgot to show.  Rams running back Steven Jackson ripped through the New Orleans defense like the checkout line at Dick's Sporting Goods. He was busy running for 159 yards and two touchdowns while, on the flipside, the Saints were struggling to run, pass, and catch. The Rams held New Orleans's offense to zero points through three quarters – something that hadn't been done since December of 2004 – and absolutely outmuscled Sean Payton's befuddled squad.  A late touchdown made the score respectable, but the game was never in doubt.  The Saints dropped a gimme against one of the league's worst teams – and it was easily their worst game of 2011 – but there's optimism buried in these kinds of defeats: New Orleans held their focus the rest of the season, and didn't lose again until mid-January.
Strength: Offense, in general.  New Orleans excelled in every aspect of offensive football.  Saints runners – spearheaded by Darren Sproles's 6.9 yards per carry – averaged 4.9 yards per rush, good for fourth in the league. Collectively, they rushed for 2127 yards, sixth best in the league, and sixth best in team history.  Six players tallied over 500 receiving yards; the rest of the NFC South combined for nine. The offensive line was the best in football, anchoring the pass game by surrendering only 24 sacks, and helping the Saints convert a league-best 56.7 percent of their third downs on the ground and through the air.

And then there was Brees, who's making a strong case for the best offensive free agent ever signed.  Since his acquisition in 2006, the Saints are 63-33, with five playoffs wins and a Super Bowl championship.  Brees has thrown for 28,394 yards and 201 touchdowns in New Orleans, an average of 4732 yards and 33 touchdowns per season.  He made 2011 his masterpiece, obliterating several major passing and scoring records while throwing to only one Pro Bowler: fellow record-breaker and second-year tight end Jimmy Graham.

Weakness: Pass defense. The Saints allowed 4,157 passing yards in 2011, third worst in the league.  Superficially, it's a major problem.  Realistically, it's a product of defending huge leads and a ton of opposing pass attempts. They finished a respectable (if mediocre) 16th in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt and finished top-10 in Bendability ... but yards allowed was never the problem. New Orleans ranked 25th in Defensive Real Quarterback Ranking, failed to consistently rush the passer, and averaged an interception once every 69.5 opposing pass attempts – the worst mark in the league.

Their shoddy defensive play bottomed out in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Trailing by 6 points with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Drew Brees connected on a short outlet pass to Darren Sproles; the diminutive runner charged 44 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Eighty yards and 120 seconds later, the Saints trailed by five.  Four plays later, Jimmy Graham outmuscles All-Pro defender Patrick Willis for a 66-yard score and a late-game lead.  On San Francisco's final drive, with under two minutes remaining, quarterback Alex Smith completed five of six passes (omitting a clock-killing spike) for 85 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He was not sacked (and was hardly pressured) in the fourth quarter.

General off-season strategy/overview: The Saints are imbalanced. They're the league's most dangerous and versatile offense, passing the ball at historic clips and rushing the ball better than they have in two and a half decades. But they suffered inversely on defense, failing to impede opposing passers and allowing  5.0 yards per rush against them.  It'd be a crippling asymmetry for most teams, but you know what?  New Orleans finished 13-3. Their offense has gone places previously uncharted. They're playing Arena Football against the rest of the league, and it's working.

So logically, the top of the offseason priority list should read, "Keep Drew Brees Happy." They're, uh, working on it.

After that ball of knots is untangled, New Orleans needs to bolster their front seven.  Most of their problems on defense – lack of turnovers, primarily – can be assuaged through an improved pass rush.  The Saints know this, and brought in new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to find creative ways to bring down opposing quarterbacks.  Spagnuolo constructs his schemes around defensive line pressure, which hints at some minor personnel overhauling for the 2012 season: New Orleans's down linemen managed only 17.5 sacks via an inconsistent pass rush last season: half a sack more than Tampa Bay's front four, who were the worst Defensive Hogs in the league.

Midway through the offseason, the Saints are working to remedy that weakness. They re-signed Turk McBride, an explosive (but oft-injured) pass rushing specialist, and have their fingers crossed that 2011 first round selection Cameron Jordan flips the switch in the coming season.  Jordan played stout against the run during his rookie year but never found his legs as a pass rusher, notching only one sack in 16 games.

Having been penalized for Gregg Williams's bounty program, the Saints pick 90th in the NFL Draft. An interior pass rusher makes the most sense, and Spagnuolo salivates over quick, versatile, athletic defensive linemen.  Luckily for New Orleans, there are several to be had in the middle rounds.  If Boise State down lineman Billy Winn falls to their pick, expect the Saints to pounce.  Ditto DaJohn Harris, a physical defensive tackle capable of flattening his opponents; he'll likely fall due to some minor medical issues and would be in immediate contention for a starting position on New Orleans's defensive front.

Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: The NFC South has been nigh-unpredictable in recent seasons, but if there was any hint of consistency, it'd be in New Orleans. The Saints have finished in second place or better in five of Sean Payton's six seasons, and outright won the division in 2006, 2009, and 2011. 

However, thanks to his association with the now-notorious bounty program, Payton is done for the year.  The absence of his leadership and game planning will hinder New Orleans in 2012, but don't expect them to flounder offensively. Coordinator Pete Carmichael successfully ran the team for several weeks in 2011 and was one of the hottest head coaching prospects this offseason. Expect either Carmichael or recently jettisoned head coach Spagnuolo to fill the void that Payton leaves.

With Tampa Bay and Carolina still constructing competitive teams and Atlanta struggling to keep pace, the South belongs to the Saints – if they can survive the backlash of Bountygate and tighten some bolts defensively. Outside of guard Carl Nicks and receiver Robert  Meachem, New Orleans's pristine offensive personnel remains relatively intact, and with Drew Brees under center, the playoffs are never out of reach. If the offense keeps pace and Spagnuolo's defense clicks, New Orleans won't be worrying about bounties, coaches, or claiming a division title. They'll be looking to win the first home field Super Bowl in league history.