NEW ORLEANS – With coach Sean Payton reinstated from his bounty ban and Rob Ryan taking over as coordinator of an overhauled defense, the Saints expected this year to be a lot better than the last.
So far, so good.
If the Saints win at home Sunday against Arizona, they'll be 3-0 for the first time since 2009, the season they won the Super Bowl. The only other season under Payton with a 3-0 start was the coach's first, 2006, when New Orleans surprisingly went as far as the NFC title game.
The Cardinals, however, have other ideas as they come off a confidence-building win over Detroit.
With a pair of former LSU stars in their defensive backfield, they'd like to think they can contain a New Orleans offense that hasn't quite hit its usual stride.
"The whole key to their offense, which everyone knows, is Drew Brees," said cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former LSU Tiger joined this season by Tyrann Mathieu. "I believe that if you can get to him and harass him a little bit, although he's a great quarterback, a lot of quarterbacks don't like to get hit.
"We don't necessarily have to get sacks," Peterson continued. "But if we get some clean hits and let him know that we're there — I think we'll have a productive day, especially in the back end, not giving him the opportunity to set his feet and scan the field and pick us apart."
The Saints have most key skill players remaining from a 2011 offense that gained an NFL-record 7,474 yards: Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Even last season, when Payton was suspended, New Orleans' offense ranked second with an average of 411 yards per game. With Payton back calling plays, the Saints are averaging 395 yards, the slight dip coming as the running game struggles.
That puts more pressure on Brees, who'll be keeping an eye on the pair of talented young Cardinals defensive backs who rose to stardom 80 miles up the Mississippi River in Death Valley.
"They are very talented playmakers, game changers," Brees said of Peterson and Mathieu. "They are definitely two guys that you want to know where they are and how they are playing. It seems like they always have their eyes on the quarterback."
Here are five things to know about Cardinals-Saints:
RED (ZONE) ALERT: While the Saints rank ninth in yards per game, finishing drives in the end zone has been a problem. New Orleans' 14.3 percent red zone conversion rate (1 for 7) ranks at the bottom of the NFL. Two of New Orleans' three touchdowns have come on passes of 25 yards or more.
"It's great when you get the big plays, but you can't bank on it," Brees said.
PETERSON'S PLAY MAKING: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians joked that Peterson isn't kicking field goals because he could not beat out Jay Feely. Otherwise, the star cornerback and return man really might be doing it all. Arians has used Peterson intermittently on offense, both throwing and catching passes. Peterson promises more.
"We've got a lot planned up our sleeve," he said. "I guess you guys will find out as soon as the world finds out."
DEFENSIVE SAINTS: New Orleans' defense is getting credit for the club's 2-0 start, in stark contrast to a year ago, when the unit set NFL records for futility. Through two games under Ryan, the Saints rank 11th, yielding 320 yards per game, well below their record-440 average in 2012.
"It's two weeks, and we're encouraged," Payton said. "We're going to see some really good offenses. This week presents a different challenge."
AERIAL ARIENS: The Cardinals' offense appears to be making progress under Arians, who acquired a new veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer.
Arizona has averaged 282.5 yards passing, an encouraging sign for a club that averaged only 187.8 through the air last season.
GROUNDED INGRAM: Saints running back Mark Ingram was hoping for a breakout season in his third year as a pro. So far, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama, drafted in the first round in 2011, has already become a magnet for criticism on New Orleans sports talk shows and internet chat rooms. He is averaging 1.8 yards on 31 rushes, and was knocked backward on fourth down at the goal line in Tampa Bay last Sunday.
Ingram's teammates are sticking up for the running back, saying many of his fruitless runs came on plays that broke down in many areas.
"It doesn't all fall on him," Brees said. "There are a lot of guys out there that have to do their job."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org