After playing two consecutive road contests at Houston and Oakland and spending a week in between the games training in Oxnard, Calif., the New Orleans Saints will host the Tennessee Titans in the preseason finale for both clubs tonight. Following the stay in Oxnard, the team spent two days practicing back at their facility in Metairie to prepare for the Titans contest. The Saints will use this game as a final tune-up before kicking off the 2011 regular season in Green Bay against the Packers on September 8.

    The Titans and Saints will face-off for the second consecutive year in the final week of the preseason. The teams played in Nashville on September 2, 2010 as the Titans were able to narrowly defeat New Orleans, 27-24. Head Coach Sean Payton made his NFL head coaching debut against the Titans on August 12, 2006, a 19-16 Saints victory. All-time, New Orleans is 14-12-1 against the Oilers/Titans franchise in the preseason, making them their most common exhibition opponent. Since Payton’s arrival, the Saints have only played the Titans one time in the regular season, a September 24, 2007 Monday night matchup that the Titans won 31-14 in the Louisiana Superdome. The two clubs will meet in the regular season for the first time since then on December 11, when the Saints travel to Nashville.

    Tonight, the Titans enter the Superdome for the first time since 1993 with new leadership.Titans head coach Mike Munchak is joined by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. All three have extensive history with the Oilers/Titans franchise. QB Matt Hasselbeck, formerly with the Seattle Seahawks, joined the Titans as a free agent and looks to lead the team entering the regular season. The Saints defense last saw Hasselbeck in a 41-36 loss at the hands of Seattle in a 2010 NFC Wild Card Game that eliminated the Saints from the postseason. QB Jake Locker, the team’s first-round pick in 2011 out of the University of Washington, is also expected to see playing time tonight against the Saints. The Titans look to use this game to prepare for the regular season that starts with a contest in Jacksonville on September 11th.

    For New Orleans, the team has one last chance to build momentum heading in to the regular season. After experiencing both successes and setbacks in the preseason, the Saints will face a hard-nosed football club with a reputation for running the ball on offense and being fundamentally sound on defense. Most importantly for New Orleans however, is that this is the last chance for players to show their value on offense, defense and special teams prior to the mandatory NFL roster cutdown to 53 on September 3. As the preseason winds down, this is a topic on the mind of players fighting for jobs and hoping to be part of that group and the coaches who are a part of the evaluation process.

    “We will use this game to further evaluate our guys before the September 3 cutdown,” said Payton. “Although we are close to the end we take that process very seriously and look at every snap. There will be various players tonight competing for a spot on that final 53.” 

    Among players looking to make a positive final impression on Thursday night are several returnees from the 2010 squad, as well as draft picks and veteran and rookie free agent acquisitions. In addition to putting on a good performance at their position on offense or defense, performance on special teams also plays a major role in the equation. It has been an offseason and training camp mandate by the coaching staff to improve the club’s coverage and return units, and for many of the players “on the bubble,” contributions in these areas will factor into roster decisions.

    On the defensive side of the ball, position battles have been heating up at the outside linebacker positions.
    “The depth that we have on defense is probably the deepest since I have been here,” said Payton. The biggest changes have come on the defensive front seven.”

    Saints LB and defensive team captain Jonathan Vilma said that while the team is ultimately looking towards the regular season opener, the preseason finale is an important part of the process leading up.

    “Throughout training camp, we’ve worked hard each week with the objective of continuing to show improvement,” said the Saints defensive leader. “We want to make progress against the Titans and build from there. The focus is on Tennessee right now, but we want to be able to go in to our season opener at Green Bay healthy and clicking on all cylinders.”

This article appears in tonight’s GAMEDAY magazine.  The official game program of the New Orleans Saints.  If you would like to get your own copy of GAMEDAY, call (504) 828-1380 and order one today.