BALTIMORE — Damian Swann saw his chance.
Swann has been a little bit behind during the first part of the New Orleans Saints’ training camp, hampered by a minor injury that kept him out of full practice for a few days last week. From a big-picture standpoint, Swann’s absence has been minor, but it did leave him with a relative lack of full-speed snaps compared to the rest of the team’s rookies.
One play can make up a lot of ground. On the Ravens’ first snap of the second half in Thursday night’s 30-27 loss to Baltimore, Swann jumped a short curl route intended for Jeremy Butler and intercepted Matt Schaub’s pass, providing a resounding highlight for a Saints rookie class that finally got a chance to get its feet wet in live NFL action.
“You just try to think like the receiver and run the route,” Swann said. “My first thought was play-action, so I was thinking, ‘Don’t let anything get behind me.’ And then, as I saw him coming out of the break, it was my instinct to put my foot in the ground and beat him to the ball.”
For Swann, a fifth-round pick out of Georgia who’s battling for a roster spot and a role in a crowded cornerback room, the play looms large for his chances the rest of camp.
“Until you demonstrate on the field in the moment that you can do something, until that happens, you’re hoping that you can,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in his postgame press conference. “I think it’s important for those guys just as these games are important for a lot of guys. You see growth with players in the steps that they make.”
The New Orleans rookies got plenty of chances to take some steps.
Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha formed two-thirds of the Saints’ starting linebacking corps, along with undrafted free agent Bobby Richardson, who got the start in place of veteran Akiem Hicks. Rookie defensive linemen Tyeler Davison and Tavaris Barnes each got cameos with the first-team defense in situational roles. Top pick Andrus Peat entered the game in the second quarter and never left, probably taking more snaps than any other offensive lineman. Quarterback Garrett Grayson acquitted himself well as the game’s finisher, putting the Saints in position for a win up until Baltimore’s final drive, and rookie return man Marcus Murphy took the first five kicks.
All of the Saints’ active rookies — 22 out of 23, excluding only injured offensive lineman Sean Hickey — got a rapid introduction to the NFL.
“I don’t know that it slowed down at all,” Kikaha said. “It was pretty fast-paced the entire time that we were in there. Exciting and fun and difficult and all those things. ... It was a bit faster than I anticipated. We’ve gone scrimmage against our great offense and things like that, but game speed is totally different.”
A faster pace of game meant there were mistakes along with the highlights.
Swann made two tackles along with the interception, but he was also flagged twice in coverage — once for illegal contact and the other time for pass interference. For a cornerback learning to play a lot of press coverage in an NFL with restrictive coverage rules, the experience was educational, a chance to figure out how to walk that line.
“It’s different from college, and I’m learning that,” Swann said. “In college, you can touch a receiver all the way until the ball’s in the air, so just trying to learn, learn to cover guys more with my feet and less with my body, less with hands. You can get a feel for what the refs are going to call.”
The first preseason game offers a golden opportunity for the rookies. A lot of the key figures played heavy snap counts, mixing and matching with the first, second and sometimes even third teams in an effort to learn as many lessons as possible.
Few understand that better than Peat, who’s been asked to handle a heavy workload even in practice as he acclimates to the NFL game.
The extra snaps can help a lot.
“I’d definitely say I feel more confident, gettting that first game under my belt, and I definitely want to build on it,” Peat said. “The reps help a lot, getting more reps so I can get better.”
Some lessons can only be learned at full speed.