'It's a different game': Stephone Anthony fine with move from middle linebacker _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) celebrates with New Orleans Saints defensive end Bobby Richardson (78) after Anthony returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Stephone Anthony rarely has the ball in his hands.

The particulars of his position mean he spends most of his time playing seek-and-destroy with the ball rather than handling it himself.

But he made the most of his chances to carry the ball Sunday. Anthony returned a fumble for a touchdown in the first half, then made history by becoming the first player to return a botched extra point for a two-point conversion as he played a key role in staking the Saints to a 16-13 halftime lead.

Anthony, the first-round pick who has held up admirably despite playing next to a revolving cast of characters at a weak-side linebacker position hit hard by injury, first came up with the Saints’ first defensive touchdown in more than three years early in the first quarter.

The rookie ripped the ball out of Carolina back Jonathan Stewart’s hands and raced 31 yards for a score, hesitating halfway to the end zone because he wasn’t sure if the play should have been dead.

“On initial contact, I was able to get my hands in there and get the ball,” Anthony said. “I didn’t know if I was supposed to keep running or not. ... I didn’t hear a whistle, and I kind of waited to see if anybody else heard the whistle and kept going.”

Anthony’s second return put his name in the history books.

Up until this season, a team couldn’t return a botched extra-point attempt for two points, but when the NFL pushed the line of scrimmage back to the 15 this offseason, the rules committee also made a conversion return possible.

Nobody in the NFL had done it until Anthony scooped a ball that Kevin Williams blocked into his arms and raced 82 yards for the score.

“The ball just seemed to find me today,” Anthony said. “It was just one of those days.”

Next man up

For the first time since the season-opener, Brandon Coleman found himself playing a featured role in the offense.

With Willie Snead sidelined because of a calf injury, Coleman had to handle a much bigger role in the Saints’ passing game against Carolina’s marauding defense.

Coleman came up big for the Saints, hauling in four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, including several key catches.

“He’s a guy who’s only being held back by limited snaps,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “The more opportunities he gets, the better he gets.”

Coleman’s catches came in big moments. Early on, he went up high to snag a throw from Brees on a crossing route, broke a tackle and rumbled 31 yards to set up the Saints’ first touchdown. His third catch kick-started the Saints’ second touchdown drive.

And his fourth gave the Saints the lead. Trailing 27-24 at the start of the fourth quarter, Coleman got free up the sideline for a 24-yard touchdown pass that gave New Orleans a 31-27 lead.

“Each guy has their packages, they have their roles, and they’re ready to step into that when they get an opportunity to make a play,” Brees said. “Brandon had a big play, that go-ahead touchdown when we kind of felt like we had some momentum.”

Vilma hangs ’em up

Jonathan Vilma has officially called it a career.

The former Saints linebacker announced his retirement from professional football before Sunday’s game against the Panthers.

“I’m excited to be retiring from my playing career as a member of the New Orleans Saints,” Vilma said in a statement. “I loved everything about being a Saint and was fortunate to be surrounded by so many outstanding coaches and teammates for six years and to be part of the team that won Super Bowl XLIV.”

Vilma joined the Saints in 2008 via a trade with the New York Jets and played his last game in 2013. During his six seasons with the team, he recorded 530 tackles, eight sacks, six interceptions, 27 passes defensed and five forced fumbles.

He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010, served as a captain from 2009-2012 and was named the team’s “Man of the Year” in 2010 for his work in Haiti.

“Jonathan has secured his place as one of the top players in our franchise’s history,” general manager Mickey Loomis said.