METAIRIE - When Sean Payton met with his players on Monday, he took a moment to recognize his team for a trait that any coach would envy.
As injuries piled up, the performance never dropped.
Six usual starters and a couple of regular reserves had gone to the sidelines for good when the Saints began their fourth-quarter comeback from a nine-point deficit against the Houston Texans on Sunday, and New Orleans still pulled it out.
Among the key players forced to the sideline during Sunday’s 40-33 victory were center Olin Kreutz and right tackle Zach Strief, who were replaced by interior lineman Brian de la Puente and second-year tackle Charles Brown.
“Oftentimes you get into a game and a player has to step up, and we had a lot of guys who had to step up into roles maybe they didn’t get (practice snaps) at,” Payton said as he recounted his message during a team meeting at the club’s suburban New Orleans headquarters.
“When you look at de la Puente and Charles Brown and you look at the snaps defensively that guys at linebacker had to get, that was encouraging,” Payton continued. “To go in and function and play well enough to win was most encouraging.”
The Saints opened the game already missing starting receiver Marques Colston (right shoulder), starting cornerback Tracy Porter (left calf) and starting middle linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma (left knee), who was a game day scratch. During the game, rookie linebacker Martez Wilson, who got his first career start at outside linebacker, hurt his left shoulder on a tackle and left the game.
Veteran linebacker Will Herring also left the game with an apparent leg injury, so the Saints had only three linebackers left with the game ended: Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas, who was playing with an injured right foot on which he wore a walking boot last week and on Monday.
Yet another starter, tight end David Thomas, left the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury.
Payton declined to offer any details on any of his players’ health. He rarely discusses that before the first required injury report of each week, which for this Sunday’s game at Jacksonville is Wednesday.
In the locker room, players said the result against Houston validated the “next-guy-up” mentality they’ve believed in all along and left them more confident of their ability to compete in their upcoming game if several regular starters are unable to return soon.
“We always believe the next-man-in mentality. First guy goes down, you have to be ready,” Casillas said. “You have to be prepared and you have to be able to take mental (practice snaps) during the week if you’re not getting physical (snaps). We do that. We coach up the younger guys. We coach up the guys that are not playing, and I think that showed.”
Against the Texans, who boast one of the more prolific offenses in the NFL, Dunbar was forced to take over for Vilma and make all pre-snap calls. Dunbar said he was prepared because he considers Vilma a mentor, having spent time working out with him in the offseason and continuing to study with him before and after practices.
“As long as I continue to keep doing that, I think I’ll be all right,” Dunbar said, noting that Vilma also took on the role of a linebacker coach during Sunday’s game.
“Every time we came off the field, he was around saying something, whether it was me or a different guy ... to let us see the whole picture,” Dunbar said. “He did a great job of it, and I appreciate that.”
De la Puente was active because he can fill in at either guard or center. He hadn’t taken many practice snaps at center in recent weeks, but every snap between him and quarterback Drew Brees was clean.
“I prepare every week like I’m going to play. Throughout the week I play all three inside positions,” de le Puente said. “Versatility is my niche here right now. Opportunity came at center.”
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod said the replacement offensive linemen performed well in large part because they were prepared, but also because of the chemistry that Brees has with the entire offensive line and the command he has of everyone’s assignments.
“Situations like that, communication is key, preparation is key,” Bushrod said. “It started with Drew. ... He would call it out if we had to slide our protection one way or pick up somebody else who he thought was coming. Him being a cerebral quarterback like he is, he got the ball off when needed, and he just made plays.”