NEW ORLEANS — By the time Sunday’s wild, free-scoring game with the Houston Texans ended, the New Orleans Saints were down in numbers at two critical positions — the offensive line and at linebacker.
But with the help of their backups once again, the Saints came out ahead in the numbers that mattered most in a 40-33 victory over the Texans in the Superdome.
The Saints, who lost center Olin Kreutz to an unspecified injury in the second quarter and right tackle Zach Strief to a right knee injury in the third, were down to five healthy linemen for the final 28-plus minutes of the game.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints opened the game without two-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was inactive because of a knee injury, then lost strongside linebackers Martez Wilson and Will Herring to injuries in the first half.
That left them with just three healthy linebackers — Scott Shanle, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas — for the second half after the defense gave up 301 yards in the first two quarters.
While Shanle, Dunbar and Casillas have all been battle-tested, it was a different story for the new offensive linemen — center Brian De la Puente and tackle Charles Brown. Both took their first snaps in a regular-season game at their natural positions.
Saints’ Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks was among those impressed, but not necessarily surprised, by what De la Puente and Brown gave their team in a pinch.
“They wouldn’t have made the roster and they wouldn’t be dressing if they weren’t capable,” Nicks said. “When their name was called, they stepped up and did their job. Give them a lot of credit; I tip my hat to guys like that.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” he added. “They went out and didn’t miss a beat.”
With De la Puente and Brown helping the other three starters, the Saints rallied for the win with 277 total yards and 30 points in the second half as Drew Brees threw for three second-half scores.
“That’s coach (Sean) Payton’s motto,” said left tackle Jermon Bushrod. “When one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up. There can’t be a falloff, and Brian and Charles were extra clutch today. They came in and filled in for two talented players.”
Brown, a second-round draft pick in 2010, got some snaps as an extra tight end in the season opener at Green Bay, but De la Puente, a former street free agent who was on the practice squad last season, had only played on special teams since making the 53-man roster.
“He gets some (repetitions) with the scout team,” Payton said of De la Puente, who doubles as a guard. “He’s a smart player; he’s versatile. That backup interior lineman has to play both positions, and he did a good job.”
The Saints were also thin at linebacker after Wilson and Herring went down.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation like that,” said Shanle. “Having to play throughout the second half with just three linebackers. You don’t think that’s going to happen. But I’m proud of the guys.”
Despite the injuries, the defense stood tall in holding the Texans to one touchdown in five trips to the red zone — one of the keys to the Saints being able to stay in the game in the first half.
“I just think we’re a resilient group,” said Casillas, who injured his right knee and foot in last week’s win over the Chicago Bears.
“It was tough, but we all stayed together and had each other’s back.”