Everything about the play felt right.
Tampa Bay receiver Louis Murphy cutting over the middle, the ball arriving a step in front of Kenny Phillips, a moment that gave Phillips time to unleash the ferocity that once made him a first-round pick.
Phillips crushed Murphy, dislodging the ball with authority, the hit sending shockwaves through the Superdome.
“Yeah,” Phillips thought to himself, “I can still do this.”
Phillips, forced out of football entirely by an arthritic left knee that required microfracture surgery, made a triumphant return to the NFL for the Saints last Sunday. Brought back after a week away and inserted into the starting lineup for the injured Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush, Phillips was supposed to be a placeholder, a veteran trying to allow the Saints to tread water until Byrd can return.
All it took was one hit for Phillips to prove he can be a little more than a replacement. Phillips played all 66 snaps on defense and finished with eight tackles, holding down the back end of a defense that gave the offense every chance to take control against the Buccaneers.
“It was a long time coming,” Phillips said. “I’m grateful for every snap I got. Like I say, just being out of the NFL two years, and not only can I say I come back and play in an NFL game, to start a game, that was a great feeling.”
Phillips hadn’t played in a regular season game since the middle of the 2012 season.
Frustrated and constantly set back by injuries, Phillips was down to his last chance when New Orleans gave him an opportunity this offseason.
But Phillips didn’t look like a veteran shaking off the rust on Sunday.
“He played pretty well, especially for a guy that had snaps in the preseason, but had been out a while,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “I would say overall he graded out well.”
Byrd is back on the practice field, but he has already been listed out against Carolina, meaning Phillips will make his second straight start at free safety for the Saints.
Now that he’s back on the field, Phillips’ goal is to get an encyclopedic knowledge of the New Orleans defense, allowing him to be even more effective.
If Philllips can get more comfortable, though, he can make a split-second decision and get in position to prevent the score anyway.
“I’m just trying to get a better understanding of the defense so I can not only do my job, but help the other guys around me,” Phillips said. “That’ll be the key. Even with the touchdown, right before the half, it wasn’t my play to make, but if I understand the defense a little more, I could have been there to help.”