METAIRIE - Through four games, the New Orleans Saints’ punt coverage unit has yielded yards grudgingly, seemingly inch by painstaking inch.
In fact, the Saints’ punt coverage has been downright stingy, Ebenezer Scrooge-type stingy: cold-hearted, tight-fisted, cheap as the day is long when it comes to giving up punt return yards.
Ten yards total - an NFL-low 2.0 yards per return.
That is not a misprint.
“That’s a credit to the cover unit,” Saints coach Sean Payton said this week as his team prepared for Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers in Bank of America Stadium. “It’s a credit to our punter (Thomas Morstead) with his hang time and location.”
Two years ago, during the team’s run to Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints’ punt coverage unit yielded an NFL-high average of 14.3 yards. In 2010 and 2008, they ranked 28th and 25th respectively, surrendering 11.9 yards and 10.7 yards per punt return.
Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears is living proof of the Saints’ sudden improvement when it comes to covering punts.
In Week 2 at the Superdome, the NFL’s record-setting punt returner returned one of five punts by Morstead for minus-4 yards.
By comparison, Hester on Sunday set an NFL record with his 11th punt return for a touchdown, a 69-yarder during the second quarter of the Bears’ 34-29 victory against the Panthers.
“One thing I will say for our special teams unit, we have great cover guys,” said Saints fullback Korey Hall, a key offseason addition who excelled on special teams in Green Bay from 2007 through 2010.
“If you look back at the tape and see what (Hester) has been doing to teams the last couple of weeks, he didn’t really do a lot to us because the punter took him out of the game a little bit. (Morstead) did a great job there, and I think Hester only fielded one ball and our cover guys got down there and he fumbled it (out of bounds).”
Morstead deserves a lot of credit for the Saints’ current turnaround. He arguably is enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber start to his season, averaging 48.5 yards gross on 11 punts and has a net of 45.7 - second in the NFL behind San Francisco’s Andy Lee at 46.1 yards net.
“I would like to think my directional punting has improved, but it’s just a group effort,” said Morstead, a fifth-round draft pick from SMU in 2009. “Everybody’s doing a little better than they have since I’ve been here.”
But the early success goes beyond Morstead.
The Saints’ punt coverage unit is a blend of old and new faces, most notably veteran gunner Courtney Roby and first-year newcomers - safety Jonathon Amaya, rookie free agent safety Isa Abdul-Quddus and Hall, among others.
Absent from the roster are veteran safeties Chris Reis and 2010 special teams’ captain Pierson Prioleau, who were among the final cuts.
“Korey Hall got the game ball (against Jacksonville) on special teams,” Payton said. “He was exceptional. Jonathon Amaya has been very consistent; we’ve had a number of guys. Courtney Roby has been very consistent. It’s the execution, certainly the punter, each week.
“(Morstead) has had a good season so far. When it came to the Chicago game and his location, and the Houston game when the field position changed. Those types of things have been real impressive. All of those guys in the coverage units have done a good job, but Korey has been up now the last two games and he’s handled that role. Isa is a guy that’s played well. He’s one of our core guys. We just keep emphasizing that aspect of the game because it’s huge.”
In addition to the personnel changes, John Bonamego rejoined Payton’s staff during the offseason, joining forces with special teams coordinator Greg McMahon.
Bonamego served as special teams coach in New Orleans in 2006, a year when the Saints finished 10th league-wide in the annual special teams rankings compiled by The Dallas Morning News.
“Coach Bonamego and Mac (McMahon) have worked well together in the short time I’ve been around both of them,” Morstead said. “So maybe (Bonamego) is bringing a little different flavor of things, too.
“Of course, it’s easy to sit here when we’re doing well, and say, ?Well, it’s going smooth,’ but it’s a lot of hard work, and guys are all just getting after it together.”
One punt return at a time.
Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson, who didn’t practice Thursday because of a calf injury, was limited Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game at Carolina. ... Payton said center Olin Kreutz (knee) and linebacker Will Herring (hamstring) were also limited and are questionable as well. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and Martez Wilson (shoulder) were limited and are probable and doubtful, respectively. ... Tackle Zach Strief (knee) and tight end David Thomas (concussion) did not practice and won’t play Sunday, Payton said. ... For the Panthers, former Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey (concussion) practiced fully Friday for the first time this week and is probable.