By the time he met with journalists at Saints’ headquarters Monday, second-year interior offensive lineman Tim Lelito had played two full regular-season games at right guard, and more than a quarter of a third game at center.
That was long enough for Lelito to conclude sizable differences between the positions exist.
It’s not simply that the center snaps the ball each play on offense. At guard, Lelito places his hand in the ground and can stagger his stance, and his opponents line up left of him, right of him or in front of him.
At center, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Lelito can’t put any of his weight on the ground, and his opponents line up almost exclusively directly across from him, altering both how he moves and how quickly he engages the players he must block.
“Obviously,” Lelito said Monday, “it’s a lot different.”
However, with the Saints, Lelito is on a team that’s done all it can to ease the pressure on any young player that may find himself snapping to quarterback Drew Brees for a prolonged, unplanned period of time.
And that’s fortunate for the Saints (1-2), who in Sunday’s 20-9 victory at home against the Vikings (1-2) saw starting center Jonathan Goodwin leave with a foot injury and cede his spot to Lelito — possibly for more than just an afternoon.
Goodwin tumbled to the ground and clutched his left leg while blocking defensive tackle Linval Joseph on a run with about 6 minutes 30 seconds to go in the third quarter, with the Saints up 13-9. The NFL Network reported Monday that Goodwin suffered a high ankle sprain and was expected to be out for a stretch. Coach Sean Payton on Monday refused to discuss the center’s health.
Nonetheless, after being afforded enough time to rehearse a few exchanges with Brees, Lelito subbed in for Goodwin for the remaining 29 snaps New Orleans had on offense Sunday.
The first of those — a shotgun snap on a third-and-9 — could hardly have been rockier. Lelito snapped the ball high, left and past Brees, who recovered the fumble and was downed 18 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The botched play set up the last of four consecutive punts the Saints had after taking a 13-0 lead on two touchdowns and a missed extra point on their first two drives of the game.
“It was ... coming in really hot,” said Lelito, who started in two regular-season wins at right guard in 2013 after making the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of NCAA Division II’s Grand Valley State. “It was a little fast.”
Regardless, after the Saints forced a punt and got the ball back, Lelito helped with two offensive drives in which New Orleans picked up 11 first downs and gained 150 yards.
On the first of those drives, the Saints scored a touchdown to expand their lead to 20-9. On the next drive, the Saints drained the game’s final 6:58.
Lelito had a mostly clean game after his debut snap at center, with perhaps the exception of one play in which the guy he was blocking, Joseph, stuffed a run for no gain.
Payton credited Lelito’s settling in to reps he got while competing with Goodwin in the preseason for the job of first-string center, an audition that allowed both to get numerous snaps with Brees.
That itself was an opportunity Lelito earned partially because the Saints were pleased with what he showed in his starts as a rookie, but he was beaten out by the more-experienced Goodwin, a member of the New Orleans team that won Super Bowl XLIV team before he left for San Francisco from 2011-13.
“That competition existed for at least half through training camp, or two-thirds of training camp,” Payton said.
“The snaps that (Lelito’s) had, the work that he’s had, certainly helped him (Sunday).”
In the event Goodwin doesn’t return promptly, it remains to be seen how Lelito would handle such things as timing shotgun snaps and silent counts with Brees in a loud regular-season road venue, such as AT&T Stadium when the Saints visit the Cowboys (2-1) Sunday night.
Yet the Saints don’t fret as much over a potential change at center as other NFL teams might, right tackle Zach Strief said Monday.
Strief said Brees calls out alignments and blitzes being presented by defenses and adjusts his protection accordingly in New Orleans, something that might fall to centers elsewhere.
“We feel good about both of them,” Strief said about Lelito and Goodwin. “When Tim came in ... nothing changed.”
Lelito said it boosts his confidence knowing he’ll be flanked by guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, who have respectively been invited to Pro Bowls five times and twice, if Goodwin’s on the mend through this weekend.
“I prepare each week like I’m going to start; and it helps me a lot, especially with guys like Ben and (Jahri) and (Jonathan),” Lelito said.
“That’s how it goes — you guys know ... the motto: ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’”