METAIRIE — After practicing on a limited basis twice last week because of an ankle injury, New Orleans Saints strong safety Roman Harper was at least well-rested for Sunday’s game with the Chicago Bears.
The six-year veteran parlayed a little time off his ankle, which he hurt in the first half of the season opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 8, and a lot of mental repetitions into a big game against the Bears.
Harper had seven tackles, forced a fumble and recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter of the Saints’ 30-13 victory, a performance that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday.
Still, Harper wasn’t ready to say that practice is overrated when he met with reporters after being held out of Wednesday’s workout.
“I’m not going to say that,” Harper said. “It just turned out the way it did last week. I was trying to get as much rest as I could for the ankle and be ready to go for the game — and have as much mental focus as I could during practice.
“I just tried to get as many looks as I could. I came free and made a couple of plays last week, and it turned out well for me.”
It turned out especially well for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was able to count on Harper despite his injury, when he devised a game plan that would apply maximum pressure to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
The Saints wound up sacking Cutler six times, and numerous hits and hurries on him didn’t leave a lot of time to scan the field for his wide receivers. He connected on just 19 of 45 passes as the Bears had 246 total yards, including 3.6 yards per pass play.
As a result, Harper passed along some of the credit for his first player of the week award to some of his teammates.
“I’m honored. … It’s a great honor, but I have other guys that also played well,” he said. “(Cornerback) Jabari Greer played very well, and (defensive end) Junior Galette had an outstanding game as well.
“It wasn’t just me. We had good numbers, but somebody like Jabari really played well on the edge. That allowed me to have some extra time to get after the quarterback.”
Even with a sprained ankle.
Harper also forced an incomplete pass on third-and-6 on the Bears’ second possession of the game, but he was flagged for roughing the passer. Harper said the NFL called Saints officials this week, however, and told them the penalty shouldn’t have been called.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Harper showed a lot of improvement from the first game, when he had the tall task of covering Packers tight end Jermichael Finley man-to-man most of the night, to the second.
“It was a different-type team, but he came up big against Chicago in a lot of ways,” Payton said of Harper, who leads NFL defensive backs with 12 sacks since the start of the 2006 season. “He’s instinctive. I think he’s very good at rushing the passer from the safety position.
“Obviously, he was one of the players for us defensively that got a game ball. It was good to see him play that way, and defensively as a unit have that success.”
Harper, who had a rough game in the Saints’ 41-36 wildcard playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks last January, said he didn’t feel vindicated for being a favorite target of fans through a long offseason.
“No, not at all,” said Harper, a two-time Pro Bowl pick. “It really wasn’t a big deal. People have an opinion, but not everybody’s opinion really counts for anything.
I’m happy to be where I’m at, and I’m where I am because of who I am.”
Free safety Malcolm Jenkins said the criticism of Harper was unwarranted.
“It’s hard to tell if you don’t know our defensive schemes; you really don’t know what’s going on,” Jenkins said. “Really, in the Seattle game he was probably responsible for one touchdown. But watching the game on TV, you’d think it was all his fault.
“The way he played (Sunday), that’s typical Roman,” he said. “That’s not a surprise to us, and we expect him to continue to play at a high level.”
Saints’ management certainly expects it after rewarding Harper, who was an unrestricted free agent, with a four-year, $24 million contract just after the lockout ended in late July.
“As a team, we have a diamond in the rough right now in Roman, and the sky’s the limit,” Jenkins said. “He gets better every year, and he’s a staple of our secondary. We put a lot of stuff on his back, and we’re happy he’s playing well.”