Dannell Ellerbe hasn’t felt like he did Thursday in more than a year.
Finally fully healthy, Ellerbe took over the full-time starting job at weakside linebacker against the Falcons. No snap count. No limitations. Ellerbe, for the first time since the 2014 season opener, was unleashed.
And the veteran linebacker showed exactly why the Saints chose him in an offseason trade that sent wide receiver Kenny Stills to the Dolphins. Frantic and instinctive, Ellerbe was everywhere, racking up tackles, forcing a fumble to end one Atlanta drive and recovering a botched snap to end another. A whirlwind of energy, Ellerbe turned in a career-high 14 tackles and sparked a second-half defensive surge that fueled the New Orleans win.
“I felt it showed a glimpse of what I can do,” Ellerbe said. “Being the player that I’ve been, fighting injury, coming back from injuries, coming back from my surgery this year, a lot of the guys around here are young and haven’t seen me play before. The older guys know that played against me, they know the type of player I am, but as far as the guys that have never seen, I just wanted to show them what I can do, where I can help.”
Ellerbe left the game after 52 snaps, plagued by an injury to his groin or hip that forced him out of the game in the fourth quarter. For a player who has spent so much time trying to get back to full strength, an injury could be devastating.
But this is nothing like the turf toe that cost Ellerbe most of training camp and the first three games of this season. Ellerbe, who did not practice in full-team drills during Wednesday’s practice, is not worried about this issue.
“I knew it was a minor thing,” Ellerbe said. “We were up, so there was no reason to go out there and stress it.”
Ellerbe, shown frustrated on the sideline after he left the game, had a different reason to be upset.
Operating at a level he hadn’t been able to reach since the 2014 season, Ellerbe was on a roll, and he didn’t want anything to end it. Ellerbe didn’t know he’d posted 14 tackles, but he knew his number of stops was approaching the stratosphere.
Ellerbe thought he had a shot at 20 tackles.
“There was frustration because I wanted to finish the game,” Ellerbe said. “It’s something that I’ll come back from, and I’ll be good.”
Ellerbe’s energy adds another high-motor player to a defense that has already benefited from the addition of rookie defenders Hau’oli Kikaha and Bobby Richardson, two players who share Ellerbe’s sense of reckless abandon on the field.
And it came at a time when the Saints’ defense was struggling. Knowing New Orleans was coming off of a disappointing performance in Philadelphia, Ellerbe decided he would do whatever he could to lift the defense out of that disappointment.
In other words, Ellerbe did exactly what the Saints envisioned when they traded for him, even though the move prompted questions from many observers initially.
“I think many kind of didn’t see the vision for him,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We felt like, when he was going to be healthy, he was definitely going to be an impactful player for us. It was great to see (Thursday) night. He moves well, he’s got really good football instincts, and that is a big plus when you are playing at linebacker.
Now, Ellerbe hopes his energy helps the defense start taking the steps necessary to become a unit that doesn’t have to rely so heavily on turnovers in the red zone.
Ellerbe cut his NFL teeth in Baltimore, a pass coverage specialist on the dominant defenses led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
He wants to bring that same kind of intensity to New Orleans.
“I know what it takes,” Ellerbe said. “And I’m going to let the guys know what it takes.”