During halftime of the Saints win over Atlanta last week, Sean Payton sought out his newly christened left tackle with a message.
No matter how little time Tony Hills had to get ready for 65 snaps, New Orleans needed the journeyman veteran to play like a starter after rookie Andrus Peat went down with a reported MCL sprain on the Saints’ opening drive.
Payton, who estimated he’d said “eight words” to the veteran since Hills signed, headed over to Hills and issued a challenge.
“You just jab a guy in the chest, and you say let’s go,” Payton said. “The look in his eye was right.”
Hills, a seven-year veteran, had been signed after the Dallas game to take over as the Saints’ third tackle following a knee injury to Terron Armstead, but he hadn’t exactly been given a crash course. New Orleans had to get Peat ready to play at left tackle.
“He had been here for 10 days,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “I don’t know that he has gotten one rep with our first group. We were on a short week with little prep time.”
Hills struggled initially, giving up three hurries, a hit and two run stuffs, as well as having some trouble getting out and lining up blocks in the screen game, an Armstead specialty.
Then the veteran settled down.
“He has been here long enough to maybe have one hotel bill, all of a sudden, he is pretty much going to start the whole game now because Andrus’s injury came early,” Payton said. “He settled in, especially when we were throwing it like we were. I really liked the look in his eye at halftime.”
New Orleans needs Hills to be ready to step in again. Armstead looked like he was on his way back before the Falcons game after practicing on a limited basis, but Peat is now reportedly out for as much a month. If something happens to either Strief or Armstead, Hills must be ready to respond again.
When the Saints picked up veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, the reaction was mixed, with some observers wondering exactly how the linebacker fit for New Orleans.
Ellerbe showed exactly what he can bring to New Orleans on Thursday.
Frantic, chasing plays down all over the field, Ellerbe made 14 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered another, both plays abruptly ending Falcons scoring chances in the red zone.
“I think many kind of didn’t see the vision for him,” Payton said. “We felt like, when he was going to be healthy, he was definitely going to be an impactful player for us.”
The key is keeping Ellerbe healthy. A hip injury cost the veteran the 2014 season in Miami, and Ellerbe missed the first three games of his Saints tenure with a serious turf toe injury suffered in training camp.
Ellerbe left Thursday’s game late with a groin injury, but a source Friday morning said the injury is not a long-term issue, and Ellerbe himself tweeted that he would be “good to go” the next day.
When he’s healthy, Ellerbe is clearly the Saints’ starter at weak-side linebacker, relegating David Hawthorne to a backup role.
“He is one of our most athletic linebackers,” Payton said. “He moves well, he’s got really good football instincts, and that is a big plus when you are playing at linebacker. His effort on the one caused fumble and then the recovered fumble, he was very good.”
Ben Watson’s career day — 10 catches, 127 yards, one touchdown — showed he can still make defenses pay if given the chance.
But that doesn’t mean the veteran will get that kind of attention from Drew Brees in every game this season. Watson’s big night had more to do with what the Falcons decided to allow in the passing game.
“I would be misleading you if I envisioned Ben having that many catches for that many yards,” Payton said. “All of a sudden, progressionwise, it happened. Sometimes that’s how it works, and he did a great job. He was big in the play-action passing game. He separated in a couple of the man looks he had on third downs, and Drew has a ton of confidence with the location.”
Struggling to get healthy
Keenan Lewis is trying to get back to full strength. His hip has different plans.
After having surgery to repair a ligament in his hip during training camp, the Saints cornerback now has suffered a strained hip flexor, according to a source. His return to the field will depend on how he responds to treatment.
After playing eight snaps during Thursday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons, Lewis flew to see a specialist to get his hip checked out Monday because his recovery has not gone as smooth as hoped.
Lewis was slated to miss 4-6 weeks after having surgery Sept. 1. He met the early end of that timetable, playing in an Oct. 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys. He played 18 snaps and was used only in nickel and dime packages during that game.
Lewis then played 27 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles the next week. On Thursday, against the Falcons, his role diminished and he could be seen on the sidelines riding a stationary bike during the game.
Getting Lewis back to full strength would be a major development for the Saints and would further solidify a secondary that is enjoying the emergence of Delvin Breaux. With Lewis healthy, it would allow the Saints to use Brandon Browner against tight ends more often, as they did against Dallas.
New Orleans tried out a handful of players Monday, including former Falcons and New England Patriots cornerback Robert McClain. He did not receive a contract offer from New Orleans.