Photos: Drew Brees plays, sets touchdown milestone, Saints win first game of the season _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- Saints rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony puts a flying tackle on Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar while stopping him for a 1-yard gain during the first quarter Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The New Orleans defense is in the middle of a youth movement.

No other team in the NFL has asked rookies to play more defensive snaps this season. Entering the Sunday night game, the Saints had played rookies on 340 snaps, and no other NFL team even topped the 300-snap mark.

The good news is the Saints appear to have found some talent in the front seven. Middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and defensive end Bobby Richardson each started the game against the Cowboys, and all three made big plays to jump-start a defense that bent often but rarely broke in the first three quarters.

Anthony, who had struggled at times in his first three games despite playing almost all of the defensive snaps at linebacker, turned in his best game in a Saints uniform.

Attacking the Cowboys outside zone with impunity, Anthony made seven tackles, all of which came in the first half and helped close down a Dallas running game that opened with a 45-yard burst by Lance Dunbar.

Anthony also picked up the first sack of his career, cleaning up a scrambling Brandon Weeden as he was flushed from the pocket.

Kikaha and Richardson made a few timely stops. Frequently lined up next to each other on the strong side, Richardson and Kikaha combined for 14 tackles, and Richardson’s stop on a key third-and-short helped set up the Saints’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Kikaha contributed a team-high eight tackles and sacked Weeden — becoming the first Saints rookie with three games in a row with a sack since Will Smith in 2004 — to force another field goal in the third quarter. Fifth-round pick Tyeler Davison added a sack of his own, capping a banner night for the rookies.

Many happy returns

Rookie return man Marcus Murphy is proving to be worth the seventh-round pick the Saints spent on him.

Murphy, who announced his presence to the rest of the NFL with a 74-yard punt return against Carolina a week ago, backed it up with two more big plays against Dallas. Offered a rare opportunity to return a kick on the opening play of the game, Murphy hit a seam up the middle and nearly broke it for a big gain, posting a 34-yard return that forced Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey to send the rest of his kickoffs out of the back of the end zone.

Murphy followed it up by almost single-handedly setting up the Saints’ second score. Fielding a low punt near midfield, Murphy broke to the left, found a little seam and returned the kick 20 yards to the Dallas 40-yard line. New Orleans’ offensive drive went nowhere, but a penalty gave Zach Hocker a chance from 51 yards, and the first-year kicker buried it to tie the score at 10.

Under the knife

One of the most reliable faces on the New Orleans offensive line might be out of action longer than expected.

Jahri Evans, the right guard who had missed only two games in his career in New Orleans coming into the season, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee, according to NBC.

Evans, who had started 142 of a possible 144 games in his nine years in New Orleans, missed his second straight game against Dallas. New Orleans replaced Evans in the starting lineup with backup offensive lineman Senio Kelemete for each of the past two games.

Lagniappe

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead briefly left the game late in the second quarter with a left knee injury. According to NBC, Armstead underwent X-rays on his left knee during halftime, and the negative X-rays allowed the starter to return to the game. ... Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who the Saints acquired in a trade with the New England Patriots earlier in the week, was inactive because of a quick turnaround. ... Wide receiver Joe Morgan, quarterback Garrett Grayson, cornerback Kyle Wilson, defensive end Obum Gwacham and defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls rounded out the inactive list. Only Eulls has not been active for the Saints so far this season.