Saints tight end Josh Hill had just slipped on a T-shirt after his team’s 20-9 victory at home Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings when a member of his team’s equipment staff strolled through the locker room and needed to get around him.
“Please excuse me, Mr. Player of the Game,” the staffer said to Hill, in his second year with the Saints.
Hill sheepishly shrugged off the compliment but, in truth, he had earned such praise with a performance that was the best of his young career and unquestionably helped the Saints post their first win.
It became obvious that Hill’s day would be a banner one for him with about five minutes to go in the first quarter. On the right side of the line of scrimmage between All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and tackle Zach Strief on second-and-5 from Minnesota’s 34, Hill was surrounded by nothing but open Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf as he ran to the Vikings’ 11 after the snap.
Hill was ignored by Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Robert Blanton, who double-teamed Graham while quarterback Drew Brees pump-faked a quick pass left. Brees spotted Hill and calmly delivered a throw to him; the second-year pro walked in a scoring catch that was the longest reception of his career by 25 yards and gave the Saints a 13-0 lead (after Shayne Graham’s extra-point attempt was blocked).
“It’s a play we’d had drawn up, but I wasn’t even covered,” said Hill, who had seven career catches for 43 yards and a touchdown before Sunday while positioned under Graham and Ben Watson on the depth chart at tight end. “(Brees) found me, and I skated in untouched.”
Hill later hauled in a 14-yard reception that ensured he more than doubled the yardage he had in the NFL heading into Sunday. But Hill’s day wouldn’t have been as special if all he had contributed were those two catches — and, fortunately for him, that wasn’t all he produced.
His first of two key special-teams tackles halted Vikings returner Cordarrelle Patterson at Minnesota’s 25 on the kickoff after the Saints took a 7-0 lead on their first drive of the game. It’s no small feat posting a solo tackle on Patterson, a 2013 first-team All-Pro after he ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns — one on the longest play in NFL history (109 yards).
Hill’s second special-teams highlight was on the third of four straight punts the Saints had in the middle portion of the game. Vikings returner Marcus Sherels fielded the punt at the Vikings’ 9 and tried to break free, but he was corralled and brought down by Hill at the Minnesota 4.
With 37 seconds remaining in the first half and 96 yards away from New Orleans’ goal line, the Vikings abandoned any hope of a quick score to cut into what at that point was a 13-6 deficit. They instead ran the ball once and kneeled twice to conclude the half.
Watson was hurt for the second half, Hill and coach Sean Payton said afterward. So Hill stayed in under Graham as the Saints outscored Minnesota 7-3 to end the game.
It wasn’t a perfect day — Hill said he had an error in pass protection on one occasion — and Payton noted the team would work on his run-blocking fundamentals.
But that’s all typical for a guy who made the Saints in 2013 as an undrafted rookie out of Idaho State. What isn’t always typical for guys of Hill’s professional background are the impact plays that aided the Saints’ efforts to bounce back from their 0-2 start.
“I told him, ‘Keep it up — you can’t be a one-hit wonder,’ ” said Graham, who had 54 yards on six catches. “He’s ... going to become more and more a part of this offense, especially after doing stuff that he did Sunday.”
Hill certainly intends to.
“When you come out with the win and you’re able to make a few plays,” he said, “there’s not much better than that.”