INDIANAPOLIS — Marcus Murphy’s most important return on Sunday went nowhere.
But the Saints needed it badly.
Murphy, the rookie return man who has become a dangerous weapon for the New Orleans special teams, got his hands on a bounding onside kick late in the game and gave the Saints offense a chance to put away a 27-21 victory over Indianapolis on the road.
“I saw the ball the whole way,” Murphy said. “Guys were grabbing for it, guys had control of it, but it just found its way out.”
Murphy spent most of the day frustrated. Facing off against one of the NFL’s best punters in Pat McAfee and a crack Colts’ coverage unit, Murphy spent most of the day fighting for every yard he could get, picking up 44 yards on eight returns.
He got hurt on his second-to-last return. Trying to make a play, Murphy took a hard hit from Colts linebacker Sio Moore and sat out one return, walking off the injury in order to get back in the game.
New Orleans is glad the rookie returned.
Deployed as the deep return man on an onside kick, Murphy should be one of the last Saints who has a chance at an onside kick, but McAfee is also one of the NFL’s best at the discipline: Three of his onside kicks were recovered by Indianapolis in 2014.
When Murphy saw the ball bound over the Saints’ front line, he ran hard toward the sideline, eyes on the ball, fell on it near the sideline and kept Andrew Luck from getting a shot at the game-winning drive.
“I’m back there, if they kick it deep, I catch it,” Murphy said. “But if it’s short, rally up to the ball and make sure that it’s good. It happened to pop out, and I was there.”
Rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony is slowly coming on strong, a first-year player learning from the mistakes he made in the early weeks of the season.
And he made the first big play of his career on Sunday against Indianapolis.
Anthony, who displayed good ball skills and an impressive closing burst during training camp, jumped a short route from Andrew Luck in the first quarter against Indianapolis and made a highlight-reel interception, tapping the ball with one hand and coming down with it to set up the Saints’ second touchdown.
“I was just reading his eyes,” Anthony said. “From preparation, understanding the formation and then making the play.”
Anthony’s pick also represented a sign of growth. Easily manipulated by quarterback’s eyes in the early going, Anthony recognized the Colts’ tendencies in a formation and made the kind of instinctive play that led the Saints to take him with the 31st pick of the draft. After a seven-tackle performance Sunday, Anthony leads New Orleans with 45 tackles this season.
“It’s a growing process,” Anthony said. “I’m learning each week.”
Finding a way to feature C.J. Spiller in the offense has been a problem for the Saints early this season.
New Orleans made sure its prized free-agent acquisition got his chances against Indianapolis. Spiller was given five touches in the first quarter, and he finished with four carries for 16 yards and six catches for 32 yards as he handled most of the third-down duties against the Colts.
The Saints clearly featured Spiller most in the passing game. Fellow backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson combined for three catches Sunday, far below some of the work they have gotten earlier this season. Spiller handled that role instead.
Up until Sunday, Spiller hadn’t been given more than seven touches in any game this season, and he responded by picking up three first downs in the first half and picked up 15 yards on three carries, only to get limited to minus-6 yards in the second half as the Colts zeroed in on some of his plays.
“I felt like all of our running backs got a lot of play,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “All of those guys have a role, and you don’t know whose day it’s going to be.”