Banged-up Saints thankful for early bye this season
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Time will tell if the stunning comeback the New Orleans Saints' pulled out before getting this week off will be a confidence-building turning point or a mere reprieve from an otherwise miserable season.
''It's too early to make judgments already,'' said Saints fullback John Kuhn, who scored three TDs, including the winner last weekend. ''It's going to be nice to take this momentum into the bye, get healthy, come back, kind of get refocused.''
For now, the 1-3 Saints - who might have been 0-4 if not for a fourth-quarter meltdown by San Diego last weekend - can take some solace in the fact 13 other NFL teams were also 1-3 or worse through Week 4. In the NFC South, they're tied for second, two games out of first with 12 to go.
Meanwhile, optimism stems from the anticipated return of several injured regulars in coming weeks, making the timing of the Saints' bye week rather fortuitous for the banged-up club.
''We have a chance to get a number of guys back that have been out; obviously that number has been high for us - unusually high this early part of the season,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ''It falls at a good time for a number of players.''
Starting left tackle Terron Armstead (knee), starting middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (quad), projected starting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (quad), tight end Josh Hill (ankle) and left guard Senio Kelemete (hamstring) all missed last Sunday's game with injuries. The Saints have characterized them as week to week, providing hope that any or all of them could be back by the time the Saints return to action Oct. 16 against Carolina in the Superdome.
Additionally, safety Kenny Vaccaro (ankle) and receiver Willie Snead (toe) played through their recent injuries last Sunday. Vaccaro said he and a number of other players would be spending the week off getting treatment at team headquarters.
''We need it,'' Vaccaro said of the week off. ''A lot of guys don't like the early bye because you kind of want it in Week 10 after you're really, really beat up. But we've had so many injuries early and a lot of guys that are playing are banged-up, so it'll be exciting to see guys out there fresh, flying around.''
And in just a few more weeks, starting cornerback Delvin Breaux and first-round draft choice Sheldon Rankins, a projected starter at defensive tackle, could be back. Both of them have broken legs.
Yet the schedule only appears to get tougher. And some of the Saints' statistical rankings - particularly on defense - haven't been flattering through the first month.
Having ranked 31st in the NFL in defense the past two seasons, New Orleans remained 31st through Week 4, allowing 422.8 yards per game. Perhaps even more concerning for the unit is being dead last in points allowed per game at 32.5. Even last weekend, the Saints gave up plenty of yards (346) and points (34), but came up with a pair of fumble recoveries inside the final seven minutes to give quarterback Drew Brees a chance to lead his latest comeback with a pair of short touchdown drives. The Saints' defense then came up with one of its best series of the season to close out the win, producing a sack, followed a couple plays later by an interception on fourth-and-long.
''We have some momentum based on the way the fourth quarter (in San Diego) finished. Yet, there are a lot of things that need to be cleaned up,'' Payton said. ''We're going to see a stretch of good opponents coming up here. If you start with Carolina and then you go to the next week, Kansas City, and the week after that is Seattle. All of those teams were playoff teams (last year) and played extremely well.''
Payton said coaches are spending much of the bye week analyzing the performance of individual players and re-evaluating which personnel groupings serve the team best in various situations. Even before the bye, some lineup adjustments were made.
Rookie free safety Vonn Bell, a second-round draft choice out of Ohio State, started ahead of Jairus Byrd, a former Pro Bowl player with Buffalo who represented New Orleans' highest-profile free-agent acquisition in 2014.
''The job for us is going to be during this bye to look closely at what we're doing - not just defensively or offensively or in the kicking game (and) make sure we have our best players on the field,'' Payton said.
New Orleans' first two losses came down to the last possession, meaning even minor improvements could have made the difference between 1-3 and 3-1. Payton is confident his players aren't making any pessimistic assumptions that the success rate of the final 12 games will resemble that of the first four.
''There is enough veteran leadership in this room and players that understand how difficult it is to win each week, and yet how attainable it can be,'' Payton said. ''Certainly, getting that win (in San Diego) is a boost of confidence - and we needed it.''
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