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John DeShazier: Saints depth in secondary shining through this season

Posted Jan 8, 2014

Cornerback Keenan Lewis only member to play all 17 games

When the New Orleans Saints opened the regular season defensively, they did so in a nickel package with a secondary of Keenan Lewis at right cornerback, Jabari Greer at left cornerback, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins at safety and Kenny Vaccaro at nickel back.

For last Saturday’s wild-card playoff game in Philadelphia, Greer and Vaccaro were replaced in the starting lineup by Corey White and Rafael Bush, respectively, and Lewis was injured during the game and replaced by Rod Sweeting, with a touch of Trevin Wade.

In between, the Saints have done a patch job in the secondary that might be unrivaled in the NFL this season.

Including postseason, only Lewis, who has been able to fight through his share of nicks and bumps this season, has started all 17 games.

Greer (seven games and counting), Vaccaro (three and counting) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (15 and counting), who started every game last season and tied for the team lead with three interceptions), were lost with season-ending injuries that required surgery.

Harper (seven) and Jenkins (two) were dinged up and even Bush (three) missed some time.
Yet the Saints (12-5) entered the postseason with the league’s second-ranked pass defense (194.1 yards per game), one that had allowed just 20 touchdown passes, a completion mark of 60 percent and a passer rating of 83.6.

It kept that pace in the Saints’ 26-24 road victory over Philadelphia in the wild-card game, limiting the Eagles to 195 passing yards on 33 attempts. And it hopes to extend that into Saturday’s divisional playoff game in Seattle, against the Seahawks (13-3) at CenturyLink Field.

“Part of the 16-game schedule we’re playing is that attrition,” Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. “Fortunately, we’ve got some depth there, we’ve got some experience and some young players.

“Losing a player like Kenny, and the corners that we’ve lost with Jabari and Patrick, those are obviously things that you would rather not have happen. But I think the amount of time on task some of these guys have had that are veterans, and then some of the younger guys that have come in and been able to play (helps mitigate the losses).

“You take a guy like Corey, who’s starting the season in a role that would be nickel, and here for the last however many weeks has been starting outside (at cornerback), I don’t think it’s unusual for teams. You just hope that it’s always kept at a minimum.”

Instead, it has seemed more like the maximum for New Orleans. But that has opened the door for others to respond.

White has started the last seven games. Sweeting’s two tackles in the wild-card game, in relief of Lewis, were a career high. Bush, who hadn’t started a game in his previous two seasons on an NFL roster, opened six during the regular season and is a vital part of the secondary.

They all are part of a unit that only has allowed three 300-yard passing games this season.

“We believe in ‘Next Man Up,’ ” White said. “Unfortunately, the NFL is a 100 percent injury rate, so people are going to go down. The thing you’ve got to do is, you’ve just got to be prepared. Be prepared for when your time is to come, and that’s what all our players here do. Whenever it’s our time, we’re ready.

“It’s frustrating. But (defensive coordinator) Rob (Ryan) does a good job of playing to our players’ strengths. If one goes down, the second player up is not the same player, or has the same value, as the starter. But Rob does a good job of getting us in positions to where we won’t expose each other. That’s how we’ve been able to get through the season with the injuries and still be able to perform the way we do.”

Said Bush: “We’re very deep. We’ve got older guys that know the game, young guys that have a lot of talent. That’s some things that other teams don’t have. We’re fortunate enough to have that depth at every position.”

It has shown all season, from beginning to now. New Orleans is counting on it continuing to show against the Seahawks.

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