New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton says, essentially, that it’s business as usual.
An injury occurs, a replacement steps in, it’s the job of the coaching staff to have developed the stand-in so that the drop-off will be minimal, if detectable at all.
Except, there seems to be a level of unusual-ness to the Saints’ seamless ability to do so over the last two seasons. This year, New Orleans (10-1) has won 10 straight games – last year, it won eight straight, finished 11-5 and won the NFC South Division – and both seasons, injuries have been a major theme, as they usually are with NFL teams.
But to say that the Saints handle them better than most would be an understatement.
So far this season, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (six games, and counting), left tackle Terron Armstead (two, and possibly more), left guard Andrus Peat (three), backup lineman Josh LeRibeus (five, and counting), receiver Tre’Quan Smith (one game), defensive end Marcus Davenport (three), defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (two), and defensive back Patrick Robinson (played the first three, then out for the season) are among those who have missed time.
All except Davenport, the team’s first-round pick and a valuable part of the rotation, have started games (LeRibeus, as an injury replacement for Peat). Ginn, LeRibeus and Robinson are on injured reserve, and the aforementioned absences don’t include running back Mark Ingram, who missed the first four games due to his NFL-issued suspension.
A similar list was compiled last season, including Armstead (six regular-season games missed in ‘17), Peat (one), Ginn (one), linebacker Alex Anzalone (12), cornerback Marshon Lattimore (three) and defensive end Alex Okafor (six).
Now, as then, New Orleans goes about its business as if unaffected.
“We’re constantly training and developing the roster, I think that’s our jobs,” Payton said. “And it’s the player’s job to be ready if the opportunity comes up. And hopefully, guys can get healthy, the guys that have been nicked up, but that’s kind of the nature of our game.”
The Saints’ nature is to not skip a beat when nature takes its course.
On defense, that means a unit that continues to improve as the season has progressed: The league’s top run defense (73.2 yards per game allowed), plus-eight in turnovers (fifth-best in the league, and a total of 17, tied for seventh-most in the league) and an average of 12.7 points allowed in the last three games.
On offense, that means a unit that leads the league in scoring (37.2 points per game), has scored 40-plus points six times and has allowed Drew Brees to be sacked just 10 times.
“We talk about it a lot, I think there’s an expectation level that’s set on both sides of the ball, whereas, if you come in and need to play a certain role for us, you’re expected to play at a certain level,” Brees said. “We’re going to prepare you so that you know what to do and you can go out there and play with a ton of confidence. It’s still a team game, we’re all working together, to help us all be successful.”
Veteran or rookie, the expectation is the same.
Jermon Bushrod, a 12-year veteran, hadn’t played left tackle since the 2015 season, with Chicago. But after playing right guard the previous two seasons, and backing up at left tackle to start this year, he was called into action when Armstead was injured against the Bengals on Nov. 11.
Bushrod has started the last two games, and may have to do so again against Dallas on Thursday night while Armstead’s pectoral injury heals.
“It’s just about going in there and executing the plan,” Bushrod said. “It’s hard – it’s not easy. But you have to go out there and find a way to try to get the job done for your teammates. It’s not always going to be perfect, but each week you’ve got to find a way to get better, find a way to get better in practice and during the game because mistakes are going to happen. But mistakes can’t repeatedly happen.”
The rookies understand that as well. Undrafted receiver Keith Kirkwood has seen his role increase in recent weeks because of injury, and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Brees in the Saints’ 31-17 victory over Atlanta on Thanksgiving. It was Kirkwood’s first touchdown.
“I think this organization gives a huge credit to guys that just come in and compete, whether they’re drafted or undrafted,” Kirkwood said. “I think we have so much depth all around that if a guy goes down, somebody steps in to fill the same role and we don’t skip a beat.
“It’s a very tough offense, but I think the organization does a great job finding guys who are dialed in and smart in learning offenses and defenses pretty quick.”
It’s business for the Saints, but it’s not the usual.