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John DeShazier: Left tackle Tony Hills proved to be quick study vs. Falcons

Before playing against Falcons he had been with Saints just two weeks

By the time Tony Hills was summoned to play left tackle – seven plays and about two-and-a-half minutes into the New Orleans Saints' Thursday night game against Atlanta – there wasn't time to remember that he almost had been a member of as many NFL organizations (10) as he had played NFL games (14) entering the game.

Or that he had been a Saint for less than two weeks.

Or that, as the third left tackle – starter Terron Armstead was inactive as he recovered from injury, and Andrus Peat's injury forced Hills onto the field – he was partially responsible for protecting Drew Brees' blind side.

For Hills, it simply was a matter of remembering that despite the limited time, he'd submitted the labor.

"I had some familiarity," he said. "I just put in a lot of work. There are 24 hours in a day, it's all about what you do with it. So I spent a lot of time in the morning working on my body, getting myself physically ready, and a lot of time after practice on the mental side of things.

"You've got (right tackle) Zach Strief here, (right guard) Jahri (Evans), (offensive line) coach (Bret Ingalls) – a lot of good guys in the room and any time you have questions, you ask them and they're right there to help you and they help simplify things for you. When you look at some of the plays – the concept of the plays is the same, it's the verbiage that's different. So the quicker that you can speak the language here, the faster you can play."

The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder was a quick study – quick enough to help the Saints total 385 yards of offense and 25 first downs, go 8 for 16 on third down and score 24 points in their 31-21 victory.

"Pretty amazing what Tony Hills was able to do, having only been here a week," Brees said. "The complexities of some of the things we do in the run game and the pass game, and just the verbiage in the huddle and snap count and so many things, he did a really phenomenal job. That whole group did. I think it says a lot about their preparation and the types of guys in that room."

Said Coach Sean Payton: "It was impressive. He enters the game and it is tough because he doesn't get a lot of reps. All of a sudden, he is pretty much going to start the whole game now because Andrus (Peat's) injury came early. He handled that, and I thought he handled it well.

"He settled in, especially when we were throwing it like we were. I really liked the look in his eye at halftime. I bet he and I had maybe eight words with each other in the short time that he has been here (before Thursday). I challenged him a little bit and he responded. I was really excited for how he competed. His energy on the sideline was really positive."

Hills said it was easy for him to be in the proper frame of mind, because it's the frame of mind with which he enters every game.

"Any time you go into a football game you have to put your mind in a different place," he said. "For me, I put it in my faith in God and on my family. So as I think of those two things, I think about the opportunity that's in front of me.

"As I go out there, I'm thinking of those things, I'm thinking of my job, I'm thinking about a lot of different things. After you have all that – and that's before the whistle – when the whistle snaps, it's about football and I just want to play the game the way I know how to play."

The way he knows hasn't prevented his career from becoming a series of comings and goings.

Hills has been waived or released seven times since entering the league as a fourth-round pick (No. 130 overall) in 2007. Before New Orleans signed him Oct. 7, he'd been released from Baltimore's practice squad Sept. 21.

"I was afforded an opportunity here in New Orleans, I'm appreciative of it and I just want to make them right," Hills said.

When he needed to, in a nationally televised game against a previously unbeaten opponent, he did just that.

Second gallery of Photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Atlanta Falcons. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)

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