New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton confirmed Monday afternoon that defensive end Alex Okafor is out for the season, a significant blow a defense that has made major strides during the team's eight-game winning streak.
Reportedly, Okafor suffered a torn Achilles in Sunday's 34-31, overtime victory over Washington in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He was injured in the fourth quarter, during a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Jeremy Sprinkle that gave Washington a 31-16 lead with 5:58 left.
"It's real difficult," Payton said. "He's a great teammate here, part of our team. He'll continue to be a part of the team. It's always tough, you don't like to see that, you hate to see it."
Okafor currently is second on the team with 4.5 sacks, behind Cam Jordan's eight, and had been a mainstay at right defensive end while supplying consistent pressure as well as being a presence in run defense.
The 4.5 sacks are his second-highest total for a season (he had eight in 2014, with Arizona) and his 43 tackles also are the second-most he's had in a season (45, in '14). Okafor also will finish with four passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Likely, one of the players who will be tasked with filling the position will be rookie Trey Hendrickson, who has 11 tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.
"He's played quite a bit," Payton said. "He gives you flexibility outside and inside. He's a good rusher inside. Very quickly in training camp, you just saw a sense of urgency and someone who had some natural strength to his play."
BELL RINGING: Second-year safety Vonn Bell didn't play his cleanest game Sunday, but he produced two standout plays down the stretch.
First, he combined with linebacker Manti Te'o on a one-yard tackle for loss with Washington facing third-and-1 from its 34-yard line, with 2:38 left. The play was significant because the Saints trailed 31-23 and had no timeouts remaining; if Washington had converted, it would have been able to run out the clock.
"What's crazy was, before the game (in warmup), Manti says, 'See you in the backfield,' " Bell said. "And it happened. We saw the guard pull, they'd been running it all game, I just said I'm going to shoot it; shoot my gun, it's third-and-1, it's the end of the game, why not? So we made the play, boom, me and Manti."
Next, after the Saints scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score at 31, the defense needed to make another stop to force overtime because Washington had 65 seconds remaining to construct a game-winning drive for a field goal or touchdown. It reached the Saints' 34-yard line with 31 seconds left, but Cousins was penalized for intentional grounding on first down, and after the loss of down penalty, which included 10 yards and a 10-second runoff, Bell sacked Cousins and caused a fumble on second-and-20. Washington recovered as time expired in regulation.
The Saints then got a defensive stop on the first drive of overtime, and the offense won the game with its own drive for a field goal.
"(The sack) provided us energy because we were going through adversity all game," Bell said.
"There were ebbs and flows to the game, had everybody's stomach hurting. But it was just making a play for the guys and getting off the field and having that energy going into overtime. We were up first (on defense) so we were already energized, so there's no better time to finish a game."
Said Payton: "Those were significant (plays) and yet, I think that today was a good day for all of us to come in here and make corrections. There's a lot of things that we didn't well in that game. Fortunately in the end, we made enough plays to give ourselves a chance and he was one of the players that did some things in the end that helped."
THE KUHN RULES: Payton said he was unaware that rookie running back Alvin Kamara had leapt into the stands – actually cleared the wall and stood in the stands next to fans – after Kamara scored on an 18-yard pass to pull the Saints to within 31-29. Kamara was needed in the huddle for the two-point conversion attempt; he scored on a run around left end, aided greatly by a block from tight end Josh Hill.
Payton had a light touch regarding the situation, and referenced a failed "Lambeau Leap" by current fullback John Kuhn, a former Packer who once failed to clear the wall after scoring a touchdown for Green Bay at Lambeau Field.
"Maybe in the offseason we can reduce the size of that wall," Payton said. "We can put that on Doug Thornton's list." Thornton is senior vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome and Smoothie King Center on behalf of the state.
"(It can) be padded," Payton added. "Kind of make it like a Kuhn Wall; if Kuhn can get up and into the fans, then that'd be a good idea, actually. But I didn't realize he was up in the crowd. I saw it on film. It's a pretty significant jump. So that will be on our renovation list."
GAME BALLS: Game balls for the Washington victory went to Okafor on defense; Kamara, running back Mark Ingram and tight end Coby Fleener on offense; and kicker Wil Lutz and receiver Tommylee Lewis for special teams.
Go inside the locker room as the Saints celebrate their Week 11 victory over the Redskins