The Saints’ battered secondary has become a primary concern for New Orleans as it prepares to host the NFL’s top overall draft pick, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston.
After losing their season opener in Arizona without starting cornerback Keenan Lewis or starting free safety Jairus Byrd, the Saints now must replace Byrd’s replacement — veteran Rafael Bush, who tore his pectoral muscle Sunday.
New Orleans had to finish the game with veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford playing free safety for the first time.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Sanford is versatile enough to play both safety spots. But after placing Bush on injured reserve this week, New Orleans also has re-signed veteran free safety Kenny Phillips, who was with the club in training camp but has not played in a regular season game since 2012.
“With regards to the next guy playing, it is a challenge from the amount of playing time they’ve had,” Payton conceded Wednesday. “Obviously, with Jairus, there is going to be a transition. It has been a while since he has played football and we understand that. Fortunately, Phillips was just here.
“We’ve got to look at a couple of different options,” Payton continued. “Obviously, Jamarca is someone that knows both (safety) positions. We have to remain somewhat flexible, but that would be the challenge.”
Byrd did not practice on Wednesday, extending a prolonged absence that dates to the beginning of training camp because of complications related to his rehabilitation from knee surgery last year. Lewis also remained out with a hip injury that occurred in New Orleans’ third preseason game.
So when Winston makes his second career start in the Superdome on Sunday, he could be facing a secondary that includes two defensive backs who also are playing in only their second NFL game: Delvin Breaux, who started last week for Lewis, and fifth-round pick Damian Swann, who served as the primary nickel back. Phillips, meanwhile, is trying to resurrect a career that has been side-tracked by various injuries during the past two years.
For Winston, there’s little use in spending much time studying the Saints’ secondary personnel.
“I focus on their scheme and the concept of how they do things,” Winston said. “Whoever shows up to play on game day, we will find out who that is, but we know they have some good players and we know they are going to have a good plan ready.”
The Saints gave up 307 yards passing and three TDs to Cardinals QB Carson Palmer in a 31-19 loss last weekend.
But Winston is coming off of an inauspicious NFL debut against Tennessee, throwing two interceptions in a 42-14 loss. Bucs coach Lovie Smith expects Winston to perform better this week, whether he is playing against a patched-up secondary or not.
“If you have to go to a backup, you are not as strong. If you’re not as strong, that would benefit us,” Smith said. “We can’t look at it like that. Whoever they are going to put back there is very capable.”
The only regular starters available in New Orleans’ defensive backfield this weekend might be strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and veteran cornerback Brandon Browner.
But Vaccaro stressed that Breaux has shown a lot of promise and that Phillips, a former first-round pick who has started in the Super Bowl for the New York Giants, “knows what to do.”
“It’s not going to be as catastrophic as everybody thinks,” Vaccaro said, adding that several defensive backs train at multiple positions in case injuries require them to switch from their regular roles. “We cross-train for situations like this. There’s no panic. We’ll be fine. You want the best guys out there, but unfortunately that’s how this game goes.”
Notes: Running back C.J. Spiller returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday for the first time since going out with a knee injury early in training camp. Quarterback Drew Brees indicated that Spiller could be a factor in the Saints’ offense soon. “Just the time we spent on the field today, I like the way he looks,” Brees said. … In addition to Byrd and Lewis, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (toe) also missed practice. … The Saints have brought back receiver Joseph Morgan, who has spent much of the past four seasons with New Orleans but was cut at the end of this past preseason.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.