N.O. comes off bye hoping to get added lift from LB Vilma
TAMPA, Fla. — After four consecutive losses to open the season, the New Orleans Saints got a much-needed lift from their defense in the second half of the game before their bye week.
In shutting out the San Diego Chargers for the final 27 minutes on Oct. 7, the Saints defense did its part while the offense was scoring 17 unanswered points to secure a 31-24 victory.
Fresh off the bye, the Saints defense will be trying to build some momentum from the uplifting performance Sunday when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at noon in Raymond James Stadium.
If the come-from-behind win over the Chargers and a restful bye week on top of it weren’t enough, the Saints (1-4) will have something else to be pumped about for their NFC South battle against the Bucs (2-3).
Before departing for the airport Saturday, the Saints activated middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma from the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list — a move enthusiastically endorsed by his teammates since he returned to practice this week following a series of surgical procedures on his knee.
“Whenever he’s on the field, that makes us better as a defense,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who’s also excited about getting cornerback Jabari Greer back from a groin injury.
“When you add some of your best players, getting Jabari back and adding JV to the mix, that just makes us that much better.”
Interim coach Aaron Kromer said Friday that Vilma, who has also been battling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over his suspension for his role in an alleged bounty scandal, looked good in practice during the week.
While it’s not known how much Vilma will play, or where, considering Curtis Lofton has started all five games in the middle and is the team’s leading tackler, just having him back is big for the defense.
“You have to love the guy,” first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said this week. “He loves playing, competing, being with the guys, and wants to be out there. They all do, so we’ll get it figured out.”
What the Saints need to figure out is a way to limit big plays and hold teams to fewer than 400 yards.
They rank last in total defense in allowing 456.0 yards per game and are 31st against the run in giving up 172.8 yards a game. Twenty running plays have accounted for about 400 of the 864 rushing yards allowed, Spagnuolo said.
“We’re not that far off, and yet you can’t allow those explosive plays because they lead to bad things,” he said. “The last game we played, there were a lot of positives, but we have a long way to go. There are a lot of places to improve.”
The Chargers’ game may have been a starting point, however.
After San Diego took a 24-14 lead early in the third quarter, the Saints bowed up and gave up just 114 yards on 28 snaps the rest of the way. They had two takeaways and four sacks in that stretch, giving them five for the game, and gave their offense a chance.
Another problem is scoring defense. The Saints rank 30th in allowing 30.8 points per game, which has put additional pressure on Drew Brees and the offense to score a lot of points.
“The No. 1 goal of a defense is to limit points, and we haven’t done that well enough,” Spagnuolo said. “The other part of it is to give our team the chance to win the football game. We would’ve liked to have instances in there where we would’ve done it. The explosive plays have certainly hurt.
“This past game, we got the win. Certainly the pass rush was better, so there’s improvement there.”
The Bucs could provide that opportunity to take another step forward. They rank 27th in the NFL in total offense with just 313.4 yards a game and rank 25th in passing with 211.6 yards a contest.
They’re also near the bottom in third-down conversions at 28.3 percent and completion percentage at 55.2 percent — ranking 30th in each category behind fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman.
But the Bucs had 373 yards against the Washington Redskins in the game before their bye and piled up 463 yards in a 38-10 drubbing last week of the Kansas City Chiefs — the teams that defeated the Saints in Weeks 1 and 2.
Freeman has thrown for 627 yards and four TDs in those games.
“We have to make sure that we don’t overlook the fact that they can run it,” Spagnuolo said in pointing out the Bucs’ 145 rushing yards against the Chiefs. “They have a young running back there (Doug Martin) and the kid that they’ve had (LeGarrette) Blount, he’s a good football player.
“I just know their temperament is to run the football, and yet they have a really good quarterback pulling the trigger.”
To make room on the roster for Vilma, the Saints released wide receiver Greg Camarillo. … The Saints also said tight end Jimmy Graham, who was limited in practice this week by a sprained right ankle, did not make the trip.