Giants’ big returns in kicking game put Saints in tough spot

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In the interest of player safety, the NFL is considering eliminating kickoffs.

After Sunday, the proposal probably would have the Saints’ support.

Kickoff coverage, a strong suit in a season when the Saints increasingly have fewer of them, became a disaster when the New York Giants returned six for 287 yards, including a 97-yarder for a touchdown by rookie David Wilson after the Saints had taken an early lead in New York’s 52-27 victory at Metlife Stadium.

The 287 yards were a club record for the lone remaining original NFL franchise, founded in 1925, 1,235 games ago.

The Saints haven’t been around quite that long. But it was also a record amount allowed by a franchise which has been around for 45 years and 703 games.

“That’s not good is it?,” asked linebacker Jonathan Casillas, a member of the kickoff coverage team who was playing near his hometown of New Brunswick, N.J. “It’s a big disappointment for me to come back here and have that happen.

“But then again, it’s disappointing to lose no matter where you are.”

Before Sunday, the Saints
(5-8) had been losing primarily first because of a last-in-the-league defense, and then in the last two weeks, primarily because of seven interceptions thrown by Drew Brees.

Kickoff returns had not been a problem.

Thanks to the leg of Thomas Morstead, opponents had returned only 29 of his 64 kickoffs, 57 of which reached the end zone, 34 going for touchbacks, the ninth-best mark in the league.

The longest return by an opponent had been 38 yards.

But Sunday, playing in wet and windy conditions for the first time this season, and one of the few times in his career, Morstead got his first kickoff 2 yards deep and the next three to the 3, 2, and 11.

Wilson went 58 yards with the first one to the Saints’ 44 and followed that with his TD run, which seemed to follow the same pattern of starting right before coming left. He then went 52 yards to the Saints’ 46 and 20 to the Giants’ 31.

In the second half, Morstead switched to a sky kick, and after Jerrel Jernigan muffed the first one for no gain, he turned the second one into a 60-yard carry to the Saints’ 25, where Morstead pushed him out of bounds.

“I have no idea what they were doing on those first few returns,” Morstead said. “I just play safety in the middle, and if they get through, I do my best.

“But I don’t want to make too many tackles because that means did they get through everybody else.”

Morstead said he expected a less-than-normal day kicking off because of the wet and somewhat windy conditions.

“Warming up, I could tell they weren’t carrying as far,” he said. “That’s what happens when it’s cold and wet.

“It’s a lot different from kicking in the ’Dome. I thought I kicked it well, but it just didn’t go as far.”

Casillas said the blame shouldn’t fall on Morstead, who actually did a little better punting (50.5-yard average on four kicks) than his season average of 50.0.

“He’s done more than a good enough job at home,” Casillas said. “And his job anywhere is to just to kick it as far as he can.

“It’s our responsibility to cover the kicks. If he’s having to make tackles 60 yards downfield, then we didn’t do a good enough job.”

Plus, Casillas added, the Giants have a budding start in Wilson, a first-round draft pick from Virginia Tech.

“Not many people know about him,” Casillas said. “But he’s fast and makes good decisions.

“We saw on film that he was a good return man. We had our shots at him today, but we didn’t make them when we had to.”

Wilson, who rushed for a team-high 100 yards on 13 carries, said he felt he was going to have a good day.

“This week, on every return that I did in practice, it looked pretty good,” he said. “And at the special teams meeting, my coach didn’t hand me an assignment sheet like he used to.

“He said, ‘You don’t need one — just run fast.’ ”

Regardless, Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said the kickoffs plus turnovers put his team at a disadvantage it could not overcome, pointing out the Giants’ average starting field position was their 49 to the Saints’ 19. The Saints never got past their 28 in eight kickoff situations.

“You look at the critical factors — the game within the game — and we didn’t deserve to win,” he said.

“It’s a shame what happened with our coverage teams today. That’s what they get paid to do, but obviously (the Giants) out-executed us, so give them credit.”

And as for the rule change?

Morstead, who has said he gets a bigger thrill from kicking off than punting, didn’t sound like he would be that much opposed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It would be a big change.”