Despite struggles against Panthers, N.O. encouraged
After the man he spent most of the day blocking got in on three of the six sacks the Carolina Panthers had against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, rookie tackle Terron Armstead admitted, “A few mistakes that can’t happen ... need to be corrected ASAP.”
“But I felt like I had a pretty solid game,” said Armstead, who made his first career start for the Saints at left tackle in their 17-13 loss to Carolina (11-4). “The main thing is keeping your confidence.”
Armstead — a 6-foot-4, 304-pound, third-round draft pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff — will have plenty of tough lessons to learn from his first day on the job. Within 25 minutes of elapsed time at Bank of America Stadium, he had been called for two false-start penalties and had surrendered a pair of sacks.
It was far from an ideal start to his taking over for veteran Charles Brown, who had been yanked from the starting lineup after giving up two sacks and being called for a pair of penalties in the Saints’ 27-16 setback at St. Louis on Dec. 15. However, things would improve for Armstead as the game went on.
Though that wouldn’t prevent the Saints (10-5) from wasting a chance to clinch the NFC South, the No. 2 seed in their conference, a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game in the playoffs, it was enough to convince coach Sean Payton to stick with Armstead as his starting left tackle.
Armstead, listed on Wednesday’s injury report with a shoulder problem, next matches up against Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Clayborn has five sacks for the Buccaneers, who are 4-11. The Saints can win their division and the two-seed with both a victory and a Carolina loss at Atlanta (4-11).
The first indication that Armstead would struggle against Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy came when Saints quarterback Drew Brees was operating from the shotgun formation on a third-and-8 late in the opening quarter. Hardy initially engaged left guard Ben Grubbs, but then he slid over to Armstead, who let the Carolina defensive end slip outside.
Hardy was the first of three Panthers to pile on top of Brees 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage, forcing one of the Saints’ season-high seven punts. Then, on the second play of the second quarter, Armstead was whistled for false start. Four snaps later, rushing a Saints pass attempt on a second-and-8 from Carolina’s 30, Hardy faked like he’d run outside, but he cut inside and past Armstead.
Armstead tried to re-establish his position, but when he engaged Hardy, his chest was pointed at the defensive end’s right shoulder. Hardy dove at Brees and wrestled him down for a loss of 9. The Saints on that drive settled for a field goal.
Armstead’s second false start set up a third-and-15 at New Orleans’ 21 and preceded another punt.
Hardy would receive half-credit on two more sacks, but the good news for Armstead is that he wasn’t at fault in either. On the first, Brees held the ball for too long — about five seconds — and ate a fifth first-half sack with less than a minute to go in the second quarter.
In the second half, the Saints rushed the ball 20 times, and that helped Armstead. On the one time Brees was sacked, he was brought down by blitzing Carolina safety Mike Mitchell as well as Hardy, who beat Grubbs on the play.
Armstead was on defensive end Mario Addison.
Brees — who was limited in practice Wednesday with an unspecified knee problem — never grew impatient with his novice left tackle, Armstead said. Neither did the rest of the Saints, even as they ceded more than four sacks for the first time this year.
Following the game, Armstead — who had lined up on special teams in four games before being tasked with playing on each of the Saints’ 81 offensive snaps against Carolina — said, “Those guys were great. Even after I had a mental mistake here and there, they were still behind me completely.”
Grubbs elaborated in the Saints’ locker room on Wednesday. “He did well enough to put us in a position at the end of the game to come out with a win,” said Grubbs, alluding to the fact that the Saints headed into the final half-minute of play leading 13-10 before they were defeated. “Obviously, he had mistakes, but I think that was to be expected.”
Payton, for his part, expressed no regrets about starting Armstead over Brown, who held Hardy to no sacks when the Saints hosted the Panthers on Dec. 8 and beat them 31-13. “Overall, we were pleased — first time out on the road against a good player like he went against and a good front,” Payton said. “It was real encouraging.”