Saints notebook: Fullback Austin Johnson displays versatility with touchdown catch

Austin Johnson lacks the blocking résumé of his Saints fullback peers.

Yet Johnson has placed himself in a position to start the regular season ahead of 11-year veteran Greg Jones on the depth chart, thanks to his pass-catching abilities. His 3-yard touchdown reception on the Saints first drive of Saturday night’s preseason game at Indianapolis served as the latest example of Johnson’s versatility.

On the play, Johnson met outside linebacker Erik Walden in the flat, squaring up before pushing his way into the end zone, rolling on top of Walden.

In a pass-first offense, Johnson’s receiving abilities could be enough to earn the job temporarily vacated by Erik Lorig, out with an unspecified leg injury. Lorig was one of two Saints players not to attend Friday’s Touchdown Club Saints luncheon. Jones was signed late in training camp (Aug 6).

Coach Sean Payton announced recently that Lorig, signed this offseason from Tampa Bay, will likely miss at least the Sept. 4 season opener at Atlanta.

While Jones has opened holes for both Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, he has never caught more than 13 passes in a season. Neither has Johnson, who lacks the pro experience of Jones, having spent last season on the Saints practice squad.

Rush for redemption

Walden, a seven-year pro, made up for his play against Johnson with a second-quarter sack of Drew Brees, working his away past left tackle Terron Armstead on a speed rush accented by a stutter step.

Armstead was praised during training camp by Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette for his footwork. For at least one play, Armstead failed to showcase the abilities that made him a late-season starter in 2013.

Offside outrage

Defensive end Glenn Foster earned a verbal thrashing from defensive line coach Bill Johnson for jumping offside on a first-and-10 at the Colts 45 late in the second quarter.

Galette finished the play with a sack of Andrew Luck — his play was negated by the penalty, but stopped Luck from making a throw downfield.

Eight plays later, the Colts converted a 20-yard field goal.

Stills injured again

Saints receiver Kenny Stills injured his leg during the first quarter Saturday night.

Stills, a second-year pro, was playing in his first preseason game after injuring his quadriceps during the first week of Saints training camp in West Virginia.

Stills exited with no catches. He was targeted by Brees in the first quarter, nearly hauling in an impressive catch behind him. But Vontae Davis broke up the play.

Staying in street clothes

Nine Saints players did not dress out for Saturday night’s game: receiver Andy Tanner, cornerback Trevin Wade, safety Marcus Ball, cornerback Rod Sweeting, fullback Lorig, safety Ty Zimmerman, linebacker Khairi Fortt, tackle Ty Nsekhe and outside linebacker Victor Butler.

Lorig, Butler and Nsekhe have not played during the preseason.

For the Colts, safety Delano Howell, running backs Vick Ballard and Deji Karim, inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Josh McNary, tackles Ulrick John and Xavier Nixon, and defensive tackle Montori Hughes did not dress out, the team announced.

Forbes: Saints fans near top

When it comes to fan support, the Saints’ Black and Gold Nation ranks among the very best.

According to Forbes.com, the Saints have the third-best fan following in the NFL behind Green Bay and Denver supporters.

The website used five criteria to determine a top 10 of NFL fandom: hometown crowd reach (according to Nielsen Scarborough, percentage of the metropolitan population that attended, watched or listened to a game in the past year), three seasons of TV ratings, three years fan attendance (based on percentage of capacity), three years of merchandise sales, and social media reach.

The rest of the top 10 was New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Chicago.

Brees backers in full force

Saints fans traveled to Indianapolis for Saturday’s game in respectable numbers despite the fact it was a preseason contest.

But the number of Drew Brees jerseys in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium was off the charts.

Split allegiances were in evidence throughout the venue: husbands in Brees jerseys, wives in Andrew Luck jerseys and vice versa.

The support for Brees in Indianapolis is understandable given the fact he played college ball at nearby Purdue from 1997-2000.

Brees remains the Big Ten career leader in passing yards, total offense, pass attempts, completions and touchdown passes.

-- Advocate sportswriters Ramon Antonio Vargas and Scott Rabalais contributed to this story.