Dunbar’s versatility has come in handy for Saints

METAIRIE — In the world of professional football, veteran New Orleans Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar is a split personality.

In any given game, on any given play, he might be Mike, or Sam, or Will, a.k.a. the middle, strongside and weakside linebacker in the team’s 4-3 scheme employed by Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Dunbar’s role largely depends on where the team needs him most.

Dunbar started at Sam in six of the Saints’ first eight games, Mike in another. Most recently, he’s started at Mike, filling in the past three games for three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is recovering from a minor knee surgery.

Dunbar played a starring role in Monday night’s primetime special at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, helping the Saints blister the slumping New York Giants 49-24. He earned a game ball after recording a team-high 10 tackles and also forcing a fumble.

While Dunbar prefers Mike and probably is best suited to play Mike, he is equally capable of giving a strong performance as Sam or Will.

The best way to describe Dunbar, perhaps, is a jack of all trades, master of none.

“We put J.D. here when this guy goes down, we put him here when this guy is nicked up, we put him here if this guy doesn’t make a play … that’s the kind of player he is,” fellow linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “That’s evident this year.

“Wherever we put Jo-Lonn, he doesn’t miss a step. I mean Vilma is Vilma, but we love to have J.D. as his backup at Mike, or second guy in, because he’s doing a phenomenal job.”

Where Dunbar plays Sunday night against the Detroit Lions (7-4) at the Superdome remains to be seen. It will depend if Vilma can return for the game after practicing on a limited basis this week.

But make no mistake: Dunbar will be on the field doing what he does best, playing linebacker for the NFC South-leading Saints (8-3).

“When people ask me, ‘what position do you play?’ I say, ‘linebacker.’ ‘Which one?’ I say, ‘outside.’ That’s how it is,’ ” Dunbar said. “I play linebacker. Jonathan Vilma is our ‘Mike’ linebacker, and I’m a linebacker. I just get to drive his car right now. He’s just letting me drive it for a while until he gets back. That’s all it is.”

Dunbar, 26, is overly modest. Truth be told, he could start for numerous NFL teams and contribute on special teams to boot.

An undrafted rookie free agent from Boston College in 2008, he is intelligent, extremely athletic at 6 feet, 226 pounds and can play inside or outside linebacker when Williams goes to a 3-4 scheme.

No doubt, Dunbar’s value as an every-down player and on special teams is not lost on Saints coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon and Williams.

“We’ve had a lot of respect for (Dunbar) since I’ve gotten here,” said Williams, who arrived before the start of the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV season in 2009. “It didn’t take me very long to figure out how sharp and smart he was.

“We all have warts. I have warts, you have warts. We all do. Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s sharp. He is tough as nails, and he won’t back down from a fight on the line of scrimmage, down the field or whatever. We’re really proud of what he’s been able to do … We’re able to play a lot of different packages here because we have smart, tough guys. Jo-Lonn’s one of them.”

Payton shares that sentiment.

“When you can lose a player like Jon Vilma and have another guy jump in like Jo-Lonn and have the success he had, it really speaks of the position group, and it speaks to where we’ve come just in regards to depth,” Payton said.

“Being able to come in and communicate and call the plays defensively and handle the formations and handle some of the audibles that Jon would handle, it’s not something we take for granted. We talk about players that have earned their way in, and have fought their way in, and Jo-Lonn would be a great example of that.”

Dunbar doesn’t try to hide which linebacker position he likes best, saying the Mike is his “natural position.”

“Jo-Lonn’s had to play ‘Sam’ for the first couple of years I’ve been here, and, to his credit, he’s never complained once,” Williams said. “In fact, I tease him all the time about this, but we would have given him the Heisman after that preseason game against the Dolphins in ’09 because he had 18 or 19 tackles. He just played lights out. He said if you play me at my natural position, I can do that all the time.

“But, he’s never once complained about where he plays. He understands his role. He understands where he fits into it. Jon Vilma’s our defensive captain. He’s our Drew Brees on our side of the ball. Jo-Lonn will fit in anywhere, and now he fits in there because J.V. hasn’t been able to answer.”

At the moment, Jo-Lonn Dunbar looks like a perfect for the Saints at Mike, Sam or Will.