NEW ORLEANS — Starters. Backups. What’s the difference?
Playing with a pair of reserve linebackers on Saturday night, New Orleans’ first-team defense showed little improvement in a 34-27 preseason victory over the Houston Texans on Saturday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) was replaced by Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring filled in for David Hawthorne (knee) on the weak side.
It was a particularly difficult transition for Casillas, an outside linebacker by trade who was forced into the middle just two days ago when Lofton’s expected backup, Roman Humber, hurt his hamstring and forced the Saints to formulate a contingency plan.
Casillas described his performance in the heart of the Saints defense as “average at best”, but interim coach Joe Vitt said he was impressed by what Casillas accomplished in such a short period of time.
“He did a nice job tonight,” Vitt said. “Jonathan Casillas has played that position for about 48 hours. He did a good job.
“We gave him about six-to-10 defenses he was going to run in the game.”
But Casillas said he felt “out of place” at times playing in a new position and the Texans took full advantage of those opportunities.
Matt Schaub wasted no time picking apart the Saints, completing 10 of his 11 first-quarter passes. He racked up 135 yards in the period, and one of the easiest touchdowns throws of his nine year career.
A busted coverage over the middle of the field allowed Keshan Martin to walk into the end zone on a 10-yard touchdown. It was illustrative of the deficiencies the inexperienced Saints defense displayed throughout extended portions of the first half.
“We executed at a high level,” Schaub said, “especially in the first quarter, as far as an offense making plays.”
While a trio of forced turnovers — one forced on a kickoff return and two others by the defense — and a high-powered Saints offense kept the scoreboard knotted at halftime, it hid some of the uglier numbers produced against the starting defense.
Houston racked up 233 yards in the opening half, as Schaub picked apart the Saints defense in a variety of ways and with a plethora of receivers. Nine different Texans caught passes from the starting quarterback and only three of his 18 attempts fell incomplete.
“We were explosive,” Texans’ coach Gary Kubiak said. “Our quarterback was excellent.”
Even more disconcerting for the Saints linebackers, rarely used tight end Garrett Graham led the way for Houston’s receivers, hauling in four catches for 97 yards (77 in the first half). In his 13 career NFL regular-season games, Graham has totaled one catch and 24 yards.
His 44-yard reception, aided by 25 yards after the catch, underscored New Orleans’ troubling trend of busted coverages – the newest issue concerning the Saints’ defense.
A week ago, Saints coaches criticized its defense’s poor tackling in a 27-24 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. This week, the missed assignments and penalties will likely be the focus with the regular season opener just two weeks away.
“Our tackling was better tonight but we had some misplaced reads and some eyes were in the wrong places,” Casillas said. “That’s where they got some points on us fast. We were a little undisciplined and we had some penalties that kept some drives going.
“Every game, if we continue to do that, it’s going to hurt us, so we need to limit those mistakes.”
The Saints front office tried to prop up its linebacker depth by trading for Barrett Ruud last week, who received his first game action on Saturday, taking snaps at middle linebacker with the second team defense, recording three tackles.
Now, the Saints have a week to decide how they’ll move forward with the depleted position and try to improve the struggling starting defense.
“Hopefully this week, they’ll keep me in the middle and I’ll continue to do better,” Casillas said. “But I could also get moved back to ‘will’ (weakside) and someone else can come on and do the job. Whatever it is, I’m up for the task and I think this team is too.”