TAMPA, Fla. — If nothing else, the return of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma gave the New Orleans Saints a big emotional lift Sunday.
Playing for the first time this season after being activated from the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list Saturday, Vilma didn’t record a tackle in a 35-28 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs.
He did have a quarterback hurry that nearly resulted in an interception and also broke up a Josh Freeman pass, but it was his presence that gave the Saints — particularly their much-maligned defense — a jolt of energy.
Vilma, one of the team’s leaders, was back on the field after a series of surgical procedures on his knee and a battle with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over his participation in the alleged bounty scandal.
He played in a reserve role, coming in on the Bucs’ second possession.
“It was one of those where I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me,” Vilma said. “I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I was hurting the team by being over-excited and there was really a lot to prepare for.
“So I would much rather focus on the preparation going into the game and when I was out there, let the emotions go.”
Playing most in the nickel package alongside starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, Vilma made his presence felt early on his third play when he crashed into Freeman as he was trying to pass — causing the ball to flutter.
TV replays appeared to show strong safety Roman Harper intercepting the pass, but officials ruled the ball hit the ground for an incompletion.
It was the kind of play the Saints have become used to seeing from Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, since he was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets in 2008.
“Having him back, just emotionally, really made a difference in this game,” interim coach Aaron Kromer said. “We tried to get him in certain packages and we had a couple of linebackers go down early in the game, so we were able to do that for the most part.”
“Jonathan is somebody that’s so important to our team,” said free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had two huge plays in the third quarter. “Even if he doesn’t play, him being out there automatically makes us better.
“When he’s on the field, he makes plays and he inspires us. So having him back was definitely a shot in the arm for us.”
How long he’s back remains to be seen.
Already suspended twice for the entire season by Goodell, Vilma will have another appeal on Oct. 30 with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue serving as an arbitrator in place of Goodell.
“I think it’s a good step. I think it’s a good first step for Paul to be the neutral arbitrator,” Vilma said. “We expect him to do things in a neutral capacity, which would be to cross-examine some of the witnesses, and allow us to see the evidence — if there is more evidence — and be able to have a fair hearing.”
When asked if he thought Sunday would be possible, Vilma said he did.
“I did. ... Most people didn’t,” he said. “It was a long, drawn-out process and for good or bad, it ended up this way. I was able to be back on the field with my teammates, and that was a great feeling.”