In the third quarter of his first game with the New Orleans Saints, outside linebacker Parys Haralson rushed at Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan from the blind side.
Haralson stretched his left arm out and pushed left tackle Sam Baker to the turf. Haralson dove at Ryan’s waist and wrestled him down 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
That sack on Ryan was just one of many plays the Saints made to defeat Atlanta 23-17 in their regular-season opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But it was also Haralson’s first sack in a meaningful NFL game since Sept. 11, 2011, and it marked his transformation from a surplus player on his old team — the San Francisco 49ers — to a key contributor in a win for the organization that had recently traded for him.
“This is a team of guys that want to win and go out there and play for each other and support each other,” Haralson said about joining New Orleans.
“This is a different locker room, and this is a good locker room.”
Haralson, a fifth-round draft pick out of Tennessee in 2006, was entering his seventh year with the San Francisco 49ers when he engaged a Denver Broncos tight end on a running play during a 2012 preseason game.
Haralson suddenly felt a pop and a sharp burn in his left arm. He thought he had simply strained a muscle but was immediately replaced.
Haralson soon learned that running play would be his last action of the season — he tore a triceps tendon.
Haralson underwent surgery and spent the next year at the 49ers’ facility performing exercises to regain strength and flexibility in his arm. Meanwhile, he watched outside linebacker Aldon Smith, the 49ers’ first-round draft selection in 2011, set a single-season franchise record with 19.5 sacks to help San Francisco get to Super Bowl XLVII.
Smith’s record was two sacks shy of Haralson’s career total at that point. With Smith’s emergence and the presence of fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, Haralson became expendable in the eyes of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff.
After outside linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith suffered knee injuries this summer, the Saints sought a trade with San Francisco for Haralson, who had operated in 3-4 scheme similar to the one New Orleans’ defense was implementing. The 49ers let Haralson go for a seventh-round draft pick three days before the Saints’ preseason finale.
Haralson said Aldon Smith’s success wasn’t distressing to him, and it didn’t offend him that the 49ers gave him up for that late of a draft choice.
“When I see a first-rounder drafted in my position, I kind of know where it’s going,” Haralson said. “I was able to come somewhere I could play, and (the 49ers) were able to get something for me, whatever that’s worth.”
Haralson dressed out for but didn’t participate in the Saints’ final exhibition. He was nonetheless tasked with mastering the intricacies of coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense in time for the Falcons game, a mere 10 days away.
Judging from Saints coach Sean Payton’s remarks before facing Atlanta, Haralson grasped the material just fine.
“He’s a quick study,” Payton said. “He’s picked up what we are doing, and he is someone that you can tell ... is a veteran who has played real good football. His impressions have been real strong.”
They were strong enough for the Saints to activate just two of the three outside linebackers available for the Atlanta game: Haralson and Junior Galette. Outside linebacker Martez Wilson said the Saints rested him as a precaution for the dislocated elbow he’d dealt with throughout the preseason.
Haralson got in on his first of two tackles behind the line of scrimmage when he helped safety Malcolm Jenkins drop Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers for a 1-yard loss.
Then he bowled Baker over with that repaired left arm and sacked Matt Ryan. He assisted in two other tackles to emerge as one of the Saints’ leaders with four combined stops.
Days after the win, Haralson said he was thankful he did justice to a phrase former 49ers teammate Takeo Spikes often repeated to him: “You only have one chance to make a first impression.”
“You don’t want to be that guy your teammates ... can’t trust,” Haralson said. “You want to show them, ‘I’m here with y’all. ... I’m here to do what I have to do to contribute, whatever that may be.’”