Vargas: It’s all about the next man up for the Saints defense

There already has been a long list of them this year for the New Orleans Saints, but John Jenkins and Jay Richardson are the next men up.

With veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley out with a calf injury, second-year defensive end Tyrunn Walker out with a hurt knee and rookie defensive end Glenn Foster out with a tweaked ankle, the Saints defensive front is low on numbers for its Week 2 visit to Tampa Bay (0-1).

The pressure falls on nose tackle Jenkins, a third-round selection this year, and defensive end-outside linebacker Jay Richardson to show they can help hold down the fort until New Orleans (1-0) replenishes its ranks.

If Jenkins and Richardson can follow a trend set by some of their teammates, the Saints should fare well in their bid to defeat an NFC South opponent for the second consecutive week.

Examples to whom Richardson and Jenkins can turn are numerous — linebackers David Hawthorne, Junior Galette and Parys Haralson as well as defensive end Akiem Hicks. All of them are big reasons why the Saints have a chance against the Buccaneers to take a commanding lead in the division this early in the season — just a year removed from an 0-4 start.

The burdens on Hawthorne, Galette, Haralson and Hicks became heavier when players at their position suffered injuries that ended their season or threatened to do so. With projected starting inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma on short-term injured reserve after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August, Hawthorne recorded four combined stops (one behind the line of scrimmage) to stand among New Orleans’ defensive leaders in the 23-17 win at home against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1.

After projected starting outside linebackers Will Smith (season-ending injured reserve) and Victor Butler (physically unable to perform list) tore ACLs and Martez Wilson (elbow) was inactive for Week 1, the Saints entrusted Haralson and Galette to handle a lot of snaps at outside linebacker.

Haralson, acquired in a trade with San Francisco toward the end of the preseason, and Galette, who missed all of New Orleans’ exhibitions with an injured hamstring, responded with a sack apiece.

New Orleans’ third sack against Atlanta was the work of Hicks, who finished with three solo stops. Observers expected last year’s third-round pick to compete for playing time with veteran defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who tore a pectoral muscle in early August and is on injured reserve. But one now wonders whether Coleman could’ve beat Hicks out for the starting role.

When they got hurt, Bunkley had locked up the starting nose tackle job. New Iberia native Walker, who was on the 53-man roster his rookie year but didn’t play, saw the first regular-season snaps of his career against Atlanta. Foster amassed a team-high four sacks in the preseason.

Jenkins and Richardson, though, have shown the potential to at least tide the Saints over until some of their teammates get healthy.

The 6-foot-3, 359-pound Jenkins impressed in the last dress rehearsal before the regular season by racking up a sack and six combined stops, tied for the team’s best. When Bunkley went down in the opener, he chipped in by getting in on two tackles.

Jenkins won’t be able to line up on every snap; he has played no more than 28 in a game in his time so far with New Orleans But he already has gained the confidence of third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan, who described Jenkins as a student of the game blessed with quick feet.

Those quick feet and his affinity for teddy bear T-shirts are what earned him the nickname “Dancing Bear.”

“Dancing Bear ... is into the fire,” Jordan said. “And I think he (has done) well.”

It shocked many that Richardson — who had been in the NFL from 2007-10 but had not been on a roster since — was released by the Saints on cut-down day. A defensive end who switched to outside linebacker in the wake of the injuries at the position, he had two sacks in the preseason and recovered a fumble, one of four turnovers the Saints forced.

All of that was enough for the Saints to re-sign him in the days leading up to the Bucs game. Count defensive end Tom Johnson — questionable with a foot issue — as one of those glad the Saints ended Richardson’s hiatus from the NFL.

“He knows the system, ... and he contributed,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to step up to the plate.”

Why not? Many others already have.