Lance Moore is returning at the perfect time against the perfect opponent for the Saints.
Although Moore was unavailable for the past three games with a right hand injury and unproductive by his standards for the first three, quarterback Drew Brees anticipates a different result this Sunday against Buffalo in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With tight end Jimmy Graham possibly sidelined with a foot injury, Brees figures to look for Moore early and often.
“He’s probably the best overall route runner (on the team) with his ability to set up certain routes, especially against man coverage,” Brees said. “You’re talking about a team that’s a heavy man (defense) team like Buffalo. The way he can study guys and know the certain techniques to play against different corners, his ability to get separation, that’s a great asset to have.”
Cleared to practice this week, Moore has been nearly invisible to this point. He had two catches for 23 yards against Atlanta in the opener, one catch for 15 yards against Tampa Bay and one reception for 6 yards against Arizona before getting hurt in the second half.
That’s a tremendous drop-off from 2012, when he finished with a career-best 1,041 yards on 65 catches. Aside from an injury-plagued 2009, he has averaged 65 receptions and eight touchdowns since 2008.
To him, the difference was more happenstance than anything happening to his skills. The Saints wide receivers’ numbers are down across the board, with the group combining for 43 catches and only three touchdowns while the running backs and tight ends have produced 114 receptions and 11 scores.
“We all need to step up and we all need to make more plays, but at the same time, more plays need to come our way,” Moore said. “You can be out there wide open all day, but if you’re not getting targeted, you can’t make plays.
“It’s a collective thing. Everybody has got to do a better job, and I think everybody will do a better job moving forward.”
Moore said he already has moved past his frustrating injury. He joked during the Saints’ bye week that he could have dominated a flag-football league but simply was not ready for contact with the hand.
Those worries are gone.
“I’ve had almost a full week of practice and fallen down, been hit, had to do press coverage, blocking and catching all kinds of different balls,” he said. “At this point, I’m just anxious to get on the field. I feel good. My hand feels good. I’m ready to go.”
Getting a chance to come back against Buffalo makes him even more confident. The Bills lead the NFL with 12 interceptions — middle linebacker Kiko Alonso has four, and safeties Aaron Williams and Jim Leonhard have three apiece — but as Brees pointed out, their cornerbacks play primarily man coverage.
It killed Moore to sit out against New England, another man-heavy defense.
“I feel like that’s a game where I would have been a major asset,” he said. “It was one of those man-to-man type games, and this week is looking like it’s going to be one of those games as well. You love that moment and being able to showcase your talents and getting open out there. That’s what I love to do.”
Moore lends valuable experience to a group of receivers who, aside from Marques Colston, are inexperienced. He raves about the potential of rookie Kenny Stills, who had a spectacular touchdown against New England, but Stills has only 10 catches through six games. Second-year pro Nick Toon has three receptions, and Robert Meachem, back for his second stint with the Saints, has two.
“(Moore) has real good football instincts, he knows how to separate and he’s an exceptional route runner with good hands,” coach Sean Payton said. “He can get in and out of cuts and change direction. He understands leverage. He’s very sharp within the framework of our offense.”
Still, Payton refused to pin New Orleans’ drop in production at receiver on Moore’s absence.
“It’s hard to specifically point to maybe one player being down,” Payton said. “Over the last several years, there have been a lot of weeks and games where one of these receivers hasn’t been healthy. By and large, the group picks it up when someone is not healthy to play.”
Moore is not sure exactly how he hurt the hand, even though he has watched replays of the down several times. He fell on a long pass and somehow did some damage.
He said he’s ready to inflict pain on his opponents, rather than himself.
“It’s probably one of the worst things about our job when you’re hurt and can’t be out there with your teammates,” he said. “I had to let my body heal and get itself ready to play again, and now I feel like I’m as good as ever.”