Saints assert they've evolved considerably since Week 1
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By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) For Saints coach Sean Payton and his players, it's a bit of a stretch to call their return to Minnesota a rematch.
Sixteen games have passed since Week 1, when the Saints needed a late, inconsequential touchdown just to reduce the Vikings' victory margin to 10 points.
New Orleans has lost numerous players to injuries. Other players have grown into more significant roles. Chemistry developed, and coaches became more adept at playing to the strengths and covering up weaknesses of various players. The result has been a NFC South championship and a victory in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs.
"There are some similarities in regards to scheme. But when you go through the course of an NFL season and you look at the attrition that takes place, there's - shoot - eight or nine of our (regulars) that were playing in that game that aren't playing in this game," Payton said Monday. "You begin to take shape as the season progresses as to who you become."
Seven players listed as starters in Minnesota in Week 1 won't be playing for New Orleans this weekend. Running back Adrian Peterson was traded after four games. Six others are injured: left guard Andrus Peat; right tackle Zach Strief; defensive end Alex Okafor; linebackers A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone; and safety Kenny Vaccaro.
In addition, tight end Coby Fleener, a regular in the passing game to start the season, is on injured reserve.
As Payton discussed the most striking aspects of the Saints' evolution this season, he began by highlighting "the amount of guys we've had to replace and the new faces that are stepping up."
Payton complimented the way linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o have handled increased roles. Robertson has two sacks, two interceptions, five tackles for losses, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Te'o has made or assisted on 62 tacklers, including seven for losses, and has a fumble recovery.
Payton also named tight end Josh Hill, guard Senio Kelemete, cornerback P.J. Williams and fullback Zach Line in a similar vein. Hill had a touchdown and key first-down catches in New Orleans' playoff triumph over Carolina. Kelemete, pressed into service often this season because of injuries, filled in at guard after Peat fractured his fibula against the Panthers.
Williams, a third-year pro who missed nearly all of his first two seasons with separate injuries, has two interceptions this season and saw increasing playing time in five-defensive-back formations because of Vaccaro's injuries.
Line, who scored a short TD against Carolina, wasn't on the regular-season roster until Oct. 4.
The contributions from such players have been "the most encouraging thing," Payton said, adding that "the resiliency and the fight" of his team "is something that's great to be around."
New Orleans' defense, in particular, has played much better since the Minnesota loss, when the Saints gave up 470 yards and allowed the Vikings to convert nine of 14 third downs.
"We've been playing together for a while now, so we kind of know the strengths and the weaknesses of the guys. We know how to play together, we know where people are going to be and so we're a lot more confident," Te'o said. "Week 1, we were a relatively young team as far as experience goes and as far as time together."
Now, Te'o said, "We kind of know who we are and what we can do and what our strengths are ... and also what things we need to work on."
Offensively, the Saints have evolved as well, particularly with the emergence of versatile running back Alvin Kamara, who put up regular-season numbers (728 yards and eight TDs rushing, 826 yards and five TDs receiving and a kickoff return TD) worthy of rookie-of-the-year consideration. His immediate comfort with Payton's scheme precipitated Peterson's trade to Arizona.
Meanwhile, receiver Ted Ginn, known primarily as a deep threat before the Saints acquired him in the offseason, demonstrated enough chemistry with quarterback Drew Brees as the season progressed to convert key first downs on intermediate routes as well.
"I believe that we are different. We didn't know what we had in store," Ginn said when comparing the Saints to Week 1. "We messed around with a lot of options, a lot of different players, different things like that. But as the season went on, we kind of found our mojo."
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Updated January 8, 2018