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Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley heads to season-ending injured reserve

New Orleans Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (77) is tended to after being injured in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

New Orleans Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (77) is tended to after being injured in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

As had been suspected, Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley will miss what’s left of his team’s season because of a leg injury, New Orleans coach Sean Payton announced Thursday.

Bunkley injured a quadriceps in Monday night’s 34-27 loss at home to Baltimore and is now on year-ending injured reserve. Payton said the roster spot freed up by the move will be occupied by defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil, an undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State who was promoted from the Saints’ practice squad, as The Advocate reported Wednesday evening.

The Saints added rookie defensive tackle Garrison Smith to the practice squad to fill in the slot opened up by Virgil’s promotion.

Payton spoke Thursday about why the Saints chose Virgil to preserve the depth on the defensive line.

“He’s a real good worker, a good technician, he’s young obviously, and I think it was an easy decision,” the coach remarked. “You’re … able to measure (his progress) even though he’s running a lot of scout-team work (in practice).”

Bunkley injured his leg on a second-and-7 for the Ravens at midfield trying to stop a rush by running back Justin Forsett. The nose tackle walked off the field with the help of trainers but didn’t return. On Tuesday morning, the NFL Network reported Bunkley tore his quad.

Under Bunkley on the Saints depth chart were 2013 third-round draft selection John Jenkins and Brandon Deaderick, an NFL veteran in his first season with New Orleans.

New Orleans Saints nose tackle John Jenkins smiles as he warms up with headphones before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneersin New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

New Orleans Saints nose tackle John Jenkins smiles as he warms up with headphones before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneersin New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

Jenkins saw significant action at nose tackle in five regular-season games that Bunkley missed with a calf injury at the beginning of last year. The Saints won all five.

This season, Bunkley played in nine of the Saints’ 11 games (all starts), and under him Jenkins has handled slightly more snaps (209) than Deaderick (185).

Jenkins’ snap count might be higher had it not been for a pectoral injury that limited him in training camp and could have been a reason why he was held out of three games in September.

“He was a real good contributor as a rookie,” Payton said. “He was one of those young players that came in and acclimated himself real quickly.”

Jenkins viewed it as a positive that Deaderick was around this year to split snaps up with him if necessary in Bunkley’s absence.

“It was (just me) last year (when Bunkley was out), but … now we got somebody else who’s a versatile player,” Jenkins said. “He can play my spot, and other spots on the (defensive) line, so that helps out a lot.”

Jenkins also described it as hurtful to see Bunkley go down.

“He’s like a big brother to me,” said Jenkins, who explained that his main NFL and Saints mentor has been Bunkley.

Bunkley finished with 17 tackles on the season, eight of which were solo. This was his ninth season in the NFL and third in New Orleans.

Bunkley became the third New Orleans defender to suffer a season-ending injury in as many weeks. That only makes things more difficult for a team that is ranked 27th on defense and surrendered a staggering 1,184 yards as well as 88 points in three consecutive setbacks at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in November.

Rookie backup safety Vinnie Sunseri broke his left forearm attempting to make a special-teams tackle in a 27-24 loss at home against San Francisco on Nov. 9. Safety Rafael Bush, a fourth-year pro, fractured his right fibula in a 27-10 defeat at home against Cincinnati a week later.

A fourth defender, three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, has been out of action since sustaining a meniscus tear in one of his knees in a practice prior to an Oct. 5 victory at home against Tampa Bay.

The Saints (4-7) will travel to Pittsburgh (7-4) and face off against the No. 5 offense in the NFL this Sunday.

Sean Payton on changing schedule this week, recent tough stretch

The Saints changed things up this week by holding a walkthrough Wednesday instead of a typical practice.

He explained the change was implemented to give his team more time recover from Monday’s game and that the team might engage in a little more activity on Saturday than it normally would.

“The mental preparation is extremely important, but there is still technique work that you are working on that involves the looks you receive in practice and the looks you simulate,” Payton said. “This is more just about recovery and we made today more of the mental preparation. We’ll catch it (up) in the next couple of days.”

Here are some other highlights from Payton’s Wednesday news conference:

Payton on discussing game plans, schemes with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan:  “It would be very normal for me to go in and sit down and kind of hear their base plan and sub plan, as early as last night when those guys are working on their advance installation, not for today but tomorrow and the next day, to see where the targets are going on third down. I think it’s critical to understand where the ball’s going. Are there certain guys that jump higher on third down. These guys (Steelers) obviously have a lot of weapons and are operating at a real efficient way. They are one of the few teams in the league that are operating as efficiently offensively and defensively in the top 10. I think they’re seventh offensively and third defensively getting off the field. So, when you play someone like that, that has to be something you pay attention to and to our point that has to be something we’re better at to begin with.”

On how the Saints have handled the recent losing streak: “I said this to the players in the morning meeting, a stretch like this tests your toughness mentally and you have to challenge yourself to come back out and put in a good workweek and get yourself ready to play a real good football team on the road. That’s what we have to do. That’s what we’re challenged with, but his focus and passion is a huge strength.”

On Ben Roethlisberger’s success this season: “I think the first thing, the balance they possess right now has really helped them as an offense. You look at some of the skill players that have emerged and you look at the running game and their ability to throw it outside and down the field. You mentioned it, you look at certain stats and down the field throws, they’re near the top of the league. Third down (efficiency), they’re near the top of the league. So, he’s certainly capable of doing the things we’ve seen for years, tough throws across the body, avoid sacks, but I think all of a sudden now with their ability to run it and throw it you see the efficiency of the offense and of a great quarterback.”

On playing teams coming off a bye: “You really can’t control it. Each year is different. Sometimes you may go a season without playing someone coming off a bye. I don’t think we can control it. We don’t discuss it much. Obviously you understand the game tape you are looking at is not just recent. You recognize that there’s that added preparation. It’s something you really can’t control. I don’t think we pay a ton of attention to it. When you receive your schedule, you look at it, you look at the travel, you get the matrix which is the crossover. You see when you’re playing someone. All of a sudden that appears.”

Steeler Lance Moore wishes time with Saints ended differently, but neither side would change much else

FILE - In this file photo from Oct. 20, 2014, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore (16) returns to the bench after a touchdown catch during the first half of the NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Pittsburgh. Moore insists the upcoming contest against New Orleans is just another game, but he understands he'll be in a unique position after he spent nearly a decade with the Saints. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, Faile)

FILE – In this file photo from Oct. 20, 2014, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore (16) returns to the bench after a touchdown catch during the first half of the NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Pittsburgh. Moore insists the upcoming contest against New Orleans is just another game, but he understands he’ll be in a unique position after he spent nearly a decade with the Saints. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, Faile)

Steelers receiver Lance Moore can’t be more level-headed or polite about it, but he admits he wishes his time spent with the Saints had concluded in a more ceremonious manner than it did.

“I wouldn’t say there were hard feelings — I totally understand the business,” said Moore, who played for New Orleans for years before he was cut for cost-related purposes this past spring. “(But) obviously, thinking selfishly, I would’ve liked it to have ended in a different way.”

Yet it didn’t, setting up a situation in which Moore will play against the Saints for the first time since turning pro when New Orleans (4-7) kicks off at Pittsburgh (7-4) on Sunday, something the veteran expects to be one of the strangest situations of his career.

“It’s definitely going to be one of the more weird-type games that I’ve played in,” Moore said.

Undrafted out of Toledo, the 5-foot-9, 177-pound Moore joined the Saints in 2005 and improbably went on to catch 346 regular-season passes for 4,281 yards — presently fifth and seventh in franchise history, respectively.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrating with ex-Saints wide receiver Lance Moore (16), now a Steeler.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrating with ex-Saints wide receiver Lance Moore (16), now a Steeler.

He also caught the fifth-most touchdown passes in Saints history (38) as well as a key two-point conversion in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010, the night New Orleans won its lone NFL championship.

“The road that he traveled in order to get here and then to kind of work his way into the starting lineup I think is inspirational for any young player, especially a young receiver who comes into a system and it’s kind of, ‘Where’s my role? Where can I contribute?'” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said at a news conference Wednesday. “(His) football smarts were off the charts — he could do anything you asked him to do. … You never needed to describe to him how you wanted the route run — he just knew how to run it.”

But as the beginning of the 2014 free agency signing period neared in March, Moore was due $3.8 million in salary and bonuses, and his being cut would clear $2.5 million in space counting toward the league’s salary limit.

There wasn’t much of that space at the time, and it also didn’t benefit him that Kenny Stills — a rookie last year who was less expensive — had 641 yards and five touchdowns on 32 catches in the regular season while Moore had 457 yards and two TDs on 37 receptions.

The Saints opted to release Moore, and he later signed a two-year contract with the Steelers.

For someone like Saints receiver Joseph Morgan, who made the team in 2011 as an undrafted rookie, that sequence of events was “heartbreaking.”

“When I came here … there was nobody better to learn from,” Morgan said of Moore. “He used to make me come in every morning with him and work out. … Sometimes I didn’t want to, but he’d make sure you were in there — he’d make sure he was pushing you, trying to make you better.”

Moore isn’t as high in the Steelers’ pecking order as he was on the Saints’ in his best years. He’s caught 11 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns, relatively pedestrian numbers that are partially explained by the fact that Moore was inactive in two contests and wasn’t targeted in his first regular-season game with Pittsburgh.

He’s also on the same team as Antonio Brown, who as of Wednesday was leading the NFL in catches (88), was second in receiving yards (1,161) and was tied for fourth in touchdown grabs (nine).

But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told New Orleans media on Wednesday that he’s gotten exactly what he anticipated he would from Moore.

“He’s (a) savvy veteran … (and) a no-maintenance guy,” Tomlin said on a group phone call. “He’s extremely professional, … he comes with good ideas, he knows all the (receiver) positions.”

However, though he’s carved out a spot for himself on the Steelers’ offense, he hasn’t completely moved on from the Saints.

He remains in at least occasional contact with Saints at whose side he won the Super Bowl: receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem and running back Pierre Thomas.

“I don’t think anything can compare to that feeling after (the Super Bowl) ended, the confetti falling down on us and … sharing that moment with … teammates, coaches and the organization and the fans,” Moore said about when the Saints captured the Lombardi trophy fewer than five years after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “That whole experience was awesome.”

He also said he attempts to speak daily with two receivers he considered it a priority to mentor: Stills and Nick Toon, a 2012 third-round draft selection.

“Those relationships are the ones I’m going to carry with me even after I’m long gone (from) football,” Moore said. “Those guys were more than just my teammates and colleagues — they were my good friends.”

In wake of Bunkley injury, Saints promote rookie Lawrence Virgil from practice squad, source says

Two days after Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley hurt his quad in a defeat at home to Baltimore, New Orleans promoted a defensive lineman from its practice squad.

Lawrence Virgil, an undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State, has been brought up from the Saints’ practice squad to their 53-man roster, an NFL source said Wednesday night.

Earlier Wednesday, a source told The Advocate the Saints signed ex-University of Georgia defensive lineman Garrison Smith to the practice squad, presumably to occupy the spot Virgil vacated.

The NFL had not officially processed either move Wednesday.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Virgil spent training camp with the Saints this summer and registered an 11-yard sack in an exhibition but was left off the roster at the conclusion of the preseason. The Saints (4-7) signed him to their 10-man practice squad, where he’s remained all year.

As for Bunkley (6-foot-2, 306 pounds), he injured his leg on a second-and-7 for the Ravens at midfield trying to stop a rush by running back Justin Forsett. Bunkley walked off the field with the help of trainers but didn’t return.

Under Bunkley on the Saints depth chart were 2013 third-round draft selection John Jenkins and Brandon Deaderick, an NFL veteran in his first season with New Orleans.

Bunkley finished Monday with 17 tackles on the season, eight of which were solo. This is his ninth season in the NFL and third in New Orleans.

To put Virgil on the 53-man roster, the Saints would’ve had to create a spot for him. It’s possible they did that by placing Bunkley on season-ending injured reserve.

The NFL Network on Tuesday reported Bunkley actually tore his injured quad and was done for the year. New Orleans didn’t provide an update on Bunkley’s condition Wednesday.

A Saints team that is ranked 27th on defense and surrendered a staggering 1,184 yards as well as 88 points in consecutive setbacks to San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome can ill afford more major injuries to its personnel.

The Saints play at Pittsburgh (7-4) on Sunday.

Kenny Vaccaro on what he’s thankful for and playing in the NFL: ‘You can’t take any snaps for granted’

Not usually a big fan of doing holiday stories, but Kenny Vaccaro gave a pretty thoughtful answer when asked about what he’ll be thinking about on Thanksgiving.

“Being able to play this game, period. You get down about — start thinking about individual for me, start thinking about, ‘Am I going to make this this year.’ Then again, it’s just a blessing to be in this league, period. You go against elite players.

“What’s the chances that when I was born I was going to make the NFL? I think about that before every game, every snap, you can’t take it for granted. Seeing the Eric Berry situation, that really got me before the game when I saw that. Somebody that is so athletic, so healthy, that something like that happened to him. You can’t take any snaps for granted. You just got to thank god that you can go out there.

“You can listen to critics on Instagram and Twitter saying you can’t do this, you can’t do this. Well, a lot of people can’t in this position, period. At least I have the opportunity to step on the field with guys like Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham. These are guys people are going to talk about way after they’re gone. You’re gonna see them on ‘America’s Football Game.’ You’re going to see them.

“These moments, what we’re going through right now, I’ll always be doing this for the rest of my life. The struggles, I think it’s all a blessing in disguise.

That’s what you got to hold onto. To me in this league it’s about respect. Everyone respects each other around the league. Win, lose or draw, it’s just an honor to be here.”

Source: Saints sign Garrison Smith to practice squad

The Saints made a move Wednesday afternoon, adding defensive lineman Garrison Smith to the practice squad, according to a source.

The corresponding move is not yet known. The move comes after Brodrick Bunkley suffered a quad injury during Monday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

A product of the University of Georgia, Smith played across the defensive line, lining up at both defensive tackle and end. He finished the 2013 season with 63 tackles and six sacks.

The 6-foot-1, 300-pound Smith initially hooked on with the Miami Dolphins after going undrafted but was released coming out of training camp.

Steelers made as strong an impression on Saints CB Keenan Lewis as he left there

New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (28) takes to the field before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (28) takes to the field before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

It had only been minutes after his team had suffered its seventh defeat this season, but Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis suppressed the disappointment in his voice when addressing one particular topic: the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played for four years before coming to New Orleans in 2013.

Lewis rattled off a couple of his teammates’ names in the Steelers’ defensive backfield: Ryan Clark, the Pro Bowl safety; and Ike Taylor, who’s been in Pittsburgh his entire 12-year NFL career.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (AP)

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (AP)

Lewis referred to a third teammate — eight-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu — as simply, “Hall of Famer.”

Taylor and Polamalu were part of two Steelers Super Bowl victories (2005 and 2008) and are still in Pittsburgh. Clark — now with Washington — was part of the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory in 2008.

And furthermore, Clark and Taylor grew up on the West Bank of the Mississippi River where it runs through the New Orleans area, where Lewis was also raised and is fiercely proud to hail from.

“I played with the best of the best,” Lewis said at his locker in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after the Saints (4-7) lost to the Ravens 34-27 on Monday night. “And I’ll always be appreciative for … the knowledge (they taught) and (how) they helped me upgrade my game. So tops off to them — when I’m up there, I’ll be watching them as well.”

Lewis spoke about the Steelers (7-4) six days before the Saints were set to play them at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where the New Orleans cornerback spent his first four years as a pro.

He left as strong an impression on the Steelers as that organization made on him, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told New Orleans reporters during a conference call Wednesday.

“The thing that comes to mind when I think about (Lewis) is his competitive spirit and his willingness to work on a daily basis,” Tomlin said of a player Pittsburgh chose out of Oregon State in the third round of the 2009 draft. “This guy works at every opportunity. He’s a big time competitor. Everything is personal.”

Those traits enabled Lewis to crack the Steelers’ starting line-up in 2012. Opposite Taylor, Lewis broke up 23 passes for what was the NFL’s top-ranked defense that year, and he entered free agency the following offseason with a reputation as one of the top cornerbacks available.

The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Lewis landed a five-year contract worth up to about $25.6 million from the Saints. For New Orleans, it’s been well worth the price: he’s the Saints’ leader in passes defensed the past two seasons despite often covering opponents’ top receivers, and he’s registered five of his six career interceptions since joining the team.

Lewis starred on a defense that was No. 4 in the league in 2013 and proved to be a large reason why the Saints reached the divisional round of the playoffs. This year, the Saints defense has plummeted to 27th in the rankings, yet he’s mostly managed to maintain his high-caliber level.

He also earned the fervent admiration of fans for recently playing through an injury that made his knee swell grotesquely.

None of that surprises his old coach at the Steelers.

“He has all the components to be a real good corner, which his New Orleans (game) tape has proven that he is,” Tomlin said. “But he just brings a blue-collar work ethic and a competitive spirit to work every day, and those are the type of guys you like working with.

“His Oregon State tape looks very much like his professional tape — he was a combative bump-and-run guy, and (he) did it consistently (under) all circumstances.”

Lewis on Monday night admitted the Saints had numerous issues they had to fix if they wanted to win versus Pittsburgh. He talked about their inability to stop either the run, the pass or both at once in virtually every loss this season.

But he remarked, “I feel as though anything could be fixed.”

Lewis added, “I’ve seen it happen to other teams, so why not us? I’ve never been the type to throw in the towel — I’m going to fight all 12 rounds.”

Brodrick Bunkley tore quad vs. Baltimore, is likely out for rest of season, NFL Network reports

New Orleans Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (77) is tended to after being injured in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

New Orleans Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (77) is tended to after being injured in the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

It is believed Saints nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley tore his quadriceps in his team’s 34-27 loss at home against Baltimore, and his season is most probably over, the NFL Network is reporting.

Bunkley hurt his leg on a second-and-7 for the Ravens at midfield trying to stop a rush by running back Justin Forsett, who finished with 22 carries for a career-high 182 yards and two touchdowns. He walked off the field with the help of trainers and didn’t return.

The NFL’s Ian Rapoport then tweeted about Bunkley’s injury at approximately 8 a.m. Tuesday. He did not name a source. The Saints haven’t commented on Rapoport’s report on Bunkley, which is standard for the team whenever an injury to a player is involved.

If Bunkley is indeed ruled out for the remainder of the campaign for the Saints (4-7), he’d be the third New Orleans defender to suffer a season-ending injury in as many weeks. A team that is ranked 27th on defense and surrendered a staggering 1,184 yards as well as 88 points in three consecutive setbacks at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in November can ill afford more major injuries to its personnel.

Rookie backup safety Vinnie Sunseri broke his left forearm attempting to make a special-teams tackle in a 27-24 loss at home against San Francisco on Nov. 9. Safety Rafael Bush, a fourth-year pro, fractured his right fibula in a 27-10 defeat at home against Cincinnati a week later.

A fourth defender, three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, has been out of action since sustaining a meniscus tear in one of his knees prior to an Oct. 5 victory at home against Tampa Bay.

At nose tackle, in addition to Bunkley, the Saints have 2013 third-round draft selection John Jenkins and Brandon Deaderick, who’s in his first year with New Orleans. Jenkins saw significant action at nose tackle in five regular-season games that Bunkley missed with a calf injury at the beginning of last year.

Bunkley has 17 tackles (eight solo) while starting each of the Saints’ 11 games this year. He joined New Orleans in 2012 and is in his ninth NFL season.

Welcome to the Superdome

superdome

Welcome to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints will host the Baltimore Ravens.

This is a big game for the Saints. The NFC South is what it is, but New Orleans cannot afford to drop a third-consecutive game at home. In terms of the overall health of the season, and getting on a role heading into the final leg of the season, the Saints need to win this one before going on the road to Pittsburgh.

Projecting the inactives: The Saints have already ruled out running back Khiry Robinson (forearm) and linebacker Kyle Knox (hand). Our guess on the other five players who will sit are cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, wide receiver Robert Meachem, offensive lineman Senio Kelemete, offensive lineman Nick Becton, and wide receiver Jalen Saunders. Don’t feel good about the Saunders pick.

Guessing the lineup: After spending all week guessing at who the starting free safety will be tonight, I’m settling on Pierre Warren. He knows the system and is a more natural fit at that position than Marcus Ball. Also, don’t be surprised if Patrick Robinson sees an increased role. The coaching staff talked him up this week.

Officials: Bill Leavy’s crew will be on the field tonight. His crew averages 13.44 penalties per game, which is about on par with the league average.

 Gameday mag: Ben Grubbs graces the cover of this week’s program.