The Saints have enough difficulty slowing down Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s passing game when their defensive backfield is at full strength.
For Sunday’s game in Atlanta, with first place in the NFC South on the line, New Orleans could be forced to thrust a couple reserves into more prominent roles in its pass defense.
“We’re still trying to see who’s going to be back, but I don’t think we’re worried at all,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’ve got some young guys that can play. … We know (the Falcons) have some threats, but we trust in our guys to prepare and get it done the same way.”
When New Orleans practiced on Wednesday, starting cornerback Tracy Porter and nickel back Patrick Robinson both stood off to the side, watching without pads.
Porter hurt his neck last Sunday while making a tackle against Tampa Bay. Robinson is having stomach pain.
Coach Sean Payton hopes one, if not both, will feel well enough to play in Atlanta on Sunday. In the meantime, though, veteran cornerback Leigh Torrence is working as a first-team cornerback along with starter Jabari Greer, while rookie Johnny Patrick is lining up in formations with five defensive backs.
Torrence and Patrick could be called upon to play key roles in stopping an offense that not only runs the ball well, but has a number of solid receiving targets including tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White, Harry Douglas and rookie Julio Jones.
“There’s a lot that goes into defending a team that has weapons like Atlanta and then you throw in the tight end and the running game,” Payton said. “That’s not even getting into some of the logistics we’re looking at” with injuries.
“I’m optimistic about Tracy. We’ll see where Patrick’s at. The other players got good work in today and that’s kind of the way our league is,” Payton continued. “The next guy’s up and he’s getting the practice (snaps) and you just have to be able to adjust.”
Patrick has been inactive in five of nine regular season games, including the past four. When he has played, it has been on special teams.
Now he could wind up seeing his first significant action against Ryan and Co.
“It’s going to be a challenge regardless of who goes out there,” Jenkins said.
Patrick is “going to have a challenge and we think he’s ready,” Jenkins added. “He sat back for a while, learned a lot. He’s going to have some challenges in this game, but he’s got confidence that he can overcome them.”
Torrence said Patrick has done everything asked of him since he was drafted in the third round last spring.
“We’re not worried about any one person because you’re not going to go out there by yourself,” he said. “We’re all going to be out there together on Sunday, and what better time to get out there than a divisional game on the road in Atlanta?”
Meanwhile, the Saints also have the option of moving Jenkins to a cornerback spot as they see fit. Jenkins was drafted as a cornerback out of Ohio State in the first round of 2009 and the Saints have relied on his versatility before.
Torrence, now in his seventh season out of Stanford, also has shown he is comfortable playing various roles in the defensive backfield. He’s had a solid season so far, highlighted by his interception return for a touchdown against Indianapolis three games ago.
“Our secondary’s always been one where we had a lot of versatile players, guys that can go inside or outside or play safety,” Torrence said. “That’s just part of being in the NFL, that you may be called to do something different from any given Sunday.”