Defense shines in Saints scrimmage

Jimmy Wilkerson scooped up a fumble near midfield and rumbled
down the sideline, leaving behind any anxiety about the pace of his
comeback from left knee surgery.

”That’s something that I’ve been worried about throughout
practice, but today during the scrimmage I didn’t worry about it
too much, as you could see when I picked up that fumble,” said
Wilkerson, who nearly scored on the play during the New Orleans
Saints’ annual Black and Gold scrimmage on Saturday.

”I ran not even thinking about: OK, if I get tackled, is my
knee going to start hurting again or am I going to tweak it?”

Wilkerson is a new addition – a potentially significant one – to
a defense that seemed to get the best of Sean Payton’s vaunted
offense.

The defense racked up six sacks – one by Wilkerson – broke up
numerous passes, forced a fumble and left Drew Brees muttering to
himself angrily on the sideline after a string of
incompletions.

”We should score every time we touch the ball and we didn’t do
that today. That’s frustrating,” said Brees, who was 6 of 16 for
110 yards. ”Obviously, our defense is playing very well. … They
did today what everybody’s used to seeing, at least from last year
– playing fast, there’s a lot of pressure, I think rallying to the
ball very quickly and creating turnovers. That’s what our defense
really thrived on last year.”

Early on, Brees had the offense looking more like the unit that
has led the NFL in yardage three of the past four seasons. He hit
his first four passes for 64 yards, including a 40-yard heave down
the sideline to Marques Colston. That set up Reggie Bush’s 6-yard
touchdown run.

After that, the defense took control, forcing Brees into six
straight incompletions and not allowing another score for the rest
of the scrimmage.

Although tackling quarterbacks wasn’t allowed, getting a hand on
them or forcing a scramble in which the quarterback’s escape looked
unlikely drew a whistle from a team of NFL officials who were
visiting camp as part of their annual trips to discuss rule updates
with coaches and players.

Will Smith was credited with a sack on reserve quarterback
Patrick Ramsey after powering past offensive lineman Tim Duckworth.
Junior Galette was credited with a sack on Chase Daniel, new
defensive end Alex Brown got to Ramsey, linebacker Troy Evans got
to Daniel on a blitz, Wilkerson sacked rookie Sean Canfield, and
cornerback Leigh Torrence was the first of several players to force
a whistle as the pocket collapsed on Drew Brees.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma forced the lone fumble of the game
when he stripped rookie tight end Jimmy Graham after a short pass,
setting up Wilkerson’s long fumble return.

Wilkerson tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last season
while he was playing for Tampa Bay against New Orleans. Wilkerson
then became a free agent and joined the Saints, who hoped his
versatility would give them depth at both end and tackle.

During training camp, coaches have been sitting him out of
practice every other day as he continues his comeback.

”The day-on, day-off deal has been very good. It’s helped me
out tremendously,” Wilkerson said, noting that he’s had no
swelling in the knee. ”When I take that second practice off, I
know I can go the next day, full pads and being with those guys as
far as full contact.”

The scrimmage was open to fans who packed the club’s training
fields and sweltered in more than 90-degree heat. They watched
intently as Ramsey and Daniel sought to differentiate themselves in
their competition to back up Brees.

Ramsey, a former first-round draft choice out of Tulane, took
some snaps with the first team and had the most completions of any
quarterback, going 9 for 16 for 72 yards. Daniel was 4 of 6 for 32
yards, and Canfield was 5 of 7 for 31 yards.

NOTES: The Saints held starting LB Scott Shanle (strained left
knee) out of the scrimmage, but Payton expects him to return before
Thursday’s preseason opener at New England. Rookie CB Patrick
Robinson (hamstring) and WR Rod Harper (hip) also sat out. … The
Saints’ kickoff team opened the scrimmage with the same onside kick
play – called ambush – that they used against the Indianapolis
Colts to open the second half of the Super Bowl. The Saints’ return
team was even more fooled than the Colts. Roman Harper, working
with the kickoff team, was able to make an uncontested recovery.
Payton said that is how the play was designed to work in the Super
Bowl, when it instead deflected off a Colts player, and Chris Reis
recovered in a mad scramble. … Colston, who started training camp
on the team’s physically-unable-to-perform list, had little trouble
performing in the scrimmage, finishing with four catches for 73
yards. … The Saints have Sunday off before traveling to
Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet President Barack Obama at the
White House and to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical
Center. The Saints will then continue north to New England, where
they and the Patriots will hold joint practices before they meet on
Thursday.