Aging veterans holding Saints’ defense together

Darren Sharper said that the New Orleans Saints had about 50 years of combined experience in their defensive backfield during their much-heralded victory over the New England Patriots.

He chuckled when he said it, but he wasn’t exaggerating.

The Saints have overhauled their defensive backfield with a group of veterans that easily could have been dismissed as over the hill.

Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie were picked up in the past couple weeks to round out a group dealing with injuries to cornerbacks Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer and Leigh Torrence. McKenzie and McAlister have 22 NFL seasons between them and are coming back from knee injuries. The pair joined a unit that includes Sharper and safety Pierson Prioleau, who have 24 seasons between them.

During certain passing situations against the Patriots on Monday night, the four were on the field together along with fourth-year strong safety Roman Harper and rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. Together, that’s 51 seasons.

They were hardly old and slow. Tom Brady was intercepted twice, first by McKenzie, who hadn’t played an NFL game in more than a year because of a fractured right kneecap.

Later, Sharper, a 13-year veteran who began the season as the NFL’s active interception leader, picked off his eighth pass of the season, the 62nd of his career.

“The experience factor was big, especially for last game,” Sharper said. “That’s going to carry through for the rest of the season, not only being experienced but being able to play – and being play-makers.”

It’s not clear how long it will be before Porter returns from a severe left knee sprain. Greer might be ready to return from his left groin pull Sunday at Washington, but said the Saints appear to be in good shape regardless, based on the way McKenzie and McAlister stepped in.

“They were tremendous. They’ve raised the bar on our cornerback play,” Greer said. “I’ve been looking for that veteran corner here, someone I can pick their brain and gain knowledge from. Their presence is going to benefit us and me as a person.”

Saints players found McKenzie’s return particularly remarkable. In addition to his interception, he broke up several passes, including a fourth-down throw to Randy Moss when the Patriots were threatening to pull within a touchdown in the third quarter.

The Saints had cut McKenzie in the offseason and weren’t planning to bring him back when they signed McAlister to compensate for Porter’s absence in Week 11.

In the next game at Tampa Bay, Torrence injured his shoulder. It was around that time that McKenzie called coach Sean Payton, leaving him a voice message to the effect that he’d remained in New Orleans during his rehabilitation and would like another shot.

“I had his little sticky note on my desk,” Payton said. “I called him back, we brought him in … and worked him out, and he was in a lot better shape that we expected.”

Because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams joined the Saints in the offseason, McKenzie had to learn a new scheme in only a few days.

“Trust me. That just never happens,” Harper said. “You come back after not playing over a year, and for you to come back and have an interception, a couple big pass breakups and a couple big stops, for him to go out there and play the way he did, you really don’t see that every day.”

At the Saints‘ training headquarters on Wednesday, McKenzie escaped into the trainer’s room as reporters converged, smiling and saying he didn’t want to “eat the cheese.”

The expression is one Payton uses to advise players against buying the hype over a good performance and instead to focus on what they need to improve.

Yet Payton himself held up McKenzie as an inspiration to the rest of the team during Wednesday morning meetings. He reminded them how McKenzie was having one of his best seasons as a pro in 2007 – with three interceptions, two for touchdowns – before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament. He came back last season, but played only six games before getting hurt again.

“The only thing that’s kept this guy from being a standout player the last couple years has been injuries,” Sharper said of McKenzie. “So you know he can play. He’s back healthy. You saw that last game and he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.”