Mitchell isn't Saints' only injury concern
Howard, Grant among six other hobbled defensive players
Saturday August 30, 2003
By Jeff Duncan
The Saints finished the preseason ranked No. 23 in total defense.
The starting unit did not play a down together in any of the team's four exhibition games.
Starting strong safety Mel Mitchell is out for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Six other defenders on the two-deep roster are hobbled with injuries, including the two players defensive coordinator Rick Venturi labeled the unit's cornerstones: starting ends Darren Howard and Charles Grant.
You'd think the Saints would have been circling the wagons Friday, one day after the club's dismal performance in a 24-10 loss to Miami. Instead, they were circling their calendars, specifically Sept. 7, for the regular-season opener against Seattle.
"We're confident," Venturi said. "It's a work in progress, and there are some concerns, but this is a new experience. Our guys have not struggled because of effort. They're really just learning how to play together. It's an immense challenge, but we're going to get it done."
The injury to Mitchell is expected to sideline the second-year safety for six to eight months.
Veteran Jay Bellamy will start in Mitchell's place at strong safety. Bellamy has played free safety for most of his nine-year career. He has started 80 consecutive games for the Saints and Seahawks dating to 1997.
"Obviously, you hate it when you lose a kid with tremendous upside like Mel Mitchell," Venturi said. "He was really settled in (on Thursday night), and he's a guy who I think is really going to be a great player. But we have confidence in Jay Bellamy and the team has confidence in him. He's played a lot of games and is really comfortable in that strong safety position."
Mitchell's absence alone wouldn't be cause for alarm. But shoulder injuries to veteran reserve safeties Steve Gleason and Michael Hawthorne have exacerbated the problem.
An MRI on Hawthorne's injured left shoulder Friday revealed a bruised bone but no ligament damage, General Manager Mickey Loomis said. Hawthorne is expected to return in one or two weeks, Loomis said.
Team officials will scan the waiver wire this weekend to see what help might become available after team's make their mandatory roster cuts Sunday. Loomis did not rule out a trade, but said the club is far from desperate.
"We'll see what happens this weekend," Loomis said. "We're fine. We've got Jay Bellamy. We may need to get some help depending on what happens with our backups. But I don't anticipate making a move unless somebody happens to get cut that makes us better there."
One option that surfaced against Miami was Deveron Harper. The free-agent defensive back has played almost exclusively at cornerback during his three-year NFL career, but he held his own during a half of work at free safety against the Dolphins.
"I thought Deveron Harper stepped up and did an outstanding job," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "To me, that's got to be an option."
The nine-day break before the Seattle game couldn't have come at a better time for the beleaguered defense. The extra time is expected to allow Grant and Howard to nurse their lower leg injuries back to health. Howard has a bone bruise in his right knee. Grant has a strained calf muscle in his left leg. Barring a setback, both are expected to be back for the opener.
Rookie linebacker Cie Grant and veteran defensive tackle Henry Ford also can use the time to rehabilitate surgically repaired joints. Cie Grant, a third-round pick from Ohio State, underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his knee this week and is expected to miss two weeks.
Ford had surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle and is also out for a week or two.
"The injuries are a concern, obviously," Haslett said Thursday night. "We've got a whole load of injuries. We need to get them back. We haven't had our defensive line contingent together in the first game. We need to get our bodies back health-wise."
While no one is pushing the panic button, Venturi also knows that all the Saints' problems can't solely be explained away by injuries or a "vanilla" scheme. It's no coincidence that four of the top seven defenses in the 2002 regular season -- Tampa Bay, Carolina, Denver and Pittsburgh -- ranked in the top five defenses this preseason.
"Putting this defense together is an on-going process," Venturi said. "We can't believe that all of a sudden we're going to turn the light on. It's a cumulative light coming on. It's been a hard process, and we've had some breakdowns. With a team like ours, you take something out of every day. You've got to keep your poise and keep working and keep getting better."
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