Reserve LB forced into lineup

Roger Knight played mostly on special teams, but the Saints' rash of injuries has pushed him into the starting lineup.

Updated: September 25, 2003, 11:57 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Until two weeks ago the resume of New Orleans Saints linebacker Roger Knight, a second-year veteran with precious little experience from scrimmage, included more times on the waiver wire and on injured reserve than it did regular-season starts.

Roger Knight
Knight
On Sunday, however, the former University of Wisconsin will start his second straight contest, replacing the injured Sedrick Hodge in the lineup. He will, in fact, be part of a contingent of five Saints players originally slated for backup duty in 2003, now forced into starters' roles as New Orleans tries to survive a calamitous spate of injuries.

And now trying to hold the fort for a unit that, even before the dearth of ambulatory bodies, was undergoing a wholesale refurbishing.

"It's a reminder that you always have to be ready, because you never know when the time is going to come, when you have to step in and step up," said Knight, whose customary role was as a special teams player. "The coaches preach it all the time, being ready, and sometimes you think that it's just words. But right now, man, it's for real."

Indeed, in a year that already has witnessed nearly two dozen players move onto the NFL injured reserve list, and in which several high-profile performers have been laid down by an assortment of maladies, few teams have had more pain inflicted than the Saints. At some point before the conclusion of the campaign, all the injured defenders with the exception of strong safety Mel Mitchell will return, but the decimation could still prove devastating to the team's playoff aspirations.

Which explains, in part, why injured cornerback Dale Carter spent nearly an hour earlier this week attempting to convince coach Jim Haslett and trainer Scottie Patten that he was recovered enough from eye surgery to play this week. Not surprisingly, his entreaties fell on deaf ears, since Haslett isn't about to risk a player's career even in desperate times.

Instead, the Saints will deal with the injuries as best they can, an approach that is being emulated in other NFL precincts as well.

"Because you know (the injuries) are going to happen, although not in the numbers that we've experienced so far, you spend the offseason trying to build depth," Haslett said. "At some positions, yeah, you succeed. And at others, let's face it, you don't. The salary cap makes it impossible to have great (depth) all over your roster. You look at us, and it's obvious we've got depth in some places, and we're not as solid at other spots. That's just how the game is anymore."

Saints decimated on defense
The New Orleans Saints defensive unit has lost five starters to injuries and the season hasn't even reached the quarter pole yet. Here is a look at the Saints' projected lineup and the current starters:
Pos. Projected Actual
LE Charles Grant Charles Grant
LT Johnathan Sullivan Kenny Smith
RT Grady Jackson Grady Jackson
RE Darren Howard Willie Whitehead
SLB Sedrick Hodge Roger Knight
MLB Darrin Smith Darrin Smith
WLB Derrick Rodgers Derrick Rodgers
LCB Dale Carter Ashley Ambrose
SS Mel Mitchell Jay Bellamy
FS Tebucky Jones Tebucky Jones
RCB Fred Thomas Fred Thomas
At least in some spots on the ravaged defense, the Saints have experienced veterans who have stepped into the starting lineup, players who have started in the past. One the line, end Willie Whitehead is a former starter, and tackle Kenny Smith has been a part of the rotation. Carter's replacement, Ashley Ambrose, has started 124 games. Jay Bellamy, who supplanted Mitchell, was New Orleans' starting strong safety in all 32 games over the past two seasons.

Still, injuries drain depth, and erode confidence. No matter how much players accept that injuries are an ingrained element of the game, the unraveling thread in the tapestry, they never become as immune to that element as they might insist they are. And no matter how much coaches pay lip service to having confidence in backups, the reality is that no team has sufficient reinforcements.

As one coach noted early this week, the fact you're playing with backups, by definition means you aren't as strong a team. While the Saints are fortunate enough to have solid reserves in some spots, more often than not now in the age of the salary cap, injuries force younger and less experienced players into the starting lineup.

Of course, some injuries affect a team more than others, and several coaches surveyed this week pointed to the Atlanta Falcons' loss of quarterback Mike Vick as an absence that has had a profound effect on a team with playoff potential. One general manager cited the New York Jets' loss of quarterback Chad Pennington as "utterly disastrous."

Noted an NFC defensive coordinator whose team faces the Falcons later in the season: "Don't tell me one guy doesn't make that big a difference."

It may not be politically correct to discuss injuries with a team, and some superstitious coaches avoid the subject entirely, until forced to confront it. But Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said that he tells his team every season that there is going to be some adversity it will have to overcome and that injuries will likely be a big part of it.

"One of the things I tell our guys is that we've got 53 players and that, before the season ends, we're going to need every one of them," Dungy said. "It would be (naïve) to believe anything other than that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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