METAIRIE, La. — The Saints’ young secondary is going to have to grow up even faster now.
New Orleans’ top cornerback, Delvin Breaux, has a fractured fibula, coach Sean Payton said Monday. Breaux’s absence is expected to last about six weeks, Payton said, which likely means more action for a trio of cornerbacks — P.J. Williams, De’Vante Harris and Ken Crawley — who’d never played a regular season snap before Sunday’s loss to Oakland.
Their encore will come this Sunday against the New York Giants, whose offense features two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Eli Manning and a receiving corps led by one of the biggest young stars in the NFL, Odell Beckham Jr.
“They’re going to see that we have young corners and they’re going to try to attack that,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Everybody knows that.”
The Saints allowed Oakland’s Derek Car to throw for 319 yards, one touchdown and two 2-point conversions on Sunday, including one conversion to give the Raiders the lead for good at 35-34 with 47 seconds left. Crawly, an undrafted rookie out of Colorado, was covering veteran receiver Michael Crabtree on that decisive play.
Payton gave his first-year cornerbacks mixed reviews.
“There are snaps they played very well and there are some snaps obviously we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Payton said. “There are some things they’ve got to get better at here and I think they will from Week 1 to Week 2.”
The youth movement at defensive back came as part of an effort to overhaul a defense that has ranked second-to-last in the NFL the previous two seasons. But the Saints could be increasingly exposed for their decision to go young now that Breaux will be sidelined more than a month. He did not play in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss, when Oakland scored 22 points.
“Delvin’s a great player. He’s one of the best corners in this league and it’s going to hurt us,” Vaccaro said.
Payton said the Saints won’t radically change their defensive scheme in the wake of Breaux’s absence, but will miss their ability to rely on his skills in one-on-one coverage of an opponent’s top receiver.
“We’ve got to understand who we’re playing and what we’re trying to take away,” Payton said. “So I don’t think by any means you start with a whole new plan. Obviously, losing a good player like him can alter some things you’re wanting to do coverage-wise.”
The Giants are coming off a season-opening, 20-19 victory over Dallas in which Manning passed for 203 yards, which is by no means a big day in the modern NFL. But he also passed for all three of New York’s touchdowns.
The Saints could get some veteran secondary help from Sterling Moore, who was signed last week but did not play Sunday. Moore said he joined the squad a little too late to be involved in the game plan for Oakland, but expects to play against the Giants, a team he knows from his three seasons with Dallas from 2012 to 2014. He also faced New York last season while with Tampa Bay.
Moore said he can help New Orleans young defensive backs scout the Giants’ passing attack by sharing “the knowledge that I’ve had going against certain receivers.”
Williams, technically a second-year player out of Florida State who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, started against Oakland.
He said he, Harris and Crawley are “definitely looking to get better,” but weren’t entirely discouraged by how they played in their first regular season game.
“We competed at a high level in the game. We challenged the receivers,” Williams said. “There’s always little things we can fix with techniques, knowing situations, knowing where they’re aligned.”
Vaccaro, who started as a rookie in 2013, now makes a lot of the calls for the secondary. He said he can relate to the challenges some of the Saints’ defensive backs face in getting so many live snaps so early in their careers.
“I remember my rookie year my head was spinning going into a game,” Vaccaro said. “Each game, it gets easier and easier. You get less nervous. You get more comfortable.”