Brees expresses confidence in rookie tackle Armstead

Published 7:00 am Friday, December 27, 2013

The Associated Press

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Drew Brees sounds as if he’s fine with coach Sean Payton’s commitment to stick with rookie left tackle Terron Armstead in a game New Orleans may have to win to make the playoffs.

“He’s coming along great,” Brees said after practice Wednesday evening. “I’m excited for his opportunity.”

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Armstead, drafted in the third round last spring out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, made his debut in last Sunday’s 17-13 loss at Carolina.

Three times, the player he was blocking — Greg Hardy — sacked Brees. Twice, Armstead was called for false starts.

Beyond that handful of plays, however, Brees and Payton insist that their analysis of game video left them with the impression that Armstead performed well under difficult circumstances.

“People are going to look into it how they want as far as last game goes,” Brees said. “I thought he played extremely well. I thought he played against a very tough pass rush, some really good pass rushers — and listen — some of those sacks were on me.

“You’re going to get beat from time to time, and next play he’s 20 yards down the field pancaking a guy,” Brees continued. “He’s still young, he’s still raw, still learning and is only going to get better with experience.”

Payton said the 6-foot-5, 304-pound Armstead looked strong run blocking. He also noted that when coaches graded game video, they only faulted Armstead on two sacks, determining that factors beyond how long Armstead held his block were responsible for the third sack.

“Overall, we were pleased — first time out on the road against a good player like he went against and a good front,” Payton said. “So that’s encouraging.”

Armstead couldn’t recall being nervous, but said he did sense he was “thinking a little too much.”

“I had a few mental things that are unacceptable and can’t happen,” Armstead said. “But I feel like I had a pretty solid game.”

The rookie also appreciated that Payton didn’t yank him after his first couple of mistakes, and in fact praised his overall performance and still has him practicing with the first team as the Saints prepare to host Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“That’s a really good thing to keep my confidence up,” Armstead said, adding that he plans on this Sunday’s game being “a whole lot smoother.”

Armstead certainly wasn’t alone in letting Brees get hit. The Saints quarterback was sacked six times in Carolina, and has been sacked 36 times this season.

Brees had never been sacked more than 26 times in any of his previous seven seasons in New Orleans.

In his first four seasons, he was not sacked more than 20 times. But the Saints have lost several starting linemen since then: guard Carl Nicks, center Jonathan Goodwin and left tackle Jermon Bushrod.

Brees has not complained about his blocking or indicated that the sacks have taken a physical toll. He was listed on the Saints’ injury report Wednesday as limited with a sore knee, but did not show or mention any evident limitations after practice.

Charles Brown was New Orleans’ starting left tackle most of this season, but was benched in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago.

The shake-up was the clearest indication that Payton has not been entirely satisfied with Brees’ protection.

But Brees said he’s taken more sacks by design this season because he has either held the ball longer to look for more downfield throws or he has simply resisted making risky throws that could result in interceptions.

Meanwhile, Brees’ production remains at an elite level — 4,781 yards passing and 35 TDs with one game left — and said it is unfair to judge his line simply by the increase in sacks. Payton agreed.

“I don’t want to use the word spoiled, but shoot, that’s something that’s been very exceptional,” Payton said when asked to compare this season’s pass protection to his previous years in New Orleans.

Payton added that Brees’ passing numbers could not be as high as they are without the line playing well.

“You’re still statistically looking at a group that’s done very well per pass attempt,” Payton said.

Indeed, the Saints rank eighth in the NFL in that department.