Originally written on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/4/11

The New Orleans Saints are probably more healthy immediately following their surprising third loss in a trap-game to the St Louis Rams on the afternoon before All Hallows Eve than they have been so far this first half of the season. It was a spooky total reversal of two teams who appeared to each play in the others’ shoes for that one contest on Halloween weekend. Despite the fact that the Saints sent T Charles Brown 71 to the Injured Reserve list for a hip flexor injury (needing surgery) that he sustained in this past Sunday’s game in St Louis, they do appear to have key offensive contributors in T Zach Strief 64 and TE David Thomas 85, among others, returning to the field for them this weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

To replace Brown on the active roster, the Saints signed OT Ray Willis 67, formerly of the Miami Dolphins (2011) and selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 4th round (105th overall pick) of the 2005 NFL Draft. After being taken by the Seahawks in the 2005 Draft, he spent much of his first two seasons inactive. Willis played in only six games as a rookie and just one in 2006, with no starts in either season. A knee injury forced him to miss time in 2007 when he appeared in only five games with zero starts.

Willis finally received significant playing time in 2008, when he started 10 of 16 games, primarily at right tackle, while allowing just 1.5 sacks on the year. In 2009, he started all 16 games at right tackle for the Seattle Seahawks and allowed six sacks.

After undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August 2010, Willis was placed on season-ending injured reserve prior to the start of the regular season.

The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Willis comes to the Saints with adequate NFL experience and actually held his own as a starter for the Seahawks in 2009 before missing last year with an injury. Taunted as a powerful run blocker with good technique and the versatility to play both tackle positions as well as guard, he is best suited to play on the right side.

While his durability is a definite concern and his athleticism/agility were already weaker points of his game, he’s still a borderline NFL starter and figures, at worst, as a quality backup to Zach Strief for the Saints.

Judging from Drew Brees’ 19 sacks already, tying him for the 5th most sacked QB in the NFL, something is decidedly wrong with the New Orleans Saints’ offensive line this season. Having Jermon Bushrod at left tackle was already a concern, but when Jon Stinchcomb was released from the team, the right side became highly questionable as well. The instability there, with Strief’s injury causing him to miss a couple of games and now the loss for the season of his immediate back-up in Brown looming large, has simply added insult to injury, quite literally. This was evidenced by a six-sack game by the St Louis Rams against the Saints’ O-line, with both tackles being the weak points.

Some real soul-searching has got to go on in the Saints’ locker room with the offensive line before this second half stretch of the 2011 season if this team still wants to make a run at the playoffs. The next two games are divisional opponents, Tampa Bay this weekend at home and the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday on the road, before the bye week on November 20. After a week of rest, the Saints take on the Giants and Lions at home followed by the Titans in Nashville, all three teams with winning records. They finish the season with two more divisional matchups; the Falcons again at home and the Panthers in the Superdome as well.

The way it looks already this week, RB Mark Ingram 28 will most likely be sitting out at least another game to make it two in a row now with his bruised heel. This isn’t any sort of major concern for the Saints with three fully healthy running backs currently in the stable and ready to race on game-day. The big question for this team is whether or not they can find a little more of that magic combination between the run and the pass that they discovered against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago in the Dome. If the Saints are able to use Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory to keep the Buccaneers defense honest all game long, Drew Brees and company (both offensively and defensively) should be able to rebound very nicely from a lackluster performance team-wide last weekend.

In other Saints news this week, it was reported by Gene Higginbotham at whodatdish.com that, according to sports reporter Aaron Wilson, New Orleans held a scheduled private workout on November 1 for four defensive backs.

Andrew Senjedo (S) – undrafted in 2010 out of Rice University, he was invited to Tampa Bay Buccaneers mini-camp but went unsigned. Was also a member of the Dallas Cowboys (2010) and, most recently, the New York Jets.

Ricky Price (S) – undrafted in 2009 from Oklahoma State University, he was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs to their practice squad before being waved this season.

Michael Hamblin (S) – drafted in the fifth round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2009 out of Clemson University, he also played for the Jacksonville Jaguars (2010) and, more recently, the Indianapolis Colts.

Jonathan Nelson (S) – drafted in the seventh round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the St Louis Rams, he spent time on the Rams practice squad before being released this September.

This is only speculation, but these tryouts could have been in direct response to S Jonathon Amaya 40 missing the block that allowed Thomas Morstead’s punt to be blocked last Sunday in St Louis, in order to see if any of these overlooked players might be able to add a missing spark to the Saints’ special teams units. None of these players have been signed by the Saints up to this point.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to have faired very well with the timing of their bye week last weekend as they come into this week’s divisional showdown extremely healthy as well. Four Bucs starters, including DT Gerald McCoy (ankle), LB Mason Foster (ankle), C Jeff Faine (biceps) and RB LeGarrette Blount (knee) are fully expected to be back this Sunday. Head Coach Raheem Morris said the team is “as healthy as it’s been.”

Not a lot has to be said about what is at stake in this game for both of these teams. Down just a half a game in the division now, the 4-3 Bucs play visitors to the 5-3 Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday at NOON Central. Essentially, the winner will increase their chances of seeing a playoff appearance while the loser with exponentially decrease their chances of the same end-of-season outcome. Veterans like Drew Brees, Jon Vilma, Will Smith and Malcolm Jenkins have become increasingly more vocal this week in the locker room in trying to get their teammates up to the task at hand. Hopefully, that will pay dividends on the field this Sunday with inspired play and effective execution across the board by the team as a whole.

Too nervous to make a prediction, after I so poorly misjudged the Saints’ performance last week, I will simply let fate decide the outcome of this game, as well as the rest of the Saints’ season in 2011 for that matter.

LET’S GEAUX SAINTS!!!

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Final injury reports:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Pos Player (Injury) Wed Thurs Fri – Game Status

RB Mark Ingram (Heel) DNP DNP DNP – OUT
LB Jonathan Vilma (Knee) DNP DNP DNP – QUESTIONABLE
DT Shaun Rogers (Illness) NL NL DNP – PROBABLE
DE Junior Galette (Knee) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
DT Sedrick Ellis (Ankle) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
LB Jonathan Casillas (Knee) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
TE David Thomas (Concussion) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
T Zach Strief (Knee) FP FP FP – PROBABLE

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Pos Player (Injury) Wed Thurs Fri – Game Status

DT Frank Okam (Calf) LP DNP DNP – OUT
T Jeremy Zuttah (Knee) DNP DNP DNP – OUT
RB LaGarrette Blount (Knee) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
C Jeff Faine (Biceps) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
LB Mason Foster (Ankle) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
DT Gerald McCoy (Ankle) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
DT Brian Price (Illness) DNP FP FP – PROBABLE
WR Sammie Stroughter (Ankle) FP FP FP – PROBABLE
S Tanard Jackson (Hamstring) NL DNP FP – PROBABLE
QB Josn Freeman (Right Thumb) NL FP FP – PROBABLE
TE Kellen Winslow (N.I.R.) NL DNP DNP – PROBABLE

Limited Participation (LP) =less than 100% of a players nornal reps
Full Participation (FP)=100% of a player’s normal reps
Not Listed (NL)
N.I.R. (Not Injury Related)
Did Not Participate in Practice (DNP)
 Doubtul=at least 75% chance will not play
Questionable-50-50 chance will not play

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Get a New Orleans Saints 2011 Schedule for your desktop wallpaper here: http://isportsweb.com/2011/06/24/orleans-saints-2011-schedule/

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You can subscribe to the New Orleans Saints Feed or follow me on Twitter @realheavyd.

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