- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

METAIRIE, LA. (AP) - A few hours before the Saints’ kicked off against Green Bay, New Orleans defensive end Jeff Charleston wandered into coach Sean Payton’s office in the Louisiana Superdome.

Charleston wasn’t there to discuss the game plan. He needed directions to the trainer’s room.

“It dawned on me this was the first time he’d ever been in the locker room” in the dome, Payton recalled.

Charleston was among eight players making their Saints debut in the Superdome on Monday night, a fact that underscores how beat up the Saints are and how much they’ll be relying on new players as they make a final push to get into the playoffs.

Charleston, who played in 13 games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007, was a free agent when the Saints picked him up in early October. He was waived the day before what would have been his first home game in New Orleans on Oct. 12, then re-signed shortly after, remaining with the team during its 43-day stretch away from the dome.

Among the newcomers, Charleston’s the veteran.

Courtney Roby was signed shortly after and has since established himself as the Saints’ primary kickoff returner.

On Oct. 30, the Saints signed a new kicker, rookie Garrett Hartley, and a new punter, Glenn Pakulak. Since Nov. 10, New Orleans has added cornerbacks Leigh Torrence and David Pittman and running backs Darian Barnes and Mike Bell.

New Orleans has 13 players on injured reserve, including three defensive starters in cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Tracy Porter and end Charles Grant.

A handful of other regulars, including running back Reggie Bush and fullback Mike Karney, have been sidelined several weeks with relatively minor injuries, though Bush is all but certain he’ll return Sunday at Tampa Bay.

Through it all, the Saints (6-5) have kept alive their postseason hopes by winning three of four games.

“With some of the injuries it’s good to see the guys that have filled in playing with confidence,” Payton said. “To see those guys making progress, to see Courtney Roby and some of the new faces, to see them get acclimated quickly has been encouraging. And we’re going to have to rely on them obviously and count on them here, not just on offense or defense but in the kicking game as well.”

So far, so good, for Hartley, the Saints’ third place kicker this season. He has made all six of his field-goal attempts.

Charleston said that while it obviously hurts teams to lose starters, players signed in midseason perform with desperation simply to keep their jobs. Sometimes, their approach rubs off on the regulars, he said.

“For some guys, you get cut, you go home, you have a little more desire,” Charleston said. “For me, being home for five weeks was kind of like having a break and being fresh again. … It almost rejuvenates your spirit for the game. Even though I hated being home and not playing, it’s kind of a blessing in disguise.”

With Grant out for the season, Charleston has been rotating so Will Smith and Bobby McCray can get rest during games. Charleston also has been a regular on special teams and could end up starting soon. That depends on how the NFL rules on Smith’s appeal of his four-game suspension for taking a diet pill that resulted in a positive test of a diuretic banned by the league. Smith is expected to play through this weekend at least.

Roby, meanwhile, has averaged 28.5 yards on 12 kickoff returns. He had a 62-yard return against the Packers on Monday night, setting up a field goal that gave New Orleans the lead at halftime.

“They asked me to do kickoff returns and I enjoy doing it,” said Roby, a former college track standout who started this season with the Colts and was still in Indianapolis working out on his own when the Saints called. “You never want to get released. I can’t control that. I’m glad to be here and looking forward to making the most of it.”

On offense, several starters who were hurt early in the season, such as receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey, are just now looking healthy again. Even without them, Brees racked up passing yardage at a record pace by throwing to reserves like Lance Moore, a smaller receiver who wasn’t drafted, played in Europe and spent most of his first two seasons on the practice squad.

Brees sees merit in Charleston’s theory that an injection of role players who are trying to make the most of their opportunities to play can have team-wide benefits.

“Every guy that’s walked in here who we signed midseason was ready to do anything possible to make this team,” Brees said. “It pushes maybe guys at that position or if he’s a guy you’re going up against in scout team, it certainly can push you and make you better.”

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