Saints morning report: Vilma returning?

When the New Orleans Saints resume practicing Monday after their Week 7 bye, they may be joined by a familiar presence. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is now eligible to begin practicing after being placed on injured reserve with a designation to return back in Week 1. Vilma had to wait six weeks to begin practicing. He can return to the active roster after eight weeks.

Coach Sean Payton spoke optimistically last week about Vilma’s chances of returning to practice Monday, when the Saints will have a “bonus” practice after taking this entire week off. Vilma had a clean-up surgery performed on his knee during the preseason and wasn’t back to 100 percent yet by Week 1.

“He's progressing,” Payton said last week. “We kind of look at it day-to-day, but that Monday coming back would be a potential day we would look at. I'm optimistic he's going to be able to. … He's been doing well with his progress.”

It’s too early to predict whether Vilma will return to the active roster, and how much of a role he’ll play if he does. Even the Saints themselves probably aren’t sure what to expect from the 31-year-old, who has been dealing with the knee injury on and off for three straight seasons.

Veteran David Hawthorne has played well in Vilma’s absence. But Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has shown that he can find creative ways to rotate guys onto the field. The Saints’ defense made heavy use of three inside linebackers in Sunday’s loss to New England, with backup Ramon Humber playing 48 snaps.

Butler less likely: Outside linebacker Victor Butler also is eligible to resume practicing after spending the summer on the physically unable to perform list. That seems highly unlikely, though, since Butler tore an anterior cruciate knee ligament in June.

It’s a long shot that Butler will return at all this season. But the Saints do have time to wait. A change to the PUP list rules this year allows players to wait up until the start of Week 12 to return to practice. Then they’d have a three-week window to either be activated or placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season.

Worth a click: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis broke down the 2013 season on the team’s “Black and Blue Report” podcast. Here’s a transcript, including his entertaining plea for fans to step up their game inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome down the stretch.

Closer than ever: The Saints have had three games come down to the wire this season, and they’re not alone. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 65 of the 92 games this season have been within seven points at some point during the fourth quarter. That’s the most in NFL history through the first six weeks of a season. The previous mark of 64 was set in 1999 and 2004.