Game-changing play from unlikely source

Defensive end Keyunta Dawson played only seven defensive snaps in the New Orleans Saints’ 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday night. Yet he still managed to make one of the biggest impacts on the game with his forced fumble in the fourth quarter.

Dawson made a terrific effort to chase receiver Darius Johnson from behind and strip the ball after the Falcons had reached New Orleans’ 20-yard line, with the Saints leading by four points early in the fourth quarter. Dawson began the play by rushing from the right edge. But when he recognized it was a screen pass to Johnson, he turned and chased the play. Saints cornerback Corey White recovered the fumble.

“It was a great rally play,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There were some instincts involved there and yet it was a good hustle and effort play.”

Dawson followed up by sharing a sack with outside linebacker Parys Haralson on the Saints’ very next defensive play to start the next drive. And four days earlier, Dawson made a big play late in the Saints’ 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers when he helped bring pressure on fellow linebacker Junior Galette’s sack late in the fourth quarter.

“One thing we’ve had this year kind of is the ‘next man up’ mentality where somebody gets injured or somebody is out, whoever we put on the field makes plays,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “To see him come in and make a play wasn’t necessarily surprising because we have seen him play well on special teams. And when guys do that and work hard and fight and work hard on special teams, (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan likes to put them in specific packages just so they can get their chance to contribute.

“He contributed one of the big plays of the game that we really needed at that point as far as change of momentum and not giving up a score. It kind of ended up being the turning point of the game.”

Dawson, a sixth-year veteran, has played a total of 54 defensive snaps since joining the Saints in Week 6 of this season, as well as a role on special teams. But as Jenkins said, Ryan found a creative role for him two weeks ago against San Francisco when he often featured both Dawson and Haralson as defensive tackles in a special pass-rush formation.

The Saints signed Dawson (6 foot 3, 258 pounds) after he was released by the Tennessee Titans, and they released fellow end/outside linebacker Jay Richardson to make room for him. Clearly, Dawson was a guy the Saints’ pro personnel department had liked from afar.

Dawson started 20 games early in his career with the Indianapolis Colts between 2007 and 2009. Since then, he’s been a backup with the Colts, Detroit Lions, Titans and Saints. He has 120 career tackles, 1.5 career sacks and now two career forced fumbles.

“(Saints director of player personnel) Ryan Pace felt like we had a chance to get a physical player who could play on special teams, kind of an outside edge player. That was an area we felt we were thin at,” Payton said. “We felt he was someone when you watch on film, when you look at production, he was around the ball and did a lot of good things. (Thursday) night was a great example.”