METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints are well aware of the threat they’ll face every time they punt the ball to Arizona Cardinals dynamic returner Patrick Peterson on Sunday. But the Saints will counter with one of the league’s most underrated weapons -- punter Thomas Morstead.
“(Peterson) is explosive, so we need to have a game plan in special teams devoted just to punt coverage. Fortunately, Thomas is one of the better punters in this league, and he understands distance, hang time and location are critical,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who described the field position advantage the Saints have been getting from their punts so far this season as “tremendous.”
Six of Morstead’s seven punts this year have been downed inside the 20-yard line, with no touchbacks and a total of 21 return yards.
Last week, Tampa Bay had a total of zero return yards on four punts, all of which were downed inside the 20. One of them was downed at the 6-yard line and one at the 4-yard line (thanks to a great effort by gunner Corey White).
“I just finished talking about special teams,” Payton said after Thursday’s practice. “If you can net a punt 49 yards, that essentially is no different than a defense holding an offense to a three-and-out, field-position wise. All of those yards are ‘hidden yards’ in a game. They all add up, too. … And I think hidden yardage this week will be really important, especially as it pertains to a returner like Peterson.”
Morstead, who was named one of the Saints’ team captains for the first time this year, has cemented his place as one of the NFL’s top punters in recent years. He made his first Pro Bowl last season while falling just short of the league record for net punting average (finishing at 43.2 net yards per kick). And this season, he has picked up right where he left off -- even after having offseason knee surgery.
Morstead knows his role will be as critical as ever this week against Peterson, who set a NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns in a rookie in 2011 (though he hasn’t scored on one since).
“That’s the punter’s job as the first extension of the defense,” Morstead said. “Specifically regarding Patrick Peterson, he’s a way that they can win the game. So it’s our punt team’s job to make sure that he’s not a factor in that way.”
The Saints’ kickoff return coverage has been less consistent in recent years. But Morstead’s booming leg is a big asset in that department as well. Ten of his 11 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks so far this year. Two years ago, when the Saints offense was lighting up scoreboards at a historic rate, Morstead set the NFL record with 68 touchbacks on kickoffs.