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Saints' defense gets jolt from three new starting linebackers

A month ago we wondered how the New Orleans Saints' crowded linebacker competition would shake out.

Well, the picture has begun to take focus -- and it looks like three newcomers will all win starting jobs: A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o and rookie Alex Anzalone.

That was the Saints' starting trio during Sunday night's dominant defensive performance in a 13-7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. And all three of them played key roles.

"It's just a good step in the right direction," Te'o told reporters after a dominant performance against his former team (eight tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and two other tackles for loss on run plays). "It was a great opportunity for us to go out there and compete against a really good team and to show what we're made of. And I think we did that."

Klein, 26, is the one guy who has looked like a lock to start ever since he signed a three-year, $15 million deal on the first day of free agency to come over from the rival Carolina Panthers.

The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder has taken over as the commanding "quarterback" of the Saints' defense in a dual role as a strong-side linebacker in base defense and the middle linebacker on passing downs.

Klein was terrific on Sunday. He had a half-sack, an assisted tackle for loss on a run play and five total tackles. He blew up receiver Keenan Allen's block attempt to help set up defensive end Alex Okafor's sack. And he brought penetration to help create a run stuff for Anzalone.

Te'o, 26, was more of a question mark this summer, coming off a torn Achilles and signing an incentive-laden two-year deal that could be worth up to $7 million but only included $600,000 guaranteed. The former Notre Dame star opened up last week about what a tough time he had mentally with the injury at first. Coaches admitted that he started off a little slowly this summer before coming on stronger in recent weeks.

Now Te'o appears to be the front-runner to start at middle linebacker in base defense, then come off the field on passing downs. Sunday's performance certainly helped his case.

"It's about reading keys, using instincts and just going out there and having fun," Te'o said. "I didn't play a perfect game, but I was very happy with how I played and how the team played and overall I'm happy that we got a win."

Last but not least, Anzalone appears likely to be the biggest surprise starter this season after being drafted in the third round out of Florida.

He is still competing with veteran Craig Robertson and third-year pro Stephone Anthony, among others. But Anzalone had started to pull away as the front-runner in that competition even before his strong performance in Sunday's game -- two impressive solo tackles, one in open space against Melvin Gordon after a catch and the other a run stuff for a 1-yard gain.

Anzalone also had a low moment when he got flagged for holding in pass coverage. But the Saints know they'll have to suffer through some highs and lows if they go with the rookie in the starting lineup. Earlier in camp, Sean Payton said he had made a few "knucklehead" plays to go with his impressive flash plays. But the 6-3, 240-pounder's speed, athleticism and range has stood out on a daily basis.

If either Te'o or Anzalone falters, Robertson will be breathing down their necks as a potential starter at either spot. Robertson, who led the Saints with 115 tackles last year as an unexpected starter at middle linebacker, has had a solid camp. He added a sack to the onslaught in the second half Sunday.

The Saints already announced plans to cut injury-plagued veteran Dannell Ellerbe at the start of training camp. And Anthony's roster spot also appears to be in jeopardy. The former first-round draft pick needed to have a stellar preseason to try and win a starting job on the weak side or a vital backup role. Instead, Anzalone stood out more early. Then Anthony has been dealing with an unspecified injury for the past week.

Among the backups, veterans Nathan Stupar and Michael Mauti are special teams standouts, which will help their roster case. And newly-signed Canadian Football League veteran Adam Bighill has had a nice camp -- highlighted by his interception on a Hail Mary to seal Sunday's victory.