Manti Te'o steps up when Saints need him most

METAIRIE, La. -- Manti Te’o was humble after his game-changing performance on Sunday. He credited fellow linebacker Craig Robertson, safety Vonn Bell and each of the New Orleans Saints' defensive linemen, among others, for helping to set up his big plays.

But Te’o didn’t shy away from how special the performance was for him after his career had gotten a bit off track in recent years.

The former Notre Dame star, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the San Diego Chargers, missed 13 games last season with a torn Achilles. Then he had to settle for an incentive-filled “prove-it” contract with the Saints in free agency before playing a part-time role for most of this season.

That role has increased in the wake of linebacker A.J. Klein’s season-ending groin injury from three weeks ago.

“That’s something that I look forward to doing: making big plays for my team,” said Te’o, who had two significant tackles for loss in the first half, then a huge fumble recovery during a goal-line stand in the third quarter of New Orleans’ 23-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. “I was blessed to be in those situations and to have capitalized on those opportunities.”

Te’o, 26, was a curious free-agent signing for the Saints in March because they had just signed another middle linebacker -- a “quarterback of the defense” -- in Klein less than two weeks earlier. And they still had their defensive “quarterbacks” from both 2016 and 2015 on the roster in Robertson and Stephone Anthony.

But the Saints clearly made depth a priority at linebacker after struggling at the position in recent years. And sure enough, they wound up needing Te’o to play a big role in the biggest game yet of their season on Sunday.

“Every team doesn’t have that luxury. ... We’ve got guys at that linebacker spot that when their name’s called on, they don’t bat an eye,” said Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who added that when you talk to Te’o, “you just know he’s been a leader in whatever he’s done his entire life.”

That’s true, considering that Te’o made it clear how much he wanted to be the leader and signal-caller for the Saints’ defense back when he signed in March -- just as he had done at every level since Pop Warner.

Te'o explained that he and Robertson have taken turns wearing the helmet with the communication device (signified by a green dot on the back) to relay plays from coaches to players.

“Man, I think with the guys in our room, whoever gets that call, whoever gets that green dot, whoever is in that situation is gonna ball,” Te’o said. “And like I said, I’m just so grateful that my number has been called. And when it has been called, I’ve been doing pretty well to help my team. And that’s my biggest thing is I just want to help my team.

“I want to be in those situations where I can turn the momentum or I can make a big play. And whoever is out there, we have the confidence that they can do the same.”

Te’o helped set the tone in Sunday’s win by shooting into the backfield on the opening series and stopping running back Tevin Coleman for a 4-yard loss that led to a punt. He had another tackle for a 2-yard loss against Devonta Freeman later in the first half -- this time out wide on a stretch run -- that helped to force another punt.

Then he made his biggest play as a Saint to date in the third quarter by leaping on Freeman’s fumble when the Falcons were threatening to close within six points.

“I thought he had one of his better games. I thought it was significant, especially with who we were playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of a Falcons team that has had a lot of success running the ball with Freeman against New Orleans in recent years.

Te’o played 45 snaps against Atlanta, which was his fourth-highest total of the season. His top three snap counts all came in games in which Klein was injured, as well.

When Klein was healthy, there were two games in which Te’o played fewer than 10 snaps and five others in which he played fewer than 20 snaps.

Te’o typically plays the middle Mike linebacker spot when the Saints are in their base defense with three linebackers on the field. But Te’o wasn’t playing most passing downs before Klein’s injury.

It also means a lot to Te’o that he is about to play all 16 games for the first time in his five-year NFL career.

Te’o started 36 of the 40 games he played with the Chargers, including two playoff games as a rookie. But he missed 24 games with a variety of injuries, including the Achilles, foot and ankle issues.

“Before every game I thank the good Lord for the opportunity I have to run out there. And at the end of every game, the opportunity for me to run off the field,” Te’o said. “Throughout my career that hasn’t always been the case. So I’m very, very grateful for the opportunities I get to run on and off the field.”