LANDOVER, Md. – Let’s face it, it’s almost impossible for a punter to get recognized in any NFL game.
So it was especially impressive to find New Orleans Saints punter Blake Gillikin getting the hero treatment after a 33-22 win over the Washington Football Team that included Jameis Winston throwing four touchdown passes – including a career-long 72-yarder and a 49-yard Hail Mary before halftime – and stars like Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore giving big-time performances.
Sean Payton singled out Gillikin with a game ball in the postgame locker room – instead of waiting until Monday when players are usually recognized. Then he called Gillikin’s performance “outstanding” four times during one answer in the postgame press conference.
“That’s the most I heard Sean love on a punter,” Kamara joked afterward.
Turns out, the love was warranted.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Gillikin became the first NFL punter since at least 2000 to have three punts of 50-plus yards downed inside the 5-yard line.
Specifically, he had a 60-yarder make a sharp turn out of bounds at the 1-yard line in the second quarter, a 57-yarder roll out of bounds at the 3 in the third quarter and a 53-yarder downed at the 2 in the fourth quarter.
More importantly, he kept the up-and-down Saints (3-2) constantly ahead in the field position battle in a close game before they ultimately pulled away for good.
“What a performance he put on today,” said Winston, who also brought up Gillikin twice – unprompted both times – as a key to aiding his own performance. “He really helped us win the field position battle with his greatness in the kicking game.”
Making Gillikin’s performance even more impressive was that he was just playing in his fifth career NFL game after spending last year on injured reserve as an undrafted rookie. Winston pointed out how much Gillikin learned last year from former Saints great Thomas Morstead in the same way that Winston learned from Drew Brees.
Gillikin admitted that some luck was involved Sunday. Normally on punts of that length, he is hoping to get the ball around the 8-yard line with a chance to be fielded by the gunner.
“My goal is to pin it as close to the sideline as possible. But that’s easier said than done,” Gillikin said.
He also joked that his experience at Penn State helps him since “the Big Ten is a punting conference.”
“I’d love to not punt at all,” Gillikin said, “but to have that kind of game and also get a win is great.”
The Saints needed every hero performance they could get in a bit of a roller-coaster game that was closer than the final score might have indicated.
Winston threw an interception on the Saints’ opening series, then lost a fumble later in the first quarter.
But unlike last week, when the Saints squandered an 11-point lead in the final seven minutes in a loss to the New York Giants, New Orleans finished strong with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kamara.
The Saints now feel much better about heading into their Week 6 bye above .500 with a chance to get eight starters back from injuries and suspension in the next couple weeks.
“A little sloppy in the beginning, but we picked it up,” Kamara said. “Us being able to persevere and keep going after those two turnovers says a lot about or offense.”
Winston threw for a season-high 279 passing yards while Washington frequently used a five-man front that was designed to slow New Orleans’ run game. Kamara and receiver Marquez Callaway scored two touchdowns apiece. Lattimore led the defense’s effort with a career-high six pass defenses while primarily shadowing Washington’s standout receiver Terry McLaurin.
Maybe they’ll get game balls, too. They’ll just have to wait in line.