METAIRIE, La. -- Has anyone ever had to work so hard for his first NFL touchdown?
New Orleans Saints receiver Nick Toon had to wait three years to finally reach the end zone. When he finally did, he had to fight his way through four Pittsburgh Steelers defenders on his way in for the 11-yard score in Sunday's 35-32 victory.
"I'm happy for him. Especially since that wasn't just any old catch and waltz in the end zone," said quarterback Drew Brees, who threw a short pass in the third quarter before Toon did all of the work -- stiff-arming cornerback Ike Taylor, spinning away from Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu, then absorbing two big hits near the goal line from end Brett Keisel and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
"His contributions over the last two weeks have been great with (Brandin) Cooks going down," Brees continued. "So I'm excited for the opportunity he's getting."
Toon has five catches for 59 yards over the past two games since Cooks went down with a season-ending thumb injury -- roughly doubling Toon's career totals in both categories.
A fourth-round draft pick out of Wisconsin in 2012, Toon has only been active for 12 games in his career. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Then he's spent most of the past two years as a "healthy inactive" -- good enough to secure a roster spot after impressing in every training camp, but not able to crack the regular rotation.
Clearly, the Saints trust Toon, though, based on his snap counts (73 combined over the past two weeks). He has leapfrogged both Robert Meachem and Joe Morgan in the pecking order -- partly because Toon plays the same "X" position that Cooks played in base packages.
But clearly the Saints are also showing faith in Toon as a run blocker, which could offer a permanent path to more snaps.
"It felt great to go out there and get an opportunity to play. My first touchdown feels great. It was a real team win," said Toon, who has admitted it's been tough to deal with the inactivity over the past two years -- but who has never publicly complained or seemed to let it affect his work ethic.
"They drafted me. My experience has been nothing but positive," said Toon, the son of former New York Jets standout Al Toon. "I'm blessed to be a part of this organization and just happy to be out there getting an opportunity to play."
Toon (6-foot-4, 218 pounds) infamously failed to take advantage of his best opportunity last year, when he was a big part of the Saints' game plan while starter Marques Colston was injured in a Week 9 game against the Jets. Toon dropped two passes -- one that might have been a deep TD, and one that was tipped into the air for an interception.
This time around, though, Toon has been taking advantage of his opportunity.
"You don't know when his touches are coming, but the play he made yesterday was really good, obviously the run after the catch, ball security," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He just comes to work, and it's important to him. He's very consistent in his approach to preparation. Obviously his transition to playing time, each player's is different, and he has been patient. He is one of those guys that (I) never felt like has been discouraged or frustrated, and yet never taken for granted that it isn't something that he feels like is very important.
"I know (Brees) has a high confidence level where Nick is going to be, his catching radius, his effort to the ball, all of those things. He's a willing blocker. It was really good to see."