New Orleans Saints rule out 3 assistant coaches but return 4 injured players

DALLAS -- The New Orleans Saints are on the mend, returning four players who missed last week's loss to the Carolina Panthers because of injuries.

But they still expect to be without three assistant coaches Sunday at New England because of COVID-19 protocols and seven starters because of injuries/suspension.

The Saints announced that tight ends coach Dan Roushar and defensive line coaches Ryan Nielsen and Brian Young will miss Sunday's game after they all tested positive for COVID-19 last week and have not yet met the criteria for returning.

The Saints were missing a total of eight coaches and nine starters in last Sunday's lopsided 26-7 loss at Carolina. Since then, five coaches returned to practice this week (WR coach Curtis Johnson, RB coach Joel Thomas, offensive analyst Jim Chaney, offensive assistant Declan Doyle and special teams assistant Phil Galiano). No new coaches tested positive this week.

Last week, the Saints got one of their assistant coaches back on Saturday after he was initially ruled out on Friday (offensive line coach Brendan Nugent). It's unclear if that is still a possibility this week. Since the coaches are all vaccinated, they could be cleared to return with two negative tests 24 hours apart.

The Saints, who have been practicing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for four weeks since evacuating for Hurricane Ida, were scheduled to fly to New England on Friday evening.

As for the players, the Saints ruled out center Erik McCoy for the second straight week with a calf injury. But Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore is expected to play after missing just one game, despite having thumb surgery last week.

Starting safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (knee), reserve linebacker Pete Werner (hamstring) and reserve defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (calf) are all expected to return to the lineup after practicing fully Friday. All three missed last week's game. None of them were listed as questionable.

The Saints are also still missing six other projected Week 1 starters: WR Michael Thomas on the physically unable to perform list; DT David Onyemata because of a suspension; and DE Marcus Davenport, LB Kwon Alexander, WR Tre'Quan Smith and K Wil Lutz on injured reserve.

Losing McCoy for another week is obviously significant after the Saints were plagued by communication and protection issues up front last week, when they gained only 128 yards and six first downs (by far the lowest in both categories since coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006). Quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked four times and threw his first two interceptions of the season.

However, the Saints were dominant at the line of scrimmage in their 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, despite losing McCoy on the opening drive. And Nugent insisted they can clean up the communication issues after stressing them all week in practice.

"Look, like Sean [Payton] said, [the problem] was across the board. Everybody had a piece in it. There's no real single culprit, if you will," Nugent said. "It's just, it was loud, and we weren't getting the communication that we're used to, and it starts with everybody.

"We're working to get better at it -- and we will be. We are better at it. We had a good week with communication this week, and it's just a matter of talking."

Second-year pro Cesar Ruiz, the Saints' first-round draft pick in 2020, moved over from right guard to replace McCoy in each of the first two games. Ruiz played center at Michigan.