METAIRIE, La. — The Saints are making a change at left tackle heading into the biggest game of the season, choosing to start rookie Terron Armstead in place of four-year veteran Charles Brown.
The move comes after Coach Sean Payton benched Brown in the third quarter of New Orleans’ shocking 27-16 loss at St. Louis this past Sunday, the culmination of a season’s worth of mistakes by the player.
“(It was) a decision based on just looking at a lot of snaps and looking at consistency and the things we’re looking for,” Payton said Wednesday morning. “And I think there were a handful of things that happened in that game the other day that really prohibited us from having some type of success.”
For Armstead (6-foot-5, 304 pounds), the Saints’ third-round pick in this past April’s draft, it’s a chance to show how far he has come. While he hasn’t been active in every game, he said he’s ready for the challenge.
“I really don't look at it as too much pressure,” Armstead said. “It's what I came here to do, to play. It hasn't happened until now, so I just have to take advantage of my opportunity.”
By making the decision, Payton will go with a player who has been on the field for just 17 special teams snaps and has been inactive for 10 games this season. Armstead, a third-round pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, has athleticism on his side. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.71) at the combine in NFL history.
He’ll get his first start against a Carolina defense that is No. 2 in the NFL in total defense. The Panthers are 11th in yards allowed per run attempt, eighth in yards per pass attempt allowed and third in sacks per pass play.
Armstead, who said it took him a few plays in practice to get used to the cadence of quarterback Drew Brees, will face right defensive end Greg Hardy, who has eight sacks this season and is fifth on the team with 49 tackles and first in tackles for a loss with 11.
That Armstead’s initial action will come in such situation does give Payton pause.
“He’s someone who has a pretty good feel of what we’re doing,” Payton said. “Certainly there’ll be growing pains when you play a young player like that. And yet, it’s a guy like him who’s been around now for eight months, nine months in our program.”
Payton added, “I think Terron’s improved during the course of the season, be it taking scout team reps, some work with the offense. And it’s time to see what he can do.”
It won’t give Brees pause, either.
"I honestly won't think twice about it other than making sure communication is really, really good,” Brees said. “...You got to trust him, trust that he knows his job, he's going to do his job and then you just roll."
Brown allowed two sacks Sunday and was flagged for an illegal use of hands penalty that nullified a touchdown pass to Lance Moore just before halftime. The drive ended in a blocked Garrett Hartley field goal and New Orleans remained down 24-3 at halftime.
His 12 penalties this season is a team-high and a league-high for tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown has allowed 33 quarterback hurries, nine quarterback hits and seven sacks.
Payton did say the move wasn’t meant as a statement for the players, however.
“No, this is not, these aren’t decisions you make for effect,” Payton said. “You don’t’ do that. At least we don’t.”
As for Brown, who declined comment in the locker room Wednesday, Payton is confident the veteran will handle the demotion well, choosing to work through his problems and help out Armstead.
“I visited with Charles this morning,” Payton said. “Of course he’s disappointed, as he would be. I’m sure he’ll respond the right way and handle this the right way in a professional manner. And it’s the nature of the business.”
Said Armstead, “We’re good friends and we’re competitors, too, so I’m sure Charles is still shooting to get his spot, the same way I’ve been fighting to get the spot. So we’re still competing against each other and pushing each other.”