METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma hopes to play a bigger role on the Saints' defense in his second game of the season.
Playing for the first time while appealing his season-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans' bounty program, Vilma played 18 snaps last Sunday against Tampa Bay.
"I felt a little rusty, especially with the new defense, getting used to some of the new guys on the team and not being around them," he said. "I didn't get a chance to practice in OTAs or training camp or preseason, so for me this is a crash course in everything — the new defense, the new guys, playing, getting into shape."
The fact that he is playing at all is somewhat surprising.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the season in May. Even after he got a reprieve two days before the season opener against Washington when a three-man appeals panel vacated that suspension and asked Goodell to clarify the rationale, the Saints placed Vilma on the Physically Unable to Perform list due to a lingering left knee problem.
Goodell suspended him again on Oct. 9. Vilma declined Friday to talk about any bounty-related topics leading into his appeals hearing Tuesday with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who will decide whether to uphold Goodell's ruling.
Vilma readily talked about his health and playing against the Broncos.
He said his knee, and his entire body, held up very well after the Tampa Bay game. He did not make a tackle but had one deflection and forced a near interception by pressuring Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman as New Orleans won its second in row, 35-28, after losing its first four.
"It's a great feeling," Vilma said. "Aside from all the other stuff going on outside of football, it was just really good to get our second victory. We're starting to play a little bit better. We're definitely playing a lot harder with a lot more conviction, and it shows on the field."
Vilma played almost exclusively in the nickel package and never at his accustomed middle linebacker spot. Curtis Lofton, the Saints' leading tackler, took over that role soon after he signed in March.
But just having Vilma on the field can help the Saints' struggling defense, which ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed.
"Leadership is something that you really can't coach and really can't fake," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He's a great, natural-born leader, so whenever he steps out there his presence does bring a sense of leadership that you really can't get out of other people."
For the first time since 2008, when the NFL allowed a defensive player on each team to wear a headset connected to a coach on the sideline, Vilma went without the earpiece against Tampa Bay. That did not stop him from dictating formations while he played.
"I don't have the headset, so that's different," Vilma said. "But lining up the guys, making checks and all that, that never changes."
The headset was the only part he did not enjoy about playing middle linebacker for former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
"I'm actually kind of relieved," Vilma said. "Gregg used to tell me like a million things and wouldn't tell me the play, and then finally he'd tell me the play with like five seconds left. I'm in my own world now. I'm not in Gregg's world. I'm in my head."
He will face one of the headiest NFL quarterbacks in Denver's Peyton Manning on Sunday. Because he is playing in the nickel, and because teams usually defend the Broncos' no-huddle offense in nickel formations, Vilma's play count should rise significantly.
The last time the Saints played Manning, they beat him and the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. Saints interim coach Joe Vitt estimated this week Vilma called defensive audibles in that game about 45 percent of the time, matching wits with Manning.
Despite his rustiness, Vilma can't wait for another opportunity.
"I'm dead serious — unless they take me out, I'm staying in," he said. "I'll find a way to make some plays."
Notes: Vitt said tight end Jimmy Graham, who has a sprained right ankle, would be a game-time decision. Graham was limited in practice all week after missing the Tampa Bay game. Said Graham: "I think I'm ready now, and hopefully they'll allow me to play." . Vitt labeled linebacker David Hawthorne a game-time decision, too. Hawthorne has missed three straight games after hurting his right hamstring against Kansas City.
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