Saints K Hartley focused on starting fresh

Garrett Hartley doesn't try to spin his two-week benching as some sort of lesson that might help him in the long run.

"No, that was just something that ... was out of my control and whatever was on the plate I had to, I guess eat it," Hartley said. "That was what the coaches decided and so at that point, all I know is, hey, how can I get better? How can I prevent things like that from happening again? So you just do everything you possibly can do in practice, prepare yourself mentally like you're playing in the game in Sunday's warmup and just trust your swing."

Like a golfer who suddenly develops a bad hook, Hartley was having a little trouble with his leg swing earlier this season. He missed three of his first seven kicks, all of them hooks wide left, and the third miss came from only 29-yards out and cost the Saints an overtime win over Atlanta in Week 3.

After that, the Saints added 46-year-old John Carney to their roster and activated him for the past two games. Carney made his first five field goals, but missed his sixth late in the third quarter of New Orleans' 30-20 loss at Arizona last weekend.

The Saints then cut Carney during the past week, primarily because they needed space on the roster for other positions, did not want to keep two kickers and did not want to cut the stronger-legged, 24-year-old Hartley.

"It really became a challenge to carry the second kicker," coach Sean Payton said. "Garrett has done a good job of responding. I thought he kicked exceptionally well ... and had a good week (in practice) last week."

Although punter Thomas Morstead was the holder in the beginning of the year, backup quarterback Chase Daniel took over those duties when Carney started kicking and Daniel will continue to hold on field goals now that Hartley is back.

"He's booming the ball now. You can tell a difference just in the feel of it coming off my hand," Daniel said. "He's hitting it with authority and confidence. Not like he wasn't before, but now he's hitting everything solid, his focus is there. I feel like he's going to do great. He's got all the ability in the world and it's just about coming down and doing it."

Hartley was a hero in last season's playoff, hitting the gamewinning field goal in overtime of the NFC title game to send the Saints to their first Super Bowl. He followed that up by becoming the first kicker in NFL history to connect on three field goals of 40-plus yards in a Super Bowl as New Orleans beat Indianapolis for the Saints' first championship.

He continued to look fine during preseason, going eight of eight, including three field goals of more than 40 yards. Then, in New Orleans' season-opening 14-9 win over Minnesota, he hooked two field goal attempts left of the uprights.

"On his misses, it looked like a different kicker," Daniel said. "He was trying to maybe hit it too hard. Now it's just a smooth stroke every single time. He's hitting them straight down the middle."

After Hartley was benched, he sought to learn from Carney's experience as they practiced together. He also spoke with quarterback Drew Brees, who is the reigning Super Bowl MVP now but was benched several times earlier in his career.

"Having his thoughts and his encouragement, it's something great coming from a leader like Drew," Hartley said. "Really, part of becoming a professional is learning the routines, the ins and the outs, and if you look at a guy like Drew or John, their routine is by the book. ... That's something that I want to strive to reach and that's what I'm working toward."

Notes: Saints RB Pierre Thomas will miss his third-straight game with a left ankle sprain this Sunday. "I'm a little frustrated but it's coming along, the swelling went down," Thomas said. "It's starting to look like my normal ankle again." Thomas says he feels minor pain when he jogs or tries to move laterally. "I definitely feel like I've made progress," Thomas said, adding that he was told to expect rehabilitation to take four to six weeks. "I don't want to come back too early and get a setback until maybe the end of the season." ... Defensive end Will Smith practiced on a limited basis and is listed a questionable for the Tampa Bay game. Smith sat out last week's game at Arizona with a pulled groin but said he believed he could have played if needed. Smith said he would expect to be in the lineup as long as he's well enough to "play hard and not hurt the team."