Jonathan Vilma to return Sunday

Updated: October 21, 2012, 4:56 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The New Orleans Saints activated linebacker Jonathan Vilma for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Naturally, I'm excited about today," Vilma told ESPN's Ed Werder on Sunday morning. "I've never had to fight so hard in my life to defend my name, but running out on the field with my team today makes it all worth it."

The ninth-year pro didn't start but did get on the field throughout the opening half of the game against the Buccaneers, which the Saints won 35-28.

He pressured Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman on an incompletion that was nearly intercepted by Roman Harper and got his hands on another pass that he tipped first with his right hand and then his left before it fell incomplete.

While Vilma played, the Saints declared tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle) inactive for Sunday's game.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees told Werder he admires the work ethic and determination Vilma has shown. Brees said Vilma can impact the team from an emotional, leadership and productivity standpoint in what is scheduled to be Aaron Kromer's final game as Saints interim head coach.

Joe Vitt is set to return Monday from a six-game suspension to take over as appointed by general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton, both of whom remain suspended.

Sunday might be the only chance for Vilma, who is recovering from a knee surgery, to get back on the field this season if his bounty suspension, on appeal, winds up going back into effect in about a week or so.

He returned to practice Wednesday, although he did not work with the first-team defense. He practiced without wearing any kind of brace or sleeve on his surgically repaired left knee.

Vilma had several offseason procedures done on his knee, which had slowed him last season and sidelined him five games. He even traveled to Germany to see a specialist in platelet-rich plasma therapy, a relatively new blood-spinning technique also used by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Vilma's initial season-long suspension was handed down in May and went into effect in July after his initial appeal was rejected. That suspension lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeal panel that instructed commissioner Roger Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending Vilma and three others -- Saints defensive end Will Smith, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita -- in connection with New Orleans' cash-for-hits bounty pool.

Because of his rehabilitation, Vilma was placed on the Saints' physically unable to perform list when his initial suspension was lifted, a move that saved the team a roster spot and also prevented Vilma from practicing or playing during the first six weeks of the regular season.

The suspensions were reissued last week and promptly appealed by all four players, with appeal hearings set for Oct. 30. Vilma remains suspended for the season and Smith for four games. Hargrove's suspension was reduced from eight to seven games, and Fujita's from three to one.

Information from ESPN's Ed Werder and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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