As Kenny Vaccaro positions himself in the box and sets up, he surveys the offense.
It’s second-and-18, and the Saints are trailing 20-10 with 13:53 remaining in Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but whatever the New Orleans safety is looking at needs to be adjusted.
He immediately gestures. First, he waves to the left side of the field to Patrick Robinson, and then to the man next to him, linebacker David Hawthorne.
Vaccaro moves up closer to the line of scrimmage and takes off for quarterback Andy Dalton as soon as the ball is snapped. Dalton quickly gets rid of the ball and misses wide receiver A.J. Green on the offensive right sideline.
This isn’t an uncommon sight. Vaccaro can often be seen gesturing and directing other members of the defense. In some defenses, some of this responsibility falls on the free safety, who can see more of the field and communicate what he’s looking at the players in front of him — but not in New Orleans.
“That’s not the case in (defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s) scheme,” Vaccaro said. “That’s more on the strong safety. Not saying they don’t do anything, but in our scheme, though, I have to make a lot of calls to everybody.”
This is good news. With Rafael Bush being placed on injured reserve earlier this week after suffering a fractured fibula during last week’s 27-10 loss, a player who is new to the system will be lining up at free safety this week against the Baltimore Ravens.
As things stand, it appears either Marcus Ball, who was signed last offseason out of the CFL; Pierre Warren, who rejoined the Saints this week after being released in September and spending some time with the Minnesota Vikings; and Jamarca Sanford, who was signed last week after being released by the Vikings, are this week’s candidates to fill the spot next to Vaccaro.
Out of those players, Ball, who is more of strong safety, is the only player who might be comfortable enough with the defense to direct other players. Warren and Sanford are still trying to conquer their own responsibilities. If either wins the job, with the communication responsibilities primarily on Vaccaro’s shoulders, Sanford and Warren will not need to worry so much about the other 10 players on the field.
“A lot of times, (the free safety) is just deep,” Vaccaro explained. “(He does signal) a little bit, but as loud as the dome is, you can’t look back, you can’t talk to him. Maybe a few signals here and there, but they expect you to know a lot pre-snap.”
What can’t always be known pre-snap is some of the improvisation that takes place throughout the game. Vaccaro and Bush had grown accustomed to playing with each other, and they developed a level of chemistry that allowed the two to communicate through looks and simple gestures.
That cannot be replaced in the matter of a week. Vaccaro doesn’t expect this to damage the defense to a great degree, but he admits it will make things more difficult.
“That’s me and him being really, really good friends, too,” Vaccaro said of Bush. “That’s just, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this, and you got to cover me up.’ That’s what a lot of great defenses do; you got guys who got that relationship and you can do it. That takes time and trust. I’m not saying we don’t have that on our team, but those guys played together so long. It takes time to develop that.”
It’s still not yet known who will win the job. It was initially believed that Corey White, who was drafted as a safety and spent some time playing the position during training camp, could be another candidate for the job, but he said earlier this week he did not expect to be in the mix.
Asked earlier this week whether he would allow the three candidates on the roster to battle it out, coach Sean Payton refused to tip his hand one way or the other.
“Number one, we have players in the building, and then we signed a safety outside,” Payton said. “We will look at the workweek and make sure we are putting the best combination together. Part of a long NFL season is attrition, sometimes to injury, and the next guys up will have to do the job.”
Attrition is something this secondary knows too much about. New Orleans already lost starting free safety Jairus Byrd to an October knee injury, and rookie safety Vinnie Sunseri is also on injured reserve with a broken arm.
It’s quite possible White could have been in the mix to move back to safety, but the ability to even consider the move was never really possible since No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis is battling a knee injury that limited him to 11 snaps last week.
So when Vaccaro looks around to direct traffic on Monday night against Baltimore, he’s likely to see a handful of faces that weren’t starting for this defense in Week 1. And he’s likely to feel some pressure as one of the last men standing in the New Orleans secondary.
“I have to be Superman,” he joked, then later commented on how he’s the last safety remaining from the original group.
Told that it sounded like he was jinxing himself, he bent over and knocked on a wooden table as he exited the room.