Sometimes it’s difficult to locate New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro on the field as everyone is lining up for the next snap.
Look where you think he should be, or where he was on the previous snap, and you might not initially find him. He might be playing deep, lined up in the box or over the slot receiver.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Other times, it isn’t.
Versatility is part of what makes Vaccaro special, serving as a chess piece in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s complicated and complex schemes. But it also could hinder Vaccaro’s ability to do what he does best: make plays.
“If there’s one guy that has had to play so many multiple positions, it’s been Kenny,” Ryan said. “You know, it’s tough on him. I’ve had him play so many different spots.”
The Saints said during the offseason that one of their goals this season was to simplify Vaccaro’s role and allow him to focus on playing a more defined role. That hasn’t happened.
During the first four weeks of the season, he did a little bit of everything. The results — and Vaccaro admits this — were not always great. After missing only three tackles during his rookie season, he missed six in a Week 1 loss at the Atlanta Falcons.
But during last week’s 37-31 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Vaccaro was let loose. Instead of worrying about several different assignments, Ryan dropped him in the box as the strong safety and set him free. During the game’s first five plays, Vaccaro twice blew up passes intended for tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and then blitzed off the edge to stuff a run.
“He was coming downhill, hitting the running game really good and, overall, the defense in the secondary did a nice job there,” Ryan said. “Obviously we expect big things going forward for him. And he’s been playing well; just right now overall defensively, we need to play better as a unit.”
Ryan was noncommittal when asked whether Vaccaro will continue to serve in a more simplified role or move about the defense. On one hand, he admitted it might be the best thing for the player. On the other, putting Vaccaro in one spot would take a versatile weapon from his arsenal.
Vaccaro is not one to complain. When asked during training camp whether he would prefer to be relieved some of his duties and set loose in the box, he said he doesn’t think about it — he just wants to make plays. Earlier this week, though, he did say when things get too complex on defense, it sometimes feels like “dogs on a chain.”
But many of those frustrations were relieved after the season-opening loss to the Falcons when Ryan simplified his defense and began relying more on talent than scheme. Any mistakes since then fall on the players, not the coordinator, Vaccaro said.
The simplification of his role might only be part of the reason Vaccaro was able to tap into the Pro Bowl talent he flashed as a rookie last week against the Bucs.
Although he has remained silent and gone about his business without making excuses, Vaccaro admitted earlier this week that the ankle he broke in the second-to-last week of the 2013 regular season has continued to bother him and that it took a few games for him to get going.
“I know for me, I played way faster,” he said. “This was the first game I actually felt healthy, honestly. So this game I was lights out, didn’t care, kind of got back to my old self from last year.”
It was also the first game that Vaccaro played exclusively alongside Rafael Bush. During practice last week, Jairus Byrd — who signed a six-year, $54 million deal this offseason — suffered a knee injury that will keep him sidelined for the rest of the season.
While there’s a drop in talent and potential in losing Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler, Vaccaro and Bush are hoping they can make up for it in chemistry. The two played together last season and spend a lot of time together off the field, often referring to each other as brothers.
Back together against the Bucs, the two said things immediately felt natural.
“Me and Kenny, man, we got this connection,” Bush said. “We just love football. We’re always just talking football. I think we mesh pretty well back there.”
Emerging from the back room, Vaccaro overheard the inquiry and posed his own question.
“How’d you think it looked?” he said, repeating himself for emphasis.
Like dogs off a chain.