WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — No one represents the transformation the New Orleans Saints are trying to make on defense better than Kenny Vaccaro.
The safety possesses the talent and tools to be one of the better players at his position, but he enters the season needing to answer a number of questions to reach the heights many expect him to achieve. It’s not a long climb to get there. He just needs to right the wrongs that bogged down his sophomore season.
No one envisioned Vaccaro taking so many left turns last season when he consistently turned right as a rookie. After a strong debut season, he appeared to be on the fast track to superstardom. Instead, he struggled through injuries, made a handful of assignment errors and now enters his third season needing to prove that last season’s hiccups were a fluke.
“Last year, I was set back a little bit. My tackling needs to improve,” Vaccaro said. “That was one thing in my rookie year — I hardly missed any. I think I’m healthy now, and I can get my explosiveness back. That’s part of my game, and that will help me tremendously.”
As a whole, the Saints are looking to get their explosiveness back. They were supposed to feature one of the better defenses in the NFL after adding safety Jairus Byrd during the offseason. But after finishing fourth in total defense in 2013, New Orleans sank to 31st in 2014. Since then, the group has been totally revamped.
In are cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Anthony Spencer, and rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony and cornerback P.J. Williams. Out are cornerbacks Corey White and Patrick Robinson, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and outside linebacker Junior Galette, among others.
The personnel has a lot of questions to answer, but it should be helped by a simplification of the defensive playbook. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan worked this offseason to pare down the schemes and coverages the unit uses in an effort to help the players play faster and eliminate the mental mistakes that too often hurt the Saints last season.
Instead of using a number of coverages in the base defense, the team has featured a single-high safety look with press coverage underneath. This should play to the strengths of the cornerbacks. It’s a twist that should also help Vaccaro.
As a rookie, Vaccaro often played closer to the line and covered receivers out of the slot. He excelled in this role but often played deep last season and came upon hard times. In the new defensive formations, he’s often lined up in the box or pairing up with receivers. It’s a change he believes will better suit his style of play.
“I love covering anyone; I love being in the fire,” Vaccaro said. “That’s my game, relentless. That’s just me. We’re built to do it. We got two great press corners. We’re going to do a lot of it.”
One of the biggest keys for the Saints this season will be getting improved safety play. While Vaccaro’s injuries (ankle, quad) did not sideline him until the final game of the season, Byrd only lasted four games before going down with a knee injury. Rookie Vinnie Sunseri also landed on injured reserve.
Even before his injury, Byrd struggled to fit into the scheme and to make routine plays. After a strong offseason, the safety started training camp on the physically unable to perform list. His ability to master the new defense and settle in with his teammates will be as critical to success as Vaccaro returning to form.
During organized team activities, Byrd acknowledged his play wasn’t up to par and was disappointed his first season with the Saints was cut short.
“I don’t think it was up to the standard with anything that we were trying to do,” Byrd said. “But like I said, this is a new year, and (we’re) moving forward.”
If that happens, the duo has the ability to be one of the best safety tandems in the league, and the defense should vastly improve. At least for Vaccaro’s part, Ryan is confident he’ll return to form and believes the change in his role should help Vaccaro get back on track.
“You could line Kenny Vaccaro up backwards and he’d make plays,” Ryan said.
Vaccaro learned his lessons from last year. The mental mistakes hurt. He prides himself on being a smart player, and it pains him to know he made too many mistakes that could have been avoided.
There’s no question the 51-yard reception he gave up to Michael Crabtree of the 49ers that eventually led to a New Orleans loss when he abandoned his Cover 2 responsibilities stuck with him. And his pride took another hit when he failed to set the edge on a 69-yard touchdown run by Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart during a 41-10 December loss. The second play led to Vaccaro being briefly demoted from his role as strong safety.
After the game and when discussing his role change, Vaccaro admitted he played like “garbage” and spent some time soul-searching.
“I forgot where I came from, like how hard it was for me to get here, how much my family went through,” he said at the time. “I support everyone in my family. That’s always driven me. How dare I let up at all.”
Those moments served as sources of inspiration. He hardly took any time off this offseason. A week or two to heal, and he was back in the gym. He studied for hours at a time. He showed up to preseason camp bulked up and confident in his ability to do his job.
Now he’s ready to put that work to use and get the bad taste out of his mouth.
“I feel like I’m a smart player and have a high football IQ,” Vaccaro said. “Mental errors are unacceptable regardless. I think I should know the playbook in and out to be a quarterback on defense.”
He added: “I’ve got my legs under me. That’s what I can do. That’s the type of game I can play. It feels good. I worked my (backside) off all offseason so I won’t have any regrets at all. I didn’t think I did enough last offseason.”
Hopefully, he did enough this offseason. And hopefully, the rest of the defense did, too.