Since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints’ trademark has primarily been a high-octane offense that’s been ranked first in four regular seasons and never worse than sixth in any campaign.
And Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro has kind of had enough of that.
Of course, he doesn’t mind the yards and points his offensive teammates score for the Saints — he just yearns for the defense he joined as a first-round draft choice in 2013 to be as dominant and as enduring as the offense has been.
“Everything has kind of been on the offensive side,” said Vaccaro, who with the Saints is preparing to open the regular season with a divisional game in Atlanta on Sunday. “We’re just trying to change the culture around here — we’re trying to get it balanced out around here.”
Balanced the Saints were in Vaccaro’s rookie campaign, the first year New Orleans had Rob Ryan coordinating the defense. A defense that allowed the fourth-fewest total yards complemented an offense that gained the fourth-most total yards.
The No. 2 aerial game complemented a pass defense that held opponents to the second-fewest throwing yards. Vaccaro impressed as he finished among team leaders with 79 combined tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble before fracturing his ankle at Carolina in Week 16 and sitting out the rest of a season that ended with a defeat in the divisional round of the playoffs.
It was a good start, Vaccaro said; but he suggested expectations were low after the Saints gave up the most yards in NFL history in 2012, when Payton was suspended in the wake of the bounty scandal.
“Nobody was looking at us last year to be good,” Vaccaro remarked. “I think this year, people start taking a peek at the Saints’ defense.”
Certainly, the lofty expectations for Vaccaro and the Saints are palpable. The team handed a six-year, $54 million free-agent contract to three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 interceptions are the most among NFL players at his position since he entered the league in 2009.
The hope is Byrd creates takeaways, which the Saints defense lacked last season, with the fourth-fewest turnovers (19) in the league.
The Saints had the luxury of trying out the aged but accomplished Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler who was competing for a spot opposite entrenched No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Yet the Saints decided they were better off releasing Bailey and putting their trust in cornerback Patrick Robinson, who missed most of last year hurt and particularly struggled in 2012.
All eyes will be on the defense to see if such high-profile decisions yield results.
Nonetheless, at the conclusion of a preseason that saw him record seven solo tackles, a quarterback sack and an interception to help the Saints win three of four exhibitions, Vaccaro welcomed the scrutiny awaiting in Week 1 and beyond.
Sitting at his locker, he described how he searches for his name on social media daily to see what people are saying about him. He hopes the time will come he’ll be playing so supremely he’ll log on and no one will be able to knock his on-field performances with any level of credibility.
A chance to inch ever closer to that goal arrives with preparations for Week 1 and the trip to Atlanta.
“I’m just working ’til one day, maybe somebody won’t ever say anything bad about me,” Vaccaro said. “I mean, that’s not going to happen, but I’m going to work like it’s going to happen ... (because) it’s about perfection and trying to reach that — (even) if you never will.”