Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said earlier this week that there have been times this season when the defense felt like a pack of dogs on chains.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heard their cries and simplified things, allowing the players to play.
But for Vaccaro, Sunday’s 37-31 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the first time he was allowed to play strong safety and only strong safety.
Vaccaro wasn’t asked to cover the slot, play deep, or do any of the other things he’s normally asked to do. Instead, he was dropped in the box and asked to make plays.
He responded like a dog that has been chained up too long.
During the first five plays he twice blew up Tampa Bay tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, causing incompletions, and then snuck into the backfield to stuff a Doug Martin run.
Vaccaro was just getting started. By the end of the game, he held Martin to runs of minus-5, 0, 1, 2, and 3 yards.
This is the Vaccaro that people have been waiting to see. He said Monday that this was the first game that his ankle, which he broke late last season, did not bother him. But the fact that he was finally set free and given a simplified role also helped.
It’s interesting to wonder if Vaccaro would have been used in the same way if Jairus Byrd were on the field or if this was a last-minute scheme change. But whatever the reason, the Saints should take notice and find ways to let Vaccaro do what he does best.
Here’s how the Saints grade out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
QUARTERBACKS: 1.5 out of 4
Drew Brees needs to learn that it is OK to take a sack now and then. The Saints quarterback threw two interceptions Sunday that were purely the result of his poor decisions. On the first, he was wrapped up by Gerald McCoy and attempted to shovel the ball to one of his receivers. It was easily picked off. The same thing happened later in the game when Brees ran into the leg of Terron Armstead and attempted to throw the ball as he fell to the turf. The most baffling aspect of his performance was that Brees again attempted to throw the ball away in a similar fashion after McCoy wrapped him up in the fourth quarter. Luckily, that one fell incomplete.
-- Many have speculated in recent weeks that Brees is losing arm strength. Sunday’s game did little to change the narrative as the quarterback underthrew three deep passes. However, on the first one, an attempt to Robert Meachem, Brees was not afforded the space to step into his throw. What’s more concerning is that he did not notice Marques Colston was uncovered on the play. While there were some underthrown passes, it seems premature to worry about Brees’ arm, as he remains elite in all areas of the field within 30 yards. Just look at the seam pass he threw to Marques Colston with 11:11 remaining in the first quarter.
RUNNING BACKS: 3.5 out of 4
There’s a lot to look at when evaluating Khiry Robinson’s performance, but one of his better runs, which demonstrates the growth he’s made this season, will likely go unnoticed by the masses. With 11:46 remaining in the first quarter, Robinson took the handoff and began to head to the left side of the field. Noticing that McCoy had beat Jahri Evans and was about to grab him from behind, Robinson stepped back inside and cut up the middle of the field. There, he beat safety Mark Barron for a few more yards. A play that should have gone for a loss ended up gaining 4 yards. That’s the vision and instincts that coaches have often brought up when discussing Robinson this season.
-- On a day when the receivers weren’t moving the ball much, the running backs stepped up time and again. Pierre Thomas ran incredibly hard and revitalized a screen-passing game that had been extinct. Really, in the early moments, Thomas was the only player showing up in critical moments. The decision to throw a screen to him with 10:23 remaining in the second quarter that turned into a 17-yard touchdown when the Bucs blitzed six was the perfect call.
RECEIVERS: 1.5 out of 4
There were not many notable moments for the receivers after Jimmy Graham was knocked out of action late in the first quarter. The Bucs tightened up, took away the middle of the field, and Brees was forced to go to his running backs and tight ends for completions.
-- Colston might have been given a gift when the officials ruled he dropped the ball on the final drive of the fourth quarter. It was close enough that it should have been reviewed. It should also be noted that there were times the Bucs covered Colston with a linebacker, like on the aforementioned seam pass in the first quarter.
-- It was good to see the coaching staff get creative with Brandin Cooks. The fake reverse that turned into a screen pass late in the third quarter was an effective play. However, running similar reverses twice thereafter was not the best decision. New Orleans needs to continue to find ways to get Cooks the ball in space.
-- Josh Hill and Ben Watson really stepped up after Graham was injured. Hill had a really nice reception over linebacker Danny Lansanah in the second quarter.
-- One has to wonder what Joe Morgan and Nick Toon are doing in practice. Both players are inactive every week for a receiver crew that isn’t exactly lighting it up.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 2 out of 4
Evans was quickly reminded of what McCoy can do on a football field. The Bucs defensive tackle recorded 12 pressures and played a part in a handful of run stuffs. Of those pressures, Evans was responsible for at least half. He redeemed himself planting a nice downfield block on Robinson’s winning run, but it certainly was not his finest performance.
-- Zach Strief wasn’t much better against McCoy, as he was responsible for the bulk of McCoy’s other pressures.
-- Jonathan Goodwin suffered a knee injury blocking down the field on Thomas’ second-quarter touchdown. He came back in for one play and exited the game. His replacement, Tim Lelito, struggled in his place, particularly in the run game.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 2 out of 4
Junior Galette received the glory for dropping Mike Glennon for a safety in the third quarter, but Cam Jordan deserves some credit for the result. On the play, Galette lined up as a linebacker on the outside of Jordan, who consumed two blockers, freeing a lane for Galette to stunt into behind him.
-- The Saints generated a good amount of pressure this week, which often forced Glennon to speed up and make mistakes, but a better quarterback likely would not have let the pressure impact his play to the same degree. Still, things are trending in the right direction.
-- John Jenkins, who was making his debut, did his job Sunday. He was strong in run defense and pushed the pocket a few times.
-- Jordan had a handful of run stuffs but wasn’t much of a factor in the pass rush, recording only one pressure.
LINEBACKERS: 1.5 out of 4
Not the best performance for the linebackers. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne showed up with some run stuffs, but undermined their performances with missed tackles. Parys Haralson was the best of the bunch, playing well throughout his 35 snaps.
SECONDARY: 2.5 out of 4
Not a great day for all members the secondary. Corey White was some how beaten by a good three steps on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy after first being flagged for holding earlier in the route. White later missed a tackle on a Vincent Jackson reception that turned a short gain into one of 23 yards. But giving credit where credit is due, White did have a pair of pass breakups.
-- Rafael Bush played well in place of Jairus Byrd, but was part of two breakdowns. On the first play, he bit hard as Glennon rolled out to the left, which allowed Jackson to get behind him for a gain of 34. Later in the same drive, he allowed Robert Herron to pass through his zone for an easy 9-yard touchdown.
-- Keenan Lewis did a solid job on Jackson. He gave up a few easy receptions, which were the result of giving the receiver too much cushion, but was otherwise solid.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 2.5 out of 4
Shayne Graham connected on all three of his field goals, with a long of 44 yards. Thomas Morstead was mixed on his two punts. The first one traveled 60 yards and hung for 4.91 seconds. He appeared to miss on the second one, hanging it for 3.34 seconds over 37 yards.