Jamarca Sanford ready to step into starting role if needed _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Saints inside linebacker David Hawthorne (57), strong safety Jamarca Sanford (38) and defensive back A.J. Davis (20) tackle Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart as coach Sean Payton looks on during the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game.

Backup Saints safety Jamarca Sanford won’t say whether the shuffling around his team has done in its defensive backfield could result in him starting against the Bears in Chicago on Monday night. Nonetheless, if that happens (and there’s a fairly good chance it could), the six-year NFL veteran can guarantee this: he won’t be out there trying to play hero merely because he’s in a starting role.

Simply replicating what he does in practice and carrying out whatever the coaching staff assigns him to do would suit him well enough.

“Really (it’s about) doing what you’ve been coached to do, what you’ve been doing all week in practice,” Sanford said Saturday. “Don’t try to go out and ... be the savior. Just do what the coaches ask you to do, and you’ll be ... fine.”

Sanford met with reporters after the Saints (5-8) spent the week at least testing out drastic changes to their secondary. For example, cornerback Terrence Frederick — who had been on the Saints’ practice squad the whole season before being promoted to the 53-man roster on Nov. 18 — said he’s been working with the first-team defense in preparation for the Bears (5-8) despite not yet being active for a game. That suggests the possibility Frederick would start opposite entrenched No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis.

Meanwhile, there were indications the Saints were repurposing second-year player Kenny Vaccaro, who’s been starting at strong safety this year.

The Saints denied reports from earlier in the week that Vaccaro would be benched in the wake of a 31-point defeat at home to the Carolina Panthers. But Vaccaro acknowledged having a one-on-one meeting with coach Sean Payton, and it could be New Orleans is tasking the young safety with covering players lining up as slot receivers, a duty he handled impressively as a rookie in 2013. If something along those lines occurs with Vaccaro, the Saints would have a vacancy at strong safety on their first-string defense. And that’s where Sanford could fit in.

Listed as Vaccaro’s backup on the Saints’ unofficial depth chart, Sanford started 41 regular-season games for the Minnesota Vikings from 2011-13, intercepting two passes and breaking up 11 throws. He also forced seven fumbles as a starter, and he’s recovered five of those in his career.

Sanford participated in two Vikings playoff appearances. In 2012, his team was ousted in the wild card round, but as a rookie three seasons earlier, Sanford formed part of a Minnesota squad that made it to the NFC Championship Game. He played a few snaps of defense in that game, which the Vikings coincidentally lost in New Orleans to the Saints, who won their lone Super Bowl title two weeks later.

This year, Sanford was a free agent when Vinnie Sunseri fractured an arm in a Nov. 9 home loss to San Francisco. The injury sidelined Sunseri, who was both a reserve strong safety and a contributor on special teams. for the rest of the season.

The Saints quickly signed Sanford to replace Sunseri. In four contests, he’s played 90 snaps of special teams and recorded one tackle in that phase of the game. He’s also logged nine snaps of defense.

Now, the Saints may turn to him for their final three regular-season games this year, which, if they win, would send them to the playoffs without relying on tiebreakers. And they have no problem with that.

“When you have someone that has played (as long as Sanford has), ... that can really help the back end if all of a sudden (that) player is in there,” Payton said. “That experience (Sanford has in high-stakes games) can bring a lot to the secondary.”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan added that the Saints have not had Sanford learn the entire playbook, but what he’s been given, he’s gotten in practice.

“He’s picked (it) up ... right away,” Ryan said. “He’s a smart guy.”

Sanford concurred that things during team drills have naturally slowed down since he first arrived. That’s a product of mastering the defense’s terminology and attending countless team meetings.

“It was a different defense (in Minnesota), but there’s only so much you can do in this league,” Sanford said.

A national audience tuned in to the upcoming edition of ‘Monday Night Football’ may discover whether Sanford has had enough time to adequately gear up for a starting gig. However, for what it’s worth, Sanford isn’t daunted at that thought because he’s been in games where seasons hang in the balance before.

“I know I can play in this (atmosphere),” Sanford said. “I’m comfortable with it.”

If he shows that to be true, though it may not be his primary objective, Sanford may prove to be a hero anyway.