Through the first four games of the 2014 Saints season many people including myself wondered out loud “who kidnapped the Saints defense from last year and replaced it with the record-breaking dismal unit of 2012?” Okay, maybe not that bad but you get the picture. The thing that kept sticking out to me (besides the defensive line play) was what happened to safety Kenny Vaccaro? Why all the missed tackles and why a tad late arriving to the ball? The word from training camp was that he was 100% healthy, of course we now know that wasn’t the case.
After last Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Bucs Vaccaro tipped his hand in what was really wrong, Vaccaro said “I know for me, I played way faster. This is the first game I actually felt healthy, honestly. I’ve been kind of beat up the first four games,” ….. “This game I was lights out, didn’t care. I kind of got back to my old self from last year.” You could see the difference Sunday, Vaccaro was everywhere.
The defense has taken a lot heat these first few weeks (rightfully so) and a lot of that can be attributed to a lack of consistent pass rush but teams have also ran the ball well against the Saints. Rob Ryan, due to the Jarius Byrd injury has moved Rafael Bush into his slot and made Kenny Vaccaro a more traditional strong safety. This is what Ryan had to say about the move “If there’s one guy that has had to play so many multiple positions … it’s been Kenny,” Ryan said. “(Sunday was) the first game that he got to be strong safety exclusively, and I think he excelled at that. … “I think he was coming downhill, hitting the running game really good and overall running the defense in the secondary. He did a nice job there. Obviously we expect big things going forward for him.”
With that in mind that’s why I decided to do this article, Playing Downhill: Kenny Vaccaro. What I did was pick four plays from the game that are somewhat different to show just how football fast Vaccaro was playing last Sunday.
First up the Saints have Vaccaro on the line bringing the heat, either through pass blitz or run stopping. Full back Jorvorskie Lane is supposed to pick up Vaccaro with his lead block for Doug Martin but Vaccaro is so quick coming off the line that Lane whiffs in his futile attempt at blocking him. Even though Vaccaro didn’t fully tackle Martin, he knocked him back enough for Cameron Jordan to finish him off (Jordan made a great inside move on that play also) The end result is a five yard loss.
Up next is where the Bucs try this funky looking personnel grouping, with three tight ends, one out wide and two in the slot with Vincent Jackson also out wide. Keenan Lewis like most of the game draws the Jackson coverage with Kenny Vaccaro shading deep on that side. Vaccaro quickly reads that TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the hot read when V-Jax peels off on an out route. This is a good example of playing downhill as Vaccaro zero’s in and delivers a crushing blow just as the ball arrived.
Next up is what a stud strong safety should be able to do, pre-snap Vaccaro is playing about 10, 11 yards from the line of scimmage. As soon Vaccaro reads run he has the speed to hit the gap, no disrespect to Roman Harper but he wouldn’t have come close to making this play. WR Vincent Jackson tries to get a piece of Vaccaro but he’s too quick so instead of Doug Martin hitting his hole he has to veer right and Vaccaro hit him at the line of scrimmage resulting in only a one yard gain.
Up next, even though Vaccaro didn’t make the tackle (the push in the back by V-Jax didn’t help) this next play demonstrates how much ground he can make up. With the Bucs facing 3rd and long QB Mike Glennon because of pressure has to dump it off to RB Bobby Rainey, Vaccaro’s closing speed and nose for the football is on full display here. Rafael Bush in a good play in his own right makes the tackle but Vaccaro was right there.
These four plays are just a small example of the outstanding game Vaccaro had, he really did look like his old self. This defense still has a long way to go to get close to the standard they built last year but the play of Vaccaro in this game is a start. One thing that Vaccaro always brought was a nastiness and attitude, even back in his rookie training camp he was making the veterans take notice with his non stop downhill style, this team has sorely missed that when he was playing himself to being healthy.
Vaccaro is 100% healthy now and it couldn’t come at a better time, he needs it, the fans need it and most of all the team needs it.