Safety first, last and everywhere in between.
That’s how it was for the New Orleans Saints in the season opener against the Falcons, a 23-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that was highlighted by New Orleans’ defense in general and, perhaps, its safeties in particular.
And that’s exactly what the Saints were hoping for after last season, when the defense roundly was criticized after allowing a record-breaking 7,042 yards. Harper and Jenkins were at the forefront of much of the blame; Vaccaro, the Saints’ first-round pick this year, was brought in to help as a defender who equally was effective in coverage and run support.
“I just continue to do me,” Harper said. “I don’t worry about that other thing and I know that when the season rolls around, I’m going to go out there and do my thing.”
Indeed, he did that and more against Atlanta.
Harper recovered a fumble and returned it 19 yards, to the Falcons’ 31-yard line, to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown. And he intercepted a pass in the end zone, with Atlanta knocking on the door at fourth-and-goal from the Saints’ 3-yard line, with 43 seconds left to seal the victory.
Both times, he was set up by his teammates. Jenkins caused the fumble that Harper recovered by chasing down Falcons receiver Julio Jones from behind and stripping out the football, and Vaccaro initiated the interception by deflecting a pass that was intended for Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Jenkins finished with a team-leading six tackles and the forced fumble. Vaccaro had five tackles and the pass defensed. And Harper added three tackles, a pass defensed and the two turnovers.
“I think (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan just wants to utilize his players the best and one of our best packages is keeping me, Malcolm and Roman on the field,” Vaccaro said. “So we’re going to use all of us.”
“It’s just more play-makers out there, the ability to do a couple more different things and get some different looks,” Harper said. “At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about, trying to play your best personnel, and the coaches made that decision and that’s what we’re doing.”
That much became evident in training camp, as Vaccaro set the tone early by working his way into the rotation as the Saints’ nickel back. He started the season opener in that position, as the Saints opened with five defensive backs, three linebackers and three defensive linemen.
Vaccaro spent much of training camp hitting any offensive player who dared come into his area – team or individual drills didn’t matter – and veteran defenders lauded his unwillingness to pull back.
That aggression cost him early against Atlanta; he was penalized for unnecessary roughness on Atlanta’s third possession. Otherwise, he harnessed it well.
“All throughout training camp they helped me adjust to the NFL,” Vaccaro said. “I didn’t see that many slot sets (in college at Texas). I came from the Big 12 (Conference), where it’s spread wide open so I had to kind of change the way I play a little bit.”
The change absolutely was agreeable against Atlanta. So were the contributions of Harper and Jenkins, the veteran holdovers.
Clearly, the goal was to put the best 11 defenders on the field. Clearly, Saints coaches have confidence that that includes a three-safety look.