New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro's season has been shortened for the second consecutive year.
The five-year veteran was placed on injured reserve this week, having battled a groin injury since Nov. 5. In his 12 games this season, Vaccaro posted a career-high three interceptions, seven passes defensed, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, 1.5 sacks and 60 tackles.
"He's a starter on defense and a real good force player, a good tackler, a guy who's around the ball," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Friday. "Obviously, we've got other safeties and those guys will have to be ready. The sum total of the snaps missed will be made up amongst a group of players."
Vaccaro's 2016 season also ended prematurely; he missed the final four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances. Vaccaro said the suspension was a result of him using Adderall, which is banned by the NFL without having a proper prescription.
Cornerback Sterling Moore was signed to take Vaccaro's roster spot.
POSTSEASON FEEL: Payton said that the stakes already have been high enough for the Saints (10-4) this season for him to get a familiar feeling as the year has progressed. Sunday's game against Atlanta (9-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome only raises the awareness, as the Saints look to maintain their hold on first place in the NFC South Division and earn the home playoff game that goes along with winning the division title. "I think the playoffs have started, really," Payton said. "I say that, and you guys tell me how they haven't. But this is that type of game."
PICKING POCKETS: The Saints enter Sunday's game with 16 interceptions, their highest total since picking off 26 passes in 2009. In each of the previous two seasons, New Orleans totaled nine interceptions.
"I believe it goes hand in hand," Payton said. "If you're getting pressure and affecting the quarterback, your chances go up. If you're not, then it becomes harder to cover.
"There's a balance there – a defensive secondary benefits from a good rush, and I think the rush benefits from tight coverage, if (the quarterback is) holding the ball. One of the things I think Atlanta does well, they give you a lot of man-to-man snaps and the separation doesn't happen right away and you're holding the ball for maybe a tick longer, and it becomes harder to block."
The Saints appear to have benefited from an infusion of play-makers from the last two seasons. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore leads the team with four interceptions, rookie safety Marcus Williams has two and a couple of second-year players, cornerback Ken Crawley and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, have one each.
"It's probably a combination of both," Payton said. "Part of it is energy and hustle to the ball. We spend a lot of time on trying to take the ball away and so, how do you do that? How does the quarterback carry the ball, how do the running backs carry the ball, how do you create fumbles?
"I think our league, in the last 10 years, has really shifted. Fifteen, 20 years ago you were tackling and now, there's just so much more that goes into ball security that's changed in a short amount of time."