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Saints program cover story: Kenny Vaccaro

Saints safety has been big-time play-maker this season

Life as an NFL player is exponentially easier when you have a bounce in your step instead of a hitch in your giddy-up.

Take New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, for example.

Last year, his second as a Saint, barely resembled his first, when he was among the top players in his rookie class and introduced himself as one of the most ferocious safeties in the league, the initial debut coming against teammates who felt the full measure of his wrath and physicality during minicamp, training camp and any other activity in which defenders were given even the slightest chance to level someone.

Statistically, he had more tackles (113, up from 93) and interceptions (two, up from one), and almost as many passes defensed (five, compared to six in 2013).

But it wasn't the same Vaccaro, and it started with the broken ankle that ended his rookie year at 14 games, required surgery, stunted his growth and proved to be the beginning of a trying, injury-pocked 2014.

"First off, the ankle injury that I suffered in the last game of my rookie year is a year-and-a-half injury," he said. "I came back in four months. That bothered me a little bit throughout the year.

"Then, I had a Grade-2 hamstring tear in the first series, on the first drive against Atlanta in Week 1. In the middle of the season, I hurt my quad. It didn't show up on the injury report but it showed up in my play. I hold myself accountable for that. I have to be better through injury, I guess."

Vaccaro managed to start 14 of his 15 games last year, and was part of a defense that slipped from No. 4 in yards allowed per game in '13, to No. 31 in '14.

"It is frustrating, but at the same time when you are out there, you have to hold yourself accountable for anything that you do," he said. "I am one of those guys that it's going to be hard to sit me on the bench.

"I am going to play through any type of injury so I can be on the field. I am not one to sit. Unfortunately, that came with some bad play at times last year."

Well, Vaccaro is healthy this year, and it's easy to see.

Back are the mouthpiece-dislodging hits, the jack-of-all trades usage, the blanket coverage and the general disruptiveness that made Vaccaro a fan and locker-room favorite.

"Like I have said all along, I think I am a healthier player," he said. "I think (senior defensive assistant) Dennis Allen has showed me a lot, and my position coach Crime Dog (Wesley McGriff). Overall for me, it is how I have been taking care of my body this year."

He's taking care of his body off the field, and taking care of business on it.

Vaccaro is the Saints' second-leading tackler this season, with 49 entering Sunday's game against Tennessee in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He also has a sack and three passes defensed.

More, though, he has back the bounce and swagger that made him the kind of player opposing receivers weren't all that eager to see lurking in the vicinity.

"This year, I have kind of been all over the place," Vaccaro said. "I have been used in blitzes, I have covered guys (and) I have been in the box. I like having a variety of roles.

"I just want to be able to make plays. If I am around the ball early, I can dominate a game. That is the best fit for me, just wherever the ball is at, try to get me to it."

He has been aided by a simplified defensive scheme that the Saints installed during the offseason.

"We're a lot less complex, and you see him playing with clear vision and assignment intact, with less indecision," Coach Sean Payton said. "I think he's dynamic that way, when he knows exactly what to do and there's not a lot of variations, and I think that has helped him as well."

Perhaps, less indecision has allowed Vaccaro to inject even more force into his game.

When he came to the Saints, as their first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in 2013, Vaccaro immediately set a tone. He was a hammer and anyone on the other side of the ball, a nail. There were no accidental love taps; he hit with purpose, whether drills were non-contact, thud or all-out contact.

His teammates on offense rolled eyes and flared up at the aggressive pup, his defensive teammates patted him on the back and followed his lead, and Vaccaro kept doing what he was doing because it's what he always had done.

"I was born like that," he said. "From preschool to intermediate, whether it was dodgeball, kickball or anything, I have been that way my whole life."

That makes it fairly simple to guess who some of his football role models have been.

"All of the great safeties (such as) Ronnie Lott, Troy Polamalu (and) Ed Reed," he said. "I watch Sean Taylor's highlight film over and over. (But) really, though, Earl Thomas.

"When I was a freshman in college, it was (Thomas') last year at Texas, that was his All-American year and was the year that he got drafted in the first round by the (Seattle) Seahawks. He kind of raised the bar and set the standard for how a safety should play, to me."

Vaccaro continues to reach for that bar. It's a much easier leap when he's fully healthy, able to be used in the myriad ways his talents allow.

"You guys were talking about me and (rookie defensive back Damian) Swann earlier, before he got his concussion, how we switched around (in the secondary)," he said. "That is the same thing as my rookie year. To be honest, it hasn't changed as much. (I'm) playing a little bit less nickel and more strong safety, but if you watch the tape, you can find me in a number of spots.

"I don't mind. Wherever the coaches want me and I could help the team, and puts me in position to make more plays, I am willing to do that, obviously."

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