Kenny Vaccaro and Young Saints Secondary On A Mission
Nine is a number that could characterize the New Orleans Saints defense both in 2015 and 2016 and through the first seven games of the resurgent 2017 campaign.
Those past two seasons, nine was not a number to the proud of, as it was the number of interceptions by the defense in each of those past two campaigns. This was tied for the fourth-lowest total in the National Football League in 2015 and fifth-lowest in 2016.
While there has been a glaring jump in areas such as total defense, pass defense and opponent points per game in contributing to the Black and Gold's 5-2 record and first place standing in the NFC South, nine is the number that should possibly stick out the most. Through the first seven games of the 2017 campaign, the Saints have already matched the nine interceptions totals of those past two full seasons, tied for fifth in the NFL with three other clubs. Even more impressive about that number nine is that the Saints didn't produce a pick until their third game of the season at Carolina.
Following every practice, whether in training camp or regular season, prior to heading to the locker room or to a conditioning workout, Saints S Kenny Vaccaro immediately makes his way to a JUGs machine which will be on the edge of the practice area where he will field 100-150 more footballs.
The time at the JUGS and attention to detail whether in practice during a turnover period, in meetings or in post-practice film study has produced results for Vaccaro as well as the entire defense. The fifth-year veteran, who was selected by New Orleans in the first round (15th overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft out of the University of Texas, Vaccaro has emerged as an elder statesman and leader for a secondary where the other four starters (S Vonn Bell, CBs Ken Crawley and Marshon Lattimore and S Marcus Williams) are all in their first or second seasons.
After New Orleans surrendered 65 points in their first two games and surrendered six touchdown passes, the defense has responded by giving up under 20 points in each of the next five contests, all victories. Vaccaro has been at the forefront of the turnaround with 38 tackles (29 solo), a split sack, three interceptions, seven passes defensed and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. The tackles and career-high interception totals led the team, while the pass defensed total is tied for the team lead and is also already a career-high. The four takeaways are already a career-high and the most by a Saint since CB Delvin Breaux's four in 2015.
And each of the four takeaways have been big ones.
In week three at Carolina with the Saints leading 27-13 early in the fourth quarter, Vaccaro first tipped a ball that ended up in the hand of Williams. On their next defensive possession, he picked off Cam Newton and returned the ball to the Panthers 35-yard line to set up field position for a touchdown drive.
In week six vs. Detroit, early in the first quarter, Vaccaro picked up a fumble in the end zone forced by his former Texas and current Saints teammate Alex Okafor for a touchdown that set the tone for the game. A fourth quarter pick with 4:35 remaining in the contest all but exhausted Detroit's comeback hopes.
In Week seven at Green Bay, holding a 26-17 lead, an interception with 4:20 left in the contest by Vaccaro allowed Drew Brees and the offense to get on the field and run their four minute offense and close the game out with four run plays, two first downs and three kneeldowns.
Prior to being forced to serve a suspension for the last four games of the 2016 season, this type of production was starting to be on the way with Vaccaro, having recorded three takaways in the four preceding contests. That makes for a total of seven takeaways in his last 11 games played.
"I'm just continuing what I've done since the middle of last season," said Vaccaro. I've been getting turnovers and a lot of it is honestly growing up in this league. I've learned to study film, which has allowed me to know what plays are coming much better and that helps a lot."
Even when Vaccaro hasn't gotten a turnover during this five-game winning streak, the big plays he has made game-to-game shows how 2017 has truly been a season of change for the Early, Texas native. In last Sunday's win over Chicago, Vaccaro filled up the stat sheet with nine tackles, a split sack and a broken up pass in the fourth quarter on a fourth down play to get the defense off the field in a 20-12 win.
"I thought he was very good," said Saints Head Coach Sean Payton. "He received a game ball. It was probably one of his better games. He was extremely active and he had a lot of production."
In fact, Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen gives credit to Vaccaro and two other veteran teammates, DE Cameron Jordan, who leads the team with five sacks and LB A.J. Klein, who is one stop behind Vaccaro at 37 for helping breed confidence in this young unit after the slow start.
"I think their play speaks for itself," said Allen. "Those three have been playing at a high level, setting the tempo. "They've accepted the challenge for what we want to do on defense and what we want to be known for as a team. Those guys have been instrumental in our ability to do that over the last five weeks. When those guys are producing for you, that's a great example for the young guys and everybody falls in place."
Despite these positives, rather than look at what a full season of production could be following the promising start, Vaccaro forgets about that. Rather, he goes back to the places that make it happen, the JUGS, the defensive team meeting room, the mentoring of young teammates in the secondary. Improvement is still needed, such as the occurrence of a few big run the last few weeks and struggles on third down. While maybe a perfect game is something you strive for and is next to impossible, excellence is attainable with the progress that has been made, especially during the quiet moments away from the glare of the public.
"For me, it has to be a couple years before you're known as doing anything on defense in my opinion," said Vaccaro. "We've had so many years where we've struggled, we're not ready to be crowned yet. We're improving every week, but we still have things every game. Dominant defenses give up plays, but they don't give up a lot of big plays. We have to clean those things up."