Looking back: New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan clearly loves to use his safeties as versatile weapons. Both veteran Malcolm Jenkins and rookie Kenny Vaccaro have made big plays this year in coverage and as blitzers. Jenkins has been revitalized by the more versatile, attacking schemes after struggling last year in more zone coverage. He has 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, two pass break-ups and 29 tackles this year. He hasn’t allowed a touchdown, but his seven missed tackles are tied for eighth in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Vaccaro has made some big plays himself, starting with a game-saving pass break-up in the end zone in Week 1 against Atlanta. He has played almost every snap this year while Ryan moves him around constantly (deep safety, slot coverage, linebacker, blitzer, even edge corner at times). He has made a few mental errors, but he has made more big plays than he has allowed with one sack, one interception, three pass break-ups, 33 tackles, one touchdown allowed and one missed tackle (by PFF’s count).
Ryan likes to use three safeties most of the time. Rafael Bush has been solid as the third safety this year, though he’ll probably cede snaps to veteran Roman Harper when Harper returns from a knee injury.
Looking forward: There’s no reason to expect a drop-off. In fact, the safety play should only get better as Vaccaro continues to develop and Harper gets healthy. Ryan’s defense is also a much better fit for Harper’s skill set as a standout blitzer and solid run defender. And longtime readers of mine know that I’ve always felt Jenkins has great playmaking ability – just too much inconsistency. He seems to be playing with a lot of confidence this year, which is helping him make more good plays than bad.
Snaps played (out of a possible 375): Jenkins 369, Vaccaro 369, Bush 243, Harper 90, Isa Abdul-Quddus 14.
ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “The defense suits them better [than last year]. These guys want to attack. I think Jenkins is much better near the line of scrimmage. I mean, he’s certainly not a Roman Harper-type pure strong safety. But he’s a really good blitzer, and he plays the run really well. He’s versatile. They’re using him in a lot of ways, and I think he’s excelling. And I think he’s really stepped his game up huge. Vaccaro, I think will be a star. I don’t think he’s Troy Polamalu, but I think he’s gonna be used that way where you can line him up at linebacker, in the slot, the deep middle, the deep half. He’ll do everything. He’s still a little bit of a work in progress, but I think he’ll be a star.”