NFC South: Kenny Vaccaro

METAIRIE, La. -- Kenny Vaccaro finished his stellar rookie season on injured reserve after he fractured his ankle during a pileup in Week 16. The hard-hitting New Orleans Saints safety also suffered two concussions last year, one of which sidelined him for the following game.

But now that he's back fully healthy during OTAs, Vaccaro insisted Thursday that he doesn't plan to alter his aggressive style, which he admittedly described as "reckless."

"I'll probably do that the rest of my career. You can't really prevent it. What am I gonna do, not hit anymore?" Vaccaro said. "The way I play, a lot of guys are like that. I mean, I'm reckless. I like to bring the physical aspect to the game."

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
AP Photo/Bill Haber"You want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety," Kenny Vaccaro said. "And that's my goal."
Vaccaro said he is actually more deterred by the idea of avoiding fines for certain hits than avoiding injuries. And he also said he would pass up on a big hit if there was an opportunity for an interception instead.

"But I'm not gonna ever slow down just because I knock myself out," Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro specified that he doesn't feel as though he has been tackling a certain way that needs to be corrected. He pointed out that all three of his injuries last year were accidental -- a collision with teammate Keenan Lewis while tracking a ball in the air; colliding with the knee of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten; and getting rolled up in a pile on a run play.

However, Vaccaro did admit that he would try to play through a concussion if he felt he was able -- just as he tried to put his ankle back in place and walk on it last year before he realized he couldn't and signaled for the trainers.

"There's a lot of guys that get concussions during the game that don't say anything," Vaccaro said. "If you get knocked out, obviously it's gonna be visible on TV, but a lot of guys will get their bell rung and you won't even say anything. I'm sure there's a lot more concussions in the NFL that go on during the season than everybody knows about.

"The Dallas game when I hit Witten's knee, I was trying to walk and I was stumbling. That's the only reason I went off the field, because I couldn't walk. That's just the nature of the game, and I think when you sign your contract, you know what you're getting into."

Perhaps some of Vaccaro's approach is bravado. And perhaps some of it is indeed reckless, considering all of the increased awareness on the dangers of concussions that exists today.

Regardless, that kind of blunt talk is typical of Vaccaro, who has always been pretty unfiltered when talking about himself and his ambitions.

Vaccaro was the same way Thursday while talking about his desire to be the best safety in the NFL.

He doesn't plan on slowing down in that sense, either.

"Everybody thinks about it. I mean, guys are gonna lie and say that they don't look at that stuff. But you look at it, you want to be on ESPN, you want analysts to say you're the No. 1 safety. And that's my goal," Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro, who finished third in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting last year, has been lavished with praise. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called Vaccaro the best "overall" safety in the NFL last year because he could be used in so many different ways. And ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson described him as an "eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player."

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
AP Photo/Mike McCarnKenny Vaccaro fractured his ankle in Week 16 of his rookie year, but he's ready to rebound with an even better sophomore season.
But Vaccaro said he's still plenty motivated despite the early hype.

"I just feel like I always find something to drive me," said Vaccaro, who finished last year with 79 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one sack. "There's always something on ESPN. Or the top 100 [on NFL Network], I'm not on there, why should I be that confident? Pro Bowl, I wasn't on there. I didn't get Rookie of the Year.

"So until I'm 10 years in the game and I'm a Hall of Famer like Champ Bailey, I'll just keep playing like this."

Vaccaro, who played all over the field at safety, cornerback and linebacker at times last year, said Ryan plans to use him in just two or three spots this year instead of four or five.

That suits Vaccaro, who said he'd rather be great at one position than really good at a lot of positions. But Vaccaro said he does love the way Ryan has trusted him so much to heap so much on his plate -- including calling most of the signals for the secondary.

Vaccaro said he would love to take on the role of "quarterback" of the defense -- though he said that it's not exactly needed with so many veteran leaders in a secondary that now includes the likes of Bailey, Lewis and safety Jairus Byrd.

"I really didn't feel like a rookie at the end of last year," said Vaccaro, who said one of the worst things about his ankle injury was that it cut into the start of his offseason, as well.

"I was ready to get back to work and progress and to make that big sophomore leap that I wanted to make. Because I feel like that's the biggest year that you grow in the NFL, that's what a lot of people told me."

Vaccaro said he added about five pounds of muscle, bringing him up to around 222 pounds this offseason. He said he also made the most of his downtime by studying film of other top safeties.

One of them is Earl Thomas, a fellow former Texas Longhorn whom Vaccaro considers the best in the NFL -- for now. But Vaccaro said, "I want to be better than him. And he knows that, too, and we drive each other."

Another is new teammate Byrd, who was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills before the Saints made a big splash by signing him in free agency.

"Even Jairus, he's told me straight up when he first got here, ‘I want you to be better than me when I leave here,' and I think genuinely he meant that," Vaccaro said. "He genuinely told me, ‘When I leave here, I'm gonna give you all the tools to be the best safety in the NFL, because I know you can do it.' And that's my goal.

"I really truly believe he wants us to be the best tandem in the NFL."
Champ Bailey, Jairus ByrdGetty ImagesChamp Bailey, left, and Jairus Byrd further solidify an already talented Saints secondary.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' defensive backs stand out as a competitive bunch. So it should come as no surprise that they didn’t wait for organized team activities next week to find a way to start battling each other on the field.

Spearheaded by cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is from the west bank of New Orleans, the Saints’ DBs have been getting together this offseason for group workouts at local parks.

That group has included big-name newcomers Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd in a secondary that is now jam-packed with talent. But, as Bailey said, that won’t do the Saints any good if it doesn’t translate onto the field.

“It can look good on paper. I love our potential, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Bailey, a future Hall of Famer with 15 seasons and 12 Pro Bowls under his belt. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to find out how to work together and mesh and improve. Because that’s really what wins you games is playing together and being a great team.”

So far, though, Bailey said he likes what he has seen from his new teammates.

“A young group. Hungry. I haven’t met one guy that didn’t work hard or didn’t want to be great. So that spells some great things for us,” said Bailey, who said his belief in the Saints’ championship potential has been strengthened by his early impressions of his new teammates.

“Absolutely,” Bailey said. “Everybody carries themselves in a championship manner here. You know, I’ve been around some good teams. I was on a pretty good team last year [the Denver Broncos]. We came up short, and I just want another opportunity. And I think this is a great place for me.”

After spending the past 10 years with the Broncos, Bailey said it has been interesting to get to know a whole new group of guys and their personalities.

None has stood out more than Lewis -- again, not surprisingly.

Lewis himself admitted, “Those guys think I’m real funny because I talk a lot. But I just want everybody to feel comfortable in the locker room and, you know, as a family. And we’ve got one goal we’ve got to reach.”

Bailey laughed when he heard that and said, “He does [talk a lot]. He gets his share of words in. But it’s all good stuff. He’s a great, positive guy. He works harder than anybody on the team. So it’s great to be around a group of guys like that.”

Lewis is arguably the most competitive of the bunch, as he made clear last year when he didn’t hide his disappointment over being snubbed for his first Pro Bowl. This year, Lewis said he is aiming for his first All-Pro selection instead.

However, Lewis said he is keeping his goal of seven interceptions the same as last year, because he knows it will be tougher with interception-magnet Byrd now roaming the back of the secondary.

“I’m scared to have him back there. I hope he just don’t get in the way and take all the interceptions,” Lewis said. “That’s a ball-hawk type of guy, great to work with. I had the opportunity to play [against] him in college [when Lewis was at Oregon State and Byrd was at Oregon]. So I’m glad to have him as a teammate.”

Second-year cornerback Rod Sweeting -- who insists that he won’t step aside quietly in the competition with veteran corners like Lewis, Bailey, Corey White and Patrick Robinson -- said the offseason workout sessions have brought out the competitiveness in everyone.

“We have [18] DBs here, so we’re all just competing, having a good time, enjoying each other,” Sweeting said. “You know, when somebody does something better than the other, then the other one tries to match that.”

Lewis said he has been playing the role of quarterback in many of those sessions. “I’m another Drew Brees,” he joked.

But he said the main focus has been working on those interceptions. Last year, forcing turnovers was the one area where the Saints defense fell short, despite ranking No. 2 in the NFL in pass defense and No. 4 overall.

“We definitely got better,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve added the pieces that we missed, because I didn’t feel like we had no pieces missing. But we got some guys who can help. ... I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready, competing to be one of the best in the league.”

Vaccaro healing: Safety Kenny Vaccaro -- another ultracompetitor in the Saints secondary -- was unavailable to the media during teammate Ben Grubbs’ charity softball game Wednesday night, when the other defensive backs spoke. But it was worth noting that Vaccaro didn’t have any covering over the ankle that he fractured late last season.

It is unclear if Vaccaro will be limited during OTAs next week, but he is expected to be fully healthy in plenty of time for the season.
METAIRIE, La. -- Some of the most flattering scouting reports on new New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks came from his competition. Or perhaps it would be better to describe them as his victims.

Immediately after the Saints traded up to snag Cooks, Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro called it a “great pick” and tweeted:

“Almost blew out a hamstring trying to chase this cat @brandincooks down in the Alamo bowl”

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsOregon State's Brandin Cooks led all FBS receivers with 128 catches for 1,730 yards last season.
According to Saints coach Sean Payton, that kind of response was the norm when the Saints’ scouts and coaches polled other players who had gone up against the dynamic receiver while he was at Oregon State.

“When you talk to any of the coaches in that conference -- and our scouts, certainly our coaches when we go to workouts, have that interaction not just with Oregon State but with all the other schools in that conference -- his name keeps coming up as someone that’s a very good football player,” Payton said. “Anytime we are interviewing or visiting with a defensive back, it’s normal for us to ask him at the end of the interview 'Who are some of the better players you went against?' And vice versa, we would ask the receivers the same thing. It was pretty apparent that he was one of those guys.

“Coaches at the school, anyone who has seen him play and anyone who has been involved with his career there have been really positive.”

I mentioned this in my story Thursday night, but it bears repeating that the Saints did not bring in Cooks for a visit to their facility this year because they felt so good about everything they learned from him throughout the scouting process. From on-field reviews to the way people raved about his character and competitiveness off the field, to how impressed the Saints were by Cooks during their personal meeting at the scouting combine.

People always try to read into whether a team brings players in for a visit. But Cooks is an example of why a team might not bring in a player even if they clearly covet him. I remember defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis being a similar example in 2008, partly because then-Saints defensive line coach Ed Orgeron had recruited Ellis to USC.

“He was someone that was as clean and clear as to who he was, the type of player he was, and how he approached the game ... He was really impressive,” Payton said of Cooks, adding that the Saints were high on Cooks even before they met him at the combine.

“His grades came in well before that,” Payton said. “The first time we get to really meet a lot of these players is at the combine. The scouts, however, have spent a whole season really tracking and preparing reports. You do get those impressions, then, when you first meet him. He’s someone you guys will see the first time you have a chance to visit with him, is very impressive.

“He’s very competitive. He was a big part of what they did offensively and often drew safety help [in] coverage. His makeup and his skill set were things that the scouts had obviously seen in the beginning, and as we came to the combine become familiar with. And then you kind of take it from there. ...

“He’s the type of guy that I’m excited that our players will have the chance to meet, and I think he will fit in really well with our locker room.”

As long as he doesn’t blow out any hamstrings.
They say it takes three years to properly rate a draft class. But it’s clear that the New Orleans Saints are already sold on many of last year’s rookies.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro (first round), left tackle Terron Armstead (third round), nose tackle John Jenkins (third round), receiver Kenny Stills (fifth round), running back Khiry Robinson (undrafted) and center Tim Lelito (undrafted) are all expected to play major roles this season, among others.

In fact, the Saints’ high hopes for those players helped inspire a lot of the dramatic moves they made this offseason:
  • They traded away running back Darren Sproles, in part because they want to get Robinson more touches.
  • They released receiver Lance Moore, in part because Stills already supplanted him as a starter last season.
  • They didn’t re-sign left tackle Charles Brown or spend big on any other veteran left tackles because of their faith in Armstead.
  • They let center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency, in part because of their belief in Lelito’s potential.
  • They released safety Roman Harper and let safety Malcolm Jenkins get away in free agency, in part because of Vaccaro’s dynamic debut last year.
  • They worked out a significant pay cut with veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, in part because he’ll be in a timeshare with Jenkins.
  • And they let defensive end Tom Johnson leave as a restricted free agent, in part because of undrafted rookie Glenn Foster's impressive performance last year.

From top to bottom, it’s entirely possible that this could wind up being an all-time great draft class for the Saints -- though it’s still far too early to bring up any comparisons to 2006, 1986 or 1981.

Vaccaro has generated the most buzz so far. A versatile safety in coverage and run support, he played all over the field as a full-time starter last year and finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson described Vaccaro as a “eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player.”

Armstead could wind up being just as important if he can lock down the critical left tackle job. He showed promise last season after taking over the job in December and improving through each of his four starts.

Robinson might be the most fascinating of the bunch. The product of West Texas A&M exploded onto the scene during the playoffs last year. And Saints coach Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.

Stills and Jenkins look like long-time starters in the making. Lelito could have that same potential. And fellow sophomores like Foster, pass-rusher Rufus Johnson, cornerback Rod Sweeting, linebacker Kevin Reddick, tight end Josh Hill and quarterback Ryan Griffin could all wind up playing bigger roles down the road, as well.

The most important part of the Saints’ 2013 draft class is that it has allowed the Saints to spend big in other key areas -- like the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency.

I spoke with ESPN analyst Louis Riddick recently about whether the Saints have proved that teams can thrive by pushing the salary-cap envelope each year. And he said to make that work, it’s essential that teams keep finding “cheap, affordable labor that is playing at a high level.

As Riddick pointed out, that’s something the Saints have been great at in recent years. And it’s something teams like the Dallas Cowboys have not been able to do consistently.

“That's a testament to (general manager Mickey Loomis) and Sean and the rest of the scouts down there,” Riddick said.
One thing is for sure. Champ Bailey's new teammates with the New Orleans Saints are fired up about the arrival of the 12-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer.

Several of the Saints’ players expressed their excitement to play alongside one of the NFL’s all-time great defensive backs, via social media. Here’s a sampling:

.
A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
ByrdTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesThe Saints were aggressive early in free agency by striking a deal with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.
None other than Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas himself nailed it on Tuesday night when he tweeted the words, “Copy cat league ..#NFL”

Teams around the NFL spent big Tuesday on safeties who might be able to make the kind of impact that Thomas has made with the reigning Super Bowl champs. None more so than the New Orleans Saints, who agreed to a six-year deal with former Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd.

The deal is worth $9 million per year – a hefty price, indeed. But Byrd was rated by several media outlets as the No. 1 free agent available in the NFL, regardless of position.

Byrd has made three Pro Bowls in his five seasons with the Bills, racking up 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the move from both perspectives:

Triplett: So how much of a game-changer did the Saints get in Byrd?

Rodak: There’s potential for him to be one, Mike. Byrd’s absence early last season hurt the Bills. Their secondary stumbled its way through a Week 3 loss to the New York Jets, which wound up being one of Geno Smith’s best games of the season. He tossed two long touchdown passes, exposing a weakness at safety when Byrd was injured. Overall, opposing quarterbacks had a 46.0 QBR and a 7.19 yards per attempt when Byrd was out. When he came back, that dropped to a 30.1 QBR and a 6.18 yards per attempt. Had he played the full season, Byrd statistically projected to have seven interceptions, which would have been the second-best mark of his career.

Mike, how the heck did the Saints manage to fit Byrd under their cap? I think that’s what surprised Bills fans the most -- that a team with about $2 million in cap space at the start of this week managed to nab one of the top free agents on the market.

Triplett: Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? Especially when it comes to salary-cap management.

I was a little surprised that the Saints aimed THAT high. But I fully expected them to make one or two aggressive moves, like when they signed cornerback Keenan Lewis last year under similar cap constraints. The Saints are bona fide Super Bowl contenders as long as quarterback Drew Brees remains in his prime. And they’ve shown that they’re willing to keep pushing salary-cap costs into future years as long as they’re in this window (Byrd's deal only counts $3.5 million against the cap in 2014).

Of course, it has meant releasing a ton of beloved veterans this offseason, when the Saints feel like their values no longer match up with the price tag. But the Saints clearly figured that Byrd could make a bigger impact going forward.

So I’ll ask you the flip side, Mike. Why do you think the Bills let Byrd get away? Any reason to worry that he won’t continue at this pace for another four or five years?

Rodak: I think that the Bills had reached a point with Byrd where they felt like there wasn’t going to be much of a future. They had been negotiating with him for over a year and once they decided not to franchise him, the writing was on the wall for his departure. Why didn’t they franchise him? I think that’s a decision that can be debated for years. General manager Doug Whaley said that they wanted "more amicable" negotiations, but it never seemed like talks changed course in the final week before free agency. Ideally, I think the Bills would have liked to franchise and trade him, but Whaley admitted that was a difficult proposition.

As for Byrd’s future, there are two concerns: his speed and his feet. ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian gave Byrd a B-minus for his free-agent tracker, calling him a “speed-deficient safety.” As Byrd gets into the later years of his Saints deal, that could become a greater concern. There’s also plantar fasciitis, a chronic foot condition that kept Byrd out of the first five games last season. He’s said that’s something he dealt with even before last season, and it’s something to monitor going forward.

Mike, do you think the pairing of Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro is now the best safety tandem in the NFL?

Triplett: Maybe outside of Seattle, anyway. Vaccaro showed a lot of promise as a rookie last year, and I think this frees the Saints up even more to use him as an attacker all over the field while trusting Byrd to help from the back end. Throw in Lewis, whom I thought deserved to go to the Pro Bowl as a No. 1 cornerback last year, and it’s quite the secondary the Saints are putting together. Not a bad complement to the Saints’ offense, obviously.

Hopefully it winds up as a win-win, with the Bills spending wisely on their future. I don’t mind saying that having covered Doug Marrone here in New Orleans, he’s one of my absolute favorites in the league.
New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro finished third in the Associated Press’ voting for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Vaccaro received four of a possible 50 votes -- which made him a distant third behind New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (23 votes) and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso (19 votes). Still, that’s not too shabby for the 15th pick in the draft.

Vaccaro was a full-time starter beginning in Week 1, and he played a versatile role in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense -- a combination of coverage against slot receivers, coverage against tight ends, some deep safety, some linebacker and some blitzing. Many compared the way he was used to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use star Troy Polamalu.

Vaccaro finished the year with 79 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one sack before going down with a season-ending fractured ankle in Week 16.

Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu -- a former LSU standout and New Orleans product -- received two votes. Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei also received two votes.
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Just like it played out in the NFC South standings this season, it was a neck-and-neck battle for supremacy between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers when it came to ESPN.com’s All-NFC South team. Ultimately, the Panthers edged the Saints with 10 representatives, compared to New Orleans’ nine.

I don’t have many arguments with the list. The two Saints I would add are safety Kenny Vaccaro and guard Ben Grubbs, but I understand why it was a close call with both players. I think the safety position was the hardest to judge by far, with four candidates in a virtual deadlock for two spots (Vaccaro, Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell and Atlanta’s William Moore). The outside linebacker position was also ridiculously stacked, with the Saints’ Junior Galette missing out only because Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Carolina’s Thomas Davis were so sensational. Galette was easily a top-10 defensive player in the division, but he played the wrong position.

I was glad to see that Saints end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton received proper recognition for the Saints’ remarkable defensive performance this year -- especially since the defense overall was much more stacked than the offense in the NFC South this year (with a total of 12 players to account for various fronts).

I was pretty stunned at the lack of dominant skill-position players this season. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams was the division’s leading rusher with just 843 rushing yards. The Saints who made the list on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston, right tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans -- were all worthy selections. The same for punter Thomas Morstead.

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
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Three things to know about next Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles:

1. Road woes: The Saints (11-5) have to reverse a trend that has gotten uglier as the season has progressed. They finished 3-5 on the road, including three straight road losses in December (at Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina). There’s no great explanation for why the Saints have been such a different team away from home. They’ve struggled to score points and hit on deep passing plays. They’ve turned the ball over too often early in games. And they’ve had trouble stopping the run. All of those things are curable, in theory. But the Saints need to prove it on the field; they came close at Carolina in Week 16 but still managed only 13 points. Weather could be a factor, but early forecasts seem somewhat manageable (temperatures in the 20s or 30s, with no precipitation).

2. Eagles on fire: The opponent might even be scarier than the location. The Eagles (10-6) are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having won six of their last seven. Nick Foles has been a revelation since taking over as the starting quarterback, with 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. And Philadelphia has by far the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL, led by dangerous running back LeSean McCoy. The Saints will need their safeties to step up and be sure tacklers -- a bigger challenge now that rookie Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season. Increasing the degree of difficulty is the fact the Eagles are an unfamiliar foe for the Saints, led by rookie coach Chip Kelly and his unconventional offense.

3. Saints on fire: Of course, the Saints are no slouches themselves on offense. Although they’ve struggled to bring their show on the road, it’s still some of the most dazzling theater in the NFL at times. Drew Brees just threw for another 381 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday’s 42-17 win over Tampa Bay (three of the TDs for 40 yards or more). And he just wrapped his fourth 5,000-yard passing season, with 39 touchdowns to boot. That will put a scare into the Eagles’ defense, which ranks in the bottom five in the NFL. The Saints finished the season ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 4 on defense. Despite their low seeding, they have one of the highest ceilings of any playoff team.

Saints’ Rob Ryan recaps tough loss

December, 27, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. – Obviously New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan admitted that the last-minute 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers last week was a tough way to lose a game. But he said he didn’t have any regrets over the way the defense handled the final drive.

Ryan, who was recapping the game for the first time since he meets with the media on Fridays, said he had a couple regrets earlier in the game – especially the decision to go with a corner blitz on DeAngelo Williams’ 43-yard touchdown run in the first half. But on the final drive, Ryan credited Carolina quarterback Cam Newton as “a pretty good quarterback making a couple of pretty good plays in a tight window.”

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/Evan PinkusThe Saints' Rob Ryan will have to devise a way to succeed without injured star safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“That was tough, especially with so much on the line,” Ryan said. “That’s how it is in this league. It’s so close every week, and it’s so competitive, it’s a hard way to lose a game.”

It’s now happened to the Saints (10-5) twice this year, after they also gave up a touchdown pass in a last-second loss at New England in Week 6. But Ryan said it’s nothing he hasn’t experienced before.

“Absolutely. I think every coach has. If they say they haven't, they're obviously lying,” Ryan said. “You look first at yourself to improve, and then you look exactly at what happened and we've done that. We've addressed it numerous times. It's just such a hard thing to do because we were playing pretty well, and that's a pretty good quarterback making a couple of pretty good plays in a tight window.

“But the bottom line is it doesn't matter. We've got to get it done, and we don't want to make excuses for anything.”

The Saints actually suffered two big losses at Carolina. They also lost standout rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury in the first quarter.

Ryan has been gushing with praise over Vaccaro’s versatile ability all year long – calling him the “best safety in the league that does everything” earlier this month. And Ryan has certainly backed up that praise by using Vaccaro all over the field in deep coverage, in coverage against slot receivers, in run defense and as a blitzer.

Ryan said he believes the Saints can make up for his absence, though, just as they had to do after starting cornerback Jabari Greer was lost for the season last month or when safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper battled injuries.

“That's how it is,” Ryan said. “It's a tough loss, no question. Kenny's a hell of a football player. We've got real good players around him and have to step up. You have to break that job up. He was doing multiple jobs. You have to break it up. Give different guys different roles, and the bottom line is, whatever it is, we have to be great on Sunday, for sure.”

And speaking of players that Ryan has treasured during his career, Ryan addressed the recent retirement of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha -- one of his all-time great former players when they were together with the Oakland Raiders.

“Great player. Played a long time. Smart. Had a great career,” Ryan said. “It was a pleasure coaching him, I know that. He’s a great person as well as a great player. Shoot, now he can use those million-dollar looks to go into acting with his wife, I guess. He’s gotta have a hell of a (post-football) career because he’s smart and good looking.”
Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints signed cornerback Terrence Frederick off of the Cleveland Browns practice squad Wednesday and officially placed safety Kenny Vaccaro on season-ending injured reserve.

Frederick, 23, played in two games as a rookie last year with the New York Giants, making two tackles. He began his career as a seventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers out of Texas A&M last year. But he was released after the preseason and caught on with the Giants’ practice squad.

This year, he was released by the Giants after the preseason and added to Cleveland's practice squad.

Frederick (5-foot-10, 187 pounds) will add some depth to a secondary that has had a lot of moving parts recently. Over the past month, the Saints lost Vaccaro and starting cornerback Jabari Greer to season-ending injuries and released veteran backup Chris Carr. They have signed Frederick, second-year cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Eric Frampton (mainly to help on special teams).

Here’s the Saints’ depth chart in the secondary now:

Safety -- Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Rafael Bush, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Eric Frampton

Cornerback -- Keenan Lewis, Corey White, Rod Sweeting, Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick

Halftime Report: Panthers 7, Saints 6

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
2:57
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints dominated most of the action for 28 minutes. But then the Carolina Panthers hit them with a 1-2 punch to take a 7-6 lead at halftime. Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Disastrous turn: The Saints were doing a great job of avoiding their game-breaking mistakes on the road for the first 28 minutes. The defense was outstanding and the offense was patient. Then quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. And Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams busted loose for a 43-yard touchdown run on the very next play. Those are the two things the Saints said have been killing them most in their road losses this season. Brees’ interception was bad -- but not egregious. It was a third-down play, and Davis made a leaping grab for a sensational snag. The defensive breakdown on the next play was worse. Williams found a gaping hole up the middle after the Saints crashed down too hard.

Protection problems: Brees has been sacked five times already in this game -- including three against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead in his first career start. Armstead was clearly beat by defensive end Greg Hardy on two of the sacks. But Brees held onto the ball too long for at least two of them. And even when he has had time to throw today, he hasn’t been finding receivers open deep. The Panthers’ coverage has been excellent. Almost all of Brees’ successful throws have been underneath.

The good stuff: The Saints have done a lot of good things in the first half, especially on defense. They started with an interception by safety Malcolm Jenkins on a tipped ball inside the red zone on the first drive. Then came three straight three-and-outs and a four-and-out. … The Saints’ special teams have also been excellent, with a successful surprise onside kick converted from Thomas Morstead to Ramon Humber, new kicker Shayne Graham making both field goal attempts, and Morstead booming punts. … And Saints running back Mark Ingram busted loose for a beautiful 34-yard gain (the Saints haven’t run the ball much today).

Big injuries: The Saints and Panthers each lost a key player in the first half. Panthers receiver Steve Smith was ruled out with a knee injury. And Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro was carted off with a lower leg injury. Vaccaro was officially listed as doubtful to return, but FOX reported that he might have a broken ankle. That is a significant loss for the Saints -- considering they have counted on Vaccaro in such a versatile role this season. Although, one of the best things Vaccaro did in the first meeting against Carolina was his coverage against Smith, so let’s call it a wash.

Here comes the rain: The rain held off in the first half, but it could be a wet second half in Carolina.
METAIRIE, La. -- If New Orleans Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro had to choose, then yeah, it's fair to say his performance in last Sunday's 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers was probably his best of the season. It certainly got the most attention, since he made a handful of highlight plays on national television.

But Vaccaro said his previous best performance probably came six nights earlier. It just wasn't much to boast about since the Saints lost 34-7 to the Seattle Seahawks.

Regardless of who's been paying attention, this is clearly a positive trend for the Saints.

Although Vaccaro made his biggest play of the season in Week 1 -- tipping a pass away from Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone in the final seconds -- he's playing his best overall football in December.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsRookie Kenny Vaccaro has played his best two games of the season in his past two games.
"I think (the Carolina game) was my best game as far as coverage-wise and being physical. I think it was just a complete game for me. And it was one of those games where it was a prime-time game with two teams with the same record. So everything gets (magnified)," said the Saints' first-round draft pick from Texas, who has been a huge asset to the Saints as an every-down player this year because he does a little bit of everything in pass coverage, against the run and as a blitzer.

For what it's worth, I personally thought this past game was Vaccaro's best after reviewing the game tape. He made at least two big plays in coverage while lining up against dangerous Panthers receiver Steve Smith in the slot. He made two particularly good open-field tackles and finished with four "stops" according to Pro Football Focus -- meaning a solo tackle that resulted in an offensive failure. Vaccaro also helped force a punt with pressure on a third-down blitz.

Vaccaro, however, thought it was funny how much feedback he got from friends and fans about his pass coverage in the slot, since it's something he's been doing all year.

The difference in this game was that he was doing it against Smith -- and he was doing it on NBC's prime-time showcase.

"I mean, they highlighted the plays that I made. But I've been doing that stuff all year. I don't know why people made a big deal out of, ‘Oh, he was great in the slot.' I've been covering the slot the whole year," said Vaccaro, who said he had similar matchup against receivers like Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the year -- as well as underrated slot receivers like Seattle's Doug Baldwin.

And Vaccaro was right about his performance at Seattle being one of his best. He had a season-high 10 tackles, a season-high five stops according to PFF. He also had a forced fumble against Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch in the first quarter that was recovered by the Seahawks.

Vaccaro's previous season high of nine tackles came one week earlier at Atlanta.

The 6-foot, 214-pounder now has 71 tackles, six pass defenses, one interception and one forced fumble on the year.

"I think number one, for a good safety, generally they play the run and the pass very well," Saints coach Sean Payton said, when asked about Vaccaro's development Thursday. "In college, he played a lot of nickel, but I think he's having an outstanding rookie season. I think he is comfortable when he is playing man-to-man. I think he is comfortable supporting a run. He is physical. He is a strong tackler, so there is not a lot of leaky yardage. But being able to do both is important. I think he has done that."

Vaccaro understands why some performances get highlighted more than others.

When Vaccaro became the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, Payton stressed how impressed the Saints had been by watching Vaccaro match up last year against West Virgina receiver Tavon Austin -- arguably the most dynamic playmaker in all of college football.

Vaccaro might get another shot at Austin this Sunday when the Saints play the St. Louis Rams. But Austin's status is uncertain because of an ankle injury.

Austin's production has been up and down this season. But he has hit on several big plays -- including a 56-yard run last week, a 65-yard touchdown run three weeks ago, and a three-touchdown performance against Indianapolis last month (a 98-yard punt return and catches of 81 and 57 yards).

"They use him a number of ways, trying to get him the ball," Vaccaro said. "And he's a dynamic player, a guy we'll be watching out for, a guy you've got to respect."

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