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Kenny Vaccaro, Saints' secondary respond to shakeup

12/16/2014

CHICAGO -- Technically, Kenny Vaccaro did wind up getting demoted. But it was both a motivational and tactical move by New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. He returned Vaccaro to the role where he thrived last season, covering the slot in nickel packages.

Vaccaro still played 70 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps in Monday night's 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears. And he even played on all four special teams for the first time in his career -- helping to stuff a fake-punt attempt while in a role that he said was just assigned to him during pregame.

"A lot of people are gonna go in the tank, get mad. I wasn't mad," said Vaccaro, who described a meeting with Payton earlier in the week as both being "put on red alert" and career-changing. "I'm a team player, whatever my coach wants me to do, that's what I'm gonna do."

It didn't hurt that Vaccaro's "punishment" was also sort of a reward. He said it was easy for him to slide back into the role he played both last season and throughout his college career.

"My favorite thing to do is, 'You guard him, lock him down.' Or, 'You shoot that gap,'" Vaccaro said. "That's what I'm really good at. You tell me to lock somebody down, they ain't catching the ball. ...

"It was easy for me to plug back in, but that comes with repetition. And it'll be same way with safety ... when it all clicks. This is a year I grew a lot, this'll probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally-wise."

Vaccaro was admittedly making too many assignment errors in his first season as a true strong safety -- including two very costly ones in last week's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. He said he was reacting before thinking and needs to learn patience.

Payton ultimately decided Vaccaro was hurting the team too much in that role. But he still believed Vaccaro could be an asset if he played him to his strengths.

"His preparation was outstanding," Payton said. "He played about three different spots tonight (temporarily going back to his old spot when replacement Jamarca Sanford was injured). He was outstanding."

Vaccaro wasn't the only one who bounced back in impressive fashion as the Saints shuffled up their embattled secondary. Sanford and cornerback Terrence Frederick made their starting debuts, while cornerback Patrick Robinson moved to dime packages and Corey White was inactive.

The Saints' top cornerback Keenan Lewis was stingy as usual, coming up with some big-time pass break-ups against dangerous receiver Alshon Jeffery.

And the Saints picked off a season-high three passes against an extremely off-target Bears quarterback Jay Cutler -- one by Robinson on a tipped ball during the opening series and two by rookie safety Pierre Warren.

Warren, an undrafted rookie who re-signed with the Saints last month off the Minnesota Vikings practice squad, practically feels like a veteran already after filling the free safety spot that was vacated by season-ending injuries to Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush.

"It feels good because they brought me in to make turnovers, so doing that, doing my job, I just gotta keep going," said Warren, who explained that his first pick came in prevent mode in the final seconds of the first half and his second came from a tip by Lewis.

"No. 28, 'Westbank,'" Warren said, using Lewis' nickname, "he had helped me out on that one. He had figured something out, so he told me to get over the top of him, and I was in the right place."