Saints’ Vaccaro Ready to “Lay the Smack Down” in 2016


Hard hits. Back at Brownwood High School in Texas, soon-to-be 4th year Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro developed a reputation for delivering them. In fact, in his first game as a starter his sophomore year at Brownwood, he knocked a receiver out of the game with a concussion that included breaking a piece off of a wide receiver’s helmet.

“My coach at Brownwood (Steve Freeman) kept it for recruiting,” Vaccaro told Chip Brown of back in a 2012 interview. “When coaches would come in and ask if this guy can be physical, he showed them the piece of cracked helmet.”

“Kenny is one of the top players I’ve ever coached, and maybe the best defensive player,” said Steve Freeman, Vaccaro’s old coach who is now the coach at nearby Breckenridge High School. “He had that rare ability to gather with impact and power at the same time. That’s something you don’t coach. Some of these guys are just born with. And when they deliver a blow, everyone knows it.”

Freeman talks almost in disbelief about the play Vaccaro made that cracked another kid’s helmet. “Kenny came up to force the play, and when he hit the kid, I thought I saw the kid’s mouthpiece fly out,” Freeman said.

“But I looked, and it wasn’t the kid’s mouthpiece, it was from the earhole down of the kid’s helmet. The hit just broke that part of the helmet clean off. Obviously, that’s a pretty good lick. I still have that piece of cracked helmet in my office.”

Asked why he would keep it, Freeman said, “Because I’ve never seen anything like that before or since.”

Vaccaro now brings that hard-hitting style and passionate play on Sundays in the NFL, and though he’s been forced to tone down his aggressiveness because of the new rules being enforced by the League for safety reasons and concussion prevention, he still brings that passion to every single game.

Oct 6, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) against the Chicago Bears during the second quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Vaccaro and his Saints teammates struggled as unit in 2015,but they’re focused on getting things turned around in 2016.

With apologies to former football player turned pro wrestler and now famous actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Kenny Vaccaro is ready to “lay the smack down” on opponents in 2016.

One of the biggest issues with the defense for New Orleans in the last two seasons has been the secondary, and outside of a play or two by new “lockdown” #1 CB Delvin Breaux, the unit gave up A LOT big plays in 2015.

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While the discover of Delvin Breaux was a major upgrade for the Saints secondary, the focus by many observers coming into 2015 was on other players and specifically Vaccaro — and his progress following his disappointing sophomore slump campaign of 2014.

The 2014 season was an anomaly in comparison to Vaccaro’s other two seasons with the Saints up to this point. In his first year in New Orleans, it looked as if the college star was transitioning extremely well with the Saints defense, with some amazing numbers put up in his rookie year of 2013.

It was clear that the Saints had found a brilliant young player at the strong safety position, as evidenced by Vaccaro’s numbers in that rookie season:

  • 14 games
  • 79 combined tackles
  • 62 solo
  • 8 passes defended
  • 1 interception
  • 1 sack

For only starting four games, this were amazing numbers for a young safety in a defensive secondary that featured veterans such as Roman Harper, Malcom Jenkins, Keeenan Lewis, and Jabari Greer. Collectively, the unit finished ranked #4 overall that season.

Although that Saints season came to a tough end on the road at Seattle (who went on to beat Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII), optimism was high in 2014 as many were picking the Saints as a Super Bowl contender that year.

But the bottom fell out.

Oct 19, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Lions defeated the Saints 24-23. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The unit regressed horribly in 2014, and with the departures of both veteran safeties Roman Harper and Malcom Jenkins and the season-ending injury to Jairus Byrd, it was Vaccaro who was forced to hold the secondary together practically by himself, but he wasn’t up to the task while essentially playing hurt for the majority of the 2014 season with a partially-torn hamstring.

Also, with Jenkins and Harper no longer with the team in 2014, Vaccaro’s role changed from a hybrid nickel cornerback/safety to more of a true strong safety. Instead of playing up close to the line of scrimmage, Vaccaro was moved into a deep safety position.

With the position change, it was as if he was learning everything all over again — and clearly it showed. According to Pro Football Focus, Vaccaro missed three tackles in all of 2013. In 2014? PFF says that Vaccaro had 18 missed tackles.

Sometimes, he missed them badly.

But without the knowledge that Vaccaro was playing out of position as well as playing hurt, fans assumed that Vaccaro was merely a “one hit wonder” as Vaccaro’s 2014 stats suggested:

  • 15 games
  • 74 combined tackles
  • 51 solo
  • 5 passes defended
  • 1 sack
  • 2 interceptions

Vaccaro also drew a handful of unnecessary roughness penalties at crucial times throughout that 2014 season; at times when the Saints defense had gotten a stop on 3rd down, which no doubt had Saints head coach Sean Payton’s emotions on a slow boil.

Eventually, that ended up (according to reports that turned out to be unfounded) allegedly with him in Payton’s dog house, amid reports by several national media organizations like ESPN and NFLNetwork, that he had been benched.

As it turns out, Vaccaro already knew that those types of reports would be coming; because he’d been called into Payton’s office that same day hours before the news hit the Internet.

What actually happened was that he and Payton “cleared the air”, with Payton telling him they were going to put him back in a position to succeed — and although the overall numbers put up by the Saints defense didn’t reflect it, Vaccaro played well in 2015.

  • Starting all 16 games
  • 104 combined
  • 71 solo
  • 3 sacks

Although the unit has much work to do in order to succeed in 2016, it would seem that the Saints defense is primed for a turnaround.

While some may be skeptical if that actually will be the case, we’ll see in the upcoming months if new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen — whose specialty is coaching the defensive secondary specifically — can get the most of this young core group of veteran players that includes the 25-year old Vaccaro.

Oct 6, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) against the Chicago Bears during the second quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Certainly there’s no cap on Vaccaro’s potential to continually grow and evolve as a player, and his overall body of work suggests that put in the right place at the right time with an opportunity to succeed, that Vaccaro will do just that.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even see Vaccaro be put into the conversation for some of the best safeties in the league like Cam Chancellor, and Eric Berry.

For now however, the focus remains on just trying to improve a unit that has finished ranked #31 out of 32 teams for two consecutive years. As both of this past season’s two Super Bowl participants Denver and Carolina proved yet again to the entire Pro Football world, it’s defense that still wins championships.

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Vaccaro and his defensive teammates will be looking to get on board with that philosophy, as they seek the opportunity to compete for one of those championships themselves hopefully sometime in the future.

And one thing you’d better believe is that Vaccaro will be a big part of it all, delivering those big hits within the confines of the League’s ever-changing rules of engagement, and doing it with a sense of passion as he always has.

Kenny Vaccaro is ready to “lay the smack down” in 2016.

Get ready……