METAIRIE, La. — Kenny Vaccaro sat upright on the ground at Bank of America Stadium this past Sunday, watching as athletic trainers tended to his lower left leg.
Eventually, they picked him up and placed him gently on a cart to be wheeled off the field. Only then did he show emotion, banging the surface of the vehicle repeatedly, an air brace supporting what turned out to be a broken left fibula.
Vaccaro joined cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer as having their years finished early because of an unfortunate break or tear of a ligament.
And once again, the Saints have to figure out a way to cover for a defensive back lost for the season due to injury.
The loss comes at a key time for New Orleans (10-5), which can assure itself of at least one postseason game with a win Sunday against Tampa Bay (4-11) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It’s the only sure-fire scenario that gets the Saints in the playoffs.
“Losing a player like Kenny (Vaccaro) is tough because he had really established himself,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Not only is he an instinctive player, but he’s very physical, good tackler for us. But the next guy will step up.”
That next guy, a common refrain from a unit that has had to now replace five defensive starters, could be Rafael Bush. Or it could be Roman Harper. Or it could be Isa Abdul-Quddus.
All three have played this season, a benefit for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who won’t have to choose among players unused to his system of extensive sub packages and exotic looks.
“I think it gives us confidence in everybody because they’ve put it on tape and we know they can handle it,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “They know the game plan. They know the positions. And we know we can move people around and still have the same versatility without having a drop-off.”
Heading into Week 17 and the season’s most important game for New Orleans, Ryan has covered the injuries well. The team ranks second in passing yards given up per game (192.7) and seventh in passing yards per attempt (6.2).
Only three teams have allowed fewer yards this season than New Orleans and only four teams have given up fewer points.
Harper was inactive in seven consecutive games while his left knee recovered from an early season injury, allowing Bush extensive playing time as he healed. Bush, meanwhile, has missed the past three games with a high right ankle sprain, allowing Abdul-Quddus more playing time.
Now with Vaccaro out, it’s likely Harper and Bush will see more playing time, with Bush playing free safety, Jenkins guarding the slot and Harper plying his trade at strong safety.
"It seems like every week it's a different little lineup and little shake-up,” Harper, an eight-year veteran, said. “But at the end of the day we've all got to depend on everybody. Whoever's in, we've got to make some plays.
For Bush, it’s just a matter of his ankle responding favorably to practice this week.
“It feels like it has been forever,” Bush said earlier this week. “I’ve just been working hard getting treatment just trying to get back out there with my teammates. I’m excited and it has been awhile. I just want to make sure I can go out there and help the team play and win.”