METAIRIE, La. — As the days went by this past week, Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro let slip that he would start against the Atlanta Falcons in his first-ever regular season NFL game.
What his lips didn’t let loose was just how extensive his role would be in the Saints’ game plan in shutting down a prolific Falcons offense and sure-fire Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Vaccaro was one of only four players to see every defensive snap in New Orleans’ 23-17 win. Including his special teams plays, the rookie from Texas saw a total of 67 plays. And he finished with five tackles, second-best on the team.
“He spent a lot of time studying the tape and understood the strengths and weaknesses (of Gonzalez),” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “A guy like that is a veteran player, but I thought he handled that matchup well.”
Did he ever.
Gonzalez has a history of playing big against New Orleans. Including Sunday, he has caught 63 passes for 708 yards and six touchdowns against the Saints with both Kansas City and Atlanta. And two of his biggest days in his career have come against New Orleans – an 11-catch, 122-yard, two-touchdown performance in 2012 and an eight-catch, 110-yard, one-touchdown day in 2010.
But Sunday, with Vaccaro spending time against him, he finished with only three catches for 36 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown wasn’t Vaccaro’s responsibility, either. He was guarding tight end Levine Toilolo.
“I said this way back at the beginning of training camp – he is a player … that is a little more wiser or a little bit more savvy than a lot of rookies in that he is very experienced,” Payton said. “He studies hard, but (he) is someone who knows the game well. It was a good start for him.”
It’s not just his understanding of the game that sets him apart, however. It’s his athleticism.
On New Orleans’ final stand against Atlanta, Vaccaro used that athleticism to make a play even after initially getting out of position.
Vaccaro initially bit down on Gonzalez’s route before backtracking to the tight end. He lunged enough to get a piece of the football, forcing a bobble by Gonzalez that resulted in an interception by Saints safety Roman Harper.
“It wasn’t pretty but it got done,” Harper said. “That’s all that matters. He tipped it and I came down with it. It was a great play. Sometimes it just kind of happens and it just kind of works out.”
Vaccaro didn’t necessarily grade out well, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished with a negative run-support grade. But his coverage grade was near the top for safeties in Week 1 and Ryan only targeted a receiver he was covering once.
Veterans speak of building trust with other players and while he didn’t read the play right at first, what he did in the end helped teammates begin to have confidence in the rookie.
“There are some things he’s only going to learn through experience,” fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “So, even on the last play he was a little bit out of position, which is a little scary for us, but him being the natural baller he is, he was still able to get a hand on the ball and it ended up being a big play for us.”