For New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's multiple-scheme operation to function at its finest, he must be able to disguise coverage by using players in a myriad of positions. Linemen become linebackers, linebackers become pure cover guys and defensive backs become interchangeable.
In my time of following his lengthy career, he's never had a player who could truly tie everything together.
That is, until now...
With the selection of safety Kenny Vaccaro out of the University of Texas, Ryan essentially gained three players at once. The versatility of Vaccaro has been on full display since the second he trotted onto the field in the preseason. In Vaccaro, Ryan now has the five-tool player he's been looking to deploy his entire career.
You can't help but notice Vaccaro. He's like a heavily tattooed mesh of Charles Woodson and Troy Polamalu. He has the ideal cover skills and ambidexterity of Woodson, while possessing a fearless persona that leads to splash plays—very reminiscent of Polamalu.
I first heard about Vaccaro when scouting current Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. The pair played together during Thomas' final collegiate season in 2009. At the time, Vaccaro was a freshman backup, and Thomas was a budding star.
It was his versatility that garnered Thomas the recognition that made him a potential first-round pick. Texas deployed Thomas as a slot corner and safety. Once he moved on to the NFL, Vaccaro moved into his role. Today, Earl Thomas—in my humble opinion—is the best safety in the league.
Vaccaro may very well be on his way to similar recognition.
Vaccaro possess a similar football IQ to Thomas, but the difference in size (Thomas is 5'10" and 202 pounds, while Vaccaro is 6'0" and 214 pounds) will benefit the Saints the most.
The various positions that Vaccaro has played thus far in his brief Saints career are uncanny. I expected Vaccaro to play most of the positions in the secondary.
But even I truly had no idea what Ryan had in store.
To take advantage of Vaccaro's instincts, range and speed, Ryan loves to play him as the last line of defense when offenses are in formations that are tailored to the run. This allows fellow safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper to cover the tight ends.
In this screenshot, the Falcons are in "22 Personnel."
Vaccaro has to rely on instincts to not get sucked in by potential play-action fakes. If the offense goes deep, he has to assist the corner on the left side of the formation as well as Harper and Jenkins with the tight ends.
Playing Vaccaro as a nickel corner in sub-packages is ingenious. We have to thank Florida coach Will Muschamp—who was the defensive coordinator for Texas when Vaccaro arrived on campus—for the foresight in putting Vaccaro in that role.
His agility and physicality are perfect for the position. You don't have the benefit of the sideline like outside corners do, so you must be agile enough to turn and run in multiple directions. If you want to circumvent that aspect, being physical at the bottom of the receiver's route is a necessity.
Here Vaccaro draws the assignment of one-on-one coverage on Falcons receiver Harry Douglas.
In an effort to keep his Swiss Army knife on the field, Ryan lined him up at inside linebacker in certain packages. His role here is the same as it would be for linebackers David Hawthorne or Jonathan Vilma.
If the Falcons run the ball here, it would be Vaccaro's job to make the tackle. Fellow inside linebacker Curtis Lofton would take on the block, and Vaccaro would clean up the play. Keep in mind Vaccaro is only 215 pounds...
This is where the Troy Polamalu comparisons come into play. Polamalu is a beast around the line of scrimmage due to his fearless nature.
In addition, Vaccaro must defend the tight end if he releases for a route. I think this is where Vaccaro will make a name for himself this season. He's the perfect blend of height, weight, technique, speed and agility—to defend the tight ends the Saints will see.
Now here is the most fascinating deployment of the budding superstar.
To circumvent the lack of depth at the outside linebacker, Vaccaro was played at the position numerous times. Vaccaro's duties include pass-rushing, pass coverage and setting the edge in the run game, the latter of which was a problem on a certain explosive play.
Here's where Ryan may have out-schemed himself. If the Falcons pass when Vaccaro is at this position, it may not be a big deal. His quickness may be enough to get a tight end like Tony Gonzalez off the ball in an effort to disrupt the quarterback.
But if the Falcons are running the ball, a 250-pound Gonzalez may be able to manipulate Vaccaro's run-fit responsibilities.
Maintaining gap integrity and displaying proper run-fits are essential in run defense.
Right away Vaccaro is the victim of a seal block. Gonzalez is pushing him towards the action, when this play is designed for Jackson to cut it back to the strong side.
Harper could have helped this play out by not initially looking for the sack of the quarterback. But this situation happened mostly due to Vaccaro being too small to perform the task. A player like Jay Richardson—who was unfairly cut this preseason—is the type of outside linebacker who would've blown this play up quick, fast and in a hurry.
Instead it made Falcons running back Steven Jackson look like he had a good game, when in reality he wasn't a factor in the run game outside of this blunder.
As you can see, Vaccaro is completely turned around and is no longer a factor in this play—in a positive manner. The thing is, Vaccaro is so talented that I believe he could possibly adjust after watching this on film.
The Saints have found possibly the most versatile defensive player in the league. His size, strength and athleticism make him a fit all over the defensive formation. Coordinator Rob Ryan has to be salivating every week just thinking of more ways for Vaccaro to be involved in the action.
Despite being tagged as a reserve, Vaccaro played every defensive snap in the Saints' victory over the Falcons (according to Katherine Terrell of Nola.com), as well as an extra 11 snaps on special teams.
And fittingly, it was his tip of the final pass that broke up the potential game-winning throw from Ryan to Gonzalez.
The first of many game-changing plays we will be seeing from this defensive dynamo.
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