COMMENTARY | In the days following the New Orleans Saints' heart-pounding win against the Atlanta Falcons, a lot of praise has been heaped on rookie Kenny Vaccaro for his game-saving deflection of Matt Ryan's pass. That deflection led to a Roman Harper interception and killed what had been to that point a very impressive drive from the Falcons. Vacarro's big play has gotten him justifiably positive attention from teammates, fans, and the press.
But to me, there was another play he made in the game that impressed me nearly as much as the tip. Interestingly enough, it was his biggest mistake in the game: the late hit on a sliding Ryan that gave the Falcons a first-and-goal situation with a 7-0 lead over the Saints.
At the time, I remember cursing Vacarro's name and calling it a rookie mistake. It surely was: he should have known that you can't hit a sliding quarterback. Not only did the play end in a first down, but it put the Falcons seven precious yards closer to the end zone. At the time, it looked like the Falcons would easily take advantage of the Saints' sluggish start and roar ahead 14-0.
But then a funny thing happened. The Saints allowed only 2 yards in 3 plays, and the Falcons had to kick a field goal. The next time the Saints defense took the field, they forced a fumble on the first play. Drew Brees took over with a short field, and within 10 minutes, a 10-0 deficit became a 10-10 tie.
And that's when the defense got going. They sacked Ryan once in the second quarter and twice in the third, as the Saints pass rush rose from its slumber. The defense seemed to come alive after that hit, and while it may have been a coincidence, I look back at Kenny Vacarro's penalty as the dinner bell calling all the Saints defenders to the Falcon feast.
Vacarro's hit did a few things besides wake up the defense. It jarred Matt Ryan, who looked intimidated for the rest of the game, especially as his offensive line continually lost the battle to Junior Galette, Akeem Hicks, and Cameron Jordan.
More importantly, and perhaps more controversially, it showed that the new look defense under Rob Ryan has a little bit of "mean" to it. Last year's defense was, as has been documented ad nauseum, the worst defense in NFL history. They could not stop anyone, and at times last year it looked like the defense didn't want to go full throttle in the wake of the bounty probe that deprived the team of Sean Payton. With Vacarro's hit, it showed that the Saints defense was going to make a statement, and that statement was simple: we aren't going to be pushed around anymore. The defense still has a long way to go, but Matt Ryan certainly heard that statement on Sunday, and it may have affected the rest of his day.
Kenny Vacarro went on to do some other things in the game. His miscommunication with the rest of the secondary allowed Matt Ryan's second touchdown pass in the third quarter. He led the way in tackles along with Malcolm Jenkins. And yes, his finger did effectively end the game in a Saints victory. But for me, that hit in the first quarter set the tone for the rest of the game, and perhaps the rest of the season. It showed that this Saints defense won't be as bad as last year, as we expected; but it may also be even better than we expected.
Nathan Raby is from New Orleans and is a lifelong supporter of the Saints and everything New Orleans. He is the co-founder and writer of thefootbawlblog.com.
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