As far as Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro can tell, the rematch of New Orleans’ beleaguered secondary against rookie Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston could be more challenging than their first encounter.
Winston has become more consistent, more decisive and more productive since posting his first career victory in the Superdome of Week 2 this season, Vaccaro said.
“He’s not turning the ball over. He’s making good throws, making smart decisions — everything you want in a first-round quarterback,” Vaccaro said.
Meanwhile, New Orleans’ defensive backfield has been riddled with injuries, hemorrhaging yards and giving up touchdowns at a record rate.
New Orleans ranks 31st in the NFL in yards passing allowed per game with 287.3. The Saints have also allowed 35 touchdowns passing, putting them on pace to break the record 40 TDs passing allowed by the Denver Broncos more than a half-century ago, in 1963.
“We’ve just got to find a way to win, limit the mental areas, mental mistakes — the same thing we’ve been preaching all year,” Vaccaro said. “There’s no magical statement I can give beside we need to get better as a unit in general.”
Injuries have only complicated matters for New Orleans’ defensive backfield. Top cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip) recently went on injured reserve. Cornerback Damian Swann (concussions) is expected back this weekend but has missed six games this season. Cornerback Delvin Breaux pulled a hamstring last weekend and it’s not yet clear when he’ll return.
“We’ve been banged up throughout the entire season. We’re mixing and matching guys,” Swann said. “It’s kind of tough to build that chemistry, to build all that stuff that you need to be an elite secondary.”
Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith should know a struggling defense when he sees one, having spent his career coaching primarily on that side of the ball. Yet he wanted no part of predicting more misery for the Saints’ secondary this weekend — at least not publicly.
“I know what the stats say, but the stats are about what has happened in the past,” Smith asserted. “Now everybody is in this stretch-run. I think you see peak performances by everybody about this time of year, we assume we are going to get there best defensively.”
The Saints are entering their third game under coordinator Dennis Allen, who took over when Rob Ryan was fired. Last week, New Orleans’ defense played well early against Carolina, forcing three turnovers on a pair of fumbles and an interception.
But after Breaux’s injury, the Panthers began rolling offensively and took a 41-38 victory in which Cam Newton passed for five touchdowns.
Winston has made his share of mistakes, as rookies often do. Yet he’s led the Bucs to victories in four of their past six games. He has passed for 2,877 yards and 17 touchdowns against 11 interceptions — but only four interceptions in the past eight games.
“When we saw him in Week 2, we had one game of evidence and that was the tough loss they had to Tennessee,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “When you start looking at the weeks that have followed, there is a bunch of tape on him and he is doing a lot of things better each week. … You don’t see the minus plays that you maybe saw in that Titans game. He’s a reason why they are winning.”
Vaccaro said he was particularly impressed by Winston’s 20-yard, first-down scramble in a victory over Atlanta last week.
“That showed a lot to me about his will to win,” Vaccaro said. “He’s a winner.”
The Saints’ will to win remains to be seen after a four-game skid that has dropped them to 4-8, leaving them with the slimmest of playoff hopes.
“We’re obviously down,” Vaccaro said. “At the same time, we’ve been kind of dealing with this all year. I don’t think anybody’s given up or thrown it in the tank. … It’s a pride thing.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.