New Orleans Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro expects to look back on this week as a turning point in his career.
For now, though, he’s adjusting to an apparent demotion and a dose of humility.
With the Saints still in the playoff picture but coming off a stunning 41-10 loss to Carolina, Vaccaro said Thursday that he’d been called into a meeting with coach Sean Payton this week and told he needed to perform better.
“He’s right,” Vaccaro said of his coach. “I’ve made too many costly mistakes this year that I’ve got to get corrected.”
Vaccaro, a 2013 first-round draft choice who has started every game at strong safety this season, also said his role in the defense is changing, though he wouldn’t say precisely how.
Payton, likewise, was vague in discussing how the Saints would deploy Vaccaro against the Chicago Bears on Monday night.
“Listen, you have a game like the one we just had, there’s a ton of things (to re-evaluate), not just in his play, but in a number of guys,” Payton said. “But we’re going to need him to play and play well. He is going to obviously be a huge factor for us in this game.”
Earlier this week, Payton said he would not rule out any lineup changes after the Saints not only lost for the fourth time in five games, but were not even competitive against a Panthers squad that came into the Superdome on a six-game losing streak.
Payton also made roster moves, cutting fourth-year receiver Joe Morgan on Tuesday and promoting receiver Seantavius Jones from the practice squad.
“Everybody knows coach is serious. We’ve all got to play better,” Vaccaro said. “We have such a winning tradition around here that we’ve got to uphold. And he’s made that very clear.”
Payton said that he also worked out four kickers, including former Saints place kicker Garrett Hartley, on Wednesday. The Saints have not made a change from current place kicker Shayne Graham, who was brought in to replace Hartley around the same time last season. Graham has made 18 of 20 field goal attempts this season, with both misses coming from beyond 40 yards.
However, one of those misses came in the Superdome on Sunday.
“You can be unhappy off the last performance, and yet — look — I pay close attention to his numbers,” Payton said. “We wanted to look at what was available. ... Shayne, he’s going to respond no different than the rest of these guys we’re challenging. They’ll respond.”
Vaccaro said he was one of “a lot of guys” who met individually with Payton, but did not name the others.
Payton spoke of a “sense of urgency” to improve “a lot of things,” but declined to provide details on meetings with the team or individual players.
Although Vaccaro was drafted as a safety, he spent his rookie season primarily covering slot receivers out of the nickel cornerback position.
This season, he has been in on 66 tackles, including a sack, and has two interceptions.
Still, he said his transition to strong safety this season has not gone as smoothly as he’d hoped and wouldn’t be surprised if his role shifts back to more of what it was last season.
“All this stuff’s new. But I’ve got to be better, man. I’ve got to be better for the team,” Vaccaro added. “They’re getting the plan together. If I’m better at nickel right now, if I can help the team win at nickel, then I’m playing nickel. I don’t care if it’s first, second or third down. If that’s what they want me to do. It looked good last year. That might be where they want me to be.”
Vaccaro, wearing a fresh, close-cropped haircut, said Payton was fair in that he was both critical and encouraging, reminding the second-year safety that coaches still see him as a player with Pro Bowl potential, and that the goal remains to let Vaccaro work toward fulfilling that.
“It kind of gives me new life. I’ve got a new cut and everything. It kind of put a reset on everything,” Vaccaro said of his meeting with Payton. “When I shook his hand, I felt like it changed my career.”
Notes: Pass-rushing outside linebacker Junior Galette (knee) and starting left tackle Terron Armstead (neck) were both held out of practice on Thursday. ... Linebacker David Hawthorne (hip) and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (ankle) were limited.