Former Saint Kenny Vaccaro faces old team with playoff chance at stake

Stephen A.: Brees has had a better career than Peyton (1:37)

Stephen A Smith makes his case for why Drew Brees has had a better career than Peyton Manning. (1:37)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The summer of 2018 was an uncertain time for Kenny Vaccaro. He prepared for the upcoming season the same way he had for the previous five years in the NFL, but this time the safety didn't know where he'd be playing next. The New Orleans Saints didn't renew his contract, allowing him to become a free agent. Fortunately for Vaccaro, the perfect opportunity presented itself with the Tennessee Titans.

Vaccaro and the Titans (8-6), who host the Saints on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), will need to bring their A-game if they want stay in strong position to make the playoffs. Quarterback Drew Brees is coming off a game in which he completed 29 of his 30 pass attempts and set the NFL record for career passing touchdowns (541).

Having spent five seasons in New Orleans, Vaccaro witnessed firsthand his share of Brees' excellence. As a young player, Vaccaro watched Brees get to the facility as early as 4:30 a.m. yet stay late enough to have his kids there with him to play in the pool and inside the indoor practice area.

"He showed me that you could be a great player and still be a great dad," Vaccaro said. "He's the best player I've ever been around. He's the most detailed player. I remember seeing him in the locker room before games going through the 15-play script by himself. He'd go through the calls and the checks in his head. He'd sit down and look at the script, and he's going through what's going to happen and transpire in the game. He's just the model player."

Then there's Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, whose 133 receptions have him on pace to break Marvin Harrison's single-season record (143) with two game left. Vaccaro said he was impressed by Thomas' work ethic.

Added Vaccaro, "I remember Mike Thomas as a rookie. I knew on Day 1 from the way he practiced, and how he walked around, he wanted to be the best. He has an elite mindset. Every day he and Drew worked on timing and everything after practice. I've never met somebody that is so determined, Mike and Drew combined."

Titans rookie A.J. Brown has heard his share of Brees and Thomas stories from Vaccaro, who will tell Brown to go do something during downtime in practice because Thomas is out there working, too.

Thomas' reliable pass-catching ability popped out to Brown, who said Thomas' hands are like glue. Brown also complimented Thomas' route running. The Brees-to-Thomas connection has destroyed both zone and man coverage this season. New Orleans' passing game is averaging 264.6 yards per game (seventh in NFL).

Perhaps the best way to defend that air attack is to knock off the Saints' timing and be physical with the receivers as they roam the middle of the field. That's where Vaccaro could factor into the equation. He should have plenty of opportunities to put big hits on receivers this weekend, given that Brees is averaging 34 pass attempts per game. New Orleans will be sure to know where Vaccaro lines up on Sunday.

"He has very good coverage skills, and he's also a really good low-zone player, someone that you have to know where he is," Saints coach Sean Payton said via conference call.

“Kenny is doing great," Brees said. "He’s obviously a very physical player in the run, but he’s got good cover skills as well. So he can cover tight ends, backs. He’s a great pressure player. You know, you see him play in the middle of the field. He’s got good instincts.”

Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees' scheme is well suited for the tough mentality Vaccaro plays with. Vaccaro joked last season that Pees' playcalling is like "Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter" -- clutch. Vaccaro said he loves how Pees gives him a chance to play all over the field, including in the box where things really get physical.

"Kenny plays hard, loves football," Pees said. "That's the advantage; he's just a physical guy. That's one of his greatest assets. We try to figure out what guys do best and how we can utilize them in that role. Not only is that an advantage to us, but it's also an advantage to him. Guys play harder when they feel good about the stuff that they are doing."

Pees said he first got a look at Vaccaro when he was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator back in 2013 and Vaccaro was a draft prospect coming out of Texas. The Saints selected Vaccaro at No. 15 overall, long before Pees' Ravens, who had the final pick in that first round.

"That guy can run and hit," Pees said of Vaccaro. "Kenny, we really liked him because he was a Rodney Harrison type that will come and smack ya and hit ya. Then you could put him in some coverage situations. Rodney was the kind of guy that I compared him to."

Vaccaro smiled as he thought back to earlier this season when Pees told him about the Harrison comparison. As a youngster, Vaccaro watched Harrison and marveled at the way he dominated. Being able to play a similar role -- unlike in New Orleans, when he was primarily used as a nickel defensive back -- has given Vaccaro a chance to showcase how versatile he is.

What's the most significant difference?

"It's easy. In New Orleans, I was playing straight nickel," Vaccaro said "No matter what the personnel was, I guarded the receiver. Here, I am actually playing safety and using a lot of the things that I got drafted for. I can be a great athletic safety versus a solid nickel. A lot of those guys (nickel CBs) have corner speed and twitchiness. If you put me in the safety department, I think I can excel."

The Titans will need Vaccaro to show how much he's grown since leaving New Orleans two years ago. He says there is no bad blood with the Saints, but rest assured a victory over his former team would be sweet. It's very important for Tennessee's playoff hopes, too.

The Titans are one game behind the Texans in the AFC South race with two games to go. According to FPI, the Titans have a 56.7% chance of making the playoffs. But a Titans loss to the Saints would make Tennessee's road much harder -- particularly if coupled with wins by Pittsburgh (a 3-point favorite) over the Jets and Houston (also -3) over the Buccaneers this weekend.