Recently, New Orleans Saints’ prized free agent Jairus Byrd said that he and Kenny Vaccaro as a safety duo “stand right at the top.” Saying they are number one is difficult to claim with the Seattle Seahawks still around, but as far as tandems east of Seattle he may have a strong case. Regardless, Vaccaro and Byrd along with Rafael Bush are a nice set to have.
With the addition of Byrd and last year’s offseason moves, the Saints may potentially have a second incarnation of the Dome Patrol of the late 1980s and 1990s. It is hard to say that concretely without any on-field proof, but the pieces are definitely there from front to back. While the Dome Patrol had the linebacker corps of Sam Mills, Pat Swilling, Vaughn Johnson, and Ricky Jackson; today’s version, if they reach their potential, will be highlighted by the safety trio of Vaccaro, Byrd, and Bush.
Like the linebackers of old, each safety has a different skillset that contributes greatly to the defense as a whole. Byrd, the All Pro from Buffalo, is the consummate coverage, ball hawking safety that every team covets. His 22 interceptions over the past five years ranks second among active players today.
His ability to play the single high safety will give defensive coordinator Rob Ryan the ultimate flexibility on defense. And with the new emphasis on creating turnovers, Byrd is one of the best. Byrd’s impact will be reminiscent of 2008 free agent Darren Sharper, who led a turnover happy defense. His contributions ultimately brought the Saints their first Super Bowl in 2009.
His running mate, 2013 first round pick Vaccaro, is one of the best young safeties in the league. Going into his second season, many pundits are expecting a Pro Bowl year, as they should. Vaccaro brings a ferocious attitude and toughness to the defense. He plays through the whistle, and pushes boundaries constantly. Vaccaro, like Byrd, is rangy and has the ability to play single high and deep safety, but, unlike Byrd, can play in the box.
Vaccaro tackles like a linebacker, which makes him a great run defender. Ryan took advantage of that skill last season playing him at linebacker at times next to Curtis Lofton. In addition to playing the run, he is exceptional in man coverage, a skill that is becoming more and more sought after in today’s NFL.
The league has become more focused on the seams and the middle of the field, which has put more of an emphasis on the athletic tight ends and speedy slot receivers. Vaccaro’s cornerback like ability to cover both effectively help Ryan’s defense since he isn’t handcuffed trying to devote extra attention to the middle of the field.
Lastly, there is Rafael Bush. Signed in 2012, Bush was a source of confusion as he was parading around in former running back Reggie Bush’s number. However, going to this season people clearly separate the two Bushes. Normally, the third safety doesn’t get much notoriety, but Ryan employed plenty of three safety sets which allowed Bush plenty of playing time.
Bush is the least proven of the three, but his role may be paramount. Every great defense has a tone setter or an intimidator. Last season, even though Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas got the headlines, it was Kam Chancellor who set the tone for that defense. In the Super Bowl, when the Seahawks were up 5-0 and Denver was driving, Chancellor laid a hit on 6-foot-3, 230-pound Demaryius Thomas and stopped him in his tracks. From then on, the Broncos had to punt and the fear Chancellor instilled in the Broncos’ offense was palpable.
That Kam Chancellor-esque enforcer role is what Bush has the potential to be. In the playoff loss last season to Seattle, the defense played well enough to win. And their tone and swagger was set early when Bush came and knocked out Percy Harvin. Though it was a flag, the hit took its toll later in the game, and was especially evident when Golden Tate ran a slant and pulled up at the sight of Bush.
That was the most notable time, but Bush has shown flashes of being that intimidating presence that Rob Ryan truly wants. This year, with more playing time, he should be able consistently flex his muscles.
Byrd and Vaccaro alone are a great duo, but if Bush can come into his own, they can be a truly special trio. And if the Saints’ defense comes together to the truly dominant unit it aspires to be, in the same way the linebackers highlighted the Dome Patrol, the safeties would be the highlight of this year’s version. And maybe, just maybe, Byrd’s quote won’t be that crazy after all.