Injuries in New Orleans' defensive backfield have yet to stop the Saints from fielding one of the best pass defenses in the NFL.
They can only hope that trend holds in this Sunday's regular season finale against Tampa Bay, which will mark the first full game without standout rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.
"It seems like every week it's a different little lineup and little shake-up," said veteran strong safety Roman Harper, who could see more action this week because of Vaccaro's absence. "But at the end of the day, we've all got to depend on everybody. Whoever's in, we've got to make some plays. It definitely will hurt us without Kenny."
Vaccaro fractured his left fibula late in the first quarter of last Sunday's 17-13 loss at Carolina, becoming the third regular in the defensive backfield to go down with a season-ending injury. Cornerback Patrick Robinson went out for the year with a right knee injury in Week 2 at Tampa Bay. In Week 11 against San Francisco, starting cornerback Jabari Greer went out for the year with a left knee injury.
And throughout the season, other defensive backs, including Harper earlier this season and safety Rafael Bush more recently, have missed several weeks apiece with various injuries. Harper returned six games ago from a knee injury, while Bush has missed the past three games with a high right ankle sprain.
Through it all, the Saints have allowed only 192.7 yards passing per game, which ranks second in the NFL.
"They've had some tough injuries, some tough breaks for them, but the guys they have playing have a lot of talent as well," Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon said, noting in particular what he saw on video of how New Orleans held Carolina to 10 points last Sunday until the Panthers' winning TD in the final minute. "Holding that Panthers offense, which is an explosive offense, to not a lot of points really until that last drive ... shows they have a lot of talent there."
Bush has returned to practice this week, providing hope he'll be able to help fill the void caused by Vaccaro's absence.
"If I feel I can go out there and not be a liability, then of course I'll go out there and play," Bush said Thursday after participating fully in practice. "I'm excited. It's been a while, so I just want to make sure I can go out there and help the team play - and win."
The consensus among Saints players and coaches is that losing Vaccaro will hurt. He was third on the team in total tackles with 77. He had one interception and also was credited with a sack, a forced fumble and four tackles for losses.
"Losing a player like Kenny is tough because he had really established himself," coach Sean Payton said. "But the next guy will step up. We'll have a plan."
Add free safety Malcolm Jenkins: "Obviously just his style of play, his production, is going to be a big loss."
But Jenkins, who was drafted as a cornerback in 2009 and has experience defending slot receivers as the nickel back in a five-defensive back formation, said the Saints have versatility in their favor.
"You can still move me and Roman around, or push (cornerback) Corey White in to help take that (nickel back) role," Jenkins said. "We have a lot of guys that can move around to a lot of different positions, so I don't think we'll be limited at all as far as scheme."
And if Bush returns, all the better, Jenkins said.
"The thing about Raf is he's very talented, very athletic," Jenkins said, adding that Bush covers tight ends well, something Vaccaro also did. "He's got range, so he can play deep, he plays the ball well, he tackles really well, which is probably one of his best attributes. ... We're comfortable with him out there."
NOTES: The Saints had nine players listed on their injury report, but did not have any players listed as limited or not participating in practice. All practiced fully with various ailments, including quarterback Drew Brees, who has a right knee bruise.
Photo by Chris Bennett