Kenny Vaccaro playing his best in December

METAIRIE, La. -- If New Orleans Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro had to choose, then yeah, it's fair to say his performance in last Sunday's 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers was probably his best of the season. It certainly got the most attention, since he made a handful of highlight plays on national television.

But Vaccaro said his previous best performance probably came six nights earlier. It just wasn't much to boast about since the Saints lost 34-7 to the Seattle Seahawks.

Regardless of who's been paying attention, this is clearly a positive trend for the Saints.

Although Vaccaro made his biggest play of the season in Week 1 -- tipping a pass away from Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone in the final seconds -- he's playing his best overall football in December.

"I think (the Carolina game) was my best game as far as coverage-wise and being physical. I think it was just a complete game for me. And it was one of those games where it was a prime-time game with two teams with the same record. So everything gets (magnified)," said the Saints' first-round draft pick from Texas, who has been a huge asset to the Saints as an every-down player this year because he does a little bit of everything in pass coverage, against the run and as a blitzer.

For what it's worth, I personally thought this past game was Vaccaro's best after reviewing the game tape. He made at least two big plays in coverage while lining up against dangerous Panthers receiver Steve Smith in the slot. He made two particularly good open-field tackles and finished with four "stops" according to Pro Football Focus -- meaning a solo tackle that resulted in an offensive failure. Vaccaro also helped force a punt with pressure on a third-down blitz.

Vaccaro, however, thought it was funny how much feedback he got from friends and fans about his pass coverage in the slot, since it's something he's been doing all year.

The difference in this game was that he was doing it against Smith -- and he was doing it on NBC's prime-time showcase.

"I mean, they highlighted the plays that I made. But I've been doing that stuff all year. I don't know why people made a big deal out of, ‘Oh, he was great in the slot.' I've been covering the slot the whole year," said Vaccaro, who said he had similar matchup against receivers like Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald earlier in the year -- as well as underrated slot receivers like Seattle's Doug Baldwin.

And Vaccaro was right about his performance at Seattle being one of his best. He had a season-high 10 tackles, a season-high five stops according to PFF. He also had a forced fumble against Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch in the first quarter that was recovered by the Seahawks.

Vaccaro's previous season high of nine tackles came one week earlier at Atlanta.

The 6-foot, 214-pounder now has 71 tackles, six pass defenses, one interception and one forced fumble on the year.

"I think number one, for a good safety, generally they play the run and the pass very well," Saints coach Sean Payton said, when asked about Vaccaro's development Thursday. "In college, he played a lot of nickel, but I think he's having an outstanding rookie season. I think he is comfortable when he is playing man-to-man. I think he is comfortable supporting a run. He is physical. He is a strong tackler, so there is not a lot of leaky yardage. But being able to do both is important. I think he has done that."

Vaccaro understands why some performances get highlighted more than others.

When Vaccaro became the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, Payton stressed how impressed the Saints had been by watching Vaccaro match up last year against West Virgina receiver Tavon Austin -- arguably the most dynamic playmaker in all of college football.

Vaccaro might get another shot at Austin this Sunday when the Saints play the St. Louis Rams. But Austin's status is uncertain because of an ankle injury.

Austin's production has been up and down this season. But he has hit on several big plays -- including a 56-yard run last week, a 65-yard touchdown run three weeks ago, and a three-touchdown performance against Indianapolis last month (a 98-yard punt return and catches of 81 and 57 yards).

"They use him a number of ways, trying to get him the ball," Vaccaro said. "And he's a dynamic player, a guy we'll be watching out for, a guy you've got to respect."