No longer a half step too slow, Vinnie Sunseri improves at safety for the Saints

To Saints coach Sean Payton, it seemed rookie safety Vinnie Sunseri was a half-step too slow to make any significant plays in New Orleans’ 2014 preseason opener at St. Louis on Aug. 8.

But the fifth-round draft choice knew he could deliver a far better early impression, even if the 26-24 win in St. Louis was his first game since an ACL tear in October that cost him much of his final season at Alabama last year.

Sunseri gave it in the Saints’ 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night.

Among Sunseri’s plays were a takedown behind the line of scrimmage; an interception off and a thunderous tackle on an old LSU foe; and a jarring hit that disrupted what would’ve been a first-down reception.

“As rookies, we were trying to make a statement, trying to show that we belong with everybody,” Sunseri said afterward in response to reporters’ questions about his improved outing. “(I) got a feel for it, got my feet wet. I’m starting to get more comfortable with the defense.”

Competing for a spot at safety under virtual roster locks Jairus Byrd (out Friday as he slowly returns to full duty after offseason back surgery), Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush, most of Sunseri’s big moments occurred in the second half alongside each team’s reserves.

However, that doesn’t detract from the instincts and physicality displayed on defense by Sunseri, who credited his progress to apprenticing under Byrd, Vaccaro and Bush.

On the first instance of that, Sunseri crept up to the left of the line of scrimmage and charged into the Titans backfield unblocked at the snap. Titans quarterback and ex-LSU Tiger Zach Mettenberger handed off to running back Bishop Sankey; and Sunseri promptly dove at the ball carrier’s feet to trip him up for a loss of 1, setting up second-and-11 from New Orleans’ 46.

Two plays later, on a third-and-15 from midfield, Mettenberger targeted wideout Brian Robiskie around the 34 for what would’ve been a first down. But Sunseri homed in on Robiskie; and the instant the receiver got his hands on the ball, the safety wrapped his arms around him, drilled him with a right shoulder and drove him into the Superdome turf.

Sunseri knocked the ball out Robiskie’s grasp. It fell for an incompletion, setting up a punt.

It was on a first-and-10 from Tennessee’s 31 with New Orleans up 21-17 and 12:59 to go in the game that Sunseri got himself one of the Saints’ five takeaways. Mettenberger was under center; and again in the box on the left side of the line was Sunseri, who engaged tight end Chase Coffman after the snap.

Sunseri let Coffman slip by. Sunseri ran to the left and back to cover Coffman, turning back to monitor Mettenberger the whole time.

Mettenberger fired a pass at Coffman, but Sunseri leapt, reached up with both hands and snatched the ball out the air. Sunseri landed on his left foot at the Tennessee 43, ran the ball 19 yards to the Titans 24, and thus set up a 34-yard field goal that helped put the Saints ahead 24-17.

Sunseri wasn’t done menacing Mettenberger (20-for-25 for 269 yards, two touchdowns and an interception). On a play during the Titans’ last drive on offense, Mettenberger scrambled to New Orleans’ 5 for a five-yard gain on a second-and-goal with 33 seconds left. Mettenberger lowered his head at the end of the run — and Sunseri hammered his right shoulder into the QB’s helmet, a tackle eliciting gasps from fans in the stands.

It wasn’t a perfect day for Sunseri, who denied he resorted to anything he learned during a 2012 Alabama win over LSU to bedevil Mettenberger on Friday (he was hurt when the Tigers and Crimson Tide met in 2013).

Officials whistled him for a 10-yard holding penalty on a punt return. He was late to cover a throw that went for a gain of 18. After decking Mettenberger, he jogged off the field limping and favoring his left leg (Sunseri later said he was simply hit in the same spot where he had earlier suffered a quad bruise and was fine).

Nonetheless, Sunseri did enough to earn postgame praise from Payton, who otherwise was annoyed that the Saints had been called for a staggering 22 fouls and penalized 184 yards.

“I thought he played a lot better than last week,” Payton said. “He was around the ball. .... He looked like he was relaxed.”

Sunseri will take it.

“I’m trying to do anything I can to catch the coaches’ eyes,” he said. “Any way I can help this team improve and get better and do the things that coach Payton and everyone else wants to do, I’m going to do.”