Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro says he "can't wait" to play against Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
For Vaccaro, the matchup represents a chance to validate the belief he's maintained in himself and fellow Saints defenders, even as they've struggled to live up to the standard they set only one season ago.
The Saints defense, which ranked fourth in yards allowed in 2013, has looked more like a liability during New Orleans 2-4 start this season.
The unit now ranks 21st in total defense, giving up 373.7 yards per game. Against the pass, they rank 28th, allowing an average of 270.5 yards through the air.
There were signs of progress in Detroit last weekend, but also a troubling collapse. New Orleans virtually shut down the Lions for most of the game, only to give up two touchdowns in the last four minutes in a 24-23 loss.
Now the Saints will have to contend with the Packers, who have one of the most efficient and high-scoring offenses in the NFL through Week 7.
"We'll see what we're made of," said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, whose four sacks lead the club.
This week, Vaccaro has gushed repeatedly about Rodgers, even making reference to the Green Bay quarterback telling people to "relax" after the Packers' 1-2 start.
"He's pure dangerous. That's all you can say about Aaron Rodgers," Vaccaro said. "I have the utmost respect for this guy, the way he competes. His accuracy, his arm talent, his mobility — everything's checked off. ... He said, 'Relax,' and they haven't lost a game since. That's leadership right there."
Rodgers is aware that the Saints have struggled at times defensively, but didn't sound inclined to underestimate his next opponent, listing Saints second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan as one of the main reasons why.
"Anytime you're playing a team coached by one of the Ryan brothers, you've got to expect the unexpected," Rodgers said. "They're really creative, talented defensive minds."
Because the Packers have benefited from an NFL-high plus-10 turnover margin, they haven't needed to pile up a lot of yards, and in fact rank 25th in total offense. They are fourth in scoring, however, putting up 28.4 points per game. Rodgers has passed for 18 touchdowns and has been intercepted only once.
Receiver Jordy Nelson already has surpassed 700 yards receiving to go with six touchdowns, while Randall Cobb has caught eight touchdown passes.
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis has been impressed by Nelson's effectiveness over the middle. Rodgers, Lewis said, knows he count on Nelson "anywhere on the field, so that's important."
And if opposing defenses sell out to stop the Packers' passing game, they risk being gashed by powerful running back Eddie Lacy, a New Orleans-area native whom Lewis — also from New Orleans — considers a friend.
Lewis said that if he has to try to tackle Lacy, "Hopefully he doesn't try to take nothing out on me."
"I'm definitely going to ask him for a little favor," Lewis added with a smirk. "I don't want too much problems."
Mostly, though, Saints defenders said Rodgers poses the biggest threat because of his combination of mobility, vision and accuracy.
"He's done a great job of having awareness in the pocket," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "He's a little more elusive than you'd expect and makes a lot of great throws down the line when he's scrambling."
Vaccaro said Rodgers plays more like Saints record-setting quarterback Drew Brees than any other quarterback in the NFL.
For Lewis, too, there was one overriding theme for the Saints' defense this week.
"Hopefully this week we can, you know, stop one of the best quarterbacks in the league," he said.
Notes: Saints RBs Pierre Thomas (ribs/shoulder) ad Khiry Robinson (forearm) both missed practice a second-straight day, as did LB Kyle Knox (ankle) and C Jonathan Goodwin (knee, ankle). ... TE Jimmy Graham (shoulder), CB Keenan Lewis (knee, shoulder), LB Ramon Humber (ankle) and DT Brodrick Bunkley (recent concussion) all practiced on a limited basis.
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