METAIRIE, La. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints placed starting safety Kenny Vaccaro on injured reserve, the latest blow to a defense that lost starting end Alex Okafor for the season a month ago and also placed starting middle linebacker A.J. Klein on injured reserve earlier this week.
Vaccaro, whose status appeared on the NFL's official transactions report Thursday afternoon, has been in and out of the lineup with groin injuries since a Week 9 victory over Tampa Bay on Nov. 5.
Despite missing two games and parts of two others, Vaccaro has made or assisted on 60 tackles, including a sack-and-a-half and seven tackles for losses. He has three interceptions to go with seven passes defended and also has recovered a fumble.
Fellow safety Rafael Bush said Vaccaro was playing some of his best football since being selected by New Orleans in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft out of Texas.
"He was making plays. His attention to detail, his film study, I saw that improve. He was definitely a different player," Bush said. "K.V. is definitely a competitor. He's one of the toughest players that I've ever played with."
The first sign of Vaccaro' groin injury emerged in Week 9, when he left a victory over Tampa Bay and then sat out victory's over Buffalo and Washington the following weeks before returning for a loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He also sat out part of a Week 14 loss at Atlanta, but returned to action last week.
Vaccaro's departure from the lineup comes as the Saints (10-4) prepare to host the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) on Sunday in a game between rivals vying for NFC South Division crown.
A person familiar with situation said Vaccaro needs surgery. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Saints have not announced details on Vaccaro's treatment.
Vaccaro was not listed on Wednesday's injury report, the implication being that he participated fully in 11-on-11 drills when practice resumed earlier this week.
Bush said it was his impression that Vaccaro's injury status changed when he informed coaches he was concerned he could not be as effective as he needed to be.
"That was a bold move as far as swallowing your pride," Bush said. "I'm sure he could have gone out there and gave his all, but to the expense of what? ... Costing the team a victory or causing the team to struggle because his pride got in the way?"
Bush said the Saints will miss Vaccaro's exceptional versatility.
"I don't think you can find many guys that can play linebacker, that can go out and cover slot receivers ... and then can go play at the strong safety. That's very rare," Bush said. "Whatever they asked him to do on defense, he did it and he did it at a high level."
Bush, an eighth-year veteran, could see more playing time going forward.
"I'm going to embrace the challenge. That's never been a problem with me," Bush said. "I've been around long enough to understand the business."
"We have a lot of depth at that position," Bush added, referring to Von Bell, who'll likely become a full-time starter, and veteran reserve Chris Banjo. "We've got to rally together and we've got to go out there and make plays and win and keep this playoff push going."
Notes: The Saints have re-signed veteran defensive back Sterling Moore, who has been on and off the roster and played in five games for New Orleans this season. ... DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion) and TE Garrett Griffin (foot) all missed Thursday's practice. ... G Larry Warford (concussion), CB Justin Hardee (foot), WR Ted Ginn (rib), TE Josh Hill (shoulder), G Andrus Peat (groin) and G Senio Kelemete (knee) all were listed as limited during full team drills.