CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Saints’ defense took another hit Sunday when rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro injured his lower left leg late in the first period of a 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick who started all 14 games that he was healthy for, got his left leg pinned beneath him when several players fell on him at the end of a running play by the Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams.
Team trainers and doctors immediately immobilized Vaccaro’s left leg with an inflatable cast and then took him off the field on a cart.
Saints’ officials announced in the press box that Vaccaro had a lower leg injury and was doubtful to return, but Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver said he suffered a possible fractured ankle.
The Saints already have five key defenders on injured reserve: defensive end Kenyon Coleman, linebackers Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, and cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson.
PICKED OFF: Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins intercepted Cam Newton to end the Panthers’ first possession after a high pass was tipped by wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
The interception was the first for the Saints since cornerback Corey White got one againstSan Franciscoon Nov. 17 in the Superdome.
It was only the third takeaway for the Saints’ defense in the past eight games.
ANOTHER SHUTOUT: For the second time in three weeks against the Panthers, the Saints did not score in the first quarter.
It was the 10th first-quarter shutout in 15 games for the Panthers, who have allowed just one touchdown and 24 total points in the opening period.
INACTIVES: Not suiting up for the Saints were S Rafael Bush (ankle), LB Keyunta Dawson (calf), TE Josh Hill (hamstring), WR Nick Toon, DE Tom Johnson, RB Travaris Cadet and QB Ryan Griffin.
Dawson missed his fourth consecutive game, while Bush was out for a third game in a row.
The only inactive of note for the Panthers was running back Jonathan Stewart (knee). He was ruled out of the game on Friday by coach Ron Rivera.
INJURIES: Other than Vaccaro, the Saints didn’t appear to have any other serious injuries even though some players — including running back Mark Ingram — cramped up on a humid day.
For the Panthers, wide receiver Steve Smith, who was already playing with a dislocated finger, injured his left knee in the first half. Hew tried to come back in the second half, but left for good after just one play.
EIGHT IS ENOUGH?: Shayne Graham, who hit field-goal attempts of 40 and 24 yards in his Saints debut after replacing Garrett Hartley at midweek, is the eighth kicker to be employed by Payton in his eight-year tenure.
Others in the kicking club are John Carney (2006, 2009-10), Billy Cundiff (2006), Olindo Mare (2007), Martin Gramatica (2007-08), Taylor Mehlhaff (2008), Hartley (2008-10, 2012-13) and John Kasay (2011).
MORSTEAD SHINES: Saints punter Thomas Morstead perfectly executed a surprise onside kick that Ramon Humber recovered in the second quarter.
The onside kick came after Graham made his first field goal and led to his second three-pointer of the game.
Morstead later had a 61-yard punt, which equaled his longest of the season, and averaged 48.6 yards on seven kicks.
LAGNIAPPE: Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was credited with a franchise-record 24 tackles Sunday. He had nine solo tackles and 15 assists and one of their two interceptions of Drew Brees. … The Saints’ 11-play, 97-yard touchdown drive in the fourth period tied their longest of the season. They also marched 97 yards to a 3-yard TD pass from Brees to Hill against the 49ers. … Cornerback Trevin Wade, who had been inactive for four games since being signed by the Saints on Nov. 20, dressed out for the first time and played as the sixth defensive back early in the game.