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The Vikings will open the playoffs Sunday with the chance to gain redemption against the New Orleans Saints. Daniel House looks at how Minnesota should approach the matchup.
Updated: January 10, 2018, 12:20 p.m.
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
The Vikings will open the playoffs Sunday with the chance to gain redemption against the New Orleans Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees and an improved Saints defense will pose a challenge for Minnesoa. The Saints have become more balanced and dynamic on offense through a talented rushing duo. With a veteran quarterback coming to town, the Vikings will try to make a statement. Drew Brees is just 1-4 on the road during his playoff career. One could argue facing the top defense in football on the road will be the biggest challenge the Saints have experienced all season.
Brees and the Saints’ weapons
The one area everyone will be the most concerned about in this game: slowing Drew Brees. The veteran quarterback was clicking in the Wild Card game vs. the Panthers, dropping several throws into tight windows. He has been excellent on third down, helping New Orleans extend their drives in passing situations. He is completing 85 percent of his third down passes from 0-15 yards across the middle, according to Sharp Football Stats. Overall, Brees has completed more than 74 percent of his passes from 0-15 yards down the field, across all hash marks.
The Vikings will need to disguise their coverages well against Drew Brees because he will sit back in the pocket and pick apart zone looks. The Vikings ran a high volume of Cover 1 in the Week 1 matchup, but still used plenty of zone concepts. One should expect Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas as Minnesota plays more man-to-man coverage this time around. The Vikings will often throw in little wrinkles to disguise whether they are in man or zone. Harrison Smith is often involved in those decisions during pre-snap situations. They’ll need to do this to not only stop Brees, but New Orleans’ weapons. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has a 60 percent successful play rate and a 101.9 target rating on short passes, according to Sharp Football Stats. He has caught five touchdowns in these situations, all of which were inside the red zone. Cornerback Trae Waynes will likely be tasked with handling Ted Ginn Jr., who has been a threat vertically all season. Ginn has a 56 percent successful play rate and four touchdowns on passes thrown deep downfield across all hashes, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Drew Brees has the third-best passer rating among quarterbacks this year (104.5) and reclaimed his single-season completion percentage record (72 percent), after losing it for one season to Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford. The Vikings need to get excellent interior pressure inside from Linval Joseph to present favorable matchups for the edge rushers. The Saints have the top explosive pass play rate, among NFL teams, tallying 55 plays of 15-plus yards. Minnesota has allowed the second-fewest plays of this variety, per Sharp Football. Minnesota’s ability to play successfully in man-to-man coverage and timely rush the passer has been key.
Linval Joseph needs to have a big game
Linval Joseph is one of the single most important players in this game. New Orleans’ duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have combined to accumulate 1,852 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. They both are averaging more than five yards per carry. The Saints’ rushing attack looks different than it did in Week One, but Joseph was dominant in that game. His strength inside and ability to command attention helps everyone else around him. The Saints have surrendered a 49-59 percent success rate on runs within the A-gaps. However, they’ll take a hit with left guard Andrus Peat suffering a season-ending fibula injury last week. Zach Strief Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat and Larry Warford have all missed time this year, but the Saints have still allowed the fewest pressures this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Nonetheless, Peat’s loss was witnessed late in last week’s game as the Saints struggled to get a consistent push inside. The Vikings must stop the run in this game and allow their pass rush to flourish in long down situations. Minnesota has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the NFL (23), including just eight at home. The environment certainly will help, but playing disciplined is going to be extra important.
Keeping tabs on the Kamara/Ingram duo
Nobody has targeted running backs more than the New Orleans Saints (33 percent of total passing plays), according to Sharp Football. They are averaging just under seven yards per play when throwing toward their running backs. Alvin Kamara has four receiving touchdowns inside the red zone. He has been targeted 17 times inside the 20-yard-line, corralling 14 grabs. Kamara has been targeted 114 times, grabbing 83 passes for 38 first downs and five touchdowns, according to Sharp Football. Of those attempts, 78 have occurred on first or second down. Mark Ingram also had 12 red zone passing targets. The two combined to catch 24 of their 27 total passing attempts inside the 20-yard-line. The Vikings will need to keep an eye on this running back duo throughout the game. They’ve done well handling athletic running backs all year by showing off their team speed on defense. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have been flying all over the field, allowing the fewest passing yards per game to running backs (30.5). The Vikings must control Kamara/Ingram in the passing game and be aware of decoys the Saints love to use.
Vikings need to create explosive plays
Minnesota has the fifth-most explosive passing plays (15 yards-plus) and New Orleans has allowed the fifth-most this year, according to Sharp Football. The Saints still have a top-15 ranked pass defense, but they are still young in the secondary. They showed vulnerability in the Wild Card game with several coverage breakdowns occurring in the backend. Marshon Lattimore will likely shadow wide receiver Adam Thielen, leaving favorable matchups for Stefon Diggs. Marcus Williams has done a nice job at the safety spot and they’ve played zone well in the backend. P.J. Williams struggled in last week’s game for the Saints and a player like Jarius Wright could come into the game and exploit him. I also expect Pat Shumur to line up Jerick McKinnon in the slot to exploit a Saints defense which allowed six catches and 101 yards to Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey last week.
Saints cornerback Ken Crawley has been an inconsistent tackler and has struggled with double moves or head fakes at the stem of routes. He’ll likely be tasked with keeping tabs on Stefon Diggs, which is definitely encouraging. The Vikings match up very well with the Saints’ secondary and had the Panthers not went 1-for-4 in the red zone, the game would likely been much different. Closing drives with touchdowns in the red zone is going to be key as the Vikings try to get off to a quick start.
Defensive end Cam Jordan will test Rashod Hill after dominating the Wild Card game with a sack, multiple deflections and quarterback hurries. He had one sack in Week One and the Vikings must keep the pocket clean. Expect Pat Shumur to try running the football, while setting up play action to create deception like rub plays in their route concepts. New Orleans had trouble passing off guys last week and the Vikings will likely try to cause confusion. Quarterback Case Keenum must continue taking care of the football. He only had one game this season where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. In the one loss down the stretch in Carolina, Keenum tossed two picks. The Vikings can’t reward Drew Brees with a short field or things will get interesting.
Zimmer’s opponent preparation
The Vikings will try to keep their momentum rolling at home against Drew Brees and the Saints. If they can control the New Orleans running back duo and keep Brees from taking over the game, they will be in an excellent position. Many people have been neglecting to truly discuss the success of the Vikings defense. They were the top unit in nearly every category, while posting a record-breaking third down conversion percentage. More importantly, the Vikings are 7-1 under Mike Zimmer when having eight or more days to prepare for a team. Minnesota’s coaching staff will dial up a scheme to attack New Orleans and everyone should be excited to see their approach.