The Vikings boast one of the NFL’s most complete teams with a 10th ranked scoring offense (23.9 points per game) and the fewest points allowed on defense (15.8 points allowed per game) in the regular season. Minnesota dominated the Saints in week one, gaining 470 yards and holding New Orleans to nine points in the first three quarters on their way to victory. However, the complexion of both teams has changed since then.
New Orleans gained only 60 yards rushing in week one, but went on to finish fifth in rushing yards (2,073) and first in rushing touchdowns (23). The turning point came after trading running back Adrian Peterson, and giving Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara the playing time they deserved.
On defense, things changed after cornerbacks De’vante Harris and P.J. Williams, who struggled mightily in week one, were replaced by Ken Crawley and rookie Marshon Lattimore in the starting lineup. The emergence of rookie free safety Marcus Williams along with Crawley and Lattimore helped clean up the coverage breakdowns that plagued the Saints early in the season.
Meanwhile, the Vikings lost their starting quarterback Sam Bradford to injury just one week after posting a career-high 143.0 passer rating against the Saints. A few weeks later, promising rookie running back Dalvin Cook was added to injured reserve with a torn ACL after running for 345 yards in four games. New Orleans has withstood an injury bug of its own, with 21 players on the injured reserve list.
The Saints and Vikings share a storied playoff history. Minnesota blew out the Saints 44-10 in the 1987 Wild Card round, and again in 2000 with a 34-16 win in the Divisional round. More recently, Minnesota and New Orleans clashed in a wild 2009 NFC Championship game that went into overtime. The Saints came out on top with a game-winning field goal by Garrett Hartley, and went on to win their first ever Superbowl.
Here’s how the Saints can overcome a well-rounded Vikings team, along with a hostile crowd that has dwelled on that NFC Championship loss for eight long years.
New Orleans Saints Divisional Round Preview: Minnesota Vikings Show Few Weaknesses
Neutralize Minnesota’s Defensive Line
The Vikings have arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. They’re led by 2017 second-team All-Pro defensive end Everson Griffen, who finished the regular season with 13 sacks. On the other side of the line, Minnesota has Danielle Hunter, another dangerous pass rusher with seven sacks in 2017. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson can also get after the quarterback. They combined for 5.5 sacks in the regular season.
This defensive line is even better against the run. Minnesota’s dominance at the line of scrimmage helped them finish with the second-fewest rushing yards allowed (83.6 yards per game) at 3.7 yards per carry. The Vikings defense is too good for the Saints offense to become one dimensional like they did last week. New Orleans rushed for a season-low 41 yards against Carolina, and will need better blocking up front for Ingram and Kamara this week.
Overall, the Saints offensive line is better equipped to contain Minnesota’s front four this time around. In week one, the Saints were without starting left tackle Terron Armstead, and right tackle Zach Strief left with an injury in the first half. Rookie Ryan Ramczyk, who filled in at left tackle, has since started and excelled at right tackle since Armstead’s return in week five.
New Orleans did add starting left guard Andrus Peat to injured reserve this week, but he’ll be replaced by Senio Kelemete, who has been a reliable backup this season. When Kelemete has played at least 96 percent of offensive snaps, the production of the Saints run game has still been up to par. New Orleans averaged 130.4 rushing yards in those seven games, just above their 129.4 average on the season.
Shut Down the Vikings Run Game
Despite losing Cook so early in the season, Minnesota has gotten adequate production from running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Together, Murray and McKinnon combined for 1,412 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. Their production has been consistent too, as Minnesota rushed for 100 or more yards in each of their final eight games.
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum has filled in admirably for Bradford, and wide receiver Adam Thielen earned a Pro Bowl berth with a 1,276-yard season. As a result, Minnesota’s passing attack has enjoyed most of the recognition on offense, however, the key to this unit is balance. The Vikings offense actually ranked higher in rushing yards (seventh in the NFL) than passing yards (11th) in the regular season.
If the Saints can eliminate Minnesota’s ground game, it will put extra pressure on Keenum, who is starting his first ever playoff game.
Pressure Case Keenum
Keenum has benefited from a variety of receiving options. Along with Thielen, the Vikings have a speedy receiver in Stefon Diggs. Minnesota completes a lot of passes to Thielen and Diggs along the sidelines, but when opposing defenses respond by spreading out their coverage, Keenum attacks the middle of the field. Tight end Kyle Rudolph excels in the seam, while McKinnon is a safe receiving option out of the backfield.
The Saints likely can’t contain all four of these targets, so they’ll need constant pressure on Keenum. The veteran backup had a very efficient regular season, completing 67.6 percent of his passes, and throwing only seven interceptions. However, his worst games of 2017 were the result of heavy pressure.
Carolina sacked Keenum six times in week 12, forcing him to throw two interceptions. In week 15 against the Green Bay Packers, Keenum was sacked three times and hit on seven other attempts. He finished that game with a season-low 139 passing yards, and completed just 56 percent of his passes.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, they only have one consistent pass rusher. 2017 All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan had 13 sacks in the regular season. Safety Vonn Bell is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Behind Bell are defensive ends Alex Okafor and Hau’oli Kikaha, who are both on injured reserve.
The Saints will have to decide whether or not it’s worth the risk to blitz extra defenders to get the pressure they need, leaving themselves vulnerable against Minnesota’s talented receivers.
If New Orleans can satisfy these keys to victory, the Saints should be bound for the NFC Championship Game.
Embed from Getty Images