Once again, it’s time for us to have a sit down with the Minnesota Vikings’ opponents and get some intel on what they see happening in the upcoming game. As we did in Week 1, I got an opportunity to send some questions to the folks from Canal Street Chronicles, SB Nation’s site for everything relating to the New Orleans Saints. Christopher Dunnells gave me some answers to the questions I had for their site, and those are below. You can see the answers that I had for his questions right here.
1) We know that both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have different roles since the last time these two teams played. Who are some of the other players on the Saints’ roster who have seen an increase in their workload since these two teams met in Week 1?
Man, I don’t even know where to begin honestly.
Do you remember Sam Bradford lighting up the Saints secondary for 346 yards and 3 TDs? Tom Brady found similar success in Week 2, passing for 447 yards and 3 TDs. Most of that work was against a CB named De’Vante Harris, who was pulled from the starting defense before Week 3 and has since been demoted off the Saints roster. Ken Crawley, who has now come into his own as the Saints #2 corner, didn’t play a single snap until Week 3. (It’s also important to note that in the majority of Saints losses or in games where the opponent has a big day passing, Harris was forced back into the starting rotation due to injuries - vs Redskins, at Rams, etc).
But Crawley has seen an increase in playing time due to performance, there have been plenty of others who have been forced into bigger workloads because of injury. The Saints have had an insane number of players go on IR this year (over 20). Compare that to the Vikings who have currently only 5. Much of the Saints starting defense has been injured, with LB Alex Anzalone (another culprit in the Saints poor coverage in the first two weeks), LB A.J. Klein, DE Hau’oli Kikaha, S Kenny Vaccaro, and DE Alex Okafor all done for the season. That has meant LB Craig Robertson has been put back into the starting lineup from Special Teams and Manti Te’o has seen more starting reps than originally expected, and both have filled in admirably. Rookie Safety Marcus Williams along with second-year Safety Vonn Bell have also had to step up more in place of Kenny Vaccaro, and the two have done more than expected. When Vaccaro would occasionally line up in the slot in coverage, now the recently re-signed Sterling Moore along with Week 1 starter P.J. Williams have been asked to take on that role. The Saints have lost multiple Edge rushers behind Okafor, but as of now the Saints are using a combination of rookie Trey Hendrickson along with George Johnson, a veteran the Saints signed off the street just a few weeks ago.
Then we can look at the offense. On the offensive line, All-Pro Tackle Zach Strief landed on IR early in the season. In his place, 2017 1st Round Pick Ryan Ramczyk has graded out as the second best 1st Round Rookie (behind fellow Saint Marshon Lattimore) by Pro Football Focus this season, so there hasn’t been much of a dropoff there. He’s been joined by this week by Andrus Peat, who was a starter at both Guard and Tackle. That means Senio Kelemente is back as a starting O-Lineman, and I’ll talk about him in the next question.
TE Coby Fleener, who caught the Saints lone touchdown for the Saints in Week 1, is also on IR. That has meant the Saints have used Josh Hill as their passing TE and Michael Hoomanawanui for blocks.
I’ll skip over a lot of the less important Saints players on IR who have had to be replaced and will mention just one Special Teamer whose playing time has increased - QB Taysom Hill. The 6’2 third-string QB has taken over as a Special Teams Ace as he’s used his 4.4-speed to make tons of plays all over the field. He’s even started to see the occasional snap out wide on offense. It hasn’t happened just yet, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Sean Payton actually either throw to him on offense or run some kind of trick play to get him the ball on special teams.
2) The Saints lost starting left guard Andrus Peat last week in their win over Carolina. Who is his replacement, and how much does this impact the Saints’ offensive line?
His replacement will be Senio Kelemente, who has been the Saints’ “Sixth Man of the Year.” He’s a free agent this offseason, and I’m sure some team will play him big money as a guaranteed starter in 2018. He’s not quite as athletic as Andrus Peat, but the Saints shouldn’t feel too much of a drop-off with Kelemente in the lineup. He’s not spectacular, but he won’t make mental mistakes either. The Saints haven’t fielded a completely healthy offensive line all season, and Kelemente has been asked to play starter’s snaps when Peat, Larry Warford, or Terron Armstead have missed time. The Saints’ talent and depth on the offensive line was a strength coming into the season, but they are now one injury on the O-Line away from this being a completely flustercuck.
3) Last week, Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen had a big game against New Orleans, putting up over 100 yards and a touchdown. With Kyle Rudolph waiting this weekend, have tight ends been an issue for the Saints all season?
All season? No. Really only since the aforementioned injuries to Kenny Vaccaro and A.J. Klein. Rudolph is by no means a slouch, but he’s 1) not the caliber receiver Olsen is (Olsen has had 3 of his past 4 seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards, and Rudolph has only topped 550 once in his career), and 2) not the primary read in the Vikings passing offense, so I don’t expect quite the same numbers this week.
I wouldn’t be shocked for Rudolph to have a good game on Sunday, but the Minnesota passing game flows through Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. That being said, the Saints CBs who would be covering those two are now the strength of the current Saints defense. The Vikings would be better off focusing more on getting Rudolph and Jerick McKinnon lined up against Linebackers in coverage. That’s not to say that Diggs and Thielen won’t find success, but the Vikings should be able to move the ball a little easier by attacking the Saints linebackers rather than their defensive backs.
4) With the Vikings fielding the NFL’s best defense and only allowing about 12 points/game at home this season, how do you expect the Saints to attack the Vikings’ defense when they have the ball?
I know, I know, it was a road game for Minnesota, but I’d look for the Saints to run a similar game plan as Carolina did against the Vikings in Week 14 when Jonathan Stewart rushed for over 100 yards and 3 TDs on the ground: run the ball right up the middle of the Vikings defensive line. Xavier Rhodes is everything we hope Marshon Lattimore to be as he progresses in his NFL career. I think there will be times Michael Thomas is able to catch a ball on Rhodes, and other times I think Rhodes will get his hands on a ball to swat down a pass, so I view this matchup as a push. Trae Waynes and the Vikings Safeties are all vastly underrated, and I don’t like the Saints pass-catchers in their projected match-ups to try to get open. The Vikings Linebackers in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are incredibly adept at diagnosing plays and athletic playing sideline to sideline. That means I wouldn’t expect to see a big game from Alvin Kamara on outside runs or from either Saints’ RB in the screen game. The Vikings defense is built to rush the passer, so I think the best way to attack this defense (even though it’s far easier said than done against the second-best rushing defense in YPG) would be with Mark Ingram running up the gut and trying to get mismatches with Alvin Kamara in the slot against Ben Gedeon.
5) How do you see this game playing out on Sunday?
I know this seems like a cheap cop-out answer, but my head tells me the Vikings win, but my heart wants it to be the Saints. How do I imagine the game plays out? I bet the Saints 2017 season, as much of a surprise as it has been, comes to an end this Sunday. The Vikings defense will be flying all over the place, the fans will be crazy, and the Saints offense will continue to stall on third downs (something the Vikings have been historically good at this season). The Vikings offense will do just enough with the consistently short fields, and Minnesota will begin their 2017 revenge tour.
Now that I’ve buttered you up, let me tell you the one way I can see the Saints win:
Jared Goff had never played in a playoff game in his career. He had a magnificent 2017 regular season, and then failed to really show up in his first postseason game. We saw the same thing from Blake Bortles last week. Yes, his Jaguars team was able to will itself to victory, but Blake was absolutely terrible after a solid regular season. Ditto for Tyrod Taylor. Taylor played fine (unremarkable, but fine) in 2017, and then crumbled in his first playoff start. Even Marcus Mariota, in his first postseason start, threw for “only” 205 yards and two TDs to one pick. The three QBs who really had themselves good games in the Wild Card weekend were Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, all veteran QBs who have been there before. The entire NFL media has waited for the other shoe to drop for Case Keenum, but he’s proved doubters wrong all year. If the Saints want to win this game, they’ll need to mix up exotic blitzes, get pressure to Keenum, and hope that he’s not able to stand up to the pressure of making his first playoff start. If the Saints could jump out to a quick lead, I imagine the Vikings fanbase (who is so desperate and so deserving of a Super Bowl in franchise history) will hold their collective breathe in fear of another incredible season falling into the bin of “What Could Have Been.” If the Saints take advantage of any early redzone opportunity and can rattle Keenum early, I personally do not believe this Vikings team to be built to consistently play from behind.
I know I’m one of the hated Saints fans (and yes, crucify me because I do not believe the Saints 2009 Super Bowl deserves the asterisk most Vikings fans wish was there), but I have tons of respect for this Minnesota team. I firmly believe that whichever team wins this game will go on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I hope it’s New Orleans, of course, but more than that, I hope for a well-officiated and injury-free game where the better team wins. In the words of the great philosopher and scholar Richard M. Fliehr: “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.” And I believe these two teams to be the very best the NFC has to offer right now.
Big thanks to Chris for taking a minute to sit down and answer our questions in a gracious manner. Please be much more polite to him than (I assume) the folks at CSC have been in their comments section.