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Post-Miracle Thoughts & Take-Aways

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Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

I’m not sure how many times I’ve re-watched the Minneapolis Miracle. Pretty sure a lot more times than Blair Walsh’s missed FG. Or Gary Anderson’s. Or Favre’s interception. Or Drew Pearson’s push-off. Put together. I’ve looked at all the write-ups and newspaper headlines about that play, to the point where I’m not sure I could even remember anything else that happened in yesterday’s divisional round game against the Saints.

So I went back to take a look, and have some thoughts and take-aways from yesterday’s game.

DIFFERENCES FROM THE WEEK ONE MATCHUP

These two win probability graphs from Pro Football Reference sum up the game action from both match-ups pretty well, and highlight the differences- particularly in the 4th quarters. In both games, toward the end of the 3rd quarter the Vikings looked to have the game pretty well in hand.

Vikings- Saints Divisional Round Matchup
Pro Football Reference
Vikings-Saints Week One Matchup
Pro Football Reference

But as we know, the 2nd match-up had considerably more drama than the first game.

On the other hand, there are many similarities between both games as well. For instance:

  • The Vikings scored 29 points both games;
  • Diggs, Thielen & Wright had over 250 receiving yards both games
  • Drew Brees had just under 300 yards passing both games
  • Vikings QBs had over 300 yards passing both games
  • Saints were held to under 100 yards rushing both games
  • Vikings had over 400 yards of offense both games
  • Saints were poor on 3rd down both games
  • Vikings did very well on 3rd down both games
  • Turnovers were even the first game, and if you count the Vikings blocked punt as effectively a turnover, they were even in the second game as well.

So what was the difference? Red zone performance.

The Saints were 1/5 (20%) in the red zone week one. Yesterday they were 3-4 (75%).

Meanwhile the Vikings were actually more efficient in the red zone yesterday than week one (66% yesterday vs. 50% week one) but had only half the red zone opportunities they had week one (3 vs. 6).

The reason for the Saints’ increased effectiveness in the red zone may have been the emergence of Alvin Kamara over the course of the season, as he had 1 of the Saints’ 3 TDs, and nearly had another. It may also have been the Vikings giving the Saints a short field late in the game, with Keenum’s interception and Quigley’s blocked punt.

A TALE OF TWO HALVES

In yesterday’s game, perhaps the most striking contrast was the difference between the first and second half. I’m not sure that Sean Payton did anything particularly noteworthy in terms of halftime adjustments, but I do think the Vikings coaching staff decided to gear down somewhat on both sides of the ball.

Offense

Offensively, in the first half Pat Shurmur and Case Keenum took some deep shots down the field, working Ken Crawley for what turned into a couple of DPI penalties, while also connecting with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright on a few deep balls. I was surprised during the first half how clean the Vikings OL kept Keenum on many pass attempts. The Saints have a very good defensive front, but they were largely held in check during the first half, allowing Keenum time to make the throws that led to 17 points early on.

But in the second half, the offensive line was noticeably less effective in pass protection, with Keenum seemingly under pressure much more often. Not sure if the Saints did anything different, the Vikings OL was getting tired, or if it was something else, but there was a significant difference in performance between the first and second half, which played a big part in the results.

Defense

Defensively, I thought Zimmer was a bit more aggressive in his play calls in the first half than in the second half. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t blitz much, largely attempting to minimize Brees by taking away his weapons, rather than attack him directly, but he did blitz more often the first half than in the second, and was largely effective when he did blitz Brees. Harrison Smith had a sack near the end of the first half that added 10 yards to a field goal try- that Lutz subsequently missed.

But in the second half performance was also effected by some key injuries that took key players out of the game at key times. I don’t know that either Andrew Sendejo or Terence Newman played much (or at all) in the 4th quarter- when the Saints made their run offensively. Sendejo didn’t play at all after getting knocked out late in the third quarter. Neither were on the field for the Saints’ key 4th down conversion in the 4th quarter with 45 seconds left. Both their replacements- MacKensie Alexander and Anthony Harris- were the two closest in coverage (along with Barr underneath) on that play. But it was Alexander’s man (Snead) that made the catch for a critical first down. He had only one other reception for 5 yards the rest of the game. Had that gone incomplete, the game would have been over.

KEY NEGATIVE PLAYS FOR THE VIKINGS

A key difference in the second half came down to a few key negative plays by the Vikings, which they didn’t really have in the first half.

Case Keenum

Keenum made some nice plays- but also two key bad ones. The first was taking a sack on the opening drive of the second half that took the Vikings out of field goal range. Looking at the play again on tape, Keenum looked a little too long at Diggs- his first read- and hesitated once he looked to Rudolph- who was open over the middle for what would have been a drive extending first down. The key mistake was looking too long at Diggs, who had double coverage on an out route. In any case, he could have made a throw to Rudolph that would have either extended the drive, or resulted in a field goal attempt. Obviously had the Vikings scored on that drive- putting the Vikings up 20-0 or 24-0 mid-way through the 3rd quarter, that would have gone a long way toward eliminating any 4th quarter drama.

Secondly, Keenum put up a rather bad throw to Diggs, on 1st down at the Vikings 25 late in the 3rd quarter. That play was a key momentum shift. It gave the Saints the ball- right after they had scored their first touchdown- at the Vikings 30 yard line.

The play itself was a double move. Diggs stopped and planted for what looked like a quick WR screen, drawing CB Ken Crawley into him. Diggs then made his move- resulting in what should have been a holding penalty on Crawley from the replay (!) - but where Diggs still broke free of him up the field. Keenum saw that and threw it right as Diggs broke free.

The problem was Keenum was under pressure at the last instant inside from Cam Jordan, who was being blocked by Kyle Rudolph (Jerick McKinnon elected not to help and instead went for an outlet pass). As a result of the pressure, when Keenum made his throw, he was both being hit backward and made it off his back foot. That led to a pass that floated, allowing the safety enough time to make a play on the ball, which he did. Had Keenum been able to plant normally, that pass would not have been intercepted- the safety was too far away to make a play on the ball if it hadn’t been floated.

I suspect if Jerick McKinnon had elected to stay and help Rudolph block Cam Jordan- who was successfully bull-rushing Rudolph as he passed them to go out on a check-down route- that would not have been an interception, particularly as McKinnon was on the inside of Jordan, where he made his move to pressure and hit Keenum- causing his pass to sail.

Keenum later made basically the same pass to Diggs- only this time not a floater as he wasn’t being hit when he threw- with 10 seconds left in the game to win it.

Deflected Punt

Technically it wasn’t a blocked punt as it traveled beyond the line of scrimmage, but this negative play was on Stephen Weatherly, who elected to block the man to his outside, rather than the guy lined up across from him- who deflected the punt. It wasn’t a play beyond that either, but if Weatherly blocks the man he’s supposed to block, that punt would not have been deflected. It’s possible the mistake may have been made by the new long-snapper, who blocked the guy on the other side of him, but either way, that type of screw-up needs to be fixed ASAP.

Saints’ 4th Down Conversion Late in 4th Quarter

This was a key play with 45 seconds left in the game, 4th and 10, with the Saints out of field goal range at the Vikings 47 yard line. Ted Ginn, in man coverage on the left against Trae Waynes, ran a go route- covered well by Waynes from the get-go. Michael Thomas was in man coverage with Xavier Rhodes on the right. Willie Snead was in the left slot, covered by MacKensie Alexander in man coverage.

The Vikings showed, and remained in a two-deep safety look, with Harrison Smith over the top on the right, and Anthony Harris on the left. Kendricks was covering the back (Kamara) in the right backfield, and Barr the TE on the left, with Griffen lined up wide outside him.

Rhodes had jammed Thomas early, Waynes was all over Ginn, the TE stayed to chip Griffen, and ran a short out after that, which Barr covered.

Alexander’s man- Willie Snead- ran a 10-yard out route. Alexander seemed slightly off-guard when the ball was snapped, and didn’t get a jam on Snead, who made his cut, and Alexander was a bit late responding. That gave Snead the separation he needed, and Brees delivered a perfect strike. Barr had moved off his man once he saw Brees deliver, and Harris broke for Snead as well.

But the completion was on Alexander. Had he bumped him at the line, he would have been delayed in his route by a second, which would have made the throw more difficult for Brees, who would have been under pressure at that point. Snead didn’t run a particularly crisp route- and a 10-yard out on 4th and 10 shouldn’t have been a surprise to Alexander, but he was a tad late responding to Snead’s break. That’s a situation where if Terence Newman had been there, I’m not sure that’s a completion. But Alexander was the only CB who gave his guy a clean route off the line of scrimmage, and with safety help over the top, he hesitated too much on a 10-yard out route he may have anticipated a little more.

The other aspect of this play was Griffen lining up wide outside the TE. The TE chipped him, delaying his rush against the LT. Had he lined up off the LT, I’m not sure the TE chips him, but in any case he would have gotten in Brees’ face sooner. Dropping Griffen in coverage on the TE and blitzing Barr may have been more effective as well, but I’m sure a lot of things would have been better in hindsight. As it was, it was solid execution by the Brees and the Saints, which is what it took to beat not horrible coverage by the Vikings. Still, the difference between Newman and Alexander may have made a difference on that play.

PREPARING FOR PHILADELPHIA

Looking ahead to the Eagles, and considering the Saints game, a few key takeaways in preparation for next Sunday’s NFC Championship game:

  • Offensive line needs to step up. It’s good that they had a game in their new alignment with Remmers at LG and Hill at RT- and Elflein back at C- to get more acclimated to that setup, but the Eagles defensive line is as good or better than the Saints’. The Eagles strength is their interior line, where the Saints’ best player was Cam Jordan off the edge. With Remmers and Berger at the two guard spots for the Vikings, that may put the Vikings best two linemen on the Eagles two best, so both Remmers and Berger will need to deliver. Outside is no picnic either, as the Eagles have several good edge rushers as well. They have a rotation stronger than the Vikings’ up-front, which is saying something. Rashod Hill may need some help on occasion at RT, particularly if the Eagles decide to match-up Brandon Graham against him most of the time, and I would not be surprised if they did.
  • Hopefully Pat Shurmur will have some insight into the Eagles, having coached there with most of their current players.
  • Against the Falcons, Foles had only two deep balls the whole game. It was a steady diet of dump-offs to backs, running plays, and later a few slants and intermediate passes. YAC by the Eagles’ receivers was key. The Vikings don’t give up a lot of YAC.
  • It’s difficult to see the Eagles offense with Nick Foles scoring (m)any points against the Vikings defense. The key is to avoid turnovers and negative plays on special teams.
  • The Eagles have an excellent defense, with no glaring weak spots at any position. But they did give up 24 points to Seattle (with Wentz at QB)- who’s OL is worse than the Vikings- as they had trouble with Russell Wilson’s mobility. Shurmur could design some plays for Keenum (rollouts, boots, etc.) with that in mind.
  • The Eagles have given up 23+ points 9 times this season. Chiefs, Giants (both games), Chargers, Panthers, Redskins, Broncos, Seahawks and Rams all scored at least that many. The Giants really torched them both games- for 415 and 504 yards in two games. And they don’t have a good OL. In any case, with Foles at QB, 23 points should be enough for the Vikings to advance to the Super Bowl.
  • The Eagles have turned the ball over twice in each of their last 3 games- and were lucky it wasn’t more against the Falcons. Turnovers could be decisive on Sunday, in a match-up of two strong defenses.
  • Foles has 1 TD pass and 2 INTs over the past 3 games.

I’ll do another write-up on the Vikings-Eagles match-up, but the Vikings should match-up well against the Eagles defensively. Offensively, they’ll need to look closely at how they can beat the Eagles in their play-calling and match-ups, because the Eagles have given up points in a number of games. My thought is if the Vikings can avoid a Carolina-like game, they should be in good shape to advance.