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Vikings vs. Saints: A Playoff Preview

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A deeper look into the Vikings-Saints matchup

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Saints have beaten the Panthers, and the Falcons dispatched the Rams, setting up a Vikings - Saints Divisional Round match-up Sunday at US Bank Stadium, let’s preview what many are already saying will be the big game among all the Divisional Round match-ups this weekend.

PAST AS PRELUDE

This game is not only a re-match of the 2009 Bounty-gate NFC Championship game, but also a re-match of the week one contest the Vikings won handily, 29-19, in a game that was very much in hand for the Vikings by the beginning of the 4th quarter, if not earlier.

But there is much to discount from that early match-up, particularly as both sides have lost key players to injury since then, and both sides have seen improvement in other players as well.

For the Saints, they have lost several starters on both sides of the ball, including,

On defense:

  • Linebackers AJ Klien and Alex Anzalone;
  • Defensive End Alex Okafor;
  • Safety Kenny Vaccaro

Those starters were responsible for 19 tackles and 6 assists in the week one matchup - roughly 40% of total tackles for the Saints that game.

On offense:

  • Right tackle Zach Strief (lost halfway through Vikings game)
  • Left guard Andrus Peat
  • Tight-end Coby Fleener
  • Adrian Peterson

The Saints moved starting left tackle Ryan Ramcyzk to right-tackle to replace Strief, and installed Terron Armstead at left tackle, who has also missed a couple games due to injury, including week 17, and was questionable for the Panthers game. Andrus Peat broke his fibula in the Panthers game, and was replaced by Senio Kelemete, who presumably will start against the Vikings. That weakens what was already a weak interior offensive line when it comes to run blocking, where all three starting interior linemen for the Saints have earned poor run-blocking ratings from PFF. The Saints had only 60 yards rushing week one against the Vikings, and had only 41 yards rushing against the Panthers in the wild card game.

TE Fleener led the Saints in receiving the first game, and caught the Saints’ only TD pass late in the 4th quarter. So, while the loss of Adrian Peterson was undoubtedly addition by subtraction (AP only played 15% of the offensive snaps week one too), the loss of Fleener is a bigger one for the Saints offense.

Fleener and Anzalone were two of the highest rated Saints in that week one match-up, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).

For the Vikings, they lost three starters from the week one match-up: Sam Bradford, Nick Easton and Dalvin Cook. Bradford had a nearly perfect game against the Saints defense. He went 27/32 for 346 yards and 3 TDs. Dalvin Cook had 127 yards rushing. Together they accounted for basically all of the Vikings offense that game, and Bradford was one of the highest rated Vikings by PFF in that game. Nick Easton has also been lost, and may be replaced by Jeremiah Sirles, or possibly Joe Berger if the Vikings decide to go with Reiff-Berger-Elflein-Remmers-Hill as their starting offensive line against the Saints, which is a possibility.

Overall, the Saints gave up 470 yards and 29 points in that week one match-up. They also gave up 413 yards to the Panthers in the wild card game in New Orleans, and would have given up 29 points as well, but for a Panthers missed field goal, to the Panthers’ offense- ranked 12th in points, and 19th in yards. The Vikings are ranked 10th and 11th respectively.

The Vikings defense gave up 344 yards week one, and 19 points. Since week three, they’ve given up over 300 yards only twice- both road games. The Vikings defense has not given up over 300 yards or 19 points at home since September.

ANALYZING THE MATCH-UPS

SAINTS GROUND GAME

Coming into this game, the Saints have been lauded for their dual-headed rushing attack of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, in addition to Drew Brees and an improved defense.

But did you know that the Saints have been limited to under 100 yards rushing in four of their last five games? And against defenses worse than the Vikings’ against the run?

It’s interesting: Alvin Kamara, since suffering a concussion week 13, has declined noticeably as a runner, going from just over 7 yards an attempt prior to that, to only 3.5 since - a 50% decline. His overall production as both a receiver and a rusher has also declined.

And in the Saints’ last three games, Ingram and Kamara have combined to average just 3 yards a carry. That’s worse than the Vikings’ league-worst rushing average per carry last season. It’s also what the Saints averaged week one against the Vikings.

Could it be that the Saints’ vaunted rushing attack is running out of gas? Their bye week was 12 weeks ago... that’s a long time for backs and an offensive line to hold up... and the run blocking grades for their interior linemen are all poor according to PFF...

SAINTS PASSING GAME

Here’s another question: how many 300+ passing yards games has prolific passer and future HOFer Drew Brees had this season? Four. Out of 17 games. He threw for over 300 yards against Carolina in the wild card game, but for the first time since week 11 against the Redskins. His only other 300+ passing yard games were against the Packers week 7, and the Patriots week 2. Only one of those 300+ yard passing games were on the road- against the Packers’ sorry and injury-riddled pass defense. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, in the past few games, as the Saints’ ground game has sputtered, the Saints have relied more on their passing game- and going longer down the field. Both Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn have seen a big increase in yards per reception in recent weeks- is that sustainable against the Vikings pass defense- ranked 2nd in yards allowed, yards allowed per attempt, and allowed the fewest passing TDs in the league?

Week one, Xavier Rhodes held Michael Thomas- far and away the Saints’ leading receiver- to just 45 yards on 5 receptions. Ted Ginn had 53 yards on 4 receptions, Mark Ingram had 54 yards on 5. It’s worth noting that outside of Rhodes, both Trae Waynes, Terence Newman and MacKensie Alexander have improved over the course of the season.

It would seem likely that Xavier Rhodes would likely shadow Michael Thomas on Sunday, with Trae Waynes on Ted Ginn, and Terence Newman on Brandon Coleman. There’s not much there for match-up advantages for the Saints.

In any case, the trend offensively for the Saints in recent weeks has been a reversion to the passing game behind Drew Brees. This was also what happened with the Saints offense week one against the Vikings- where they were held to only 60 yards rushing.

Brees has been a very accurate passer at every depth, quick to get the ball out, and can make big time throws. But he does struggle under pressure (only a 63.2 passer rating vs. pressure this season), according to PFF. Turning 39 on Monday, Brees lacks mobility and isn’t much of a threat to run.

Brees is still very capable, but he needs help. He had a 104.7 passer rating (about average for him this year) in the 29-19 loss to the Vikings week one.

Overall, in situational offense, the Saints have converted 37% of their 3rd downs this season (about the same as week one) and 60% of their red zone opportunities (but only 20% week one against the Vikings).

SAINTS DEFENSE

In general, talk about the Saints this year also centers around their improved defense. And yet, during the past three games, the Saints have given up 400 yards of offense on average per game.

In situational defense, the Saints are near the bottom of the league in 3rd down conversions allowed (27th) allowing teams to convert 41% of their 3rd downs. Their red zone defense is somewhat better (ranked 14th), but still allowed opponents to convert 52.1% of their red zone opportunities.

Week one, the Vikings converted 50% of their red zone opportunities- in line with the Saints average allowed for the season- while also converting 64% of 3rd downs, well above the Vikings season average 3rd down conversion rate of 43.5%.

VIKINGS GROUND GAME

The Vikings have been working on their ground game, it seems, over the past few weeks, and may utilize some different looks that were not used in the week one contest. Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards against the Saints week one, with another 10 receiving yards. That is roughly what the level of production the combination of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon has achieved since the bye-week.

Since the Vikings bye-week, Murray has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, slowly becoming the workhorse back, while Jerick McKinnon has been more balanced between running and receiving. Combined, they’ve averaged 110 yards rushing per game since the bye-week, adding an average of 35 receiving yards per game, or 145 total yards per game.

Looking at the Saints defensive starters in terms of PFF run-defense grades, their interior line defenders are good, but their linebackers are not so much. Strong safety Vonn Bell looks to be a liability against the run as well, as do their edge rushers outside of Cam Jordan.

This could present an opportunity for Pat Shurmur to utilize an un-balanced line in the ground game to good effect, as they have on occasion the second half of the season. For example, the Vikings could go with an unbalanced line opposite of Cam Jordan (who typically plays right-end on running downs) to expose weaknesses on the second-level at LB and SS. A double-tight end set to that side or possibly even a power run may accomplish the same effect as well. The Falcons also had success running an unbalanced line on the right, only to pitch it left to Devonta Freeman for a big gain. That play could work for the Vikings with Jerick McKinnon.

One key element of the run game also remains to be seen: the starting offensive line. Presumably Pat Elflein will be back (I think he’s probably at this point), which would lead you to expect an OL of Reiff-Sirles-Elflein-Berger-Remmers. But from the experimenting we saw in the Bears game, it’s possible that the lineup could be Reiff-Berger-Elflein-Remmers-Hill. This latter lineup is probably the best five for the Vikings, and makes for both a stronger run-blocking and pass-blocking unit if Berger can adapt to playing on the left side quickly- after playing center against the Bears.

In any case, a few starting defenders for the Saints in week one have been moved to IR, as previously mentioned, and while their replacements have done alright, the Saints defense has allowed an average of 111 rushing yards per game, including ranking near the bottom of the league (26th) in yards per carry allowed (4.4) this season, and allowing 4.6 yards per carry in away games. Both of those numbers are worse than the 4.3 yards per carry the Saints allowed in week one against the Vikings.

So, while the Vikings lost Dalvin Cook to IR since week one, there is every reason to expect their rushing attack to be at least on par with the performance that began the regular season four months ago.

VIKINGS PASSING GAME

Sam Bradford had a nearly perfect game for the Vikings week one against the Saints, going 27/32 for 346 yards and 3 TDs. We’ll never know what kind of season Bradford would have had if he had remained healthy, but we do know what kind of season Case Keenum had in his stead. Keenum has been a top 10 QB in all the important metrics- passer rating, QBR, ANY/A, completion percentage, under pressure ratings, INTs. He hasn’t had top overall passing yards or passing TDs - but he has led in nearly all the efficiency metrics above. And for a team with a great defense and a balanced, west coast scheme, that is really his main mission- be efficient, don’t turn the ball over, move the sticks, make a play here and there.

And so he has. But he is a different quarterback than Sam Bradford, and Keenum would not have made all the throws Bradford made week one. Nor would he have likely been asked to. Pat Shurmur designs the offensive plays and calls to suit his players, and quarterback in particular. So, he changes the plays as necessary to suit Keenum’s strengths and preferences- just as he did for Bradford.

And while Keenum may not be quite the passer Bradford was week one, Keenum brings his quirky ability to extend plays with his feet in the pocket, or outside the pocket, and even move the chains with his feet- something Bradford did not do as well.

In terms of QBR, which attempts to rate quarterbacks according to the value they added, both in terms of their positive or negative contribution to a play, and weighted in terms of context (a 3 yard completion on 3rd and 2 is worth more than a 9 yard completion on 3rd and 10), Bradford had a QBR of 94.9 week one- 7th best for any QB in any game this season. Keenum had two games where he achieved a higher QBR this season- week 10 at Washington (99.1, 2nd best) and week 12 at Detroit (96.3, 4th best). He also was comparable in week 3 against Tampa Bay, with a 93.6 rating after going 25/33 for 369 yards and 3 TDs - very similar to Bradford’s week one performance.

Since the bye-week, Keenum has completed 71% of his passes with 15 TDs and 4 INTs, and has an average per game QB rating of 107.2.

Again, we don’t know what kind of season Bradford would have had following week one had he been healthy, but we do know Keenum’s was better overall than any season Bradford has had in the past. We also know that Keenum seems to be more of a leader with better chemistry with the players than Bradford appeared to have, and looks to be a QB that can rise to the challenge and atmosphere of a big game- he certainly seems to have done that through the important stretch of games for the Vikings following the bye-week against quality opponents- which was key in securing both a post-season birth and a first-round bye.

Mike Zimmer said in his press conference today that while the Vikings offense has been efficient over the last three games, he is looking for more explosive plays. Don’t be surprised to see Pat Shurmur and/or Case Keenum dial them up. I suspect that may have been something they worked on during the bye-week - and they may not all be deep passes either.

One guy for the Saints that is addition by subtraction since the week one matchup is De’Vante Harris. He was beat a few times by Stefon Diggs in that contest, and who has been replaced by Ken Crawley, who has done very well in coverage.

Having said that, in the week one matchup, the Saints had trouble with 4 WR formations, and particularly bunch formations like the ‘gun bunch’ formation. It seems to give their coverage fits often times, not just against the Vikings, but other teams as well. I noticed several big plays against the Saints from a bunch formation, and it will be interesting to see if/how much Pat Shurmur employs that formation on Sunday.

A couple other things I noticed watching film of the Saints pass coverage:

  • Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, while very good in coverage generally, are prone to give up receptions on in-routes and slants- sometimes for big gains. They are both essentially rookies this year (Crawley had limited action last season), so the potential for mistakes or getting fooled on occasion is there- and shows up on film.
  • Crawley can get beat deep on occasion, and/or give up DPI penalties.
  • The back-end of the Saints defense hasn’t worked together beyond this season, and they can get misaligned and/or blow a coverage here and there. None of their starting DBs have more than 2 years in the NFL.
  • If Lattimore shadows Diggs, Crawley would likely cover Thielen in 2WR sets, and probably Treadwell in 3WR sets, with PJ Williams covering Thielen in the slot. Crawley is 6’ 180lbs. Against guys like Treadwell or Michael Floyd, he’s giving up a lot of size- 2-3” and 30-40 pounds, which could come into play. I could see him getting beat deep by Adam Thielen or Jarius Wright as well, if the Vikings look to work that match-up.
  • Lastly, PJ Williams in the slot is the Saints worst graded CB by PFF. He’ll likely be covering Adam Thielen, the Vikings best receiver, most of the time. There will be opportunities there. Thielen has an excellent double-move that could result in a big play or two no matter who’s covering him.

Overall, the Saints pass defense may be susceptible to shots over the middle to Diggs or Thielen that could turn into big gains, outside screens, wheel routes to McKinnon, and outside routes to TEs. Occasional deep shots- and double moves- will test the Saints’ young DBs (all are rookies or 2nd year players) and force them to defend the whole field.

The key to all this will be for the offensive line to give Case Keenum the time he needs. They will need to account and game plan around Cam Jordan, to minimize his impact. The rest of the Saints’ defensive front is good generally, but also manageable for the Vikings’ OL. If Jordan can be minimized Keenum should have, or create, the time he needs to deliver the ball.

VIKINGS DEFENSE

The Vikings have the ability to match-up with the Saints’ receivers in press-man, off-man, and/or zone coverage, and likely will have Xavier Rhodes shadow Michael Thomas during the course of the game. He held him to 45 receiving yards week one, and given Rhodes’ shut-down of pretty much every big-time receiver he’s faced this year, I doubt Thomas will have a big game on Sunday. That creates fewer opportunities for Drew Brees compared to the zone coverage Carolina played most often in the wild card game, and may force him to hold the ball longer than he’d like, leading to pressures.

I imagine Trae Waynes will be on Ted Ginn most of the time, if Rhodes shadows Thomas, and Newman on Coleman or Snead. None of these present match-up problems for the Vikings. The Saints’ TE Josh Hill, who replaced Coby Fleener, has been underwhelming, earning a poor PFF grade for his efforts, so I don’t see a big threat there either.

The Saints like to use their screen game to Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, but I expect the Vikings defense will be expecting it and would be surprised if the Vikings blitzed much to make their screen game more effective.

In terms of the Vikings DL vs. the Saints OL match-up, the Vikings will likely be helped by injuries the Saints have sustained since week one. They just lost Andrus Peat against Carolina, who will be replaced by Senio Kelemete, who’s done well in relief at both guard spots and right tackle this season for the Saints, but if anyone else goes down, the Saints will likely see a big drop-off in performance.

As it is, all of the Saints interior linemen have earned poor grades from PFF in run blocking. Going up against Linval Joseph, that isn’t going to be a good match-up for them. That will likely force the Saints to run more outside, but both Hunter and Griffen are good in setting the edge and forcing a back to bounce outside, where the Vikings have excellent run pursuit at both LB, S and CB positions.

So, as good as the Saints’ running back tandem has been at times during the season, I don’t see them having a big game rushing on Sunday.

In the passing game, there is more of a question in terms of the DL/OL match-up. Just about all the Saints’ OL are good in pass protection. Terron Armstead has been battling injury, so he may not be 100% against Everson Griffen (who faced Ramczyk week one), but he has nevertheless played well. I suspect the Vikings may test Kelemete with some stunts to see how well he responds, and likely will show some double-A gap stunt looks, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see mainly a 4-man rush, with only an occasional safety or A-gap blitz.

But overall I would not be surprised if Mike Zimmer focused mainly on taking away Drew Brees’ weapons, and pre-snap reads, forcing him to work harder for what he gets and hold the ball longer than he wants. Pressure will come, and Brees poses little risk of beating the Vikings defense with his feet.

THE TREND IS THE VIKINGS FRIEND

Beyond the match-ups, there are a few trends that favor the Vikings, including:

  • In the past nine post-seasons, a playoff team with the #1 defense in points allowed has never lost a home game.
  • The Saints have lost their last three road games.
  • The Vikings have won their last five home games.

The Vikings also have the advantage of resting during their bye-week, not to mention the opportunity to install some new wrinkles the Saints haven’t seen yet. Both advantages could have an impact in Sunday’s game.

BOTTOMLINE

A general look at seasonal stats shows the Saints to be probably the toughest NFC match-up opponent for the Vikings this post-season. But a deeper look into match-ups and trends suggests the Saints may once again have a difficult time beating the Vikings at US Bank Stadium.

At home, the Vikings have converted 45% of 3rd downs this season, while the Saints have given up that same percentage on the road. That suggests the Vikings should be able to sustain drives, wear down the Saints defense, and keep Drew Brees off the field.

On the other side, the Saints have converted 37% of their third down opportunities, while the Vikings defense has allowed only 25% of third downs to be converted. Those percentages for both teams have been trending lower in recent weeks. That suggests, absent big plays, that the Saints will have fewer scoring opportunities compared to the Vikings. And the Vikings defense hasn’t allowed many big plays, either.

Both teams are averaging around 50% TD conversion in the red zone on offense, but defensively the Vikings have been tougher in the red zone- allowing only 40% conversions compared to the Saints’ 52%.

All that suggests Drew Brees and company face an uphill battle at US Bank stadium on Sunday, where the Vikings are 4 point favorites.

Poll

How will the Vikings fare on Sunday?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    Win and beat the 4 point spread
    (2716 votes)
  • 12%
    Win, but not beat the spread
    (410 votes)
  • 8%
    Lose
    (282 votes)
3408 votes total Vote Now