On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings head down to The Big Easy to try and do something that’s anything but—beat the New Orleans Saints on the road in the wildcard round of the NFC Playoffs. To help us get to know the Saints a little better, I did a five questions exchange with Chris Dunnells, the managing editor of the Saints SB Nation site Canal Street Chronicles.
So grab a beverage of your choice, sit back, and enjoy the good answers to my particularly bad questions, and thanks to Chris and the folks at CSC for taking the time to give us some insights on the Saints in preparation for this Sunday. Here’s to a good game with no injuries.
DN: The last three times the Vikings and Saints have met, including the playoffs, Minnesota has won two of those games. Granted, all three have been in Minnesota, but even in that Sunday Night loss last year, the Vikings had the lead and were seemingly in control of things until Adam Thielen fumbled on the Saints 18 right before halftime, the Saints returned it to the Vikings 18, and then scored a touchdown going into the locker room. That changed the entire complexion of the game, and the Saints ended up winning 30-20. In all three games, Drew Brees has been okay to good, but not the Hall of Fame player we’ve come to expect, at least for large chunks of each game. What do you think the VIkings have done to play Brees so well, relatively speaking, and what will the Saints do differently on Sunday to counter that?
CSC: What do I think the Vikings did to play Brees so well? I think they were a better team on defense then.
In 2018, the Vikings had the 4th ranked based on total yards. They were also the 3rd ranked defense against the pass that year. Going back one year further, in 2017, the Vikings had the number one defense in total yards and the 2nd best defense against the pass. Fast forward to 2019, and the Vikings are the 14th ranked defense in total yards and the 15th ranked defense against the pass.
I don’t follow the Vikings that closely, so aside from the unexpected and unexplained fall from grace of Xavier Rhodes, I don’t really have too much of an answer to explain the drop in play. Did the personnel change? Did the personnel stay the same but the performance just drop? Did the coaching scheme change to not best utilize the personnel there? I’m not entirely sure.
The 2018 and 2017 Vikings and their vaunted defense seem to be no more. The Vikings are still a physical team with talent on both sides of the ball, but they fail to strike fear in the heart of their opponents in 2019. Different year, different team. If the Saints want to have a better shot of it in 2019, it might not be about what Drew needs to do differently, but about what the Vikings won’t be able to do the same.
DN: We all know about Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara. Obviously stopping or slowing them down will be a huge part of the Vikings gameplan. Who is someone on offense that Vikings fans might not know about that they need to keep an eye on as the game unfolds, besides those three big pieces? Note: You cannot Say Taysom Hill. If Taysom Hill beats the Vikings on some weird, flukey, bojankety Wildcat-throw-it-to-himself play it will piss me off for the rest of my life. I mean, unless it is Hill. then you can talk about him.
CSC: Well, since you put it that way, let’s start with Taysom Hill, but not in the way you think. Hill has actually slowly emerged as a surprisingly-reliable wide receiver option for New Orleans, catching six touchdown passes in 2019, the same amount as Stefon Diggs. He’s already someone opposing defenses have been forced to focus in on, but now he’s starting to get used in more versatile ways - running routes, throwing bombs, and laying out blocks.
But if you want someone that isn’t Taysom, I’ll go with Jared Cook. After a slow start to the season, Cook has caught fire of in the second half of the season, catching 7 touchdowns in 7 games, averaging 66 receiving yards per game in that span. He’s too big for nickel corners, so if he’s lined up in the slot against, even against Jayron Kearse, Drew and Cook have excellent chemistry on seam routes.
If you want to focus in on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, that could mean you’re lining Cook up against a smaller-sized corner or Taysom up against a clunkier linebacker.
DN: Going back to that Sunday Night game, Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport each had two sacks, and wreaked havoc on the Vikings offensive line all night. On Sunday, neither will play as they’re on injured reserve. Who are there replacements, how well are they playing, and what’s the key matchup for you when looking at the Saints defense against the Vikings offense?
CSC: The Saints had surprising depth on the defensive line, so the “replacement” for each player isn’t a single player, but rather a rotation of players. For Davenport, expect to see Trey Hendrickson, Mario Edwards Jr., and Carl Granderson. For Sheldon Rankins, that means more David Onyemata and Malcom Brown.
That being said, the matchup I’m looking at when the Vikings have the ball is Cam Jordan against the Vikings offensive line. Jordan has 15.5 sacks this year and has a knack for knocking down the ball at the line, which could come in handy considering Kirk has had 11 batted passes in 2019. This game could turn on which version of Kirk Cousins shows up, and that could be determined by the amount of pressure Cam and the rest of the defensive line are able to generate.
DN: I mentioned Rankins and Davenport, but are there any other key injuries that could affect the Saints on either side of the ball?
CSC: The Saints will be healthy on paper, but they’ve had a handful of players with nagging injuries. Most of the Saints offensive line, including Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, and Larry Warford have all missed multiple games in 2019. The Saints are also going to likely be without their full back, Zach Line, for another week, and the Saints are one of few teams that heavily utilizes their fullback.
On defense, the Saints have had a handful of injuries in the secondary, but again, most look to be back for this game. Eli Apple will likely miss this game, but his former-turned-current teammate in Janoris Jenkins will be slotting in as a replacement.
DN: So, this game aside...I came across an interesting piece of info that looks over the horizon a little bit. Spotrac listed 2019 playoff teams and projected their available 2020 cap space. The Saints are currently sitting at 28th with a lot of money coming due to Drew Brees next year. Is this an ‘all in’ year for the Saints to try and make one more Super Bowl before Brees retires, or do they have enough flexibility with other contracts that you expect your Super Bowl window to remain open for a couple more years, and do you think Brees will return next year?
CSC: The cap is but a myth to Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis. Every year it seemed the Saints have no cap space, but every year they still manage to make a splash or two in free agency.
To answer your question, though, this is as much of an “all-in” team as one could be consider Drew Brees is close to his 41st birthday. I think Drew’s 2020 future hinges primarily on what happens this year. If the Saints can win a Super Bowl, I could see Drew riding off into the sunset and calling it a career. If there’s another heart-breaking end to the season, I could see Drew trying to make one more run of it in 2020. If Brees indeed decides to stick around another year, I imagine they would restructure his contract which includes a a $21 million cap hit in 2020 and that then frees up additional money heading into free agency.
Good luck Sunday. Here’s to a good, injury-free game.