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Beating the Saints

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

The Vikings draw one of the favorites to win the NFC tournament in the wild card - the 13-3 New Orleans Saints. Playing on the road in the Superdome adds to the challenge of upsetting the heavily favored Saints.

The Vikings are pretty heavy underdogs (8 points), and the vast majority of the national NFL media are firmly in the ‘Vikings are gonna get blown-out’ camp and ‘Kurt’ Cousins is pretty much the worst QB in the playoffs. Pro Football Talk went so far as to exclude him from the list of 12 quarterbacks, having also picked Taysom Hill as a better QB than Cousins.

You’d almost think that Mike Zimmer’s Vikings haven’t beaten Sean Payton’s Saints - with largely the same players - two of the last three times.

They may have also forgotten that the only time the Saints beat the Vikings the last 3 years, the Vikings were missing the following starters: left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Tom Compton, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, linebacker Anthony Barr, and Dalvin Cook. They may not be aware that the Vikings offense will have all its starters healthy and playing on Sunday for the first time since week 6, while the Saints will be missing two key starters on their defensive line- Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins - and most likely starting cornerback Eli Apple.

They may not have looked back at Kirk Cousins’ passer ratings the last two matchups - in 2017 and 2018 - which were 132.6 and 107.7 respectively. Drew Brees, by contrast, has been held to sub-90 passer ratings in his last two match-ups against Mike Zimmer’s defense. In the last one he was also held to just 120 yards passing.

No matter.

We know the narrative: Saints won their division, are 13-3, while the Vikings sucked against the Packers, didn’t win their division, and are only 10-6. Drew Brees is a winner, Kirk Cousins is a loser.

But delving a little deeper, and actually looking at the match-up, as I did a couple days ago, reveals that these are two fairly evenly matched teams. If you consider injuries, the Vikings may even have a bit of an advantage over previous games too.

In any case, let’s take a look at some game planning that could work for the Vikings on Sunday.

Vikings Offense

The Saints last loss was to the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago, in a 48-46 barn burner in New Orleans. The 49ers, led by head coach Kyle Shanahan, employ the same offensive scheme the Vikings normally use. The Vikings got it via Gary Kubiak, who got it from Kyle’s old man, Mike Shanahan. It’s the outside zone, misdirection, under-center, play-action, QB boots and waggles, and occasional shots down the field offense that goes back a few decades. The Rams under Sean McVay use the same offensive scheme too, and guess what? They beat the Saints with it last year in the NFC Championship game in New Orleans - and again this year in week two.

So, given that the Vikings use the Kubiak/Shanahan offense, and it has been effective against the Saints’ defense, you’d expect the Vikings to do what they’ve been practicing since OTAs. Only they’ve gotten away from it some games- against the Packers, Chiefs, and a couple other games at least. The reason, perhaps, was the absence of Dalvin Cook and how opposing defenses game planned against them. But getting away from what they’ve practiced and are best-suited for proved to be shooting themselves in the foot - and it showed in the offensive performances in those games.

But for the first time since week six, the Vikings offense will have all their starters on the field and ready to go. This should allow them to to get back to that mid-season form with a full complement of play-makers at their disposal. Having both Diggs and Thielen active makes it risky to play single-high safety, and playing with two deep safeties makes it difficult to stop Dalvin Cook out of the backfield. That’s the benefit for the Vikings.

Looking at the Saints’ defensive game film, there are a number of plays opposing offenses have had good success with most of the time:

  • Wide receiver reverses. These seem to work for 5,10,15 yard gains time and again. Great first or second down play against the Saints.
  • Quick pitches outside are often effective as well.

Running those plays on occasion will help keep the Saints’ DEs wary of defending the outside and keep them off-balance. They also setup play-action passes over the middle. The Saints defense has given up the most additional yards on play-action passes, compared to no play-action, of any defense in the league.

Kirk Cousins is also one of the best QBs in the league in play-action passer rating, and has had overall passer ratings of 132.6 and 107.7 his last two games against the Saints’ defense in 2017 and 2018, throwing for over 300 yards in each game. Last season the Vikings ran play-action on 20.8% of pass attempts. This season they’re running play-action on 31.4% of pass attempts.

Beyond the play-action, running boots and waggles off of it should give Cousins the time for shots down the field.

And in-between the pass plays, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison rush attempts inside and outside to keep the Saints off-balance. Running off left tackle, with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins out, makes a lot of sense when Cam Jordan plays left end.

Lastly, using tempo at key moments and personnel groupings could help the Vikings keep the Saints defense on its heels.

Vikings Defense

The Atlanta Falcons played the Saints tough both games this season, and defensively did so with eight in the box most of the time. Perhaps more than slowing down the Saints’ running game - which it did - it slowed down the Saints’ short passing game by clogging the throwing lanes.

Drew Brees has become a predominantly short/intermediate route passer at this point, and he prefers throwing over the middle - slants and crossing routes. His second most go-to route is to dump it off on a flat route to a back most often. If his statistical average holds against the Vikings, he’ll only throw three passes further than 20 yards down the field.

What the Saints are counting on in their passing game to generate explosive plays is yards after the catch - which they’ve been 3rd best in the league in generating. Whether it’s Kamara out of the backfield, or Michael Thomas on a slant route, or Jared Cook on a seam route, Brees makes a relatively high percentage completion and allows his playmakers to make plays to turn a routine play into a big one.

The obstacle to achieving that against the Vikings, however, is that the Vikings defense gives up the second fewest yards after the catch in the league. They do so by allowing the fewest broken tackles and having by far the best tackling PFF grade in the league.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Zimmer has Jayron Kearse, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith lined up across the second level to disrupt the Saints short/intermediate passing game, and minimize their running game. Although that look may be disguised pre-snap, or shown and changed at the snap to confuse Brees.

That would leave Anthony Harris as the single-high safety, Waynes on Ted Ginn, and Rhodes/Hill on Michael Thomas. If Tre’quon Smith is in the slot, Kearse would be on him. The Saints also line up Thomas in the slot on occasion, and Kearse could be a good match against him, having his same size and speed.

It will be interesting to see how Xavier Rhodes is able to defend Michael Thomas. Rhodes has clearly had his worst season in several years, but he also does best against bigger, physical receivers - pressing and disrupting their routes early on. He was effective against Julio Jones week one, and given his contract situation, he needs to perform in the playoffs if he wants to get paid going forward. Rhodes is the same size as Thomas, who ran only a 4.57” 40 coming out, so not so big a speed advantage over Rhodes, who ran a 4.43” 40 coming out, but has lost a couple steps since then.

I would imagine Eric Kendricks would be tasked with Alvin Kamara most of the game, whether stopping the run or in coverage. If the Vikings’ All-Pro linebacker can minimize Kamara, who’s not had as a good a season this year, that would minimize a big piece of the Saints’ offense and force them to be much more one-dimensional.

I would also imagine that Anthony Barr and/or Harrison Smith would be charged with defending the Saints’ tight-ends - Jared Cook and Josh Hill. The Vikings have been tops in minimizing TE production this season, so they should be able to minimize the Saints’ TEs.

The Saints also use Taysom Hill in a variety of positions - QB, TE, RB. As QB, he’s often looking to make the deep throw Brees isn’t so good at anymore. But whatever his role, I wouldn’t be surprised if Harrison Smith is tasked with defending him: Blitz when he’s a QB, cover when he’s a TE or back out of the backfield.

Upfront, the marquee matchups will be the Vikings DEs Griffen and Hunter against the Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. All four players are good, and it will be a good competition the entire game. The Vikings DEs will win some of those snaps, but only those a longer down and distance and/or when Brees holds the ball longer.

But don’t be surprised if Zimmer and the defensive front find ways to work on left guard Andrus Peat, who’s the weak link in the Saints’ offensive line. One way to do that is to shade Linval Joseph to the right, causing center Eric McCoy to double him with Larry Warford. The Vikings can then use Ifeadi Odenigbo at 3-tech one-on-one with Peat. To complicate things further for Peat, Zimmer could threaten, and occasionally send, Anthony Barr through the A-gap between McCoy and Peat.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, who’s listed as questionable with a hamstring, is likely to play. He has the highest sack rate (sacks per pass rush snap) of all Vikings defensive lineman. Even if Odenigbo doesn’t get to Brees, he’ll be in position to at least disrupt, and maybe even tip, some of Brees’ pass attempts.

Bottom Line

The Vikings have both the scheme and personnel to implement effective game plans against the Saints on both sides of the ball.

Moreover, they’ve played the Saints tough the last three meetings over the last two years, and this year have all of their players, including all of their offensive weapons, available while the Saints are missing some important pieces on their defensive front.

That may help make up for losing the home field advantage they’ve had in previous contests.

Lastly, the Vikings defense has been causing more turnovers the last few games. Not just the Chargers game, but also the Packers, Lions, and Seahawks. The Saints have not had more than one turnover in any game this season. If the Vikings are able to continue generating turnovers as they have been most recently, that could help derail the Saints offense and give the Vikings a big upset on the road to start their playoff run.