The inaugural game of the 2010 NFL season featured a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. You know, where pigs flew and hell froze over. Brett Favre enacted his drama routine, once again missing almost all of the preseason, going into the Week One matchup looking his age. Speaking of age, the Vikings defense was getting up there, yet they managed to give the opener all they had while limiting Drew Brees and the Saints in a low scoring, physical and vindictive rematch. Sunday's game may be as physical, but it won't be as close.
After the Saints denied the Norsemen their vengeance, both teams trended in drastically different directions. The Vikings continued on a losing streak, finishing the season with a 6-10 record, losing Brett Favre, Brad Childress, half the Williams Wall, and all of the Metrodome Roof. On the other hand, the Saints managed an 11-5 record, clinching another postseason appearance despite accumulating injuries of great significance to the New Orleans secondary and offensive backfield.
The roof on the Metrodome - a.k.a. Mall Of America Field (why not Mall Of America Dome?) - was fixed, although that's about the only thing that the Vikings can consider fixed. While I think Leslie Frazier is a fine coach, the Donovan McNabb band-aid didn't hold, and Christian Ponder has had his fair share of growing pains from having to play sooner than was expected. This is not surprising, since he did not get many of the first team snaps in the truncated offseason. Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen still look to be on top of their games, but the rest of the team is lacking in depth and playmakers. They are undergoing renovation, and it may take a few more years to replenish the roster with youth at the skill positions on both sides of the ball. They also badly need to revamp the offensive line.
All things considered, I have to take my hat off to Jared Allen. Minnesota has a bad secondary, yet teams are finding themselves with a lead and aren't throwing as much against them as you might think they would (33 attempts per game, only 21st in the league). And despite losing half of the Williams wall in addition to Ray Edwards, Jared Allen leads the NFL in sacks. It's simply remarkable.
Many have given Allen big kudos for filling in as a long snapper for an entire game the other week, but did you know he was actually drafted to be the Chiefs long snapper? This guy has a non-stop motor and has worked his mullet off from being regarded as a "special teams nobody" to becoming one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. He's the real "all day" because he brings it for 60 minutes. How many of you can name the Saints long-snapper? Do you know what position he plays (or, more accurately, played in college) other than long-snapper? Imagine him becoming an all-pro at this other position. That's just what Jared Allen did.
Just as surprising as Allen's 17.5 sacks are the 14.5 sacks from the rest of the defensive line. Everson Griffin and Brian Robison have combined for 10 in the defensive end rotation, while former Saint Remi Ayodele and Kevin Williams have added 4.5 from the defensive tackle spot. On the bright side, as good as Jared Allen is, Jermon Bushrod has done well matched up against him with very little help. Saints fans need to start giving Bushrod some long overdue pats on the back for this. I believe the Saints all-pro guard duo will allow Drew Brees a pocket to step into, though I worry a little more about Zach Strief's battle with the DE playing opposite Allen. We'll have to rely on Drew's quick release against a porous and limited Viking secondary, as well as a few scheduled running plays designed to exploit a penetrating and overaggressive defensive line.
The Vikings are getting decent play against the run with their linebackers. The Henderson brothers (literally) and franchise-tagged Chad Greenway don't account for many sacks or fumble recoveries, but they are a step above what the Saints have. They understand that their team strength is the penetration of the defensive line, and with that comes a trade-off in the run game. Because of this strength, offensive linemen are able to reach (block) the Vikings LBs easier since the defensive linemen are occupied with getting to the QB as opposed to keeping the LBs "clean" by staying in their gap and holding up the blockers.
While the defensive line's pass rush is a strength, the secondary and their coverage is where this team is the weakest. Three quarters of their starting secondary - Antoine Winfield, Husain Abdullah, and Tyrell Johnson (whom some Saints fans pined for in the draft) - are all on injured reserve. The Vikings have been playing two rookie CBs, another who's been through two surgically repaired knees, and a guy who spent most of the season on his couch doing his best Carson Palmer impersonation. Chris Cook was suspended for a short time and hasn't played the last three weeks. The Vikings have gone an NFL record eight games without an interception. They have a league-low six interceptions for the year, one less than the Saints.
While the New Orleans secondary gives up more yards than everyone except the Packers and Patriots, like the Packers and Patriots, they have a high-powered offense. Teams are throwing more against the Saints/Packers/Patriots in an attempt to "catch-up" and score before time expires.
Here's the point: forget the total yardage. instead study the opposing QB rating and yards per attempt - that will tell you who has the worst pass defense. The Colts have the worst, giving up 8.4 yards per attempt and an opposing QB rating of 108.7, but the Vikings are right there next to them with 8.1 yards per attempt and an opposing QB rating of 107.1.
Aaron Rodgers has a QB rating of 121.5 in 2011, leading the NFL. The next two highest QB ratings belong to Drew Brees (105.9) and Tom Brady (106.0). In essence, every QB who has played against the Vikings secondary has looked as good as the most elite QBs in the game. So imagine what Drew Brees will do to the Vikings. Want to know how it will look? Think back to his performance against the Colts, and that will give you a good indication. The question isn't "will Drew have a big day?" but how soon Sean Payton decides to tone it down and start running the ball. Dan Marino's record won't stand much of a chance after this game.
You can rest assured that the Saints offense will have a big day, but how about the defense? Adrian Peterson was carrying the offense on his back, but his ankle gave out from the burden. It's looking like he may play on Sunday, but how long can he be effective once New Orleans begins to build a lead? The only other threat the Vikings have is Percy Harvin. Joe Webb may find his way back in this game in the role of special packages that force the Saints to respect his rushing ability. Wonder why Willis McGahee is having a big year in Denver? Because the linebackers can't flow to him and disregard Tebow, so he has bigger rushing lanes. In the same way, if the Vikings choose to sprinkle in Webb early, they may have a few big runs in the first half.
The defense will get better as the game progresses. Translation: as the offense scores and forces the Vikings to become more one dimensional. Neither Ponder nor Webb scare me as passers, especially since their offensive line is horrible at pass protection and Percy Harvin is the only target who can run away from defenders. The Vikings best hope is to get a few turnovers while the game is close so that they can try to keep their rushing attack relevant and Drew Brees on the sideline. Even under that scenario, I don't see this game as close after halftime. The Saints should win big, and the defense should look improved. I expect to see four or more sacks from the Saints along with a few turnovers. I expect the Saints to win 45-13. I only hope Vegas sees it the same way so Mr. Official doesn't try to keep the game too close while his "Uncle Don in Nevada" gives him a wad of cash for a stocking stuffer.
1. Saints - 31.9 points per game, 448 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 54% 3rd down conversion, 31:40 time of possession, -2 turnover margin
16. Vikings - 21.1 PPG, 337 YPG, 5.3 YPP, 41% on 3rd down, 29:02 TOP, -6 TO margin
1. Saints - 353 YPG, 8.0 yards per attempt, 71% completion, 32 TDs, 11 INTs, (55) 20+ yard pass completions, 23 sacks given up, 105.9 QB rating
26. Vikings - 191 YPG, 6.6 YPA, 57% completion, 16 TDs, 13 INTs, (37) 20+ yard completions, 41 sacks allowed, 77.0 QB rating
4. Vikings - 146 YPG, 5.2 yards per carry, 15 TDs, 5 fumbles lost, (15) 20+ yard rushes
8. Saints - 123 YPG, 4.8 YPC, 13 TDs, 2 fumbles lost, (12) 20+ yard rushes
18. Vikings - 28 PPG, 350 YPG, 5.5 YPP, 44% 3rd downs allowed, 10 fumble recoveries
27. Saints - 22 PPG, 378 YPG, 5.9 YPP, 33% 3rd downs allowed, 3 fumble recoveries
26. Vikings - 249 YPG, 8.1 YPA, 68.2% completions allowed, 26 TDs, 6 INTs, (44) 20+ yard passes allowed, 40 sacks, opposing QB rating of 107.1
30. Saints - 268 YPG, 7.3 YPA, 57.7% completion, 20 TDs, 7 INTs, (42) 20+ yard completions, 27 sacks, 87.9 opposing QB rating
9. Vikings - 102 YPG, 3.7 YPC, 9 TDs, 3 forced fumbles on running backs, (8) 20+ yard rushes allowed
15. Saints - 110 YPG, 4.9 YPC, 10 TDs, 7 FFs, (11) 20+ yard rushes allowed
Overall Statistical Analysis: It is very simple. Drew Brees is an elite quarterback of his own accord. Average quarterbacks look elite against the Viking's secondary. Drew Brees will be on the bench by Quarter 4. The Vikings have moved the ball well, especially on the ground, but they are terrible on third down and have given up 41 sacks - that's one more than their defense has gotten in return, and their defense ranks near the top for most sacks. So when push comes to shove, the Vikings won't be able to run the ball because they'll be trying to play catchup, and they won't get caught up because they can't protect a rookie quarterback and lack playmakers.