Minneapolis, MN. Site of Super Bowl LII, along with of course the New Orleans Saints 2017 regular season opener this Monday night.
Before the Saints can even realistically think about ending their year with a Super Bowl berth, they must of course take care of business during the regular season. Today, we take a look at a few key match ups that are likely to determine the outcome of this important regular season opener.
Saints Defensive Backs vs. Vikings Receivers
The Saints are coming into this contest with two rookies, three 2nd year players, and a third who has only seen 6 quarters of game action in his professional career. P.J. Williams, a 3rd year pro, could draw the top coverage assignments in man to man duties. He has had a solid camp and preseason, but is almost as inexperienced as the rookies in the backfield, having played in less than 6 quarters during his first two years in the league.
Marshon Lattimore showed flashes of why the Saints drafted him with the 11th overall pick this spring, showing the athletic ability and man to man coverage skills of a top level corner. They will lock up with Vikings starting receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Diggs is the Vikes biggest game breaking threat, and Thielen is a reliable intermediate target. Former 1st round draft pick Laquon Treadwell is expected to be a bigger part of the offense in his second season as well.
The Saints 3rd and 4th corners, Ken Crawley and Sterling Moore, will undoubtedly see a significant number of snaps against multiple receiver sets, and safeties Marcus Williams, Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell will be heavily involved in protecting against the big play over the top, as well as intermediate coverages. Tight end Kyle Rudolph may be Minnesota's most consistent target, and the Saints have struggled against athletic tight ends in recent seasons. Rudoloph, Diggs, and Thielen all had over 850 yards receiving a year ago, and quarterback Sam Bradford has always been good at spreading the ball around to different targets. The New Orleans secondary needs to not only limit big plays against an average receiving corps, but also create turnovers to create a shorter field for it's offense.
Saints Receivers vs. Vikings Defensive Backs
As most of you know, Saints wideout Willie Snead will miss the first three games due to league suspension. New Orleans still has budding superstar Michael Thomas, sure to draw extra attention from a very talented Vikings defensive backfield. Xavier Rhodes could draw the bulk of one on one assignments against Thomas, but Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, and Mackensie Alexander form one of the better cornerback units in the league, and safety Harrison Smith provides a dangerous threat in the middle of the field.
Brandon Coleman had perhaps his best camp as a pro, and will be counted on more heavily than he has up to this point in his career. Ted Ginn Jr. was brought in to add a down field threat to take the top off of defenses, and Tommylee Lewis showed in preseason that he may be ready to take on a larger role in the offense. Tight end Coby Fleener performed below expectations as a free agent addition last season, and must become a threat in the middle of the field and down the seam for this offense, and Alvin Kamara is likely to become a big part of the passing game. Thomas seems poised to become an elite receiver, but Brees' other targets must step up for this passing attack to remain among the most dangerous in the league.
Saints Linebackers vs. Vikings Running Backs and Tight Ends
One of the Saints biggest Achilles’ heels in recent seasons has been a lack of athleticism and playmakers among their linebackers. The team took big steps to change that this offseason by drafting Alex Anzalone, signing A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o in free agency, and hiring Mike Nolan to coach the group. The difference looked evident in preseason, as the group teamed with 2016 leading tackler Craig Robertson to show off a more aggressive and versatile unit.
The Vikings signed free agent Latavius Murray and drafted Florida St. playmaker Dalvin Cook in the second round in hopes of bolstering the 32nd ranked rushing attack from a year ago, as well as replacing Adrian Peterson. Murray and Cook are both versatile backs that Minnesota hopes will provide adequate targets in the passing game as well as take over the running game. Rudolph has already been pointed out as a significant threat from his tight end position, and the New Orleans safeties will play a role in containing him. However, the Saints linebackers must start matching up better than in years past with opposing backs and tight ends for this defense to hold up better on 3rd downs, getting their explosive offense back on the field.
Saints OTs Ryan Ramczyk and Zach Strief vs. Vikings Defensive Line
Max Unger's return to center, Larry Warford's free agency addition at one guard along with Andrus Peat's continued at the other guard spot could give New Orleans one of the best interior line combinations in the league. Star left tackle Terron Armstead seems on track to return within a month, which will certainly help an offensive line lacking in depth. Until then his spot is manned by this year's 32nd overall pick Ramczyk, who showed good tools in camp, albeit with limited game action. Veteran Strief continues to be a warrior, playing some of the best football of his career at the age of 33 last season.
Minnesota's 2nd ranked defense from a year ago is led by a rugged front four. Ends Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Brian Robison may not be household names, but can certainly disrupt an opponent's backfield and force mistakes. The three combined for 28 sacks in 2016, and will provide a challenge to Strief and Ramczyk to protect Drew Brees and hold the edge for the New Orleans running backs.
Saints Defensive Line vs. Vikings Offensive Line
Cam Jordan is one of the better defensive ends in the league. The Saints added Alex Okafor in free agency to go along with the returning Hau'oli Kikaha to hopefully provide a solid complimentary rush opposite Jordan. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata looked like a formidable trio during preseason, and rookie end Al-Quadin Muhammad looks like he could be a potential steal as a late round draft choice.
The Vikings completely remade their offensive line this offseason, after struggling to protect the quarterback and open holes for the running game a year ago. Free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers will man the outside spots, while rookie Pat Elflein was drafted to take over at center. The three players are certainly talented, but the Saints defensive front will certainly have an opportunity to take advantage of a line that has not yet jelled. Quarterback Sam Bradford is not mobile, and easily rattled under pressure. It will be vital for the New Orleans front four to control the running game and disrupt Bradford to take pressure off the young Saints secondary.
Saints Running Backs vs. Vikings Linebackers
Yes, the main storyline of the game is Adrian Peterson's return to Minnesota. The future Hall of Famer will certainly be hyped to go up against his former team, and will undoubtedly get plenty of opportunity to show if he still has much football left. Mark Ingram is coming off of his first career 1,000-yard season, and will be anxious to show that he belongs among the top backs in the league. The most versatile weapon on the field Monday night may be the Saints first 3rd round pick this spring, running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara showed the explosive running style he was coveted for this preseason, and he is expected to add a dynamic element to the Saints passing game as well.
Vikings linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are the stars of a unit that gives opposing offenses fits in both the passing game and as run defenders. Their athleticism will be the first huge test of Kamara's young career. The Saints backs must draw attention of the Minnesota linebackers to open up a play action attack. Expect them to be targeted often in the passing game, setting up one on one match ups in the open field.
The Saints have not won a season opener since 2013, the last time they went to the playoffs. Playing on the road is always difficult, particularly in a nationally televised season opener. Getting off to a fast start this season will be especially vital to the season's success for this Saints team with so many young players on both sides of the ball.