The New Orleans Saints will travel north to Minnesota for the second time this season. This match up against the Minnesota Vikings will determine who advances to the NFC Championship game, a spot neither team has been in since facing each other in the 2010 title game. Their first match up this season was in the Monday night season opener, where the Minnesota offense had an efficient and productive night against the Saints defense in a 29-19 Vikings victory. Much have changed for the New Orleans defensive unit since that loss, but a few faces has changed on the Minnesota offense as well. Today, we take a look at how the new look Saints defense may fare against the NFC North champion Vikings offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints pass defense ranks 15th in the league, but is a pressure oriented, aggressive unit. They rely on blanket coverage from young cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, while putting pressure on the passer with a variety of blitzes, twists, and stunts up front. The attacking approach has resulted in 42 sacks, and an often hurried opposing quarterback. First team All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan leads the team with 13 sacks, and New Orleans has gotten a sack from 13 different players this season, bringing pressure from all angles. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata have been a disruptive presence inside in recent weeks, and the team sacked Carolina's Cam Newton four times in last week's wild card victory over the Panthers. Safety Vonn Bell has played extremely well in the injury absence of Kenny Vaccaro, playing solid coverage and finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks in the regular season. The Saints success on the back end begins with the ability of Lattimore and Crawley to lock up on outside receivers in one on one coverage, allowing Bell and free safety Marcus Williams to take a more active role in man-to-man coverage if necessary. P.J. Williams has been a bit inconsistent at times, but is a solid number three corner. They have given up some yards through the air, particularly down the stretch of the year, but their 20 interceptions were third in the league. Craig Robertson is the Saints most athletic linebacker in coverage, but has been much more effective when used in blitz packages. New Orleans has struggled at times against athletic tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field. Both issues were exposed last week against the Panthers, as tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffrey each had over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The Saints will face a different quarterback than the Sam Bradford-led attack that torched them for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns in week one. Case Keenum has been the quarterback for the 11th ranked Minnesota passing attack for 14 games since Bradford was placed on injured reserve, leading the team to an 11-3 record in his starts. Keenum has completed nearly 68% of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 toucdowns and only 7 interceptions. His favorite receiver is Adam Thielan, who had 91 catches for 1,276 yards and 4 touchdowns while earning his first Pro Bowl bid. Thielan was nearly unstoppable in week one against New Orleans, catching 9 passes for 157 yards. Stefon Diggs has proven to be a threat from anywhere on the field, and his 7 receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against the Saints jump started him to a season of 64 catches for 849 yards and 8 scores. Tight end Kyle Rudolph's numbers (57-532-yds., 8 touchdowns) were a bit down from last year, but he is still one of the better receiving tight ends in the league, and running back Jerick McKinnon added 51 catches for 421 yards and two scores out of the backfield.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans has been inconsistent against the run this season, but has often come up with the big plays when it matters most. The unit ranked 16th in rush defense during the regular season, surrendering a bit shy of 112 yards per game on the ground. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Tyeler Davison, along with David Onyemata, have been extremely disruptive in recent weeks, not only playing a major factor in the Saints pass rush but also against the opponent's rushing attack. Their ability to cause havoc in the middle has allowed linebackers Craig Robertson, Manti Te'o, and safety Vonn Bell free to shoot the gaps towards the running back. Defensive end Cam Jordan has finally gotten the national attention he deserves as a pass rusher, but he has also been a stout run defender throughout his career. The losses of linebacker A.J. Klein, defensive end Alex Okafor, and safety Kenny Vaccaro to injury has weakened the team's rush defense, but the Saints employ a swarming style. The approach has caused big plays at crucial moments for the aggressive New Orleans defense, but also resulted in some big runs allowed when an opposing runner breaks containment. Despite inconsistencies, the Saints have allowed only four running backs to rush for over 100 yards against them, and none within the last 7 games.
One game that the Saints did struggle mightily against the run was in their week 1 loss to Minnesota. Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook ran over New Orleans for 137 yards on 22 carries in that Monday night evening. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Cook went down for the year in the season's fourth game. Taking the reigns of the Vikings 7th ranked rushing attack after Cook's injury was Latavius Murray, who rushed for 842 yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Jerick McKinnon is better known as a receiving back, but added 570 yards and 3 scores on the ground for a Vikings rushing attack that has averaged 122 yards per game. Murray is a very capable runner, a former pro bowler with the Oakland Raiders who has had three games of at least 95 yards rushing, and McKinnon is an underrated versatile threat that will help the Vikings offense control the clock and the pace of a game. Minnesota's ability to control the ball on the ground takes the pressure off of Keenan and the passing game, and makes their play action attack dangerous all over the field.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Alot has changed since these two teams met in the season opener. De'vante Harris was a starting cornerback for New Orleans that night, and the Vikings passing game picked on him seemingly every play. Ken Crawley did not play, and Marshon Lattimore was not yet the level of a shutdown pro bowl cornerback we have seen most of the year. The Vikings will not have Sam Bradford at quarterback or Dalvin Cook at running back, but the unit has been effective for the majority of the season. New Orleans must win battles up front against a Minnesota offensive line that was expected to be a team weakness going into the season, but has held up reasonably well. Key injuries to players such as Klein, Vaccaro, Okafor, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Alex Anzalone may be catching up to the Saints, who have given up alot of yardage in recent weeks. Remember too that the opening week against Minnesota was a baptism by fire of sorts for rookies such as Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and rookie end Trey Hendrickson. This young Saints defense has certainly come of age this season, and is playing with the type of confidence not seen from a New Orleans defense in years. Will it be enough against a balanced and underrated Minnesota offense?