The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings meet this Sunday afternoon in Minnesota to wrap up the NFL's Divisional Playoff weekend. This is a rematch of the season opener for both teams, when the Vikings the Saints down 29-19 on Sept. 11. New Orleans has always had a prolific offense under head coach Sean Payton, and this year is no exception. The Saints are ranked 2nd in the league in total offense, producing 391 yards per game, and their 28 points per game is fourth highest in the league. Opposing them is a formidable Minnesota defense, arguably the NFL's best. The Vikings allow a league low 15.8 points per game, and they rank 1st in the NFL in total defense, surrendering just 276 yards per contest. Let's take a look at how the Saints offense matches up against the top ranked Minnesota defense, with a trip to the NFC Championship game at stake.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have fueled the Saints offensive success for the majority of the season, leading the way for a 5th ranked rushing attack that produces nearly 130 yards per game. Ingram, who continues to be vastly underrated as a runner, finished with a career high 1,124 yards on the ground with 12 touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He runs with authority between the tackles, rarely brought down by the first tackler, and has good elusiveness in the open field.
Rookie Alvin Kamara is the epitome of elusiveness, adding to Ingram's rushing total with 728 yards and 8 scores on the ground of his own. Kamara, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, has also shown surprising strength and effectiveness between the tackles, establishing himself as one of the better all-purpose weapons in the league. The Saints offensive line has been one of the best in the league throughout the year, but left guard Andrus Peat suffered a broken fibula in last week's win over Carolina. Peat has been one of the team's best run blockers, also capably sliding over to left tackle when starter Terron Armstead has missed time with injury.
Minnesota has the NFL's 2nd ranked run defense, holding opponents to only 84 yards per game. They have held 10 opponents to under 100 yards rushing, and have yet to allow a team to rush for over 100 at home. The Vikings defensive line is a challenge for every offensive line they face, allowing pro bowl linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to run free to the ball carrier, while safety Harrison Smith is one of the better run defenders at his position. The Vikings held the Ingram/Kamara combination to just 35 yards rushing in their opening week match up, but remember that New Orleans was still dividing carries with Adrian Peterson at the time. They were also starting a rookie (Ryan Ramczyk) in place of Armstead at left tackle and lost right tackle Zach Strief early in the game. A concerning statistic for Saints coaches may be that New Orleans has been held to under 100 yards rushing in 4 of their last 5 games.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS DEFENSE
Michael Thomas has established himself as one of the better wide receivers in the NFL. He followed a team leading 104 receptions for 1,245 yards and 5 touchdowns in the regular season with an 8 catch, 131 yard performance in the wild card victory over Carolina. Ted Ginn followed one of the best receiving years of his career (53 catches, 787 yards and 4 scores) with 115 yards receiving and an 80-yd. touchdown catch.
Alvin Kamara has been arguably the most dangerous receiving back in the league, and was second on the team with 81 receptions for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns. The passing attack has not been as multi-dimensional as in years past, with inconsistent production from wideout Brandon Coleman and little contribution from the tight end position or wide receiver Willie Snead. Coleman (4 catches, 44 yards), and tight end Josh Hill (3-49yards, 1 touchdown) each had some key moments against Carolina, on a day where the Panthers focused on shutting down the New Orleans running attack. Quarterback Drew Brees responded to that Carolina challenge by completing 23 of 33 passes for 376 yards and 2 touchdowns. Brees did not have the video game type of statistics from recent seasons, but still completed an NFL-record 72% of his passes for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just 8 interceptions for the Saints 5th ranked passing attack.
The New Orleans offensive line has protected their veteran quarterback well this season, allowing only 20 sacks. Rookie right tackle Ryan Ramczyk has stood up well against some of the best pash rushers in the league, but received a baptism by fire of sorts in the season's opening week when replacing Armstead at left tackle. Vikings All-Pro defensive end Everson Griffen gave the young rookie fits all evening, sacking Brees once and heavily pressuring the Saints pass pocket throughout the second half. Minnesota's pass defense allows just 192 yards per game, ranking 2nd in the league. Everson Griffen (13 sacks) and fellow defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison apply heavy pressure from the outside, combining for 24 of the team's 37 sacks. The Vikings only have 14 interceptions, but their secondary is widely recognized as one of the best in the league. All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes (2 interceptions) is an elite cover man, and will likely draw the majority of man to man match ups on Michael Thomas. Minnesota also has Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, and MacKensie Alexander at cornerback, giving it perhaps the deepest corps in the league and providing a mammoth challenge to Ginn, Coleman, and Snead to get open downfield. Harrison Smith is an All-Pro safety that terrorizes offenses all over the field. He leads the Vikings with five interceptions. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are as formidable in pass coverage as they are against the run. Rarely are the Minnesota defenders caught out of position. Brees had 291 yards passing and a touchdown in the Saints opening week loss at Minnesota, but the New Orleans playmakers were held in check. Thomas had 5 catches for 45 yards, Kamara 4 receptions for 20, and Ginn 4-53. Running back Mark Ingram was the team's leading receiver that evening, with 5 catches for 54 yards.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The Saints had little success establishing a balanced offensive attack when these two played in early September. New Orleans will undoubtedly want to get Ingram and Kamara heavily involved in their offensive game plan. It will be important to the Saints success to establish at least the threat of a running game, and for Kamara and Ingram to make plays with limited opportunities in space. Look for both running backs to be a big part of the team's passing game, given the talent of the Vikings defensive backfield. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are athletic enough to be a challenge for the Saints pro bowl duo, but not many have been able to contain Ingram or Kamara effectively. Thomas must have some success against Xavier Rhodes and the other Minnesota cornerbacks. Not many been able to contain Michael Thomas, but the Vikings limited him to only 45 yards in their first meeting. Thomas is likely to get his catches, but the onus will once again be on Coleman, Ginn, and the other New Orleans weapons to make a few plays. Protection of Brees is especially vital, and it starts with the ability of Armstead and Ramczyk to control Griffen, Hunter, and Robison. Ramczyk was a bit out of position on the left side in his very first start, but has been playing like a seasoned veteran and future pro bowler, and a healthy Armstead is a top echelon lineman. Saints interior linemen Max Unger, Larry Warford, and Senio Kelemete have the ability to control the big bodies of Minnesota inside, if their tackles can handle outside responsibilities without much double team help. The winners of these match ups will almost certainly be celebrating a trip to the NFC Championship game this Sunday evening.
Which of these matchups do you believe is most important to the Saints offensive success?
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Ramczyk/Armstead vs. Griffen/Hunter
Thomas vs. Rhodes
Ginn/Coleman/Snead vs. Waynes/Newman/Alexander
Ingram/Kamara vs. Kendricks/ Barr