The New Orleans Saints travel north again this week, again to take on a division leader. This time, it's to face the NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings. The Saints (5-1) have won five straight games, while the Vikings (4-2-1) have won three straight. This is the third time in a little over a year that New Orleans has played the Vikings, all in Minnesota, and the third different Viking quarterback that they will face in that time. The Saints defense has risen to 18th in the league in total yardage after early struggles, but still has concerning breakdowns against the pass. They oppose a Minnesota offense that averages 380 yards and 25 points per game. One that torched the Saints pass defense in two games a year ago. Let's have a look at how the rematch shapes up for a Saints defense playing with confidence.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
Much of the discussion all week of course is about about the final play of the divisional playoff game between the two teams. As most know, with ten seconds to go in that playoff game after New Orleans had completed a comeback that had it looking like they were about to pull off the upset, then-Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum completed the improbable 61-yd. touchdown strike to Stefon Diggs to pull out the victory. New Orleans has had their struggles against the pass this season, currently sitting 28th in the league rankings and giving up 294 yards per game through the air. On Tuesday, the Saints completed a trade with the New York Giants for cornerback Eli Apple, the 10th overall pick of the 2016 draft. While it looks doubtful that Apple will make his New Orleans debut this week, it's clear that the team felt the need to upgrade their coverage. The secondary has done a better job at limiting big plays over the last month, but coverage and communication breakdowns were still evident last week against Baltimore. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams are again playing good football after a slow start to the season, and Vonn Bell has proven to be a solid compliment at the other safety spot. Opposing teams have targeted Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams heavily though, often with success. Cameron Jordan continues to be a pass rushing force, commanding double and sometimes triple teams. He has 5 of the team's 13 sacks, and is the emotional leader of the defense. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and ends Marcus Davenport and Alex Okafor have combined for five sacks and have pressured the quarterback well at times, but need to show more consistency to help the secondary. The Saints linebackers have contained opposing backs and tight ends well in their coverage responsibilities, and each have been used as effective blitzers.
Minnesota's pass offense ranks 7th in the league, and averages 293 yards per game. The Vikings made one of the league's most talked about offseason moves when they signed former Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins to a record breaking free agent deal. Cousins has been a bit up and down so far, completing 70% of his throws, throwing for 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, and eclipsing the 400-yd. mark twice this season. The Saints defense is familiar with Cousins, facing him twice while with Washington. Cousins riddled the New Orleans coverage in those contests, averaging 323 yards while throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He has even better receivers to work with in Minnesota that he had in Washington. Adam Thielen is one of the NFL's most productive and underrated wideouts. Thielen has had over 100 yards receiving and at least six receptions in every game this year, and has caught 67 passes for 822 yards and five scores. Stefon Diggs would be the top receiver on many teams, and has added 48 catches for 468 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is an excellent mid-range target, and has 28 receptions for 282 yards and two scores, and three of wideout Aldrick Robinson's four receptions have gone for touchdowns. Laquon Treadwell, the 23rd overall pick of the 2016 draft, is well on pace for his best season with 22 catches for 191 yards. Minnesota uses their running backs little in the passing game, often using them as extra protection against the pass rush, but can be dangerous in the open field out of the backfield. Cousins, who has a reputation of holding the ball as long as possible, has been sacked 19 times this year, and the Vikings offensive line is considered a team weakness.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints secondary vs. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs ~
Stefon Diggs is a name that will haunt Saints fans for the rest of eternity, but it is Thielen and his outstanding route running that often breaks a defense. Thielen had 15 catches for 231 yards in the two games between these teams last year, including 157 yards in the 2017 season opener. Diggs added 13 receptions for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns against New Orleans, including the playoff heartbreaker. Marshon Lattimore, who played sparingly in the '17 opener, will likely draw Thielen in many one on one match ups, but the entire Saints secondary must find a way to limit both Viking stars.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans continues to play outstanding run defense. They have allowed only 72 rushing yards per game, and opposing rushers are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry, both best in the NFL. Undrafted rookie defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth may miss his second straight game with an ankle injury, but Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and David Onyemata continue to stonewall blockers inside. The New Orleans defensive ends play the run as well as any edge unit in the league, and the entire defense flows to the run aggressively. Saints linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein are every down players who have been playmakers against the running game this entire season. Davis (49 tackles) and Klein (31) are the defense's top tacklers, and often snuff out plays before they ever get going. Manti Te'o returned to the lineup last week after missing two games with injury, and gives the New Orleans defense another solid defender against the run.
Latavius Murray (330 yards, 4.8 average, 3 touchdowns) is the Vikings leading rusher for a 27th ranked rushing attack that averages only 87 yards per game. Dalvin Cook, last year's promising rookie, has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury after missing most of last season with injury. He has carried the ball 36 times for just 98 yards, but the Saints defense knows what Cook is capable of when healthy. Cook rolled over the New Orleans defense for 127 yards on 22 carries in last year's season opener. Murray can capably produce in the running game, however, and Minnesota will look to establish the run on early downs to open up their explosive passing attack.
~ Matchup to Watch: Cam Jordan/Marcus Davenport/Sheldon Rankins vs. Vikings offensive line
Jordan, Rankins, and the rookie Davenport have been the playmakers on a Saints defensive line that has played very well for the most part this season. They'll be going up against a Minnesota offensive line that is not only inconsistent, but banged up as well. Left tackle Riley Reiff has missed the last two games with a foot injury, and guard Tom Compton exited last week with a knee injury. Both players are questionable for this week, and would be replaced by unproven players on a struggling line. New Orleans has the potential to dominate this match up, and must do so to stop the run and force Minnesota into third and long situations. They must also be able to get to Cousins early in the pass rush and either get him on the ground or force a rushed throw into coverage.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Vikings converted an eye-popping 61% of their 3rd down opportunities against the Saints in their two games a year ago. Minnesota is converting at a 38% rate on 3rd downs so far this year, while the New Orleans defense is 42% on 3rd downs. The key to beating a Kirk Cousins offense is heavy pressure from the front line. He reads the blitz well, and receivers Thielen, Diggs, and Rudolph make excellent adjustments to get open quickly. New Orleans looks to have the advantage against the run, but must be able to convert pressure into hits and sacks on Cousins while holding up in coverage. The biggest battle of the game will be in the secondary, where the Saints have just two interceptions this year and continue to have breakdowns in key moments, looking particularly vulnerable at the end of games. Fans will always remember that Marcus Williams missed the tackle on Diggs to allow the divisional playoff loss. What they forget is how well Williams had played during the game, including an acrobatic interception that keyed the Saints comeback. While Williams doesn't necessarily view this as a chance for "redemption", all eyes will be on him and the rest of the New Orleans secondary in this battle of NFC contenders.
What is the most important match up for the Saints defense against Minnesota?
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Saints defensive line vs. Vikings offensive line
Saints LB's vs. Vikings backs and tight ends
Saints CB's vs. Vikings WR's
Marcus Williams/Vonn Bell vs. Kirk Cousins