For the third consecutive week, the New Orleans Saints will face one of the NFL's better defenses. This time, it's a fellow top NFC contender in the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings currently have the NFL's 13th ranked defense in total yardage, allowing 380 yards per game, and have surrendered under 24 points per game. Both numbers are a bit down from last year's defense, which was at the top of all major defensive rankings. New Orleans counters with it's usual production from the passing game and their future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees. The Saints average 34 points per game, second in the NFL, and the league's 6th most productive offense at 413 yards per game. This will be the third meeting between New Orleans and Minnesota since September of last year, a span of less than fourteen months. Sean Payton's perennially explosive offense against Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's top echelon defense is the main reason why many preseason prognosticators had this meeting as a potential conference championship preview. With just a little over half of the regular season remaining, let's take a look at how these two units match up against one another on the field.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS DEFENSE
Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown 220 passes this season without an interception, an average of nearly 37 attempts per game. He has completed over 77% of those throws, on pace to shatter his own NFL record of completion percentage over a season (72%, set last year). Owner of the league's 6th ranked passing attack, New Orleans is averaging 300 yards per game through the air, and Brees has thrown 13 touchdown passes. Third year wideout Michael Thomas leads the team in receiving, catching 53 of his 58 targets for 588 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas has tailed off slightly from his torrid record setting pace to begin the year, but is still the receiver that opposing coaches gear their defenses in an attempt to limit. The other New Orleans weapon that causes coordinators to stay up at night is Alvin Kamara, who is second on the team in both catches (40) and receiving yards (362). Kamara has been limited in the passing game over the last two games, but the mere threat of him getting into the secondary has opened up passing lanes for some of the other targets. Tight end Benjamin Watson continues to be productive in his 14th season, catching 23 balls for 230 yards, and catching Brees' 500th career touchdown pass last week against Baltimore. Tight end Dan Arnold had two big receptions against the Ravens, and may be able to give the offense another consistent receiving threat. Veteran wideout Ted Ginn Jr. has been placed on injured reserve, and the team hopes that his production can be replaced, perhaps increased. Offseason free agent acquisition Cameron Meredith continues to be inconsistent, but rookie Tre'Quan Smith (7 catches, 173 yards, 2 touchdowns in the last two games) is earning a bigger role in the offense each week. The Saints line protects Brees as well as any passer in the league, allowing only 9 sacks and allowing him the time to carve up opposing defenses.
The Minnesota pass defense gives up 256 yards per game, ranking 16th in the league. A drop-off from last year, when their pass defense ranked 2nd, and the team was first in both total defense and points allowed. Part of the reason is injuries, the Vikings defense has been banged up, and some of their key players have been limited or out this season. Pro Bowl end Everson Griffen, who has 43.5 sacks in the last four seasons, has missed the last five games with personal issues. He rejoined the team earlier this week, but his status for this game remains unclear. First round pick cornerback Mike Hughes went on injured reserve after last week's game with a knee injury, safety Andrew Sendejo has missed the last two games with a groin injury. One of the league's best cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes, has been hobbled by an ankle injury and two other Pro Bowlers, tackle Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr, have been slowed by injury as well. Despite the injuries, the Vikings are still one of the league's most respected defenses. They have sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times, and have intercepted them 7 times. End Danielle Hunter is tied for the league lead with 8 sacks, and the Vikings have a terrific pair of disruptive tackles in Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. Eric Kendricks, the team's leading tackler, and Anthony Barr are two of the better coverage linebackers in the league, and can take on most backs and tight ends. In addition to Rhodes, Minnesota also has Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander at cornerback to lock down opposing wideouts. Safety Harrison Smith (2 interceptions, 3 sacks this season) is a perennial pro bowler, has four career touchdowns and one of the league's most dangerous playmakers. Even with Sendejo sidelined, George Iloka has provided a good compliment at safety.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive line vs. Danielle Hunter/Sheldon Richardson/Linval Joseph ~
Even in Griffen's absence, Minnesota is one of the most formidable pass rushes in the league. Hunter is a top pass rusher, and the big tackles Richardson and Joseph can collapse a pass pocket and destroy offensive game planning. New Orleans has one of the best offensive tackle combinations in the league with Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, and solid inside protection from guard Larry Warford and center Max Unger. A major concern for the line is left guard Andrus Peat, who has missed time with multiple injuries this year, and is questionable entering this contest. Peat's replacement, Josh Leribeus, suffered an ankle injury last week that landed him on injured reserve. His replacement, second year Cameron Tom, played well once stepping in, but the Saints line will have their hands full even at full strength against a fine Viking front. Michael Thomas and the receivers will be tested against a banged up but talented Minnesota secondary, but Drew Brees must be given the time to go through his progressions to be productive.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans running back Mark Ingram has not yet gotten on track in his two games since returning from league suspension. He has 85 yards on 28 carries thus far, has scored twice and added four receptions for 30 yards. Alvin Kamara is the leading rusher for the Saints 16th ranked rushing attack, with 79 carries for 363 yards, an average of 4.6 yards per carry, and six rushing scores. Kamara emerged as the team's leading rusher in last week's win over Baltimore, with 64 hard earned yards against the Ravens tough defensive front. Utility player Taysom Hill (18 rushes, 125 yards) has given the team a nice change of pace in short yardage and goal line packages, but the Saints need Ingram to be effective for a more balanced attack. The hopeful return of a healthy Peat to the lineup should boost the Saints running game, as they especially like to use Ingram over their guards. New Orleans has averaged 108 yards per game on the ground, well down from their 129/game average from a year ago.
~ Matchup to Watch: Ingram/Kamara vs. LB's Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr ~
Kendricks and Barr are two of the more active and athletic linebackers in the league. They are extremely active against the running game, and have the ability to capably cover most backs in the passing game. The Ingram/Kamara combination dominated the league a year ago, setting NFL records for all-purpose production. They were limited in the two meetings against this Viking defense however, as Ingram managed just 42 yards on the ground in both games combined. Kamara, who didn't have a full-time role in the offense during their first meeting, added just 61 yards rushing combined, although he did have 62 yards receiving and a score in the playoff matchup. The backs' ability to produce against the talented Viking linebackers is paramount to the offense's success, especially if Barr is limited.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
New Orleans set the tone early on the road against Baltimore, with a physical 20-play drive to begin the game. Although that drive would ultimately end in no points, the Saints would match that physicality throughout the contest. Expect them to try to establish the same mentality against a Minnesota defense that is as physical as any in the league. Michael Thomas, who had 7 receptions for 85 yards and 2 touchdowns in the playoff loss against Minnesota, has shown that he can have success against the NFL's best defensive backs. His match up against Vikings corners Waynes and Rhodes (if he plays) will be worth the price of admission. Both Kamara and Ingram have been somewhat quiet statistically in the last two games, and will definitely be a heavy part of the game plan. New Orleans will need some quality production from their other weapons, be it Smith, Meredith, Watson, or someone else, to keep a thinner and banged up Viking defense on their heels. Protection of Brees is always vital to New Orleans success, but especially so in this game due to the disruption that the Vikings front line can cause, their talent at linebacker, and the playmakers in the Minnesota secondary.
Which is the most important match up for the Saints against the Vikings defense?
This poll is closed
Saints offensive line vs. Vikings defensive line
Ingram/Kamara vs. Kendricks/Barr
Michael Thomas vs. Xavier Rhodes/Trae Waynes
Drew Brees vs. Harrison Smith
Sean Payton vs. Mike Zimmer