The New Orleans Saints’ matchup with the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card Game should be a very favorable one for Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and the Saints offense.
I don’t say this because the Vikings defense is bad, because it’s not.
They rank top 10 in the league in points allowed, yards per play allowed and estimated points added (EPA) per play allowed, via Ben Baldwin.
Final team defense pic.twitter.com/s7Xf8FpUbl— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) December 30, 2019
It’s a favorable matchup because the Vikings’ one big weakness on defense is a huge strength of the Saints. That’s the short passing game.
Minnesota has a good defensive line, a very good linebacker in Eric Kendricks, and two really good safeties. They are, however, weak at the cornerback position this season.
The Vikings have a grand total of zero cornerbacks ranked inside the top 60 of Pro Football Focus coverage grades. Slot corner Mackensie Alexander is their highest graded corner, with a 64.1 coverage grade.
When a Viking corner has been targeted this season, they are allowing a 72.6 completion percentage, which is the worst mark by any cornerback unit in the league.
For comparison, the Saints don’t have one corner with more than 10 coverage snaps who has allowed that high of a completion percentage.
Leading that unit in snaps is Xavier Rhodes, who is having the worst season of his career, by far.
According to PFF, Rhodes has been targeted 70 times this season and he’s allowed 57 of those targets to be caught. That computes to an 84.3 completion percentage allowed, which is third-worst among NFL corners who have played at least 10 games this season.
Probably a blown coverage, but watch Xavier Rhodes.... he can’t run anymore, can’t keep up. #SKOL #Vikings pic.twitter.com/darhe9Lfh9— Cory Hepola (@CoryHepola) December 3, 2019
Considering that he’s allowing 12.0 yards per catch, it’s almost like he’s conceding a first down every time he’s targeted. As a matter of fact, he’s allowed 42 of those this season, which is fifth among corners, even though he’s only the 35th most targeted corner.
Just absurd stuff.
Rhodes isn’t the only Minnesota corner struggling this season, as opposite boundary corner Trae Waynes has allowed a 72.6 percent completion percentage and five touchdowns, while only picking off one pass this year.
Second-year corner Mike Hughes, who rotates at outside corner with Rhodes and Waynes, actually leads the team in pass break-ups with seven. He’s allowed a 63.1 percent catch rate, best among their unit.
Part of the reason the Vikings allow so many completions is due to scheme. When you have weak corners, you can’t play as much man coverage. They’re a zone-heavy team who is going to drop back, allow completions underneath, rally and tackle.
Tackling is a strong-suit for them, however, as they have the fewest missed tackles in the league.
It’ll be very important for the Saints offense to try to avoid Minnesota’s safeties, who are both very good. Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith have been fantastic at preventing big plays all season, combining for nine interceptions and allowing zero touchdowns.
The Saints will have to utilize their timing and efficiency with routes underneath the safeties range, to maximize their chances and exploit the Vikings’ weaknesses.
The problem for Minnesota is that the underneath stuff is the Saints’ bread and butter. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas have been annihilating defenses all season with their short-to-intermediate concepts.
With that being said, we’re going to take a look at three route concepts Brees and Thomas can dice Minnesota up with:
1. Option Route
The option route has been well-documented and can really work against anyone, as you can see in this in-depth breakdown of the route and all of its beauty by Seth Galina.
Basically, the receiver running the route sizes up the defense, and if the nearest defender has outside leverage, you run the slant. Inside leverage? Out route. Zone? Hitch/stick in the gap.
Brees has such exquisite chemistry with Thomas, that they rarely misunderstand each other as to which option on the route stem Thomas chooses to break on.
The Vikings most-used coverages are Cover-2 zone and Quarters (Cover-4 zone).
If they’re going to drop back into these coverages and allow the Saints to match Thomas up with a weak-side linebacker or safety in the slot, Brees will hit him for 5-10 yards just about every time.
2. Slant Route
This may seem like a simple one, but it’s another route that can work against man or zone. If the Vikings are crazy enough to single up Thomas against Rhodes, Waynes or Hughes in man, It’ll be pretty tough for them to bring a safety down to double him before he gets open.
If Minny is in a zone coverage like, let’s say Quarters, the Saints can place Thomas and Kamara weak-side with Kamara running the flat pattern and Thomas running the slant, putting the flat defender in a tough spot every time.
Putting Thomas on the weak-side is most effective for this route because in Quarters the middle defender has to open to the strong side, effectively leaving the weak-side flat defender on an island with Thomas and Kamara, or whoever is running the flat route.
Also, if Sean Payton decides to run Thomas on a couple slant patterns early on, it could set up a Slant-N-Go opportunity later on, like we saw in the home game against the Panthers this season.
3. Hitch Route
The hitch is just another route Thomas has pretty much perfected. His physicality and violence at the line of scrimmage, along with his meticulous footwork allows him to get enough separation, and he and Brees’ unparalleled timing makes it nearly impossible to defend.
If the Vikings play any press coverage on downs with five or less yards needed, Brees can check to this route whenever he wants.
As you can see in the visual above, it’s tough to get safety help in time to really make a difference. In Week 16, Byard attempted to come down and double Thomas on a third and four in the first quarter, but he simply couldn’t beat the timing and efficiency.
On paper, this is a game the Saints should be able to control from start to finish, offensively. Although, it’s obviously the playoffs and anything can happen.
If they stick to the short passing game and substitute some of the predictable inside runs for slants/hitches/option routes, they should not only be able to stay efficient and sustain prolonged drives, but also set up bigger plays on double moves later on in the game.