The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings square off in the Mercedes Benz Superdome on Sunday in a first round NFC playoff contest. Despite a 13-3 record, best in the conference, the Saints did not qualify for a first round bye due to tiebreakers. New Orleans is still considered a strong Super Bowl favorite because of their talent and balance on both sides of the ball. Long considered an offensive power under Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, New Orleans has developed one of the league's better defenses. The Saints rank 11th in total defense and have given up 21 points per game, but have held seven of their opponents to less than 20 points. The defense has been banged up down the stretch of the season though, and come into this game without two starters on the defensive line and a beat up secondary.
They take on a 10-6 Vikings team that possesses the NFL's 16th ranked total offense but has averaged an eighth best 25.4 points/game. The Minnesota offense possesses alot of talent, but struggled producing down the stretch of the season. Here is how they match up against the aggressive New Orleans defense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans has the league's 20th ranked pass defense, allowing 242 yards per game, 61.5% completion percentage, and giving up 27 touchdown passes while intercepting 13. The Saints secondary is talented and has contained some of the league's best wideouts, but has been hit hard by injury. Marshon Lattimore is a Pro Bowl cornerback that has shut down elite receivers. Fellow corner Eli Apple will miss this game with an ankle injury that also sidelined him for the season finale. Taking Apple's place as starter will be Janoris Jenkins, who was signed just three weeks ago. Jenkins is a playmaking cornerback who has 8 defensive touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his career, including 5 (1 as a Saint) this season. Cornerback depth will be tested with Apple out. Nickel and slot coverage duties will be split between P.J. Williams and rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who have 1 interception each, with veteran Patrick Robinson to see limited snaps. How limited would depend on the health of the team's safeties. Free safety Marcus Williams, who leads the Saints with 4 interceptions, is expected to be back in the lineup after missing last week with a groin injury. Strong safety Vonn Bell also looks set to return after missing three weeks with a knee injury. P.J. Williams and Gardner-Johnson filled in well during their absence, but clearly the Saints secondary is stronger with all in their natural positions.
The Saints linebackers have their full compliment back after injury issues of their own. All-Pro selection Demario Davis is a major key to defensive success, accumulating 4 sacks, 1 interception, and 12 passes defensed. He has been a devastating blitzer as well as extremely effective in pass coverage. Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein have both had underrated seasons, mixing up blitzes with disguised coverage drops. The Saints have sacked opposing quarterbacks 51 times this season, the most in Sean Payton's thirteen year tenure as head coach. Defensive end Cameron Jordan led the team with a career high 15.5 takedowns and 49 pressures and is one of the most consistently disruptive linemen in the NFL. New Orleans has been able to apply consistent pressure to aid their secondary despite the absence of end Marcus Davenport and tackle Sheldon Rankins, both on injured reserve. Mario Edwards Jr., Trey Hendrickson and rookie Carl Granderson have filled in adequately at end, while Malcom Brown, David Onyemata, and Shy Tuttle have been disruptive at tackle.
Minnesota's passing offense ranks 23rd in the league. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has completed 69% of his throws for an average of 240 yards/game while throwing 26 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Cousins looks to overcome his reputation of playing poorly in big games, and was without his best receiver Adam Thielen for a chunk of the season. Thielen is healthy now after being limited to 30 catches for 418 yards and 6 scores in ten outings. He and Stefon Diggs make up one of the NFL's most dangerous wideout duos. Diggs, a name that haunts the nightmares of Saints fans, had 63 receptions for 1,130 yards and 6 touchdowns this year. Cousins also has the luxury of a couple of talented tight ends. Second round pick Irv Smith Jr. (36 catches, 311 yards, 2 scores) has come on strong down the stretch of his rookie year. He compliments reliable veteran Kyle Rudolph, who has added 39 receptions for 367 yards and six touchdowns.
Cousins has been sacked 28 times this season. He doesn't have great mobility but does possess a quick release. The eight year pro does struggle with his accuracy when he is under consistent pressure though, something the New Orleans defense has been able to do throughout the year.
Matchup to Watch:
Marshon Lattimore/Janoris Jenkins vs. Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs
Lattimore is one of the finest corners in the league. He allows only 50% completion percentage when targeted and has surrendered just 3 touchdown passes this season. Jenkins is a gambler who will make a quarterback pay for testing him too often. P.J. Williams, Gardner-Johnson, Vonn Bell, and Demario Davis will likely split coverage responsibilities on the dangerous Minnesota tight ends, leaving the Saints corners in one-on-one coverage.
Thielen and Diggs have both had huge games against the Saints secondary. Diggs has caught 23 passes for 349 yards and 4 touchdowns in three match ups against New Orleans, including the infamous game-winning score in the 2018 playoffs. Thielen has been equally lethal, reeling in 22 receptions for 334 yards in his last three games against the Saints. Smith, son of former Saints tight end Irv Smith Sr., and Rudolph will both be a handful for the New Orleans defense. It is Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, however, who live in the nightmares of New Orleans Saints fans.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
The 4th ranked Saints run defense allows just 91 yards per game and hasn't allowed a 100-Yd rusher in their last 42 games. Malcom Brown, Shy Tuttle, Mario Edwards Jr., and David Onyemata get good penetration of the snap to blow running plays up in their infancy. Demario Davis and the linebackers have excellent play recognition and shoot into gaps to make plays in the opposing backfield. The Saints defensive backs are active close to the line of scrimmage, and will often cut down a running back before they get into the open field.
The Vikings run game averages 133 yards/game, ranking 6th in the league. Third year back Dalvin Cook is one of the most rugged runners in the NFL. He picked up 1,135 rushing yards and scored 13 touchdowns this season while averaging nearly 4.6 yards per attempt. He is also a capable receiver out of the backfield, catching 53 passes for 519 yards. Cook missed the last two games of the regular season with a shoulder injury but will be ready to go for this one. His effectiveness takes the pressure off Cousins and the passing game and sets up dangerous play action fakes while also allowing Minnesota to control time of possession.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints LB's vs. Dalvin Cook
Davis led the Saints with 111 tackles and earned his first All-Pro berth this season. He, along with Klein and Alonso, have been outstanding against the run all season. Their ability to shut down Cook and the Vikings rushing attack will allow the New Orleans pass rush to tee off on Cousins, which often leads to disaster for Minnesota.
Which position is the biggest key for the Saints defense against Minnesota?
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