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Saints must control the clock with rush defense

There are familiar faces on both sides of the ball, but it’s the fresh face of Dalvin Cook whom the Saints must bottle up in order to advance to the Divisional round of the playoffs.

Denver Broncos v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It seems like almost everyone has picked the Saints to win this wild card weekend. That worries me. The Saints were also supposed to win their wild card matchup against the 7-9 Seahawks back in 2010, and we all remember how that ended up.

Still, Saints fans have every right to be confident ahead of their team’s matchup against the Vikings. We’ve heard many reasons why the Saints should steam roll their way into the Divisional round.

  1. The Vikings only beat one team with a winning record all year, the 9-7 Eagles.
  2. Their secondary is banged up and has under performed all season.
  3. Their best linebacker, Eric Kendricks, is banged up but expected to start.
  4. Kirk Cousins is 0-9 on MNF, 7-15 in prime time games, and 6-30 against teams with a winning record.

Along with countless replays of the “Minneapolis Miracle,” these facts have been beaten into our brains all week, but I refuse to “eat the cheese” as Sean Payton is fond of saying. Hopefully the Saints players aren’t eating the cheese either, because this Vikings team is different, and more dynamic than the one that beat the Saints two postseasons ago.

It’s true Cousins hasn’t played well against the best competition on the biggest stages, but when he’s performing at his best, he’s far more dangerous than Case Keenum, who managed to end the Saints’ 2017 Super Bowl dreams with a last second heave to Stephon Diggs.

Diggs and Adam Thielen, who both have played superb against the Saints in the past are still extremely dangerous receiving threats in the Vikings passing game. Minnesota may be missing some cornerbacks, but so are the Saints. Their recent waiver pickup, Janoris Jenkins, will have tremendous pressure to fill the shoes of Eli Apple, and honestly, he will need to play better than Apple has in order to quiet Diggs or Thielen.

Perhaps the biggest x-factor, though, is Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. He had torn his ACL and missed the rest of the season in 2017, so the Saints didn’t face him then, and yet they still lost. In 2019, Cook has been instrumental in establishing the Vikings’ run game while also allowing for more play-action pass plays for Cousins to employ.

Cook helped his team to a 10-4 record before hurting his chest and shoulder and sitting out the final two games, which were both losses. In 14 games, Cook amassed 1,335 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

The Saints have been solid against the run for over two seasons, but Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins are not with the team right now.

The last player to rush for over 100 yards against the Saints was Samaje Perine, then a running back for Washington, who rushed for 117 yards on November 19, 2017. It’s been over two years since the Saints have let an opponent eclipse 100 yards in a game, and in order to win this week, they can not let Cook break that long-standing trend.

If Cook runs well, that allows the Vikings to control the clock, and perhaps the best way to beat the Saints is to control the time of possession. In the 11 games the Saints had more time of possession than their opponents, their record was 10-1. In the five games the Saints had less time of possession, their record fell to 3-2.

The Saints lost the time of possession battle to the Falcons during both games, but three Atlanta turnovers spelled the difference in their second meeting. They had less time of possession against the Seahawks too, but big defensive plays along with a Deonte Harris punt returned for a touchdown helped the Saints squeak out a rare win in Seattle.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In the loss to the 49ers, the Saints won time of possession and posted nearly the same yardage and first downs, but two failed two point conversions left the Saints coming up short. It’s easy to see, however, that controlling the clock almost always helps the Saints win tight games.

To do that, they will have to bottle up Dalvin Cook, force the Vikings into 2nd and 3rd and long situations, and make the Vikings offense one-dimensional by limiting their play-action playbook. The Saints’ offense has been running away with most of the headlines recently, but clearly it’s their defense who will determine the winner of this game.