The New Orleans Saints’ NFC South-clinching 52-33 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas day not only locked up a home playoff game, but it highlighted just how special some of the key players on this roster are, on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, it was obviously Alvin Kamara who shined brightest on Friday, tying an all-time game record with six rushing touchdowns. But there were a few unsung heroes on the offensive line who were largely responsible for his glorious day on the ground.
Defensively, it was Marshon Lattimore who stole the show with his sticky coverage on young phenom Justin Jefferson, who was pretty much locked down until garbage time.
I went back and charted some of the most impressive plays from the Saints’ stars to get a better look at who really carried them to victory against the rival Vikings.
1. Can we award rushing TDs to left tackles?
It’s a shame there aren’t better statistics available to everyone that can encapsulate just how impressive of a day an individual offensive lineman can have, because if there were, more people would know just how dominant Terron Armstead was in Week 16.
.@Saints @T_Armstead72 with the most punishing performance by an #NFL offensive lineman all season. Almost 600 yards of offense was due to a dominant performance up front Merry Christmas #WhoDat #saints #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/Tew6Qh6qJS— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) December 26, 2020
The eight-year vet put on an absolute show, with zero pressures, hits or sacks allowed and a PFF run blocking grade of 86.5 — his highest of the season.
But he was far from the only one on that high-level line to show out, as the entire unit was dominating Minnesota’s front seven at the point of attack all game long.
Let’s take Kamara’s first TD run for example. You don’t run for six TDs and 155 yards on 7.0 yards a pop behind mediocre line play, and that was displayed by the push they were getting at the line of scrimmage.
The Saints run a zone-split concept on this play, as they did often in this game, and bust open a gaping hole.
Cesar Ruiz gets a hell of a push on the 1-Technique defensive tackle, and Ryan Ramczyk does a great job of keeping the left defensive end at bay on his inside shoulder, while also getting next level and effectively blocking two guys on one play.
But what really breaks this play open is the linebacker on the weak side reacting to the split action by Marquez Callaway, causing him to hesitate and pull himself out of his gap. This stretches the B gap so wide that three Alvin Kamara’s could’ve run through it.
Then, AK does the rest at the second level.
Later in the game, they would run this same concept for another big gain. Except on this one, that weak-side backer didn’t hesitate, and Callaway had to get his hands dirty.
Once again, Ruiz initiates the play by getting a great push on the 1-Tech, allowing for a crease. Then, the same backer doesn’t fall for the split action by Callaway again, so Ram has to attack him at the next level — which he does with a fat pancake.
This leaves the back-side defensive end unoccupied. Luckily, Callaway comes in and puts a solid hit on him, allowing for just enough for AK to squeeze through and get a chunk gain out of it.
And it wasn’t just AK getting special treatment from the O line, as Latavius Murray was rewarded with some nice runs as well.
They run straight outside zone here, and the O line damn near pushes the Vikes out of the stadium.
Every single one of them gets a push here, and it leaves the back-side unattended to for Murray to slice back that way.
I also want you to take a look at the block Emmanuel Sanders puts on the corner towards the latter half of the play, allowing for Murray to cut back even more to the left for a huge play.
When receivers like Callaway, Sanders, Juwan Johnson, etc. are getting involved in the run game like this, it not only creates more explosive plays on runs, but it makes hard play action fakes more convincing on plays like Y-Leak that Sean Payton loves to run (the one Austin Carr dropped in the back of the end zone).
And while it is worth mentioning that a lot of this dominance in the run game had to do with the Vikings defense just being abysmal, it still was nice to have a relatively stress-free day on the ground like that.
5.9 yards per carry and 21 rushing first downs is going to be pretty darn difficult to replicate, but it sure was impressive.
2. Marshon must not like the Griddy
Marshon Lattimore definitely hasn’t had his best season as a professional this year — and has actually struggled a good bit at times — but he looked like a man getting a head start on his New Year’s resolution against the Vikings on Christmas.
Following Justin Jefferson on the majority of the defensive snaps, he put the clamps down against one of the most explosive receivers in the league.
Coming into Week 16, JJ was PFF’s second-highest graded WR (90.2) and was seventh in receiving yards (1,182), with only the 19th-most targets in the league.
Before a few garbage time catches — with four minutes or less left in the fourth quarter and an 18-point lead — Lattimore held Jets to 1 catch for 11 yards on three targets, with a PBU — via PFF. He also broke up a ball in the end zone in straight Man coverage on JJ late in the game.
Not only was he impressive when targeted, but he was in JJ’s hip pocket on just about every passing down, resulting in Kirk Cousins not throwing him the ball as much through three quarters when Latt was in coverage on him.
In fact, Jefferson’s only big play of the game came when he got matched up with Malcolm Jenkins in the slot, due to the Saints bringing a blitz.
On the play above, the Saints are in a three-deep shell, and the Vikes attempt to catch Latt off-guard with an out-N-up by JJ.
Marshon fluidly turns his hips as Jefferson breaks and runs stride-for-stride downfield with him.
Here, they try to move Jettas to the slot, but Marshon follows him and prevents him from having any airspace. The Saints are in Cover 1 Man, and due to those divider rules we’ve talked about earlier this season, he allows him outside leverage.
His coverage is so tight, however, that it makes it a very difficult throw between he and the sideline. And Cousins can’t make it.
The last play in coverage I wanted to highlight is another Cover 1 Man scheme, where JJ is running a simple drag route. Marshon allows him inside leverage but just has more speed and gets there in time for a nifty pass breakup, without interfering.
It seems to happen like this every year now. Marshon starts off poorly, then as the season goes on, he kind of shows us why he’s valued as a no. 1 corner. Not to say he should be exonerated for his poor play in the first half of the year, but this game was a nice portrayal of just what he is capable of.
Now, let’s see if he can carry that into the playoffs, because if the Saints are going to end the year with a Lombardi trophy in their possession, he’s going to have to be at the top of his game for four straight games against elite competition.
What were your biggest takeaways from the Vikings game? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.