The New Orleans Saints routed the Minnesota Vikings on Friday in a 52-33 romp to clinch the NFC South. The win largely came on the back of six Alvin Kamara rushing touchdowns, with a Taysom Hill touchdown thrown in for good measure. The offensive performance was fairly well-rounded overall. Drew Brees threw for 300 yards for just the third time this season — though that number was marred by a pair of picks — and the Saints finished the game with an insane 583 yards of total offense.
Ultimately, the key for the Saints was balance. They passed the ball 28 times compared to 45 rushes, a return to form for this current iteration of the team. While the defense definitely has some things to work on, the offense played what might have been its most complete game of the season.
First of all, let’s acknowledge one thing. The Vikings defense... Is bad. Very bad. And it was decimated by the end of this game. But one of the best things the Saints did in this game was allow Kamara to be a star. Not only is 22 carries a career-high for Kamara, it’s the first time in his career he’s gotten over 20 carries in a game (he had hit 19 three times before). Part of that was riding the hot hand, the other part was hitting the Vikings where they’re weak.
An easy example of this came on Kamara’s first touchdown drive of the game. On a 1st and 10, the Saints come out in a singleback bunch formation with 11 personnel. After sending Jared Cook in motion, Kamara bursts up the middle for a 40-yard touchdown.
In order for things to go right on offense, a lot has to go wrong on defense. Linebacker Eric Wilson, who usually plays the run fairly well, is responsible for the cutback gap. Marquez Callaway is coming across the formation to run a trap play in the hole. Ryan Ramcyzk is responsible for line of scrimmage, theoretically making Callaway responsible for Wilson.
Theoretically, Wilson wins that nine times out of 10. Except Ramczyk is able to disengage and more or less block two players at once. Wilson gets shielded, and Callaway is essentially left without anyone to block (in a good way). From there, it’s just a footrace up the middle. However, taking another look at the play itself:
That still doesn’t tell the whole story. Keeping an eye on Wilson, he dekes to the left, overcommits to the hole, and allows himself to get cut off after standing completely flat-footed. It’s an inexcusable defensive lapse, and it probably doesn’t play out that way if Eric Kendricks is playing for the Vikings.
This is good, situational football from the Saints. It’s 1st and 10 again, and the Saints once again have 11 personnel on the field plus whatever Taysom Hill is. They run a levels look with Hill’s sieve being disguised as Callaway’s trap. Juwan Johnson comes across the field and linebacker loses sight of him for a 19-yard gain.
In essence, success on one play for an offense breeds hesitation on another for a defense. With a similar look, the Vikings defense is flowing downhill to stop Kamara on play action.
To his credit, Hardy Nickerson has a great recovery. He is able to bail out of pursuit and get in the path between Brees and Johnson while keeping his eyes upfield.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, he doesn’t finish the play. Johnson manages to get in behind him, and Brees makes a well-timed throw for a big gain.
Now, if you’re the Vikings, this is a bad situation to be in. The Saints have proven that between both 35-yard lines, they can run and pass on you on first down. In the first quarter. That really opens up the playbook throughout the game.
If the Kansas City Chiefs use motion to keep defenses off-balance, the Saints use personnel. On this play they have in six offensive linemen and a tight end, not to mention Latavius Murray in the backfield. On first down, it’s a classic run scenario. Instead, they run a two-man route on the left side of the field and have Emmanuel Sanders break underneath the coverage for an easy completion.
By the time Brees reaches the top of his dropback, there are three Vikings covering literally no one in a quarters defense. Callaway continues is route, whilhe Sanders starts to break here. The middle of the field is wide open, and Nickerson — who is responsible for this portion of the field — has already sold out for the run. It’s an easy pitch-and-catch for Brees and Sanders, and the Vikings’ inability to create pressure only makes it easier.
All things told, the Saints stayed true to themselves in Friday’s win. When they’re able to come out and line up under center in no-man’s-land on the field, they’re deadly. The Vikings were never able to hone in on first down trends, and it led to a ton of success for the Saints offense. If the Saints are able to keep their run-pass ratio close, there’s a good chance they’re able to win games.
Obviously, the Vikings defense has a lot of fundamental problems. But Ramczyk and Terron Armstead caught bodies all game. They have the potential to do that on any given week.
Needless to say, a game like the one Kamara had doesn’t happen without a ton of help. The playcalling and offensive line play were superb, and although he had two interceptions, Brees had a good, efficient game overall. Those interceptions need to stop heading into the postseason, but the groundwork is there.
Sean Payton deserves a lot of credit for the game he called, but make no mistake, the ability to run the ball well into the third quarter is a luxury in today’s NFL. If the Saints can replicate that formula in the postseason, even teams like the Packers and Seahawks will find them to be a tough out.