Sunday’s Division Round game between the Saints and Vikings is technically a rematch. But both teams have drastically different looks about them from week one. New players have emerged as stars, coaches will bring different gameplans and there is a whole new set of expectations.
To help grasp this Saints team, we asked Full Press Saints managing editor Chris Conner a few questions about this matchup of NFC elites.
The Vikings run defense is one of the league’s best. What do you expect from the Saints’ top-notch running game sans-Andrus Peat?
Senio Kelemete has done an awesome job filing in all season in various areas. The offensive line in total has had to deal with a multitude of injuries so they are used to it at this point. Now if they lose another, all bets are off.
I expect the Saints to stay committed and balanced. They’ll need a big play or two however. The Saints have thrived off of them offensively all season. And Carolina showed against Minnesota the best opportunity to run the football is a few big plays. Teams don’t often repeatedly gash the Vikings.
The Saints will need to be creative with the way they use their backs. The Vikings don’t need to bring additional men to stop the run or the pass. The Saints have struggled with defenses like that in the Payton/Brees era. Alvin Kamara will be the key, as the Vikings didn’t see as much of him in the first matchup. If he can get going early it’ll open up things for many others, including Mark Ingram. This team isn’t built like previous ones and an unbalanced offense doesn’t sound ideal against the Vikings.
Are you concerned about the Saints’ ability to defend Minnesota’s running backs and tight ends in the passing game?
Tight end more than running back, but yes I’m petrified. It’s been an issue for years. The Saints were better prepared this season before the 6,575 injuries. The difference I will say with them this year is they make adjustments. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen hasn’t been afraid to put a corner against a tight end when needed or disguise coverages. New Orleans just hasn’t seen many teams with the weapons like Minnesota will carry.
They have a weapon that can beat you at every stage of the passing game. A huge Kyle Rudolph game feels like it’s imminent. But I’ll say this: the Saints have a guy in Marshon Lattimore who can cover anything. And they have very underrated, solid coverage guys in Ken Crawley, Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and even Vonn Bell. I expect a hell of a lot more nickel and some intriguing looks for Case Keenum. Communication will be key as the Saints have a tendency to at times line up funky when teams play around with the motioning of their players.
Just in general, how do you think the Saints’ offense matches up with the Vikings’ defense?
I stated earlier, teams that can play well out of their base defense have always given New Orleans issues. The 2006 Bears, the Jim Harbaugh 49ers, the Legion of Boom Seahawks are all examples. As high flying as the Saints have been offensively they’ve often met their match with teams built like this. The Vikings have playmakers at every level, they’re fast and play as a unit. The key will be the different formations the Saints throw at Minnesota and how the Vikings react.
The Saints don’t have many guys that can consistently win one-on-one matchups, so they don’t matchup well from a player standpoint. But they do have a solid offensive line, even with the injuries. They have two bona fide play makers in Michael Thomas and Kamara and a battering ram in Ingram. That is not even mentioning one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in Drew Brees.
With Brees and Sean Payton pulling the strings, the matchups sometimes go out the window. Those two often outthink opponents. Kamara is possibly the only matchup where the Saints have an clear advantage. Thomas versus Xavier Rhodes is a toss up at best. So while Minnesota wins the battle of man, Sunday will probably come down to who wins the battle of the mind.
Cam Jordan against a banged up Riley Reiff is a mismatch in the Saints’ favor. Do you see any other mismatches that the Saints could exploit?
I think Jordan is a mismatch for anybody. And we already talked about Kamara. So the offensive line is the focus. When the Vikings have struggled for stretches the opposing teams’ defensive line has played a huge role. If guys like David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins and Trey Hendrickson can help out Jordan the Saints will be in good shape. While the Vikings have been better as a unit this season, they can be beaten. Being able to fluster a first time attending playoff quarterback in the biggest game of his career will be crucial. If New Orleans wants to win that is where a possible advantage may reside.
The other could be the schedule. Teams that often have first round byes are susceptible to slow starts. The Saints are feeling good and have a rhythm coming into Sunday’s matchup. In a game that is played indoors the Saints will have more road comfort than they’re used to from an elements standpoint. It’s possible momentum could rear its head.
And that leads us to the biggest X-Factor in Sunday’s game.
What do you think of Keenum as a playoff quarterback?
I really don’t know how to answer this question. The thing about Keenum is that we’ve seen him before. We’ve just never seen him look this good consistently. But history has proven the right situation can bring the best out of an individual. Time will tell if he’s Tom Brady or Kurt Warner. Most guys in his situation play more of the game-manager role initially. But he’s actually won football games for Minnesota. History says teams built like Minnesota with good defenses can overcome a backup situation. However, they’ll need him to do more than just manage Sunday’s game against New Orleans. We’ll find out if he’s capable of continuing his regular season performance. Somewhere Randall Cunningham is smiling.
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