The Saints’ defense is much improved from a year ago, largely because of their production on the edges. Rookie Marshon Lattimore has been a revelation as a cover corner and Cameron Jordan, well, he continues to be one of the unsung stars of the NFL.
But the Saints have a major weakness on their defense, and it is one that should be ripe for the plucking on Sunday: They do not defend tight ends or running backs well in the passing game. And it is not just an athletic mismatch issue. New Orleans frequently uses safeties and nickels to cover tight ends and backs split out. No, their problem stems from confusion and execution. They simply lose track of matchups more often than most competent defenses when backs and tight ends split out.
Take a look at these plays from their Wild Card Round win over the Panthers. Carolina has arguably the best combination of receiving tight end and pass-catching running back in the game with Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey is in the blue circle, matched up with Vonn Bell. Bell is panicking a bit, vehemently barking orders to someone. Olsen is in the red circle, across from Jordan. But Jordan is going to rush the passer, so Olsen is essentially uncovered.
New Orleans brings a blitz while the Panthers run a basic spot concept. Olsen cuts in five yards and sits, McCaffrey runs a corner and the outside receiver stays wide. Bell, who had been over McCaffrey, goes to cover Olsen, but gets there late. So Olsen is wide open. No one fills Bell’s spot, so McCaffrey is wide open for a touchdown. Cam Newton misses McCaffrey but finds Olsen for the easy eight yard gain.
By bringing a blitz, the Saints completely lost two receiving options. There was confusion both pre- and post-snap, and they were lucky to escape with a short pass.
That was a conceptual issue. This next one is just horrific execution, and it almost broke the Saints.
Out of the backfield, running backs have a pretty short list of routes they can run: Flat, swing, checkdown hitch, wheel and slant are the most common. This was a basic slant that the linebacker simply did a horrific job covering and no one was in position to stop McCaffrey once he caught the ball.
These are the areas the Vikings can exploit on Sunday. The Saints have the pass rush to make Case Keenum uncomfortable. They have the corners to prevent Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs from having huge games. But their coverage of non-receivers is a liability.
And the Vikings have the tools. While not quite as productive as McCaffrey, Jerick McKinnon was 14th among running backs in receptions and targets, 13th in receiving yards and eighth in first down receptions. Kyle Rudolph was ninth among tight ends in receptions and first down receptions and tied for second in touchdowns.
Expect Pat Shurmur to call Rudolph’s and McKinnon’s numbers a few more times than he did in week one. In that game, Viking tight ends and running backs received only 11 targets. New Orleans allowed 14 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 22 targets to Carolina backs and tight ends in the first round. With that game on film, chances are the Vikings will look to pound the middle of the field more than that. Perhaps a bit more empty backfield with McKinnon out wide and Rudolph in the slot will create confusion for a Saints team already prone to getting confused. Plus, Latavius Murray has shown himself to be a capable receiver at times, particularly in the screen game.
Bottom line, the Saints have a potentially fatal defensive weakness and the Vikings have the weapons to capitalize. A 100-yard-plus performance for Rudolph could be on the horizon if the Saints do not sure up this issue.
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