For the third time in two seasons, the Vikings will welcome the Saints to U.S. Bank Stadium for a marquis game. There are plenty of stories to monitor as two NFC leaders match up, but we have picked out six in particular that have our eye for Sunday night.
Minneapolis Miracle Revisited
It was one of the biggest plays in Vikings history. A surefire loss turned into an historic win with one Case Keenum pass and one Stefon Diggs run down the right sideline at U.S. Bank Stadium. Well, here we are nine months later and both participants in that Divisional Round game are again in first place. The location is the same, many of the perpetrators are the same and it is once again in prime time. The only real significant difference is the Vikings’ newer, more explosive quarterback.
So while Vikings fans may never tire of hearing “DIGGS! SIDELINE! TOUCHDOWN UNBELIEVABLE!” the sheer quantity of expected Minneapolis Miracle references will make for a great drinking game Sunday night.
Return of Everson Griffen?
The Vikings’ star defensive end has not played since week two for mental health recovery, but he returned to practice this week. Minnesota has found a reasonably good pass rush in Everson Griffen’s absence, especially with NFL sack-leader Danielle Hunter. But there is no question the Vikings defense is significantly better with Griffen. Mike Zimmer is in wait-and-see mode with regards to Griffen’s chances to play Sunday, saying they will judge after evaluating his work this week.
Minnesota is going up against arguably the best tackle combination in football in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. If Griffen plays, that will likely move Hunter back over to the left side. Hunter has flipped between right and left the last month, but has primarily found pressure rushing from the right. Perhaps the Vikings find reason to flip them more often should Griffen return to game action this week.
Alvin Kamara and the Vikings’ Linebacker Issue
Minnesota has a bit of a pattern going with opposing running backs making downfield plays out of the backfield on their linebackers. The play sets up virtually the same way every time: safety help follows the receiver on that side across the field, leaving either Eric Kendricks or Anthony Barr (usually Kendricks) one-on-one with the running back wheel. They are a step slow to react, and the back burns them downfield for a long reception.
Alvin Kamara is arguably the best receiving back in the league. Only Saquon Barkley and James White have more receiving yards among running backs. And last season in the playoffs, Kamara scored a long touchdown on a play almost exactly like the one described above. Mark it down; the Saints have at least one of these running back wheels in the gameplan for tomorrow. Additionally, they will almost certainly work in a handful of shorter plays designed to get Kamara in space mano-a-mano with Vikings linebackers.
Running the Ball Against Top Run Defense
New Orleans is comfortably in first in both yards per attempt and yards per game allowed on the ground. They are sound at every level, starting with tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is proving to be the stout presence up front the Saints expected when they drafted him in round one two years ago.
A few weeks back, it would have looked like a foregone conclusion that the Vikings would abandon the run game. With news that Dalvin Cook may be gone through the bye, things may seem especially dire. But with Latavius Murray the last two weeks, Minnesota has found something resembling a consistent run game. What is more, they have broken off a handful of long, 20-plus-yard runs. It seems the return of Pat Elflein has helped solidify things up front, which was the primary cause of their rushing woes the first quarter of the season. They will face a tough task Sunday, but at least it is not a given Kirk Cousins will throw 50 times or more.
Drew Brees and His Historic Efficiency
It has been a banner year for the Saints’ Hall of Fame quarterback. Aside from breaking the all-time passing record and eclipsing 500 touchdowns, he is posting career-highs in completion percentage, passer rating, yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt. For the record, the highest completion percentage in NFL history was set last season by Brees with 72 percent. This year, he is at 77.3 percent. And that ridiculous efficiency includes the aforementioned career-best in yards per attempt, so he is hardly dinking and dunking his way to shattering his own record. Oh, and he also has yet to throw an interception through six games. Were it not for the work of Patrick Mahomes, Brees would be the slam dunk MVP up to this point.
Fortunately, Minnesota’s pass defense is starting to resemble its 2017 self. They allowed passer ratings of 33.0 and 73.1 the past two weeks, including four interceptions. They also have 10 sacks over the past three games. Injuries to Xavier Rhodes and Anthony Barr may hamper them a little bit, but if there is one thing the Vikings have done well this year it is filling slots vacated by injury.
Adam Thielen and His Historic Efficiency
Opposing defenses have left their best cover corner on Diggs often this season. That strategy is making less and less sense as the weeks wear one, considering Adam Thielen has tied an NFL record with seven-straight 100-yards games. He leads the league not only in yards, but also in receptions (by 10), targets (by seven) and first downs (by five). He is on pace to break several receving records. As such, one would assume talented second-year corner Marshon Lattimore will handle most Thielen-shadow duties. Lattimore got off to a rough start this season, but has began to find his Rookie of the Year-level play once again. The Vikings got the better of Lattimore in the playoffs last year, and their passing game has only improved. Expect him to see a lot of action once again.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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