Home NFL NFC TONY’S TAKE – FOUR THINGS TO KNOW FOR SAINTS-VIKINGS

TONY’S TAKE – FOUR THINGS TO KNOW FOR SAINTS-VIKINGS

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CARSON, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 15: Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings calls a play against the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth quarter at Dignity Health Sports Park on December 15, 2019 in Carson, California. The Vikings defeated the Chargers 39-10. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The third wild card game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at the Superdome in New Orleans as the Saints host the Minnesota Vikings. Here’s what you should know:

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 29: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints during the first half during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

SAINTS’ DEFENSE HAS REBUILT INTO A RESPECTABLE UNIT

Ever since their Super Bowl win in 2009, the Saints’ defense has been in a perpetual rebuilding mode. Save for one season in 2013, New Orleans has ranked at or near the bottom in many categories virtually every season.

In some ways, that’s still true. The Saints finished the regular season just 20th against the pass and recorded only 13 interceptions, but they were also 11th overall, fourth against the run and third in the league in sacks. The latter numbers indicate that New Orleans has done a good job so far in accumulating talent in their front-seven.

Savvy veteran Cameron Jordan, on the rise gap-stuffer Sheldon Rankins, former Patriot Malcom Brown and second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport have all contributed to New Orleans’ upper-echelon pass rush and all anchor well against the run. However, Rankins and Davenport are both out for the season due to injury. Linebackers Demario Davis, Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein are tackling machines and can defend sideline-to-sideline with great speed (Alonso is replacing Alex Anzalone, who is also done for the year with a shoulder ailment).

Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, has a very multiple defensive scheme. He uses a lot of personnel groupings and front-seven alignments, but nowhere is he more versatile than in his postsnap coverage rotations and usage of both man and zone. This fits perfectly with someone like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s best shutdown defenders. Eli Apple, Janoris Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, Vonn Bell, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams make up the rest of their secondary (Apple is out for Sunday’s contest).

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 29: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints during the first half during their game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

BREES AND COMPANY STILL EXCELLING IN BIG EASY

Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level, even while in his 19th season and with declining arm strength. His footwork and pocket presence is impeccable, his accuracy is deadly (as evidenced by his holding the NFL record for completion percentage four different times), his experience gives him a leg up against most coverages and is great at influencing pass defenders with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder rolls.

For the most part, the Saints’ passing game has been built through having big, physical targets who can get open over the middle of the field, especially on deep in, or “dig” routes. Head coach Sean Payton has employed such players before like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, and he has another such specimen in Michael Thomas. Thomas, the record-setting nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, isn’t just athletically gifted but also possesses strong hands and the knowledge of how to find holes against certain coverages.

Trying to work the middle of the field helps Brees due to his lack of height, but Payton isn’t adverse against throwing the ball deep either. Tre’Quan Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. can both get down the field and tight end Jared Cook is both a red zone threat and perhaps New Orleans’ best mismatch-creating threat at the position since Graham roamed their sidelines five years ago.

The Saints also like to line up in base personnel with a fullback and tight end split out wide with their top two wideouts in the slot to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties. New Orleans will also use post-wheel route combinations (or any type of vertical routes) to clear out zone defenders deep while Kamara picks apart linebackers underneath on option routes. Look for that to continue on Sunday.

New Orleans doesn’t just like to throw the ball though. The Saints love using Alvin Kamara on inside runs, misdirection plays, screens and draws, and lining him up at wide receiver – both out wide and in the slot. His speed, route-running ability and reliable hands make him a threat no matter where he aligns, and backup quarterback Taysom Hill is reminiscent of Kordell Stewart – athletic enough to make a play at any position.

The Saints’ offensive line is made up of the talented Terron Armstead, run-blocking extraordinaire Andrus Peat, maulers Erik McCoy and Larry Warford and the ascending Ryan Ramczyk. They are one of the best units in football.

Another tactic the Saints are fond of is throwing out of run-heavy personnel. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “No NFC coach uses formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees’s eyes don’t reach them until late in the play.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA – DECEMBER 29: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings warms up before the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA’S OFFENSE IMPROVED OVER LAST YEAR

The promotion of Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator and the hiring of Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison have allowed the Vikings to move towards an offensive scheme that quarterback Kirk Cousins is familiar with from his time in Washington. Cousins is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does very well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely mobility and bold decision-making, and Kubiak knows how to get the best out of him.

Passing-wise, the Vikings are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. Minnesota’s receivers – route-running extraordinaire Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, one of the quickest wideouts in the NFL – also excel out of bunch and stack alignments.

Minnesota’s rushing offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it dating back to Kubiak’s time as Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver, and executing these blocks are ex-Lion Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, mobile rookie center Garrett Bradbury, ex-Titan Josh Kline and Brian O’Neill. Running behind them is Dalvin Cook, a shifty third-year ball carrier out of Florida State who’s finally 100 percent healthy and as a result, his production has exploded in this new system.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph remains a good red zone threat and rookie backup Irv Smith Jr. is also talented in his own right.

CARSON, CA – DECEMBER 15: Harrison Smith #22 of the Minnesota Vikings in action during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park on December 15, 2019 in Carson, California. The Vikings defeated the Chargers 39-10. (Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

VIKINGS’ DEFENSE STILL SOLID

Minnesota’s defensive scheme is based off zone coverages with both safeties playing deep (usually Cover Two, Cover Four, etc.) and those safeties are Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, who might be the league’s best duo – they’re a great combination of versatility, aggressiveness and intelligence. This coverage philosophy usually eliminates those two from helping out against the run, but head coach Mike Zimmer has a defensive line made up of sturdy defensive tackle Linval Joseph and one of the NFL’s best edge rush pairs in Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter.

Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are adept in coverage, stopping the run and blitzing, and they and other defenders usually arrive at opposing quarterbacks via selective overload blitzes and rush schemes through the A gaps – the quickest path to the pocket.

The Vikings have two excellent cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes who are physical, sure tacklers and strong cover artists, but the depth behind them is suspect. Nickel corner Mackensie Alexander and second-year man Mike Hughes are both dealing with injuries and may not play against New Orleans.

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