The Saints and Vikings faced each other in the season-opener at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota never really was in trouble that day and won the game 29-19. Both team have evolved throughout the season and they are set for a rematch on Sunday. After losing their first two games of the year, New Orleans went on to win ten of their next twelve and an NFC South title, to set them up as one of the biggest contenders in the conference. The Vikings won the North with a 13-3 record and earned the number two seed, possibly giving them home-field advantage all the way through the Super Bowl. In week one their starting quarterback still was Sam Bradford and everybody thought this was the same old Saints, who air it out and play no defense. Times have changed and both teams need to be reckoned with. This should be a huge matchup and looking at both squads, I believe the final score could look a lot different this time around. Here’s why:
Vikings Offense versus Saints Defense:
In week one the Vikings went 9 of 14 on third down against this Saints defense and Sam Bradford completed 27 of his 32 attempts. However, New Orleans has a completely different defense now – they challenge your receivers one-on-one, put pressure on your passer and they play with attitude and swagger. With that being said, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are different dudes. They have torched some secondaries throughout the year. I’m not quite sure if defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will put Marshon Lattimore on Thielen after going for 157 yards on nine grabs in their first matchup. For most of the season, he stayed outside the numbers with those number one receivers, but Thielen makes his biggest marks out of the slot. Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams are playing at a different level to where they were in recent years, so I could easily see Lattimore plaster Diggs and those other two guys taking on Thielen depending on where he lines up. Rookie Dalvin Cook rushed for 127 yards on 22 carries when these two squads faced each other in September. Even though the Saints have seen a couple of running backs reach the century mark against them over the first half of the season, they have shut down the run for the most part since then and Cook is out for the season. I like Jerrick McKinnon and Latavius Murray has done a pretty good job taking on that power back role for the Vikes, but the rook was a different breed. Here are some of the totals of opposing RBs against the Saints: LeSean McCoy – 49 yards, Todd Gurley – 74 yards, Bilal Powell – 44 yards and Devonta Freeman – 36 yards in the second matchup. I was especially impressed when they faced the Falcons in week 15 and they stopped the angry runner that is Freeman one yard away from the goal-line twice. Sheldon Rankins has developed into a disruptor from his 3-technique and he could be a big problem for the Vikings’ zone-schemes. Cameron Jordan is a monster off the edge and despite playing a good season, I don’t think right tackle Mike Remmers can handle the All-Pro. The Saints defense has forced 25 turnovers over the course of the regular season and they sacked opposing QBs 42 times. This is not the same unit that gave up 65 points over the first two weeks of 2017. Cam Newton had an excellent showing in the Wild Card round against them, but they will be looking to redeem themselves against this Vikings bunch.
Saints Offense versus Vikings Defense:
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 55 yards from scrimmage in the first game of the season. There is no way they don’t surpass those numbers the second time around. I don’t see Kamara getting to the outside like he can against most opponents, because Harrison Smith sets such a physical edge and chases plays down from behind, but even without Andrus Peat, they have a strong interior offensive line with Max Unger as one of those rare guys, who can reach Linval Joseph from his 1-technique to get one of those guards to the second level and run behind them, Against the Panthers in the Wildcard round, the box was stacked for most of the game and it was Drew Brees’ turn to show he can still sling it all over the yard, but I don’t see the Vikes doing that early on. New Orleans will try to spread this Minnesota D out with three receiver sets and force nickel packages, which I see them have some success against. Don’t expect Michael Thomas to go off again like he did last Sunday. Xavier Rhodes will lock him up, but my X-factor if you will, could be Ted Ginn out of the slot. The Vikings keep their corners on the outside, while aligning their safeties and linebackers according to the short and wide side of the field. Veteran Terrance Newman plays the nickel role for this unit and while he has been amazing at nearly 40 yards old, I don’t see him keep up with the speed of the flying Ginn in man-coverage. Considering the alignments across the border, I would try to play trips into the boundary side of the field, which means you would probably get Linval Joseph to the field side and keep Harrison Smith on the trips-side. Big Linval is a beast against the run and it will be a tall order to keep him out of your backfield, but I think Unger can eat least shield him from runs outside of his gap or you could work some cross-blocks. Assuming Minnesota stays true to their principles, that would give the Saints a three-on-three and a really good shot to make some plays in the ground game. Not a lot of teams do go trips into the boundary, because there’s not a lot of field to work with, but I’d test if this works or least make Mike Zimmer adjust. Coverage-wise that would open up the area in-between the linebackers and the deep safety when the Vikings roll into their cover three, as Kendricks and Barr need to step up. Or you let someone cross the field while occupying the corner on the single-receiver side with deep routes. I’m also very interested to see how Minnesota will try to match Kamara in the passing, because if they put a linebacker on him, he’s going to have a big day.
I could easily see either one of those teams win on Sunday. Offensively, the Vikings have a much-improved offensive line from a year ago, maybe the best duo of wide receivers in the league, a red-zone threat in tight-end Kyle Rudolph, a bruising plus a shifty runner and Case Keenum, who can avoid the rush and takes care of the football. I don’t have to hype anybody about their defense. Their number one rankings in total yards and points speak for themselves. Yet, I believe the Saints are on one of those magical runs. I didn’t trust this team before the season started, because even though I was high on Marshon Lattimore in the draft, I wasn’t sure if he would stay healthy and nobody saw him transform this defense the way he has done. The fact they have two Pro Bowl RBs and a first-ballot Hall of Famer at the helm are something no other team in this playoff race can match. The Vikings don’t do anything exotic. Defensively, they run their scheme and hit people in the mouth, but Sean Payton is an offensive mastermind and you better believe he will attack the few weaknesses of this unit. I think the New Orleans D will make a few big plays and decide this game. They are a completely different team to the one that started the year and who knows what happens after that, with the Falcons favored in Philadelphia and possibly setting up another heated divisional matchup in the Big Easy to decide who’s going to the big game.