A great deal has been made about how different the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings look four months after their Sept. 11, 2017 meeting in which home team won 29-19 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings, on one hand, had a different quarterback. Sam Bradford delivered a career game that night with a 143 passer rating, while rookie running back Dalvin Cook carried for 127 yards in his debut.
Due to knee injuries to Bradford and Cook, the Vikings went to Case Keenum at quarterback and a dual-threat backfield of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Keenum went on to post the league’s second-highest QBR, while Murray and McKinnon combined to rush just as effectively as Cook.
That’s basically where the changes end.
Minnesota’s offensive line should match its Week 1 lineup, the starting tight ends and receivers expect to be active, and the Vikings defense — which has stayed remarkably healthy — should have the same 11 starters.
New Orleans, on the other hand, has changed dramatically from Week 1.
“They just look like a totally different team,” said McKinnon.
- Adrian Peterson was traded on Oct. 10 to create a larger role for potential Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara.
- Ryan Ramczyk moved from left to right tackle when Zach Strief injured his knee.
- Terron Armstead reclaimed his spot at left tackle after an early-season shoulder injury to make 10 starts, but he’s played banged-up most of the year.
- Left guard Andrus Peat broke his fibula against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and is likely to be replaced by Senio Kelemete.
- Linebackers Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and A.J. Klein (groin) were replaced by Craig Robertson and Jonathan Freeny in the base defense.
- Alex Okafor (Achilles) was replaced by George Johnson at defensive end.
- Kenny Vaccaro (wrist) was spelled by Vonn Bell at safety.
- Ken Crawley was inactive against the Vikings on Sept. 11, but he’s been a better option for the Saints at cornerback than Devante Harris, who got reps in Week 1 as the third corner and has since been cut.
In summary, this is roughly what the Saints’ starting lineup looked like Week 1 compared to their Wild Card game.
WEEK 1/WILD CARD
A defense revived?
Despite plenty of turnover amongst the linebackers and secondary over the course of the season, the Saints had their best defensive season since 2013, finishing 10th in points allowed (20.4) and tied for ninth in the take/give (plus-7).
This coming one year after allowing the most passing yards in football, which is pretty remarkable.
Cameron Jordan finished the season as the top-ranked defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus. Passers had the ninth-lowest completion percentage against the Saints (59.4), and their defense tied for seventh in sacks (42).
But the biggest difference-maker might’ve been 21-year-old rookie Marshon Lattimore, who was taken with the 11th overall pick. Lattimore finished tied with Patrick Robinson as the fourth-best corner in the league, per PFF.
“You see the way [Lattimore]’s playing, he’s playing light’s out,” said receiver Jarius Wright. “He’s getting a lot of recognition, as he should. Not only him. The [defensive] guys, they run around, they’re fast guys, and they play really, really hard.”
Their run defense leaves something to be desired, however. In half their regular season games, the Saints allowed 119 or more yards — a total requisite of the bottom quarter of the league.
New Orleans had a good stretch from Week 4 to Week 12 where they held five teams under 100 yards rushing to elevate them to the middle of the league’s rush defenses — 16th overall.
They are 28th in yards per carry allowed, though, at 4.4. The Saints allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of their four games against the NFC North, letting Dalvin Cook (127), Aaron Jones (131) and Jordan Howard (102) run for big games.
Sheldon Rankings, the team’s starting 3-technique defensive, is tied as the third-worst run-stopping defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus. Jordan is 19th of 30 qualified defensive ends in run stopping and 22nd of 35 in tackling.
The Saints have also been exploited for explosive plays, in a tie for the third-most passing plays of 20-plus yards allowed and the ninth-most rushing plays of 20-plus yards allowed.
Much like the 2009 Super Bowl-winning Saints, the defense’s success is predicated upon pressuring the quarterback and intercepting the football. But they are not completely airtight.
“They’ve got 20 interceptions and 42 sacks,” said Zimmer, “and I think that is their mantra. They want to create havoc for the offense, and they’ve got good players.”
A.P. to A.K.
When the Saints shipped Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals, they opened the door for Kamara, who exploded onto the scene and changed New Orleans’ season as the Saints finished the year 11-3 after an 0-2 start.
Peterson averaged just 3.0 yards per attempt in 27 carries through four games and made just two catches in the passing game. Kamara’s entrance gave New Orleans a new dimension that was missing when they were held to 60 rushing yards in Week 1.
As the change-of-pace back, Kamara received nine carries per game after the Peterson trade and turned in an insanely efficient 6.1 yards per carry on the season, the best rate of any player getting over 50 carries since Joseph Randle with the Cowboys in 2014.
His greatest effect came through the air as he finished second on the team to Michael Thomas in receptions and led all the league’s running backs in receiving yards (826).
“They use him as a receiver some, he catches the ball some on screens,” said Zimmer. “But he’s in the backfield as well. He played against us the first game, but I guess they’re using his abilities a little bit more now.”
They sure are.
Along with Mark Ingram, the duo that Saints fans call ‘Boom and Zoom’ combined for over 3,000 scrimmage yards this season. New Orleans placed second in the league in yards per rushing attempt and first in yards per passing attempt — a potent combination.
“That will definitely be another important aspect of the game,” said Barr. “I think they’ll get the ball out quickly.”