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HASAN: New Orleans Saints Present Biggest Playoff Challenge for Vikings

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After the New Orleans Saints controlled their wild-card playoff game against the Carolina Panthers from start to finish, they set the Vikings up with the most difficult possible matchup in the divisional round.

The Vikings have secured home-field advantage for at least one game of the playoffs and possibly quite a bit more, depending on what happens between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles. Though the second seed, they’re the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in part because the top seed suffered from a catastrophic quarterback injury right before the playoffs.

As a result, the biggest challenge — aside from the winner of the AFC — might come in the upcoming divisional round matchup instead of during the NFC Championship Game.

This is all in spite of the fact that the Vikings handily beat the Saints in Week 1 of the season. The teams aren’t the same as the ones who met early on.

The New Orleans Saints have a case for being the best team in the NFL. Football Outsiders’ top end-of-season ranking in DVOA belongs to New Orleans, though some of that had to do with the Los Angeles Rams sitting all of their starters in Week 17.

The Saints and the Rams are tied in opponent-adjusted point differential — both, incidentally, ahead of the Vikings — and the two premiered in the playoffs with identical odds of making the Super Bowl, according to Vegas.

One way of accounting for the team quality is to sum up the value of all the players expected to be on the field, and Pro Football Focus has developed such a system.

Through a combination of an Elo rating system — which repeatedly accounts for opponent strength — and their grading system, they have the unique ability to generate a rating for teams in a way that allows them to swap in substitute players for injured or suspended players if need be.

As a result, they have an up-to-date prediction model that accounts for the recent substitution of Nick Foles for Carson Wentz or that Jeremiah Sirles will have to play for Nick Easton.

Using that model, they’ve come up with playoff probabilities for each team, and as you’d expect, the Vikings are the most likely team in the NFC to win the Super Bowl

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Though one might be a little taken aback by the heavy odds that the Patriots and Steelers have in this model, it’s more a result of a weak AFC slate along with the advantage of “winning” the bye.

Because PFF posted round-by-round odds, we can divine what the odds are of a team winning a game given that they’ve reached that game. So, if we take it as a given that the Patriots win their next two games and play in the Super Bowl, what are the odds they win in the Super Bowl?

According to the model, 72.7 percent.

With all of that in mind, one can effectively power rank the teams using the model’s outputs for how likely a team is to win the Super Bowl once they reach the game.

Team Odds of Winning
NWE 72.7%
PIT 72.6%
KAN 53.8%
JAX 47.6%
MIN 36.1%
NOR 33.3%
ATL 30.5%
TEN 29.9%
CAR 28.9%
PHI 27.3%
BUF 23.8%
LAR 22.5%

It might be easy to dismiss a ranking that gives the Jaguars a higher chance of winning the Super Bowl than the Vikings in the same conditions (i.e. if each team listed above were given a 100 percent chance of winning their playoff games) but the model isn’t saying that the Jaguars are a better team than the Vikings (on the contrary); it’s saying that the Jaguars have a better chance of beating their Super Bowl opponent — because the NFC is so stacked, their opponent could just as easily be the Eagles, who they would be favored over given their quarterback situation.

The Vikings, on the other hand, have a 36 percent chance of winning against their likely opponents, which overwhelmingly are likely to be the Patriots or the Steelers.

I reached out to Pro Football Focus and part of the relatively small likelihood for the Vikings is that they didn’t bake in home-field advantage for the final game. If they did, the chances for the Vikings rises to 50.4 percent.

 

Just behind the Vikings are the New Orleans Saints; their Hall-of-Fame-level quarterback play, explosive offense, and stifling defense all come together to represent the second-best team in the NFC — with Atlanta and Carolina coming out ahead of Philadelphia.

The reason that the Saints are a more threatening team than the Rams has to do with how they’ve evolved over the year to be the multi-capable menace that the Falcons or Eagles might not be.

Since acclimating to the defense, Marshon Lattimore has made a case to be the best cornerback in the league. While the case isn’t anything close to resembling a slam-dunk, his impact on the defense has allowed the Saints to condense the field much like the Seahawks used to do with Richard Sherman or the Jets did with Darrelle Revis.

That sort of 10-on-10 football has led to phenomenal results for the defense.

Since changing their use pattern for him in Week 4, the Saints have given up 17 points per game when Lattimore was healthy. That would be good for third in the league, ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles and just behind the Jacksonville Jaguars.

At the same time, the offense has really taken off in a different way since trading Adrian Peterson and focusing their running game around Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara has earned 1345 yards from scrimmage in 12 games (110.3 yards per game) while Ingram generated 1245 yards from scrimmage (103.8 per game).

They’ve enlivened their run game while still maintaining an elite level of play through the air. Brees leads the league in yards per attempt with 8.1 and net yards per attempt (which takes into account lost sack yardage) at 7.5. Surrounded by a more-than-capable receiving cast, New Orleans is difficult to shut down.

It can be dangerous splitting hairs to find meaningful results, but if one looks at the games where Lattimore is healthy and the offense has re-oriented itself around its two star running backs, one can why the Saints are more than just a multidimensional offense.

Over a 16-game stretch, Ingram and Kamara’s post-Peterson production translates to 3,425 yards from the two players: 2,132 on the ground and another 1,293 in the air.

In those games, the Saints have a plus-11.2 point differential, the best in the league by a full point and better than the Vikings by three points. On a per-drive basis, their net points per drive in those games of plus-0.89 would rank second over the course of a season only to the Patriots.

That’s not against an unusually weak slate of opponents, either — their opponents in those games had a cumulative record of 71-73, or 69-66 in games they didn’t play the Saints. Though they didn’t have a stellar point differential, it wasn’t awful at minus-1.8 per game (minus-0.8 in non-Saints games), which would be 16th in the NFL.

All of this speaks to the results of their play on the field, but what exactly about them makes them so formidable?

Defense

Defensively, Lattimore helps make the Saints go. Brett Kollman did an excellent job breaking down exactly how Lattimore does that in the video below:

Lattimore’s target rate had increased since posting the video — he finished the season with 63 targets in coverage — but his performance has not. With five interceptions and no touchdowns allowed (per Pro Football Focus), he’s been one of the most dangerous cornerbacks in the NFL throughout the season.

His interception rate when targeted (7.4 percent) is fourth in the NFL but only second among corners that haven’t allowed a touchdown. This allows him to rank fourth in adjusted yards given up per target and sixth in adjusted yards given up per snap in coverage.

For many teams, this would be killer. A shadowing Lattimore has done well against Brandin Cooks (15 yards), Davante Adams (0 yards) and Mike Evans (25 yards) with his only big problems coming from covering Julio Jones (73 and 140 yards allowed).

He cleaned up in his first playoff appearance against the Panthers, too:

For the Vikings, isolating a key receiver may not work out. Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are both talented and it’s quite possible that both are top-ten receivers. It may even be argued that the less productive of the two, Diggs with only 849 yards this year, is more talented when healthy.

The problem is that the Saints have done a good job with secondary receivers since redesigning their defense, allowing an average of 50 yards a game to the team’s next-best receiver in games that Lattimore has played.

Neither have given up many completions in coverage. Lattimore is top-four in ball-hawk rate, which means he’s one of the best in the league at getting his hands on the ball when it’s targeted his way. His teammate — Ken Crawley — may not have many interceptions, but is 14th of 84 cornerbacks in ball-hawk rate.

Both have allowed an obscenely low number of passes targeted towards them to be completed, too — they rank 18th and ninth in completion rate allowed, respectively.

Besides Lattimore, they also have Cameron Jordan, who leads all defensive linemen in batted passes at the line of scrimmage and is fourth in the NFL in total sacks.

That combination allows the Saints to run a variety of coverages to confuse quarterbacks while still only rushing four to get pressure.

Here the Saints show a Cover 2 shell and switch to Cover 1 with close man coverage on all eligible receivers. It resulted in a near sack and incompletion, with no receivers open at the top of the quarterback drop.

In the above clip, the Saints demonstrate their ability to maintain tight man coverage despite route concepts designed specifically to beat man coverage. Once again, they force pressure that leads to an incompletion.

Dropping Marcus Williams into deep Cover 1 with eight in the box allows them to deal with the potential run threat the Falcons are showing without sacrificing ability in coverage. This route is purpose-built for Julio Jones, who is fantastic on slants and other contested catches. Despite that, Lattimore forced the incompletion.

Though the Saints don’t seem to play zone coverage as much, they are comfortable with zone concepts, as well as mixing those coverage types. They prefer man coverage because of the freedom it gives them with their fronts and blitzing, but have, over the course of the season, used more and more zone looks.

The Saints are in Cover 3 above against the Buccaneers and earn an interception off of an opportunistic, quick decision from Marcus Williams — a former Utah product whose coverage statistics in college were so good that they broke a model used for draft analysis. This move to zone coverage gives the Saints flexibility in dealing with threats — something they couldn’t do early in the year when they were carved up by the Patriots.

Now they can deal with smart offenses that sit in zones or mobile quarterbacks who exploit man coverage for space underneath. At times, their mixed coverages can also produce turnovers, like below.

That’s why the Saints, in games where Marshon Lattimore is healthy, allow a passer rating of 64.8 and 3.66 adjusted net yards per attempt. Essentially, they’ve made their opponents look like DeShone Kizer. That includes games against Matt Ryan (twice), Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston.

They’re a little more vulnerable against the run — rankings 23rd in defensive rush DVOA and 27th in yards per attempt allowed. It will be more difficult for the Vikings to take advantage of that, despite how many yards they’ve gained on the ground this year (ranking seventh in total rushing yards) — but most of that comes from attempting to kill the clock with a lead more than it does a consistent rushing threat.

Their running game ranks 18th in offensive DVOA, 22nd in yards per carry and 18th in success rate. Nevertheless, the Saints’ weakness on defense comes from subpar play from their linebackers and their strong safety, Vonn Bell. The Vikings would probably be best running it up the middle with Latavius Murray while occasionally testing Ken Crawley deep — who leads the Saints in penalties, with 12 total penalties (including offsetting and declined penalties).

Offense

It’s almost a boring observation to point out that the Saints have an efficient offense. Second in the league in points per drive and in offensive DVOA (behind the Patriots on both accounts). None of that is surprising given their offensive dominance over the years.

Instead, it’s important to point out how diverse the offense is, and therefore how difficult it is to plan for.

The Saints were able to create two 1,000-yard backs simply by shedding a player and refocusing the offense, but it really becomes apparent how astounding the feat is when realizing that they would be thousand-yard backs if only looking at the final 12 games of the season.

Over a 16-game stretch, that translates to 3,425 yards from the two players: 2,132 on the ground and another 1,293 in the air. The two of them have accounted for 25 touchdowns this year.

The wide receivers present their own threat, too. Among them are persistent deep-threat Ted Ginn and the fourth-highest graded receiver from Pro Football Focus, Michael Thomas.

Kamara is a talented runner who can break tackles while running up the middle, but the Saints have chosen to focus on his incredible talents as a pass-catcher and runner in space. He ranks 13th in the NFL — among players at any position — in receptions, and has one more receiving touchdown than Thielen.

One of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL still couldn’t handle Kamara, who adjusted to an underthrown deep pass from Brees to secure a contested catch. Lavonte David finished the year fifth in PFF’s coverage grade, but Kamara gained a step on him regardless deep downfield and his body control allowed him to win the ball in the air.

His route-running is solid and hands are excellent. His ability to run through contact can be devastating as well.

Though the Saints more often use Ingram, a talented runner, as their goal-line back, Kamara has shown the ability to run through linebackers like Shaq Thompson above and many more throughout the season.

There really doesn’t seem to be a running back skill that Mark Ingram doesn’t possess.

Ingram demonstrates decisiveness and explosion as a runner, and ranks second in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns — despite not carrying the full workload as a runner for New Orleans. He ranks second in touchdown rate among running backs (behind teammate Alvin Kamara) and 12th in first-down rate on rushes.

His reputation as a grinder is well-earned. He’s fourth in yards after contact among qualified running backs and demonstrates in every game his ability to run through heavy opposition.

Not only that, Ingram demonstrates big-play explosiveness; he ranks second in big-play percentage with 40 percent of his yards coming from runs of 15 yards or more.

He ranks fourth in receiving yards per passing route run — first, of course, is Kamara — and fourth in pass blocking efficiency.

There really doesn’t seem to be a running back skill that Ingram doesn’t possess.

And when both are on the field, the results can be devastating. In their playoff rematch, the Saints bedeviled the Panthers’ otherwise stout coverage unit by putting their two running backs into routes on opposite sides of the field, stressing the coverage and creating opportunities for both. It turned into a big play.

And outside of their two backs, the Saints also happen to have a top-ten receiver that few talk about — a Pro Bowl alternate who ranks fourth in yards per route run, fourth in PFF grade, third in receptions and sixth in receiving yards. Thomas has been a gift to the Saints offense and quickly established himself as Brees’ go-to receiver.

On the other side of the field is one of the most potent deep threats in the league, Ginn. Despite his reputation, he hasn’t dropped a pass targeted to him over 20 yards downfield this year, and he ranks third in catch rate on those throws.

Directing them all is a Hall-bound Brees, who is still playing at an elite level. Showing the movement skills that allowed a short-statured quarterback to be drafted in the first place, Brees is deadly on roll-outs and can manipulate the pocket as well as anyone else.

His famed accuracy is still there, and unlike other completion compilers like Alex Smith from a few years ago, he still takes aggressive shots downfield, ranking fifth in the NFL in passing yards on deep throws with 965.

Brees’ record-setting completion rate is helped along by his stellar supporting cast as he has the fewest passes dropped of any quarterback in the league, but it’s also helped by his unerring accuracy — if every quarterback was given credit for their receivers’ drops, Brees would still rank first in the NFL.

That accuracy still extends to pressure situations, where he ranks — as you’d expect — first in the NFL in accuracy under pressure. Not that he’s under pressure often, as he is the least-pressured quarterback in the NFL; a feat accomplished in part through the talent of a stellar offensive line, smart play design from the coaching staff and a quick release from Drew Brees in response to a muddied pocket.

Luckily, the Vikings are one of the few teams that may have the ability to deal with this bevy of threats. Both Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr have great coverage capability, and though Kendricks has had some issues defending the run this year, he still a top-level linebacker when it comes to coverage play.

Though Barr will still have some awareness issues when contesting the ball in the air, his athleticism is second-to-none in the NFL. The two of them should have the ability to keep both running backs in check, especially as the Saints this year haven’t done much with tight ends — those in-line players were a threat against the Panthers in the playoffs, but for the most part are afterthoughts in the Saints offense.

At the same time, the improvement of Trae Waynes and the high-level play of Xavier Rhodes should allow them to smother both receivers. If the Vikings adopt a similar defensive approach as their opponents, and emphasis blitz-friendly man coverage looks, they may be able to do what few teams have demonstrated the ability to do and match up with their weapons one-for-one and come out ahead.

All of this comes together to create one of the most complete teams in the NFL, and one of the only challengers to the Vikings when it comes to overall ability in the conference.

The Saints are the top team remaining in the playoffs in adjusted net yards differential, just ahead of the Vikings. It may be better that this matchup comes while the Vikings defense is rested and healthy instead of during the conference championship when the injury advantage may not be as complete.

Regardless, the Vikings have their toughest matchup early in the playoffs rather than later. This game could do more to justify the Vikings’ place atop the NFC than the following round could, and preview their ability to win the Super Bowl at home.


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8 COMMENTS

  1. Boy, it almost looks as though we shouldn’t even try- concede rather than be embarrassed, because we have never really stopped Brees; if he slows down, it is because he has a bad day himself. Maybe hope he gets the flu.

    • He’s a future HOF QB on a good team. A healthy respect is warranted. Until the Vikings prove themselves, circumspection will reign.

  2. Great read. Saints looked scary 1st half. Then cooled off with several drives ending with punts and a baffling decision to go for it on 4 th down on the wrong side of the 50 yd line. Think they were worried that Panthers wore their defense out with massive success generating 1st downs but no luck scoring touchdowns. Should be a great game. I’m hoping Vikes offense slip is due to over cautious play calling vs teams with no real offense for the last month.

  3. and yet somehow the panthers managed to move the ball at will against the Saints with injured TE and WR. and the running game for the saints has been sputtering for 4 weeks in a row. interesting none of this made it into the article.

    • Because the article wasn’t about those things. The point of the article is nothing more than “The New Orleans Saints Present the Biggest Playoff Challenge for the Vikings.” An apology for why the Vikings could win is not the point of this article.

      My word, are we Vikings fans so jaded that unless they are praised, we cry martyr?

  4. I just heard Arif talking on his podcast, and he inferred all wrong- no one is picking on his analysis or his conclusion. Myself, I am just discouraged that every time we have an opportunity to make a run, we end up collapsing because some other team has developed better than we have. I suffered through the 1970 game against Kansas City where we were even a better team, I grimaced through the Dolphin Bowl (Bud Grant’s characterization) where Csonka mad mincemeat of the Vikings middle, I bled along with Tark when he got ground up by the Pittsburgh defensive line in 1975, but by 1977, I shrugged, because we had managed to collapse against an Oakland team made up of castoffs the year after Drew Pearson/Staubach. Since 1976, we have blown 4 NFC championship games- including blowing a big lead in 1998, so I just no longer expect anything but disaster, this year against the Saints again like 2009.

    Jim Klobuchar had it right in 1977: https://www.amazon.com/Will-Vikings-ever-Super-Bowl/dp/0060124113/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515702616&sr=8-1&keywords=klobuchar+will+the+vikings+ever+win+the+super+bowl

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