As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s Wild Card game against the New Orleans Saints, they’re bound to encounter plenty of challenges. Sean Payton is a great offensive mind, Drew Brees is a legendary quarterback, and the Superdome is loud. The Saints also have a lot of talent. They have eight players with a PFF grade in the league’s top five (minimum 100 snaps). That’s a ton of blue-chippers, and it doesn’t even include RB Alvin Kamara, DE Cameron Jordan or CB Marshon Lattimore, who are still highly regarded.
QB Drew Brees
WR Michael Thomas
FB Zach Line
T Ryan Ramczyk
C Erik McCoy
S Marcus Williams
LB Demario Davis
K Wil Lutz
What do they have in common? All are Top 5 at their position this year, per PFF. That’s a lot of high-end talent.
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) December 30, 2019
It’s hard to find an immediate hole on this team that looks poised to make a Super Bowl run. There are few other years when these 13-win Saints wouldn’t have a bye week, but Green Bay’s by-the-skin-of-their-teeth 13-win season earned them the No. 2 seed thanks to a tiebreaker.
But are there ways to exploit the Saints? Let’s dig a little deeper into some of their shortcomings.
There could be ways to expose the Saints’ pass coverage, which has gotten banged-up this season. Lattimore is still playing well but after dealing with a hamstring injury mid-season is not at the same level, at least analytically, of his Defensive Rookie of the Year season in 2017. Eli Apple has had an average season but missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Marcus Williams, one of the top safeties in football this year, also missed the last game with a groin injury. To aid their depth, the Saints brought in Janoris Jenkins during Week 16 after his release from the New York Giants.
“He’s played a lot of football in this league,” Adam Thielen said of Jenkins, “and he just gives them added depth at that position that they already have some really good football players, so it definitely was a good pickup for them and will present another guy that can cause some havoc in the back end.”
But the weak link is seemingly nickel corner P.J. Williams. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s played 10 games this year with coverage grades below 60 and five games below 50. He ranks 120th out of 131 qualified corners and has allowed the highest passer rating (133.7) out of 53 qualified slot corners. In his most recent five games heading into Sunday, Williams had allowed five touchdowns in coverage and five passer ratings over 100 when targeted.
Due to Marcus Williams’ injury, the Saints chose to put P.J. Williams at safety, where he played better in a 42-10 win over the Panthers. But if Marcus Williams is healthy for the playoffs, there’s no doubt the Saints would prefer to have their star safety back in his original spot. If P.J. Williams is working in the slot, this is the game where Thielen (or Stefon Diggs, perhaps) has to break out when the Vikings see the Saints’ nickel. Thielen didn’t make a big impact in his two games back from a long-term hamstring injury, but if the Vikings are to keep up with the Saints in the playoffs, Thielen may have to thrive in the slot, where he led the league in receptions and yards last season.
The catch would be that the Vikings don’t run a lot of three-wide-receiver looks, which could allow the Saints to hide Williams if they feel he’s a liability. Third downs may be the best time to get a favorable matchup against the struggling corner.
The Saints still boast one of the game’s top pass rushers in Cameron Jordan, who finished the year with a career-high 15.5 sacks, one better than Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter. But the group around Jordan is not as strong as it could be.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a starter of all 32 games over the last two seasons, began the year injured and never found his footing upon returning. On Dec. 8 he departed with an Achilles injury against the 49ers that ended his season. Defensive end Marcus Davenport left that same game with a foot injury that put him on IR, a second costly injury within a heartbreaking 48-46 loss that swung the NFC playoff picture.
Since then, the Saints have rolled with a timeshare that includes Carl Granderson (graded 129th out of 142 on PFF), Mario Edwards (T61) and Trey Hendrickson (79) at defensive end with David Onyemata (108th out of 124 on PFF), Shy Tuttle (30) and Malcom Brown (57) manning the middle.
The Saints gave up a season-high 516 yards to the 49ers in the game where they lost Rankins and Davenport, including 162 on the ground. They gave up 149 rushing yards two weeks later at Tennessee in a 38-28 win. But their defense looked strong in Week 15 and Week 17 wins over the Colts and Panthers, respectively.
New Orleans is hoping to create production in aggregate with a rotation to complement Jordan, who is still one of the league’s best at his position.
“He’s a very violent rusher,” said Zimmer, “plays extremely hard, tough guy, he uses his hands well. He’s a good matchup.”
The Saints’ interior group will be pitted against the Vikings interior offensive line, which has experienced some low points of its own throughout the season, particularly in pass protection. Pat Elflein, Garrett Bradbury and Josh Kline played a majority of the first half last Sunday versus Chicago when most other starters were sitting.
“I thought they did pretty well,” Zimmer said. “Except for the safety, we blocked it wrong, but I thought they played well. I thought we blocked the edges good. They got some good edge rushers. We were able to open up some holes in the running game.”
LOTS OF FLAGS
This is a difficult weakness to exploit, but the Saints have been penalty-prone throughout the season. They have 120 penalties, the sixth-highest total in the NFL and nine games with seven or more flags. New Orleans is well over the league average in defensive holding penalties (12), defensive pass interference (12) and illegal use of hands (9) calls. They are also second in the NFL with 29 offensive holding calls. Cornerback Eli Apple and safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson have the most defensive violations with eight penalties each, while rookie center Erik McCoy has eight penalties on offense.