Three to Focus on: Saints @ Vikings, Week 15
At first glance, a game played by two teams with eight wins separating their records may not hold much appeal. For those without the means to watch whatever game they choose, it’s one of those games you hope isn’t going to be shown in your area. However, there are always intriguing storylines before every game and this one is no different.
Perhaps the matchup isn’t as one-sided as it appears. The Saints are 4-3 on the road and have only one road victory by a touchdown or more, indicating that they usually keep games close against any competition on the road. They’ve lost games to teams like Tampa Bay and St. Louis on the road and scored 30 or more points only twice. By comparison, the Saints have won all six of their home games by a touchdown or more and scored 30 or more points in five of them. Simply put, this team just isn’t the same away from the Superdome. If the Buccaneers and Rams can play a competitive game against the Saints, the Vikings may be able to as well.
The Vikings are 2-11, but they kept eight of those games within a touchdown and could have a much better record if a few breaks had gone their way. Adrian Peterson’s (+13.9) expected return should give the Vikings offense a shot in the arm, but the defense is the unit that can give the Vikings a chance, if it can stop Drew Brees (+40.7)and the Saints’ offense. That’s easier said than done for any defense, and with the Vikings giving up over 30 points in each of the last two games, they’ll need to play better than they have to give Peterson and the offense a chance to keep pace with the Saints prolific scoring.
Saints Receivers vs. Vikings Defensive Backs
With 33 consecutive games completing 20 passes or more and at least one touchdown pass in 40 straight contests, Drew Brees has shown he can pick apart defenses across the league. He could probably do well with worse weapons, but it doesn’t hurt that he has guys like Marques Colston (+9.5) and tight end Jimmy Graham (+18.1 receiving) to throw to. Throw in Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, and Lance Moore (+4.4) and it’s not difficult to envision a poor pass defense having trouble keeping the stable of receivers in check. Colston is the hot hand after catching seven of seven targets with two touchdowns last week, giving Brees a perfect passer rating throwing to Colston.
Unfortunately,the Vikings have a poor pass defense. Injuries and off-field incidents have ensured that the best talent hasn’t always been out there in the Vikings’ secondary. Cedric Griffin (-4.1) is the Vikings top remaining corner, and he was benched last week after giving up a long touchdown to Titus Young. Benny Sapp (+3.7) replaced him and has been a nice surprise for Minnesota in the 189 snaps he’s been given. If he keeps playing as he has, Griffin won’t get his job back. The biggest problem is on the back end, where Jamarca Sanford (-14.7) routinely blows coverages and Mistral Raymond—a sixth-round draft pick who has no business starting at this point in his young career—has to learn to take cleaner angles to the ball carrier. Raymond has missed four tackles in the two games he’s started at strong safety.
Saints Linebackers vs. Vikings Tailbacks
While the Saints’ passing game vs. the Vikings’ pass defense is an egregious mismatch, it’s not the only unit matchup that may be exploited. The Saints haven’t had the kind of stout run defense they envisioned when they went out and got Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin in free agency, but the big men up front have mostly done their jobs, if not excelled this season. The problem is found at the next level, where no Saints linebacker outside of Ramon Humber can boast a positive cumulative grade, and his +0.2 is nothing to celebrate. Jonathan Vilma (-12.7) has been among the most ineffective inside linebackers in the league and rarely has been able to have any sort of impact in the run game. Most of his tackles have come downfield after a healthy offensive gain. Vilma has recorded a defensive stop only 15 times—six came in one game—and no other inside linebacker with over 400 snaps has produced less than 20.
If Vilma and the rest of the linebackers aren’t able to shed blocks and flow to the ball-carrier against the Vikings, Peterson could be in for a big game in his return. Peterson’s abilities are no secret, but it will be interesting to see how effectively the Vikings are able to spell him. Toby Gerhart has really begun to hit his stride with grades of +4.4 and +3.2 in two 90-yard games and has earned some carries, even with Peterson back. Percy Harvin (+12.9) could also be very dangerous out of the backfield against a linebacking corps that sometimes struggles to track the ball and make an open-field tackle.
Saints’ Offensive Line vs. Vikings’ Defensive Line
After discussing two potential mismatches, let’s turn our attention to a matchup that intrigues by pitting strength against strength. The Saints’ offensive line ranks 10th in our signature Pass Blocking Efficiency rating and none of these linemen are one-trick ponies—they all grade positively in run-blocking as well. None demonstrate that versatility better than left guard Carl Nicks (+23.7), who last year was our top-ranked guard almost solely on the back of his punishing run-blocking. This year, Nicks has almost exceeded his cumulative grade last season and can do so with one or two more strong games. The interesting thing is that his pass-blocking grade is nearly three times that of his run-blocking grade this time around.
Nicks is still young, but he’salready established himself as one of the game’s best and he’ll have to contend with a player who’s earned that same recognition on the other side, defensive tackle Kevin Williams (+16.3). Williams has noticed the loss of the other half of the ‘Williams Wall’ next to him, but he’s still performed better than most defensive tackles could ever dream of. Keep a close eye on Williams and you’ll be sure to witness an excellent battle between him and the interior offensive line of the Saints. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod (+6.3) has been one of the league’s most improved players in 2011 and after a perfect game in pass protection last week, he’d be a shoo-in for Team of the Week honors if he can repeat the feat working against Jared Allen (+26.3).