Preview: Saints still strong

The New Orleans Saints weren't affected too badly by free agency, but there are a couple of defensive deficiencies the Vikings could look to exploit. We take a position-by-position look at the strengths and weaknesses of the defending Super Bowl champs.

The Vikings are returning to the scene of the crime Thursday when they make their first return to the City of New Orleans and the Superdome to watch the Saints hoist their first championship banner. The Saints have spent their offseason reveling in their first Super Bowl title, while the Vikings have spent the offseason stewing over what could have been in a conference championship game in which they dominated nearly every statistical category, yet lost 31-28 in overtime.

The Saints won the Super Bowl because of two things – an explosive passing offense and an opportunistic defense that led the league in takeaways. Despite allowing offenses to move up and down the field on them, that defense found ways to make the big plays at the right time to turn the tide of games. Given the Vikings' question marks on both sides of the ball heading into the game, this could be another shootout that has both teams attacking the other from start to finish.

You can't talk Saints without talking about Drew Brees. One can only wonder where the Miami Dolphins would be if they hadn't chosen a trade for Daunte Culpepper over signing Brees as a free agent. In four years with the Saints, Brees has never thrown less than 500 passes, has never completed less than 350 passes, has thrown for more 18,000 yards and more than 120 touchdowns. He has been a passing machine and has completed more than two-thirds of his passes in that span. He saved his best for last year, when he completed 71 percent of his passes and, for the second straight year, threw 34 touchdown passes. He is as dangerous a QB as there is. He has a knack for finding the open receiver very quickly and delivering passes on target. With the Vikings' pass rush, expect to see Brees throwing on three-step and five-step drops to get rid of the ball quickly. That may play into the Vikings' hands because the Cover-2 defense is designed on making plays quickly and aggressively attacking the ball. However, with the arsenal of receivers at his disposal, Brees will be critical to the success or failure of the Saints offense. He rarely gets rattled, but when he does will force passes. The Vikings will need to harass Brees at all times. If given time, he can pick any defense apart, much less one that is hurting in the secondary.

The Saints running game was relatively non-descript last year because it used a three-headed approach to the game. With Mike Bell gone, the Saints now have a two-headed monster at running back. Pierre Thomas will do most of the dirty work. He has proved to be a versatile player, but, despite setting career highs across the board last year, he still averaged just 10.5 carries a game. He averaged 5.4 yards a carry and is an adept receiver. Over the last two years, he has carried just 276 times, but gained 1,418 yards and 15 touchdowns and caught 70 passes for 586 yards and five more TDs. He is poised to have a bigger role in the offense, which could make him one of the premier backs in the league. He will be the primary focus of the Vikings run defense. If he can be stopped, the Saints offense will be forced to be much more one-dimensional.

The second running back is Reggie Bush. In four years, Bush has never lived up to his massive hype, but he has big-play ability. His numbers have declined in recent years in terms of both rushing attempts (157-106-70 in the last three years) and in receiving (88-73-52-47). He can be shut down by teams that focus on him, but his big-play ability as both a runner and receiver make him a feared threat, especially early in the season when he's healthy. The onus will be squarely on the tailbacks since fullback Heath Evans is little more than a glorified blocker and third RB Chris Ivory is injured and won't play. If the Vikings can bottle up Thomas and Bush, the Saints will have to throw, which may not be the best scenario for the depleted Vikings secondary.

While the Saints don't have one go-to receiver like the Vikings will see in the next two weeks with Brandon Marshall of Miami and Calvin Johnson of the Lions, they have four legitimate receivers, each one bringing his own set of skills to the table. Marques Colston caught the most passes last year and uses his size and strength to power past cornerbacks and is especially dangerous in the red zone, where he can create mismatches. Devery Henderson has speed and is a deep threat that often drags safety help over the top. He isn't a huge touchdown scorer, but is important to the offense because he can take two players with him deep down the field and open up seams for other receivers to run under. Robert Meachem has been an enigma. A first-round pick in 2007, he missed the entire season due to injury. In the two years since, he has caught just 57 passes, but 12 of them have gone for touchdowns – an average of better than one TD for every five career receptions. He emerged last year with a strong season (45-722-9) and has averaged 18 yards per catch for his career. If single covered by a nickel corner, he can create a big play at any time. As if those three weren't enough, the return of Lance Moore causes even more problems. A solid possession receiver, Moore can move the chains with his excellent route running and willingness to go over the middle. If the Vikings find him on a safety or linebacker, he is capable of making big plays as well.

While the tight ends aren't big-play producers, they become dangerous targets in the red zone. Veteran Jeremy Shockey has trouble staying healthy, but is an emotional team leader and has good hands and toughness. Dave Thomas is known more for his blocking, but, like Jeff Dugan for the Vikings, is occasionally targeted in the red zone because he largely goes uncovered. This is a deep and talented group, which will put a lot of pressure on the Vikings to get to Brees quickly, which will mean overpowering the offensive line of the Saints.

The Vikings did a good job of winning the battle in the trenches in the NFC Championship Game even though the score didn't reflect it. The Saints have an excellent offensive line that has a key difference from last year, coming at left tackle. Fourth-year man Jermon Bushrod has replaced injury-riddled Jammal Brown at left tackle, where he will again be asked to shut down Jared Allen – a tall order for a player with limited starting experience. The rest of the line has been together for three years and is almost seamless in the way they work together as a unit. Jahri Evans is a Pro Bowl right guard and is flanked by eight-year veteran Jon Stinchcomb at tackle and nine-year man Jonathan Goodwin at center. They are experienced and savvy and know how to use technique to neutralize even the strongest defensive fronts. Left guard Carl Nicks is a massive blocking machine who is adept at run blocking. He will likely find himself face-up with the Williams Wall and will have the assignment of keeping Kevin Williams out of the backfield. The Saints hope that second-round draft pick Charles Brown will be a bookend tackle for years to come, but for now, they ideally hope that he will be gaining experience as a backup, not a starter.

While there is no questioning the Saints offensive firepower, defensively speaking, the team is far from dominant. Many of their weaknesses were masked by a big-play defense capable of scoring points of its own. That isn't to say the Saints have a weak defense, but they have one that can be exploited, as the Vikings proved by marching for 300 second-half yards in the NFC title game last January.

Gregg Williams has developed an aggressive defense that starts up front. After a couple of down seasons, Will Smith re-emerged as a pass-rusher and gave Bryant McKinnie fits in the playoffs last year. On the other side, the Saints released Charles Grant, who was a solid run end but no longer a strong pass rusher, and Bobby McCray, who delivered a couple of shots on Brett Favre last year. They were replaced with veteran signees Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson, both of whom will see time as pass rushers from the left side of the defense. Wilkerson is recovering from ACL surgery and is used sparingly, so Brown will shoulder most of the load. He is known more for his ability vs. the run, but has pass-rush ability. In the middle, the Saints have a solid pair of starters in Sedrick Ellis and Remi Ayodele. Ayodele is the Saints' version of a nose tackle, but he's no Pat Williams. Strong running teams have been able to consistently gain yards against them and Adrian Peterson ran for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns in the playoff meeting. Depth is painfully thin in the middle. The Saints have only three DTs on the roster and the third – sixth-year man Anthony Hargrove – has been sidelined due to injury. If the Vikings can pound the ball up the middle consistently, they can wear down Ellis and Ayodele and dictate the pace of the game.

Arguably the weakest unit on the team is at linebacker. It was an overachieving group last year, but lost starter Scott Fujita to free agency. The best of the linebackers – MLB Jonathan Vilma – has been battling a groin injury and isn't 100 percent. His strength has been not only blowing up running lanes, but dropping back in coverage as well. With his mobility considerably restricted, his pass defending strength will be limited. Starter Scott Shanle may have to play the entire game on the left outside linebacker spot. His backup, second-year man Stanley Arnoux, has already been ruled out. On the right side, Fujita is being replaced by Jo-Lonn Dunbar. An undersized linebacker with a strong work ethic, he can be exposed in coverage and pushed aside when the Vikings pull the O-line on sweeps. With depth being thin at an already-pedestrian position, the short passing game to Visanthe Shiancoe and slants to Greg Camarillo and Percy Harvin could pop for big gains.

The secondary is also depleted somewhat by injury. Former Viking and interception leader Darren Sharper is still recovering from microfracture knee surgery and is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The Saints have one of the league's best corner tandems in Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. In their long history, the Saints had never had a true shutdown corner and the combination of Greer and Porter became the best in franchise history early on and never let up throughout the season. Neither of them get beat over the top, despite often being left on an island to take away a given receiver. Without Sidney Rice in the lineup, they may try to lock down Harvin and Berrian and, if they succeed, the Viking offense will be crippled. The team has depth with former Patriot Randall Gay and first-round rookie Patrick Robinson to provide help, making the cornerback position one of the strongest on a championship team. The safeties are another story. They are average at best. Roman Harper is a solid blitzer in Williams' aggressive defense, but he has limitations in coverage and will often be a half-step late arriving at the ball, which allows too many completions deep downfield in front of him. Second-year man Malcolm Jenkins was shifted from corner to safety and is adjusting to his position at free safety while Sharper is sidelined. Fourth-year pro Usama Young played late in the year in relief of Sharper and will likely have more of a role as he and Jenkins rotate in and out. If there is a weakness in the secondary, the safeties might Favre the ability to take a shot deep over the middle.

The Vikings handed the Saints a win last January, but the team legitimately beat the Colts to win the Super Bowl. The Saints are hoping to avoid the post-title hangover that has afflicted so many champs the following season, but the Saints have the horses to score 35 points a game and the defense to prevent others from doing the same. The Vikings need to put their stamp on the 2010 season and, considering that both they and the Saints are expecting to be division champs fighting it out for the top seed in the NFC, a head-to-head win in Week 1 could have a lot of impact four months from now when the playoff seeds are being made. A win in the Superdome tonight could be the difference when tie-breakers are looked at in December. It may be the first game of the season, but this one is going to have as much of a playoff atmosphere as their last meeting did in January.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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