Thursday's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings features the top-rated quarterbacks from 2009 – Drew Brees was first and Brett Favre second.
The Saints had the league's top-rated offense when it comes to yardage, but there are several other statistics to help decipher the strengths and weakness of the Saints.
Most people think of the Saints offense and think of a heavy passing attack. With Brees under center and five receivers with 45 catches of more, that's only natural, but the Saints are best when they are balanced, and that balance comes on first down.
Last year, New Orleans averaged 6.25 yards on first-down plays, ranking third in the NFL behind Dallas and Philadelphia. That's also the down on which the Saints were the most balanced, running the ball 220 times and passing it 218 times when it was first down with 6 to 10 yards to go.
After first down, the Saints live up to the perception that they are more of a passing team. On second down with 6 to 10 yards to go, they ran the ball 73 times and passed it 106. When it became more manageable on third down, with 3 to 5 yards to go, they ran the ball 10 times (with a 30 percent conversion rate) and passed it 52 times (with a 63.46 conversion rate), which might explain their penchant for passing on third down.
BY THE PLAYER
Drew Brees: The quarterback is where the Saints offense starts, for good reason. Brees ranked first in touchdown passes last year, third in average per pass and sixth in yards. However, Brees was 21st in interceptions, so he can make some mistakes. But there could be a reason for the interceptions – he gets rid of the ball quickly. Despite all the passes, he didn't rank in the NFL's top 25 for sacks, so the Vikings may be hard-pressed for hard hits within the framework of the rules.
When Brees throws, he is most effective – at least compared to the rest of the league – passing deep to the perimeters. Although the number of times Brees threw deep was fairly average, it was the average distance that stood out. He averaged 15.88 yards going deep left and 20.97 yards throwing deep right, both ranking second in the league last year.
Marques Colston: He is the Saints' leading receiver, but his stats may be further proof of the team's overall weapons. Colston ranked only 18th last year in receiving yards (1,074) and tied for 10th in touchdowns (nine). With the highly rated offense overall, that would indicate just how well Brees distributes to his many options.
Jonathan Vilma: The Saints are also known for an aggressive defense, but their leading tackler, Vilma, only ranked 24th in the NFL in tackles with 110.
Pass defense: The area that is most exploitable in the Saints defense is the deep middle. They ranked 28th in the league last year for average gain against in the deep middle – 16.14 yards – but teams only attempted that area of the field an average number of times compared to the other defenses in the NFL. Without Darren Sharper back there Thursday night, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings try for gold there.
Opportunistic defense: The Vikings rued their five turnovers against the Saints, but they weren't the only team New Orleans got the best of in that category. The Saints finished the 2009 regular season with a plus-11 turnover ratio, third in the league behind Green Bay (plus-24) and Philadelphia (plus-15).
Pierre Thomas: The Saints aren't given a lot of credit for their running game, but there is probably a reason they are balanced on first down and that reason is Thomas. He ranked only 32nd in attempts last year and 24th in rushing yards (793), but he was fifth in average yards per carry (5.4).
Even Brad Childress thinks Thomas is under-rated.
"I absolutely do. He's a good running back. He runs for the hard yards, not that Reggie (Bush) doesn't run between the tackles. He does that too," Childress said when we asked him about Thomas. "I think they're intentional about that. … He's an under-looked guy."
The Saints have plenty of offensive talent, but understanding their tendencies could help the Vikings, and finding their weaknesses on defense could keep them in a high-scoring game.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Stats tracker: Exploiting the Saints
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