The Vikings came into Thursday's regular-season opener expecting a heavy dose of Gregg Williams' aggressive blitzing schemes, but the slick Saints defensive coordinator altered the path of his storming defense and caused confusion for a receiver-depleted Minnesota offense.
"Just trying to do a pretty good job of keeping the ball in front of us," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
For the most part, they were ultra-successful in their 14-9 win over Minnesota. In the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 24, Brett Favre was battered and bruised under a stifling pass rush, but he still passed for 310 yards while exploiting single coverage. There just weren't those opportunities 7½ months later in the tightly contest rematch.
"I think they were trying to really hold us down and make us bleed slowly. I think in some instances we could be a little more patient … they weren't giving us many throws down the field," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "They're Super Bowl champs and they played a lot of two-deep zone."
The Saints also blanketed a lot of the field with eight players in coverage and Childress acknowledged that "we didn't have any answers for that."
"Rush three, drop eight, there aren't a whole lot of timing throws to be had out there … the blitz was very, very, very infrequent," Childress said.
The struggles to connect may have been partly because Favre's top target from last year, Sidney Rice, is out for at least the first six weeks of the season following hip surgery last month. In his absence, the remaining wide receivers did little.
Not one wide receiver had more than one catch and the newest one, Greg Camarillo, was also the most productive one with a 29-yarder. Bernard Berrian, who had nine catches for 102 yards in the NFC Championship, was limited one catch for a dismal 3 yards. He was targeted three times and dropped one.
Greg Lewis was targeted twice, caught one and had one thrown low. And Percy Harvin caught only one for 12 yards despite being targeted five times. The communication between Favre and Harvin, who missed most of the preseason with migraine and personal issues, clearly seemed off.
So was Favre's accuracy, as he at times appeared to feel pressure that wasn't always there.
"A couple reads I should have made differently. If I do that, it's a different ballgame," Favre said. "But overall I just missed some throws that I should have made."
That was the biggest reason the Vikings missed out on a potential upset victory.
The Vikings' offensive and defensive backfields were short-handed Thursday night because of injuries. That started in the offensive backfield.
Rookie RB Toby Gerhart (knee) was inactive after being listed as questionable. Gerhart hurt his knee in the third preseason game and didn't play in the preseason finale. He was limited in practice this week.
The other questionable Viking from Wednesday's injury report, CB Cedric Griffin, was also inactive, meaning the Vikings went into the game with three cornerbacks, and they even switched up the depth chart there.
Second-year CB Asher Allen got the start in front of veteran Lito Sheppard, but the Saints were expected to use plenty of three- and four-wide receiver sets, meaning both saw plenty of action.
Another change in the defensive backfield was expected – Husain Abdullah got the start at safety in place of Tyrell Johnson. There is no known injury to Johnson, and Childress said after the game that Abdullah is the team's starting strong safety.
The Saints went to work on those two new starters from the outset. On the first play from scrimmage, Brees found Marques Colston in the middle of the field for a 28-yard gain with Abdullah being the closest defender. Four plays later, Brees exploited Allen when the quarterback found Devery Henderson behind Allen down the right sideline for a 29-yard touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings narrowly avoided going down 21-9 when Brees threw over Allen to Robert Meachen in the end zone. Meachem extended for the ball but dropped it before he hit the ground.
Despite the beating Favre took in the NFC Championship Game, he wasn't sacked once back on Jan. 24 against the Saints. On Thursday, he was only sacked once, when he was pulled down by Sedrick Ellis.
Childress said he was "by and large" happy with the protection Favre received.
"I didn't see them get dumped very often," he said of the offensive line.
On the Vikings' final series, they had to make an adjustment to the offensive line. Bryant McKinnie dislocated a finger that the medical staff couldn't get back into place on time and he was taken to the locker room on a cart.
Phil Loadholt moved from right tackle to left tackle and Ryan Cook entered the game at right tackle. After the offense picked up one big first down, Loadholt was caught holding DE Will Smith and the offense never recovered.
FAVRE RETURNS TO HOUSE OF PAIN
Favre's physical ailments from the NFC Championship were outweighed by his emotional battle scares, according to what he told NBC's Al Michaels during an interview that aired at halftime.
"I went back to that moment thinking, ‘I don't know if I ever want this feeling again,'" Favre said of his thoughts after the conference championship loss. "At that time I was walking my family across the Superdome going back to the buses saying, ‘Done.' It had nothing to do with the physical part of it and everything to do with the emotional part of it."
And now that he decided to return to the Superdome at the start of another season, what does his family think?
"They're ready to kill me, probably like most people," Favre said. "They want me to do whatever I want to do, which is iffy at times."
Favre said he would have retired if the Vikings won the Super Bowl, but he came back because of unfinished business.
"That's the only reason," he said.
GOODELL ADMIRES FAVRE
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held a fan forum Wednesday in New Orleans. When a fan dressed in a Saints jersey and hat came with an agenda looking to have his feelings known about Brett Favre skipping training camp, Goodell responded.
"I think his time is done," the fan said during his question.
"I think by tomorrow night you'll start to see if his time is done, by the way. I don't think his time is done, by the way," Goodell responded. "Brett Favre is a great competitor. He has been extraordinary for the NFL. What he does, I admire as much as any athlete I've ever seen."
Goodell also used the opportunity to talk about the NFL's agenda of shortening the preseason
"… It's hard to walk away from the game, particularly for a guy who loves it as much as he does, but what you're also seeing here goes back to a theme we were talking about earlier – players don't need four preseason games anymore. Brett has proven that," Goodell said.
The commissioner also talked about splitting training camp with rookies and first-year players coming in at one time and veterans coming in later "because they don't need that kind of time. Their skills are there, they just need to get in that football shape," he said.
NO ROOM FOR ROOKIES
The Vikings' inactive list looked eerily similar to their draft list from April.
Second-round picks Chris Cook and Toby Gerhart were held out with knee injuries, but the rest of the remaining draft class was a healthy scratch. DE Everson Griffin (fourth round), G Chris DeGeare (fifth) and TE Mickey Shuler (seventh) were inactive, and Joe Webb (sixth) was inactive as the team's third quarterback.
Fifth-round LB Nate Triplett didn't make the team and seventh-round FB Ryan D'Imperio is on the practice squad.
Also inactive for the Vikings were veteran CB Cedric Griffin and veteran DT Jimmy Kennedy, both with knee injuries.
MOSTLY FULL-STRENGTH SAINTS
While the Vikings were sitting RB Toby Gerhart and CBs Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook, the Saints don't have any regular contributors sitting out. They had three starters pop up on the injury report – LB Jonathan Vilma, CB Tracy Porter and WR Marques Colston – this week, but all of them were listed as "probable" on Wednesday and were active Thursday.
TE Jimmy Graham, who was also listed as probable, was inactive, but he wasn't expected to be a big part of the game plan anyway.
Also inactive for the Saints: RB Chris Ivory, S Chris Reis, LB Stanley Arnoux, LB Danny Clark, T Zach Strief, RB Adrian Arrington and DE Junior Galette.