Saints preview: All about the passing

The Saints are known for their passing attack – for good reason. Drew Brees distributes the ball like few others and is the catalyst to New Orleans' success. We examine where their many strengths lie and find a couple of potential weaknesses.

It seems like a lot more than two years since the Vikings and Saints met for the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans in January 2010. While the Vikings have fallen on hard times, the Saints have been able to maintain their position at or near the top of the NFC and are once again in that catbird seat – being viewed by many as the only team that might be able to stand toe to toe with the Green Bay Packers in the postseason.

The Saints haven't changed a lot since their Super Bowl run in 2009 and are still led by quarterback Drew Brees, who is chasing down the all-time single-season passing yardage total – averaging a whopping 336 yards a game.

The Brees-led offense has been the closest thing to unstoppable this side of Green Bay. The Saints haven't scored less than 20 points in any game and have averaged 3.5 touchdowns and two field goals a game. In seven of their 10 wins, they have scored 30 or more points and have won six of their games by 11 points or more.

Vikings defensive tackle Remi Ayodele has played with Brees for Ayodele's entire career prior to this season and said that Brees has made himself into one of the league's great quarterbacks the old-fashioned way – hard work. He is undersized – he's listed at 6-0, but Ayodele said, "He ain't six feet tall, he's 5-9 or 5-10 tops – and isn't blessed with a cannon for an arm. But his work ethic is unmatched and Ayodele said he has been a self-made man.

"I've never seen anyone who works as hard as he does," Ayodele said. "He would be one of the first guys to show up at the team facility every morning and usually wouldn't leave until 8 or 9 o'clock at night. He would spend hours working with the coaches and going over film. It was like having an extra coach on the field. He works as hard to be the best as any player I've ever seen."

The Saints may be counting on Brees more than ever down the stretch. Rookie running back Mark Ingram was supposed to take a lot of the pressure off the passing game because he provided what the team lacked – a power runner who could pound the ball between the tackles to eat time off the clock when the Saints have a lead, which has been pretty often. He was their leading rusher but has missed three of the last five games with a toe injury that will keep him out. The running game will revert to former starter Pierre Thomas, with some Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory mixed in sporadically. But, the running game isn't the story in New Orleans. It's the passing game.

The Saints are likely going to end the season with seven players catching 30 or more passes and five of those catching 50 passes or more. They are names familiar to Vikings fans and each of them has a specific role in the offense. Marques Colston is a 6-5 receiver who is at his most dangerous on third downs and in the red zone. Lance Moore is a slot receiver who leads the Saints' wide receivers with six touchdowns. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are deep threats that both are averaging 15 yards per catch or more. Sproles and Thomas are both valuable receivers out of the backfield who have combined to catch 117 passes in the first 13 games of the season.

Then there is tight end Jimmy Graham. He has 80 catches for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns – all leading the team – and is on his way to the Pro Bowl. He has become a go-to type receiver who takes advantage of mismatches with his prototype size and speed. On any given play, the Saints will have a couple of players that are single covered and, given the Vikings injury-depleted secondary, it could be a long day as the Saints eschew the run and opt to throw in their pass-happy style. The team is averaging 42 passes a game and that shouldn't change Sunday.

If there is a weakness to the Saints, it would be on defense. New Orleans is ranked 27th in pass defense and 30th overall, which may be due in large part to their opponents being consistently behind in games and forced to throw in an attempt to get back into games. The Saints have allowed 17 points or less in six of their 13 games, but they do have some issues that can be exploited.

When the Saints were on their Super Bowl run, their defense gave up a lot of yards – the measure by which offensive and defensive rankings are based – but were extremely opportunistic, leading the league in takeaways. This year, it has been a much different story. The Saints have just 12 takeaways in 13 games and just seven interceptions. They are still an aggressive defense, but haven't been creating the turnovers that was the defense's saving grace over the last couple of seasons.

Some of that is the result of the lack of a consistent pass rush. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up blitzes like few other coaches dare, but the rewards haven't been there consistently. That philosophy is evident by the fact that safety Roman Harper is tied with defensive end Will Smith for the team lead in sacks with 6.5 sacks and nobody else on the team has as many as four. Without being able to generate a consistent pass rush, opponents have thrown the ball more than 500 times for 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns. If the Saints have a failing, that would be it.

Opponents don't run the ball often, but when they do, they're effective. Teams average just 23 rushing attempts a game against the Saints defense, but are averaging almost five yards a carry and a good running team can work the clock and keep their high-powered offense off the field. While it hasn't cost the Saints many games, it is a cause for concern if they intend to make a deep playoff run.

Less than two years ago, these two teams met to determine who would play the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. Two years later, the Saints are in line for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, while the Vikings are in line for the No. 2 draft pick in next April's draft. They are teams headed in very different directions, but the Vikings would like nothing more than to rain on the Saints' parade and cripple their run for a first-round playoff bye.

Will it happen? A lot of things will have to go right for the Vikings to knock off the Saints, but if there is an intangible, it would be the hard feelings of many of the players who felt they shot themselves in the foot in the NFC Championship Game two years ago. They would like nothing more than return the favor, but, seeing as the Saints have rattled off four straight wins against teams with legitimate playoff aspirations (the Falcons, Giants, Lions and Titans), the Vikings will have to do a lot of things right to keep the Saints from marching out of the Metrodome with a win.


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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\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":" It seems like a lot more than two years since the Vikings and Saints met for the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans in January 2010. While the Vikings have fallen on hard times, the Saints have been able to maintain their position at or near the top of the NFC and are once again in that catbird seat – being viewed by many as the only team that might be able to stand toe to toe with the Green Bay Packers in the postseason. The Saints haven't changed a lot since their Super Bowl run in 2009 and are still led by quarterback Drew Brees, who is chasing down the all-time single-season passing yardage total – averaging a whopping 336 yards a game. The Brees-led offense has been the closest thing to unstoppable this side of Green Bay. The Saints haven't scored less than 20 points in any game and have averaged 3.5 touchdowns and two field goals a game. In seven of their 10 wins, they have scored 30 or more points and have won six of their games by 11 points or more. Vikings defensive tackle Remi Ayodele has played with Brees for Ayodele's entire career prior to this season and said that Brees has made himself into one of the league's great quarterbacks the old-fashioned way – hard work. He is undersized – he's listed at 6-0, but Ayodele said, \"He ain't six feet tall, he's 5-9 or 5-10 tops – and isn't blessed with a cannon for an arm. But his work ethic is unmatched and Ayodele said he has been a self-made man. \"I've never seen anyone who works as hard as he does,\" Ayodele said. \"He would be one of the first guys to show up at the team facility every morning and usually wouldn't leave until 8 or 9 o'clock at night. He would spend hours working with the coaches and going over film. It was like having an extra coach on the field. He works as hard to be the best as any player I've ever seen.\" The Saints may be counting on Brees more than ever down the stretch. Rookie running back Mark Ingram was supposed to take a lot of the pressure off the passing game because he provided what the team lacked – a power runner who could pound the ball between the tackles to eat time off the clock when the Saints have a lead, which has been pretty often. He was their leading rusher but has missed three of the last five games with a toe injury that will keep him out. The running game will revert to former starter Pierre Thomas, with some Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory mixed in sporadically. But, the running game isn't the story in New Orleans. It's the passing game. The Saints are likely going to end the season with seven players catching 30 or more passes and five of those catching 50 passes or more. They are names familiar to Vikings fans and each of them has a specific role in the offense. Marques Colston is a 6-5 receiver who is at his most dangerous on third downs and in the red zone. Lance Moore is a slot receiver who leads the Saints' wide receivers with six touchdowns. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are deep threats that both are averaging 15 yards per catch or more. Sproles and Thomas are both valuable receivers out of the backfield who have combined to catch 117 passes in the first 13 games of the season. Then there is tight end Jimmy Graham. He has 80 catches for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns – all leading the team – and is on his way to the Pro Bowl. He has become a go-to type receiver who takes advantage of mismatches with his prototype size and speed. On any given play, the Saints will have a couple of players that are single covered and, given the Vikings injury-depleted secondary, it could be a long day as the Saints eschew the run and opt to throw in their pass-happy style. The team is averaging 42 passes a game and that shouldn't change Sunday. If there is a weakness to the Saints, it would be on defense. New Orleans is ranked 27th in pass defense and 30th overall, which may be due in large part to their opponents being consistently behind in games and forced to throw in an attempt to get back into games. The Saints have allowed 17 points or less in six of their 13 games, but they do have some issues that can be exploited. When the Saints were on their Super Bowl run, their defense gave up a lot of yards – the measure by which offensive and defensive rankings are based – but were extremely opportunistic, leading the league in takeaways. This year, it has been a much different story. The Saints have just 12 takeaways in 13 games and just seven interceptions. They are still an aggressive defense, but haven't been creating the turnovers that was the defense's saving grace over the last couple of seasons. Some of that is the result of the lack of a consistent pass rush. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up blitzes like few other coaches dare, but the rewards haven't been there consistently. That philosophy is evident by the fact that safety Roman Harper is tied with defensive end Will Smith for the team lead in sacks with 6.5 sacks and nobody else on the team has as many as four. Without being able to generate a consistent pass rush, opponents have thrown the ball more than 500 times for 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns. If the Saints have a failing, that would be it. Opponents don't run the ball often, but when they do, they're effective. Teams average just 23 rushing attempts a game against the Saints defense, but are averaging almost five yards a carry and a good running team can work the clock and keep their high-powered offense off the field. While it hasn't cost the Saints many games, it is a cause for concern if they intend to make a deep playoff run. Less than two years ago, these two teams met to determine who would play the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. Two years later, the Saints are in line for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, while the Vikings are in line for the No. 2 draft pick in next April's draft. They are teams headed in very different directions, but the Vikings would like nothing more than to rain on the Saints' parade and cripple their run for a first-round playoff bye. Will it happen? A lot of things will have to go right for the Vikings to knock off the Saints, but if there is an intangible, it would be the hard feelings of many of the players who felt they shot themselves in the foot in the NFC Championship Game two years ago. They would like nothing more than return the favor, but, seeing as the Saints have rattled off four straight wins against teams with legitimate playoff aspirations (the Falcons, Giants, Lions and Titans), the Vikings will have to do a lot of things right to keep the Saints from marching out of the Metrodome with a win. 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