Any team that plays against a great quarterback knows that the worst thing that can happen to a defense is if he is allowed to get into a rhythm, get comfortable and sustain drives. Entering the game, the Vikings thought they had the answer for Drew Brees, who leads the league in third-down conversions, but it was his efficiency on third downs to sustain drives and turn them into points that became the turning point of the game.
On his first third-down opportunity of the game, Brees threw an incompletion that ended a three-and-out drive. The Saints would convert on the next eight third down plays and wouldn't misfire on another one until backup Chase Daniel was in the game and Brees was on the sidelines after throwing five touchdown passes and for 412 yards – converting 89 percent of his third-down chances.
"That's why he is one of the best in the game," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "He was able to slide away from the pressure and make plays. He was making short throws and bootlegs and screens. The screens really hurt us. It seemed like every time we had a chance to get off the field, we didn't. That was the frustrating part."
Brees was able to carve up the Vikings, not even facing a third down until the Saints had scored two touchdowns, but, with New Orleans leading 14-13 following a Vikings touchdown with 6:59 to play in the first half, Brees worked his third-down magic.
He engineered 13-play touchdown drive in which he converted four third downs – three of them with passes, including an 11-yard pass to Lance Moore on a third-and-11 play from the Vikings 31-yard line and a 13-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles on a third-and-4 situation.
What was so frustrating for players like Jared Allen was that the Vikings defense was able to flush Brees from the pocket, but didn't get any sacks and he was able to use his legs to buy time and find open receivers to sustain drives.
"I thought we got some good pressure, but he kept getting away," Allen said. "We just didn't do anything to take it away from him. It was terrible. I thought we did a decent job of getting him off his mark. There were times when he had to scramble and that's when you can force him into mistakes. Stuff like that kind of snowballs. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing. It's a terrible feeling."
Nowhere was that more evident that in the third quarter. Thanks to a pair of penalties on the Saints, the team had to drive 107 yards for a touchdown, but did so with a 19-play drive that took a whopping 10:36 off the clock – the final 8:26 of the third quarter and the first 2:10 of the fourth. On that drive, Brees faced four third-down situations. He converted three of them and the Vikings shot themselves in the foot on a third-and-20 play in which Fred Evans was flagged for a hands-to-the-face penalty that kept the drive alive.
In a season where the Vikings have lost early and often, this was the first time they got hammered at home in such a dominating and decisive way. It was one thing to make enough plays to stay close, but not enough to win. Sunday's loss was a lopsided defeat in front of the home fans and left some of the players questioning how so many bad things can be happening to the team so consistently.
"Third downs were part of it, but it was a lot of things," Greenway said. "You know what? It's not even about third downs. It's about going out and making plays in and we're not making plays – defensively or offensively. We can't go out and say we should have won the game because we shouldn't have. We're just not good enough. First down, second down, it doesn't matter. We're just not good enough right now."
While the Vikings struggled badly throughout much of the game Sunday, it was their inability to get the Saints offense off the field on third down, especially when they had the down and distance they were looking for, that led to a defensive meltdown and a back-breaking turning point.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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.
Turning point: Third-down breakdown
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