Third-down defense does in Vikings

The Vikings had plenty of opportunities to thwart the Saints, but their third-down defense let them down time and time again.

Coming into Sunday’s game with the New Orleans Saints, one of the keys was going to be the Vikings defense trying to stop New Orleans on third down. They knew it wouldn’t be easy – the Saints came into the game with the league’s best third-down offense, converting on almost 58 percent of their opportunities while the Vikings defense was ranked 30th – ahead of only Oakland and Jacksonville. As it turned out, third downs would be critical in the Saints 20-9 win as the inability for the Vikings to get off the field made for a frustrating day defensively.

The Saints converted 9 of 13 third downs and many of them were critical in preventing the Vikings from overcoming an early 13-0 deficit. The Saints converted early. They converted late. They converted often.

“We continue to fight back and we’re trying to overcome really a tough situation, a tough place to play,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “There were a lot of things that happened, but we’re not doing enough things to win the football games. We let them convert on third-and-15. We’re not getting turnovers and then we’ve got penalties defensively. We’ve got to play a lot better than that.”

First Quarter – On their first drive of the game, the Saints had converted five first downs without ever facing a third-down situation. When they finally did, it was a third-and-5 from the Vikings 14. Drew Brees faced blitz pressure and dropped off a screen to Pierre Thomas, who took the ball to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Thomas scored to give New Orleans a 7-0 lead.

On the next drive, the Vikings had a chance to get the Saints off the field quickly as Brees was faced with a third-and-9. He found his favorite target – tight end Jimmy Graham – for 15 yards and a first down. Four plays later, Brees threw a 34-yard touchdown to backup tight end Josh Hill and, just 10 minutes into the game, New Orleans had a 13-0 lead.

Third Quarter – Having clawed back into the game and cutting the deficit to 13-9, the Vikings kicked to the Saints and had a chance to get momentum rolling in their favor. While the Saints didn’t score on the drive, they converted a third-and-16 play with an 18-yard pass to rookie Brandin Cooks to keep the Vikings in poor field position.

Fourth Quarter – With the score still 13-9, the Vikings appeared to end the Saints drive when Captain Munnerlyn sacked Brees on a third-and-14 play. As Brees tried to escape, Munnerlyn picked him up and threw him into the turf, drawing a controversial personal foul penalty that kept the drive alive.

“I talked to Walt (Anderson, the referee) about it afterwards and he thought he threw him down,” Zimmer said. “I asked him if he blew the whistle when he was in the grasp and he said yes. Those guys are experts at what they do so I’m not going to worry about that.”

Two plays later, facing a third-and-8, Brees completed an 11-yard pass to Graham for a first down in Vikings territory. Two plays later, with a third-and-7 facing him, Brees threw a screen to Cooks that was tipped, but caught by Cooks, who sifted through the defense for 19 yards. On the next play, the Saints delivered the knockout punch with a 19-yard TD to Marques Colston to give New Orleans a 20-9 lead.

As the Vikings desperately tried to keep hope alive, Brees got the ball back with 6:58 to play. As had been the habit all day, he converted when he had to. Facing a third-and-10 play, he completed an 11-yard dart to Kenny Stills. Facing a third-and-11 near midfield, he found Robert Meachem for 23 yards. Two plays later, after forcing the Vikings to burn their timeouts, a hard count got Everson Griffen to jump and the Saints were able to take two kneel-downs to end the game.

On a day when the Vikings put up a valiant effort after falling behind early, it was third-down defense that did in Minnesota, as Brees accentuated his team’s strengths, exploited the Vikings’ weaknesses and produced an all-too-predictable third-down theme.

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.

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