Saints Tough in the Trenches

The Saints boast good offensive and defensive lines, but two key injuries to guard Chris Naeole and tight end Cam Cleeland could make life easier for defensive tackle Chris Hovan and his linemates.

The Vikings are attempting to salvage their 2001 season after an ugly start, but things won't get any easier as they travel to New Orleans to meet a Saints team with revenge on their minds. The Vikings knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs last year with a convincing win and nobody with the Saints has forgotten that loss. They're looking for payback.

The biggest difference between the 'Aints of old and the Saints of 2001 is at quarterback. Aaron Brooks was viewed as a project when New Orleans made a trade with Green Bay to acquire him, but he became a full-fledged star last season, supplanting starter Jeff Blake and being the cornerstone of the future. With a rifle arm and the ability to scramble, Brooks poses a lot of problems for a defense. As shown in the preseason when he completed all 10 passes he threw against the Vikings, getting pressure on Brooks and keeping him in the pocket will be the top priority for the Vikings defense.

When the Saints aren't passing, they can win games on the ground. Ricky Williams is a big-time banger who can eat up a lot of time by carrying the ball 25 times a game. He was injured when the Vikings met the Saints in the playoffs but is back at full strength now. However, if Williams gets banged up or tired, the Saints now have a capable backup in rookie Deuce McAllister. Taken in the first round of this year's draft, McAllister has been likened to Emmitt Smith for his ability to get into the hole quickly and make people miss. While he likely won't see a lot of carries against the Vikings, his ability as a runner and receiver will make it tough for the Saints to keep him on the bench much longer.

One of the hallmarks of the new-look Saints is an ever-improving receiver corps. Last year, New Orleans went out and signed Joe Horn in free agency from Kansas City. He responded with a Pro Bowl season. This year, the Saints signed Albert Connell from Washington and hope he can bring some of the same excitement to the deep passing game. He has fought injuries during the preseason and early part of the regular season, but he and Horn will pose plenty of problems for the Vikings secondary. Throw in third receiver Willie Jackson and tight end Cam Cleeland, and Brooks has plenty of formidable weapons at his disposal.

Many believe the recent success of the Saints offense can be attributed to one of the best offensive lines in the game. With Willie Roaf and Kyle Turley at the tackles, Wally Williams and Chris Naeole at guards and Jerry Fontenot at center, the Saints have a talented core of high draft picks on the line, experienced with each other and capable of dominating in the trenches. If the Vikings are to have any chance of containing the Saints offense, winning the war up front will be critical.

As good as the offensive line is for New Orleans, they boast an equally impressive defensive front wall. Ends Darrin Howard and Joe Johnson and tackles La'Roi Glover and Norman Hand form a dominant foursome. The front four last season had 43 sacks and forced 11 fumbles and remain intact and ready for more. They can shut down a running game and make a team one-dimensional. If the Vikings can't get a running game established, these guys have what it takes to take over the game.

While the defensive line is oppressive, the rest of the defense is clearly a step behind. The linebackers are small veterans with speed, but not the most talented. Charlie Clemons came over from St. Louis and is an undersized middle linebacker, but a big hitter who always seems to make plays. He's flanked by Darrin Smith and Keith Mitchell. Smith replaces departed free agent Mark Fields, and many think the team is taking a step back at the position. These guys will be key in trying to keep Byron Chamberlain and Jim Kleinsasser out of the passing game.

The matchup of the afternoon may well come from the secondary, where the Saints were lit up by Randy Moss and Cris Carter last year in the playoffs. Cornerbacks Kevin Mathis and Fred Thomas will again draw the assignment of stopping the Vikings' big two receivers, while safeties Sammy Knight and Jay Bellamy will be rolling over in cover-two support. The secondary for the Saints is clearly its weakest link on defense. The Vikings scorched them deep several times in last year's playoffs and, while they look to be improved with the signing of Bellamy, the Vikings will be targeting this group as the best way to beat the Saints.

New Orleans is still stinging from last year's playoff loss and they want to get back at the Vikings in the worst way. If the Vikings are going to make the most of the 2001 season, getting a win in New Orleans would be a great way to start building momentum, but, as the Vikings know, beating the Saints again won't be easy. VU

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