The Vikings return to the national spotlight Sunday night to face a New Orleans Saints team that is already developing a Jeckyl-Hyde personality. Will the Vikings see the Saints team that rallied for an overtime win at St. Louis or the team that got hammered by lowly Arizona? The Saints themselves don't even know.
At the center of the question is quarterback Aaron Brooks. He has all the ability to be one of the league's most lethal weapons but has never shown consistency through his career. To his credit, he has cut down on his interception numbers (just one in his first four games), and if he and his offensive teammates are healthy they can do a lot of damage. He's backed up by former Viking Todd Bouman, but this is Brooks' show.
Health has been the biggest problem, and Deuce McAllister is in the center of the training room. He has missed three games heading into this week and there is some question as to whether he will be sufficiently healed from a high ankle sprain to play effectively. If he can, he is as dangerous a rushing-receiving threat as there is in the NFC. If he can't go, the Saints will be forced to go to backups Aaron Stecker and Ki-Jana Carter. Stecker had a nice game in the win over the Rams but is a big step down from a healthy McAllister.
If the Saints give Brooks the time he needs, he has plenty of potent weapons at his disposal. Joe Horn, while a volatile personality at times in the locker room, is a player that produces every week. This year is no exception — he's averaging about seven catches for 85 yards a game. But he is far from the only option for Brooks. Donté Stallworth is a speedster who can catch the home run ball, and Jerome Pathon is a veteran possession receiver who has seen plenty of action with injuries to rookie Devery Henderson. Tight end Boo Williams is a red zone threat and a Brooks favorite close to the goal line, while Ernie Conwell is another dependable receiver and solid blocker.
The Saints may try to stack up more two-tight end formations to help out an offensive line that is solid but thin. At the tackles, 11-year veteran Wayne Gandy and seventh-year pro Victor Riley are solid anchors. Gandy is showing the signs of age but still gets the job done. In the middle, center LeCharles Bentley has become the young stud of the line in his third year, and he is flanked by guards Kendyl Jacox and Montrae Holland. In training camp, the two guards flipped positions and each is in the process of making that adjustment. If Gandy needs rest, Jon Stinchcomb is waiting in the wings, as is guard Jamar Nesbit.
The Saints' biggest problem, as it has been for the last couple of years, is defense. The extent of the problem? Just look at the last few drafts. At defensive end, the Saints have Charles Grant (first round, 2002) and Darren Howard (second, 2000), with Will Smith (first round, 2004) as the primary backup. At the tackles, they have Johnathan Sullivan (first, 2003) and Brian Young — a free agent signee from the Rams. It is clear that the defensive front has been an issue, and the team has invested in it with premium picks each of the last three years. Eventually the line could be the strength of the team, but that has yet to happen.
The linebackers are clearly the weakest part of the Saints defense. Injuries have forced backup outside linebacker Courtney Watson into the MLB spot (sound familiar?), with first-year starter James Allen and veteran Derrick Rodgers manning the wings (also sound familiar?) This is the group offensive coordinators have been attacking. There isn't a game-breaker in the bunch, and they have been exploited.
The biggest change Vikings fans might notice will be in the secondary. A maligned group known for getting burned, the Saints stepped into the impasse between the Packers and Mike McKenzie and traded for him — bolstering a group that isn't as bad as their press clippings would indicate. McKenzie will line up next to Ashley Ambrose, a solid pass defender, and shift Fred Thomas to nickel back. At safety, the Saints believe they have a star in the making in Tebucky Jones and a very solid strong safety in Jay Bellamy. Depth is thin, but the addition of McKenzie turns this from a potential defensive liability to an asset.
The Vikings have little idea which Saints team they're going to encounter Sunday. It could be the team that sent Rams fans home shaking their heads or the one that had Cardinals fans questioning what they had just seen. You could get either, which makes them a dangerous opponent.
DEFENSIVE ENDS vs. WAYNE GANDY AND VICTOR RILEY — One of the criticisms of the Vikings defense this season is that it has given quarterbacks like Vinny Testaverde and Rex Grossman time to throw — making sub-standard NFL quarterbacks look pretty good. This week, when the Vikings face the New Orleans Saints, Minnesota will contest a quarterback in Aaron Brooks who is dominating when he has time and prone to turnovers when he's pressured. That pressure will have to come from the outside, where the Vikings' defensive ends and the Saints' veteran offensive tackles will be the matchup to watch.
The Saints have a pair of wily vets in Wayne Gandy and Victor Riley. Both have the savvy to neutralize defensive ends, but each has likely peaked as a player. They can be overpowered, especially by teams with the depth to employ a defensive end rotation. This is where the Vikings come in.
With starters Kenechi Udeze and Kenny Mixon and reserve defensive ends Lance Johnstone, Darrion Scott and Chuck Wiley being mixed in, the Vikings can plan to collapse the tackles as the game wears on, rotating players in and out to keep them fresh while both Gandy and Riley feel the effects.
It may not show up immediately, but the Vikings need to prevent Brooks from getting comfortable in the pocket. If given time, downfield weapons like Joe Horn, Donté Stallworth, Jerome Pathon and Boo Williams can all do damage. But if Brooks is consistently in the cross hairs of the outside pass rush he has a tendency to panic. If he does the Saints will have multiple turnovers and lose. There will be several big-time players going heads-up Sunday, but the group that wins the battle of the outside pass rush could win the game.
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