Wide receivers Bernard Berrian and Bobby Wade see an opening to improve their numbers against the New Orleans Saints' 29th-ranked pass defense, and they've seen it happen on film.
"They give up a lot of big plays as well. Their offense gets big plays, but they give up a lot of big plays as well," Berrian said. "There is a lot of big holes in their (defense), we've just got to make sure we attack them and we get up early so that makes it even easier to attack."
A look at the numbers shows that Berrian knows what he's talking about. Despite a New Orleans offense that is missing tight end Jeremy Shockey and wide receiver Marques Colston, quarterback Drew Brees has completed 15 passes longer than 20 yards … but the Saints defense has also given up 17 passes that went longer than 20 yards.
"We're definitely going to take our opportunities, be selective. We're not just going to chuck it down the field and get away from what we're known for, which is running the ball, but there are going to be opportunities on the field and we've just got to capitalize on them," Wade said.
The Vikings currently have 11 passing plays over 20 yards, with the three longest – from 48, 34 and 24 yards – coming from the right hand of Gus Frerotte.
"There is always chances every game. We've just got to make the plays," Berrian said. "There were a couple of occasions where we got the ball down field, about three or four times, in this last game. We just need to do it early off in the game."
Despite dropping a couple of passes recently, Berrian has been the Vikings' most explosive player. He has the longest pass play of the season with a 48-yarder against Carolina two weeks ago and two of the three next longest plays.
But Berrian and Wade both indicated they could have some opportunities in the Big Easy because of the way the Saints approach defense.
"They're a big Cover-1 team; they like to play a lot of man, play a lot of Cover-4 trying to support the run so it allows a lot of play-action plays to get behind the defense. You've got to be able to have those big-play receivers to be able to do that and obviously great protection up front to be able to have all those things happen," Wade said. "Like I said, you watch them on film and there is no doubt there are some opportunities. You've still got to be able to capitalize and still got to be able to make it happen."
Berrian's explanation for the Saints giving up big pass plays? "Probably their scheme and the way they play, the way they cover," he said. "They probably try to get up to you with their D-ends, pressure you with their D-ends. A little after that it gets weaker and weaker as it goes (further back in the defense)."
Part of that has been because of injuries. Cornerback Mike McKenzie suffered a knee injury late in the 2007 season and was inactive for the first two games this year. He returned to record an interception against Denver while playing in the nickel defense. Last week, McKenzie returned to the starting lineup.
"He's an old veteran. He's going to be a smart player, but I don't think that the skill is there as much as it used to be," said Berrian, who said players typically take a full year of playing before they return to their normal skill level after a serious knee injury.
Fellow cornerback Randall Gay missed the second week of the season with a hamstring injury, returned for Week 3, re-injured it and was inactive last week.
But, whether it's because of injuries or scheme with the Saints defense, the Vikings' receivers sound as if a big opportunity is in front of them.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the teams they've played in the last few weeks have been throwing the ball well, but he's still hoping progress is being made.
"Hopefully each week we're making improvements; hopefully we're improving in rushing the passer," Payton said. "I think we're getting better play on the back end than we did at this time last year."
Still, the Vikings believe they will have their chances.
"That's all you see on tape is big plays down the field, so you've got to make sure we're doing that when the opportunity presents itself," Berrian said.
"We're going to take advantage of a lot of things we see."
WORK TO DO
While Berrian is optimistic about the receivers' chances against the Saints, he admitted that the Vikings aren't making all the plays they should.
"There is still a lot of plays we're leaving on the field," he said. "That's the difference between good teams and great teams is you don't leave plays on the field."
The Vikings' No. 1 receiver has been struggling all season with a toe injury that he said isn't going to get any better, and he said he wouldn't worry about his production – he has 11 catches for 195 yards so far – if the team was winning.
"(My numbers) are not where I'd like them to be, but I can't sit there and whine. The numbers are going to come. If they don't come, I won't worry as long as we're winning. If (my reception numbers) are 0-0, I'm happy as long as we're winning," he said.