As the Vikings return to the Monday night spotlight to face the New Orleans Saints, they match up against a team that is what the Vikings used to be – an offense that can score at any time from anywhere on the field.
Despite being crippled by injuries that have sidelined wide receivers Marques Colston and David Patten and tight end Jeremy Shockey, quarterback Drew Brees is at or near the top of the leaders in most categories. He is second in attempts (148), first in completions (107), first in completion percentage (72.3), first in yards (1,343) and second in average gain (9.07 yards per pass attempt). Wide receivers Devery Henderson and Robert Meacham have combined to catch 11 passes, but they've gained 417 yards – almost 40 yards per reception. The Vikings have two players (Bernard Berrian and Visanthe Shiancoe) that have receptions of 25 yards or more. The Saints have seven.
It is an offense designed for the big play and no player may be more vital to that effort than running back Reggie Bush. He does a little bit of everything for the Saints. He has half of the team's rushing attempts (52) and leads the NFL in receptions with 31. He is on pace to rush 208 times for 732 yards and catch 124 passes for 1,028 yards and 12 total touchdowns. He is a rare back in that he is used as much in the passing game as any running back in the league.
Given the injuries to the Saints in the receiver corps, Bush is likely to be the center of offensive attention even more so than in recent weeks – if that is possible. But, the Vikings aren't going to change their game plan. With the Vikings likely to be rotating linebackers somewhat with E.J. Henderson out, backup LB Vinny Ciurciu said the Vikings aren't going to put in any packages like some teams specifically designed to take Bush away from the Saints offense with added defensive attention.
"We usually don't do things too different because of a running back," Ciurciu said. "We pretty much stick to our game plan and not change to planning against them. We're not doing anything, but we are going to have a lot of looks because of the things they do with their formations."
Even if Henderson was healthy, he probably would have seen his least on-field action of the season. The Vikings won't put a spy on Bush and the Saints run a lot of "Zebra packages" that have multiple receivers and replaces the middle linebacker with a nickel cornerback. The Saints will design plays to get two or three receivers running deep and throwing screens and dump-offs to Bush in hopes of springing a big gainer. While the defense won't make specific changes, the linebackers know their job is containment when Bush gets his hands on the ball.
"He poses a lot of problems if he gets in space," Leber said. "It's our job (as linebackers) to be sure that running backs and tight ends aren't allowed to get open down the field or on drag routes. You have to keep an eye on where he's at on every play, because they do use him so much in the passing game."
While Bush will be the focus of the linebackers, the other speed weapons and willingness to take chances over the top is what makes the Saints one of the more complete offenses in the league. Put too much focus on Bush? They'll burn you deep with receivers in single coverage.
"You can't put too much focus on one player," cornerback Cedric Griffin said. "They have an offense that takes a lot of shots at big plays and we have to take big shots at them. He's just part of that offense and we're not going to change our defense just for him."
The same goes up front. The Vikings have made their name as one of the best run defenses in the NFL in recent years and newcomer Jared Allen said the layout of the Vikings schedule to start the season has had some eerie similarities in the first five games.
"Every team we play seems to have a 1-2 punch – a power back and a quick back," Allen said. "We're going to go in and stop the run like we've done most of this year. They're just another challenge for us."
Allen, too, said the Vikings aren't going to change up what they do defensively because of Bush's ability to be used in so many different ways. The defensive end doesn't expect to see packages that will have him drop in coverage if he smells a screen coming. Bush is just another guy in a long line of impressive running backs the Vikings have faced this season.
"Reggie Bush is an explosive player – he can be," Allen said. "So is everybody else in this league. The key with guys like him is to make him run east and west, don't let him get going downhill, don't let him get in open space and hit him. Guys like that don't like to get hit."
The Saints are a team built to get into scoring shootouts – they have scored 24 or more points in every game and allowed 29 or more in both of their losses. They are a team like the Vikings earlier this decade – they will give up points, but they can score just as many. Bush will be central to that game plan, and the Vikings' odds of winning could hinge around how they handle him.
"You know he is going to touch the ball 20 or 25 times somehow, some way," Leber said. "That's fine with us. Our job is to make sure he has nowhere to go when he gets his hands on the ball. When you contain him and don't let him get a big play, their offense suffers because they use him so much. You're not going to shut him down completely because he gets the ball so often. But, not letting him get up to full speed in the open field will be our job."
Vikings focus on Bush … somewhat
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