The Vikings have been one of the bigger disappointments in the first quarter of the 2008 season – having a chance to win late in each of their four games, but coming away from it with a 1-3 record. As they prepare for Monday night's game with the New Orleans Saints, they play a team that is about as polar an opposite as you can find.
The Vikings are one of the league's top rushing teams. The Saints are the best passing team. The Vikings' hallmark on defense is stopping the run. The Saints haven't stopped anyone and are allowing more than five yards per rushing attempt. The Vikings and their opponents have combined to score more than 43 points in just one game. The Saints and their opponents have scored 44 or more points in each of their four games. These are two vastly contrasting teams, which makes Monday's game a compelling matchup of differing styles.
If the Saints are to succeed, it will be on the right arm of quarterback Drew Brees. Through four games, he is at or near the top in almost every passing category and is averaging 326 yards a game. Entering this weekend's action, Brees owned three of the top 10 passing days with yardage totals of 421 vs. Denver, 363 vs. San Francisco and 343 vs. Tampa Bay. He is a constant threat to pass and the Saints pass on about 60 percent of their plays. He is averaging 37 pass attempts a game and, despite not having some of his top weapons, don't expect anything to change in that regard against the Vikings. If the Vikings can bottle up the inside running game, Brees may have to throw 40 times or more out of necessity.
The Saints will try to run, but there rush game has been extremely suspect this season, averaging just 3.4 yards a carry. The team has a two-headed backfield in Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister that helped lead the Saints to the NFC Championship Game during the 2006 season but was derailed in 2007 when McAllister went down early with a season-ending knee injury. McAllister is expected to be the workhorse, but he is a between-the-tackles runner that would seem to play into the Vikings strength defensively. Bush, on the other hand, is a different story. Used as much as a receiver as a running back, through four games, he has 52 rushing attempts and 31 receptions. He is put in motion and lined up as a wide receiver to get plays that can isolate linebackers in the open field for big gains. Containing Bush and preventing him from getting into space will be the top defensive priority for the Vikings, especially in light of the injuries to the receiving corps for the Saints. A player to keep an eye on is Pierre Thomas. Thomas filled in for McAllister when he went down and has shown he can be a hard inside runner. While he has just 76 yards on 23 carries, he has scored three touchdowns and will get some opportunities in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Perhaps no team with the possible exception of Seattle has seen more injuries to its receivers than the Saints. Last year, Marques Colston caught 98 passes for 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has been sidelined since Week 1 with a thumb injury. Tight end Jeremy Shockey, acquired during the preseason to bring an All-Pro component to that position, has been sidelined with a sports hernia. David Patten, the only veteran receiver on the roster, has also been sidelined and won't play against the Vikings. The receivers have been thinned out, but not knocked out. The Saints have been able to get explosive plays from Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, a pair of former high draft picks that have speed to burn. Henderson has caught just six passes, but he is averaging 35.5 yards per reception. Meachem has just five catches, but he's averaging 40.8 yards a catch. A player who has emerged in the absence of Colston is second-year pro Lance Moore. He leads the wide receivers with 17 receptions and has quickly caught on as a favorite of Brees. With Colston and Patten both out, the Saints will be down to only four healthy wide receivers and one of those – fourth-year man Terrance Copper – hasn't caught a pass yet this year. As Shockey continues to recuperate from his injury, the Saints have turned to eight-year veteran Billy Miller to be a player that can stretch the defense. He is a clear offensive downgrade from Shockey, but is a capable receiver. Mark Campbell is used more as a blocking tight end than a receiving option, but with depth so thin, he may have to be called upon in the passing game as well.
The Saints were one of the few teams that had the luxury of starting the same five offensive linemen in all 16 games in both 2006 and 2007, but that streak has come to an end this year. The team lost center Jeff Faine in free agency when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped a massive contract his way to get him to defect to a division rival. The Saints were confident that sixth-year center Jonathan Goodwin could handle the workload and, while he has struggled at times to keep defensive tackles from collapsing the pocket, overall he has held up pretty well. The tackles remain unchanged with third-year man Jammal Brown at left tackle and fourth-year pro Jon Stinchcomb at right tackle. Brown was a Pro Bowler in 2006 and will have a tall order locking up with Jared Allen all night long. Stinchcomb is solid in both run blocking and pass protection. The offensive line was dealt a blow when guard Jamar Nesbit was suspended late last month for four games under the league's steroid policy. With Nesbit forced to sit, the Saints have just two guards on their 53-man roster – second-year man Jahri Evans and fifth-round rookie Carl Nicks. This could turn out to be a mismatch if the Williams Wall can get penetration and, if one of them should get injured, the Saints will really have to shuffle their linemen around and have people playing out of position.
As troubling as the injuries have been to the offense, the Saints defense has been little short of pathetic and injuries have taken a toll there as well. Before the season began, it was expected that the Saints would have a pair of stout defensive tackles with 11-year veteran Hollis Thomas and first-round rookie Sedrick Ellis. Instead, the Saints have neither. Thomas was released in the preseason after reaching an injury settlement with the team and Ellis is out for a month with a knee injury. They have been replaced by eight-year veteran Kendrick Clancy and fifth-year man Antwan Lake. The Saints like to rotate their tackles, so the Vikings will also see eight-year pro Brian Young spelling the starters. New Orleans invested millions to upgrade at defensive end with the drafting of Will Smith on the first round of the 2005 draft and the signing of Charles Grant. Neither was impressive last year, although both were hobbled with injuries. They are both capable of taking over games, but have yet to show much in the way of consistency this year. Each has two sacks, but often come out on third downs, and one of them is replaced by fourth-year man Bobby McCray – the Saints' designated pass rusher. This is a group that can be dominated by strong offensive lines and, with Bryant McKinnie back from his suspension, the Vikings O-line would qualify in that respect. Any team that allows more than five yards per rushing attempt has to be viewed as being suspect and the Saints can be dominated at the point of attack by aggressive run blockers like the Vikings possess.
The Saints have a developing playmaker in fourth-year middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose 2007 season was cut short last October due to a knee injury. He plays beyond his size (6-1, 230) and is a big hitter who was traded to the Saints by the Jets in 2007 when New York switched to a 3-4 defense that wasn't compatible with his skills. On the outside, Scott Fujita is a blue-collar type of wrap-up tackler who, while not spectacular, rarely blows an assignment, and fifth-year man Scott Shanle is built out of the same mold. He isn't a true game-changer at linebacker, but he does his job adequately. Depth is a concern, so an injury here could be devastating to the Saints defense.
The Saints secondary remains a primary weakness and one that almost routinely gets burned for big plays. It was hoped that the offseason signing of Randall Gay from the Patriots to line up at cornerback opposite Mike McKenzie would give the Saints a solid duo at the CB position, but Gay has had a difficult time in press coverage (he was almost exclusively a nickel back with the Patriots) and McKenzie is showing the signs of age (he's in his ninth year) and a propensity for injury. When the Saints go to a nickel defense, second-round rookie Tracy Porter comes in. He has all the skills needed to be a solid corner in the NFL, but is learning on the job and has been burned over the top a few times already this season. At the safeties, second-year man Roman Harper has ascended to the starting lineup, but third-year man Josh Bullocks has lost his job to seventh-year journeyman Kevin Kaesviharn. This is probably the weakest position on the entire Saints team and teams can exploit them on the deep seam – something the Vikings have tried to establish with Visanthe Shiancoe and Bobby Wade.
To look at this Saints team is to look at the Vikings from earlier in this decade. When they're on, they can put up points in a hurry. But many times they have to because of the inability of their defense to stop opposing offenses. If the Vikings are to win Monday night, the key will be exploiting the Saints' primary weakness (stopping the run) and controlling the clock and keeping the Saints offense off the field. If the Vikings can achieve that, coming away with a rare road win is within their grasp.
Vikings-Saints: Vastly different teams
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