Saints High-Scoring, High Yielding

The comparisons between Deuce McAllister and Michael Bennett will be natural Sunday, as both of last year's first-round running backs are shining brightly in 2002.

If timing is anything, perhaps the Vikings are catching the New Orleans Saints at the right time for an upset. Coming off hard-hitting games with division rival Tampa Bay and Baltimore, the Saints are going to be a little banged up heading down a stretch of three games they're convinced they'll win — vs. the Vikings, Bengals and Panthers.

The Saints, like the Vikings, were flying high in 2000 — they met in the last playoff game for both teams — and fell hard in 2001. However, New Orleans has rebounded this season and will make the playoffs. The question now is whether it will be as a wild card or a division champion. The Vikings may go a long way to determining which one that is.

The Saints' rebound has been attributed in large part to an offense that, while banged up, has shown tremendous improvement behind the maturation of QB Aaron Brooks. Once known simply for his agility, Brooks has combined his running talent with a strong passing presence. He has led the NFC in touchdown passes most of the season and has the ability to throw the short, intermediate and long passes with equal effectiveness. The Vikings will have to apply a lot of pressure on Brooks to keep the game close. If given time to pass, he could shred the defense.

The biggest difference in the Saints offense this season is running back Deuce McAllister. Some had their doubts when the Saints traded away Ricky Williams, since McAllister had yet to prove he could carry a team for a full season. But he leads the NFC in rushing and has played through a painful ankle sprain, as shown in the Saints' win over Tampa two weeks ago. He is nearly a one-man gang in the backfield, and the Vikings will need to watch him both as a runner and a receiver or, like Brooks, he can make the big play that changes the tide of a game.

The weapons just keep on coming in the passing game. Joe Horn is a Pro Bowl player who looks ready to return to Hawaii this year. He is a speedster who has built a solid rapport with Brooks and has the ability to make a catch over the middle to move the chains or get behind a defense for a long bomb reception. However, unlike past years, he has company at the receiver position. Former Colt Jerome Pathon, lightning quick rookie Donte' Stallworth and former Viking Jake Reed all combine to give the Saints depth, speed from Stallworth and Pathon, and veteran savvy from Reed. Throw in tight ends David Sloan and Boo Williams, and Brooks has plenty of targets that can do damage to the Vikings through the air.

The Saints have been forced to shake things up on the offensive front, having lost Willie Roaf to free agency and Wally Williams to injury. Kyle Turley, the volatile offensive tackle, has moved from the right side to the left side to replace Roaf, and the rest of the line has shuffled down. Kendyl Jacox moved from center to left guard, rookie LeCharles Bentley moved in at right guard, 14-year veteran Jerry Fontenot replaced Jacox at center, and Spencer Folau replaced Turley at right tackle. Despite the changes, as a unit they have work cohesively and have become one of the league's top rush-blocking groups, as well as solid pass protectors.

While the offense has been rock solid all year, the defense remains the biggest problem for the Saints. Heading into last week's game, the Saints had allowed 20 or more points in 16 straight games, and that could be a concern heading into the playoffs.

The team has made some changes up front after losing La'Roi Glover to Dallas in free agency. They have a young defensive front with massive Norman Hand and Grady Jackson in the middle, and third-year pro Darren Howard and rookie Charles Grant at the end positions. Kenny Smith rotates in with Hand, who has been fighting injuries this season, giving the team more depth at the DT position. They give the Saints a very solid front unit, but they miss the double-digit sacks Glover used to provide.

In the linebacker corps, the Saints had hoped rookie James Allen would make an impact, but he's a backup for the season, leaving a group of undersized underachievers back this year. Charlie Clemons lines up in the middle, flanked by Darrin Smith and Sedrick Hodge. All three have starting ability, but consistency has been a problem and something the Vikings may look to exploit in the short passing game.

The secondary was hoping to get a boost from former Viking Dale Carter, but, since returning from his league suspension for substance abuse, he has been far from dominant. In fact, teams have picked on him because he looks to have lost another step since being forced to sit out another season. He is joined by seven-year vet Fred Thomas, who was expected to be a nickel back this season, at the other corner, and safeties Sammy Knight and Jay Bellamy. Some in New Orleans think all four of these players may be replaced or simply gone by next season, and if the Saints have a clear weakness, this is it.

New Orleans is a lot like the Vikings team of 2000. It has an offense that can put up a lot of points but a defense that surrenders too many points on a regular basis. If the Vikings can contain Brooks and McAllister, they have a decent chance to win, since they're confident they will score 24 points or more. The question is, will that be enough?

KEY MATCHUP

Deuce Mcallister vs. Michael Bennett
What a difference three picks in the draft can make. When the Vikings were sitting at Winter Park in April 2001, they were prepared to take Deuce McAllister with their first pick of the draft. With other teams filling needs other than running backs, a pair of projected first-rounders — McAllister and Michael Bennett — had both slipped to the lower part of the first round, and the Vikings were ready to strike on McAllister.

But then, without warning, the New Orleans Saints jumped in at the 23rd pick and snapped up McAllister — to the shock of the NFL. Having not had a first-round pick for two years after giving up a truckload of picks to get Ricky Williams, most were shocked when the Saints grabbed McAllister instead of a defensive player. But the Saints had their plan for using him.

After spending a year as a backup, the Saints traded Williams to Miami and handed the job to McAllister. Some questioned whether he was ready to carry the full load for an entire NFL season, since he had never been the full-time back in college. But he has silenced his critics by becoming an excellent runner and receiver and living up to the promise that was expected of him when the Saints took him in the draft.

Neither team can be very upset with their picks from 2001. McAllister and Bennett became the first two NFC running backs to top 1,000 yards this year, and both have shown the breakaway speed that made them first-round material in the first place. While Bennett is growing as a receiver, McAllister has already shown he's one of the best in the business at catching the ball.

While these two won't be on the field at the same time, they may forever be linked, since the Vikings had planned on taking McAllister before the Saints stepped in front of them to take him. It's impossible to gauge how things would have been different if McAllister was wearing purple instead of Bennett, but both players are aware of their proximity in the draft and they will draw comparisons for much of their careers. For this game — their first as professional rivals — the comparisons will come all day and become Sunday's key matchup.



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