Scouting Report: Saints Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles create mismatches
When these two teams last met, it was the Week 1 rematch of the NFC championship game -- and another close affair. Now the Vikings and the Saints are at opposite ends of the NFC standings. Will New Orleans simply roll this time? Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down tape of every NFL game, takes an inside look at the Saints:
New Orleans has one of the most high-octane, well-rounded offenses in the NFL. Its blocking scheme is a traditional man-blocking power-scheme that sets them up to both run and pass the ball well. The Saints offense has always been about creating matchup problems in the pass game and then relying on QB Drew Brees (6-foot, 209 pounds) to find them and exploit them. As impressive as their passing game is, the Saints have a formidable stable of running backs and can be a real threat to break off big chunks of yardage on the ground -- something often overlooked by defenses worrying about how they are going to cover them in the passing game.
On defense, the Saints run a 4-3, but it is an aggressive unit with plenty of blitzing and mixed coverages on the back end. DC Gregg Williams isn't afraid to dial up pressure and bring the heat, seemingly as his default position, and it is a high risk and high reward strategy. Sometimes, the Saints can shut down an offense that finds itself unable to pick up the pressure and adjust, but sometimes they are caught with uncovered receivers picking up big plays across the middle of the field. They have shown they aren't afraid to get creative and take away an offense's top weapon, so expect to see plenty of men in the box, with special attention paid to HB Adrian Peterson and WR Percy Harvin.
TE Jimmy Graham (6-6, 259) is a perfect example of the matchup problems the Saints can pose. He is too fast and athletic to be covered by linebackers but too big and strong to be covered by defensive backs. He has been the Saints' go-to option this season, with 18 more targets than any other tight end in the NFL, and his 80 receptions more than justify that kind of confidence. The first thing the Vikings need to do is establish a game plan for dealing with Graham and then work everything else out from that starting point.
One more matchup nightmare that New Orleans can deploy comes in the form of HB Darren Sproles (5-6, 181). The pint-sized rocket is a fine receiver and the Saints often split him out wide and into the slot, forcing teams to either treat him as a receiver, or to isolate him on a linebacker in space. Sproles has the kind of quickness in and out of breaks and in the open field to make big gains when that happens, and he is small enough to be incredibly elusive in the backfield and on screen plays. Sproles is another player who forces teams to make a decision about how to cover him, which the Saints can then use to their advantage.
The New Orleans offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and no member of the starting five is playing better than LG Carl Nicks (6-5, 341). Nicks has allowed just 10 total pressures over 599 pass-blocking snaps and 13 games this season and has been an impressive run blocker as well. No member of the line is playing consistently poorly, but Nicks is playing at an All-Pro level and represents a formidable roadblock to getting pressure on Brees in the game. If the Vikings want to bring heat, they will have to work on an alternative route.
Strengths and weaknesses
The entire offense of the Saints is a major strength. They have a line as good as any in the NFL, a quarterback who would be receiving significant MVP talk were it not for the season Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is putting together and a stable of receiving options who are tough to cover and match up with. There is no easy way of slowing this offense down, much less shutting it out, and the prospect of a makeshift Vikings secondary generating much beyond yardage and points for the Saints seems unlikely.
New Orleans still has major problems on defense, especially in the linebacker corps. This has been the case for several seasons now, and though they occasionally look to the draft for help, they have rarely attacked the position with any real conviction. They are still therefore left with a stable of linebackers who struggle to set the edge or fill gaps against the run. Only MLB Jonathan Vilma (6-0, 230) can really hold his own in coverage.
The story doesn't get much better behind the linebackers, with the Saints struggling to hold up in coverage across the board. CB Jabari Greer (5-10, 169) is by far their best cover defensive back and even he has allowed 51 receptions this season for 608 yards. They are particularly vulnerable at safety, where S Roman Harper (6-0, 200) has allowed six touchdowns, in part because they often expect their safeties to cover an unrealistic amount of ground to make up for a particular overload blitz they are sending.
The positive side of the New Orleans defense is the play of the defensive line, which has been much improved in 2011. They may not be bringing a huge amount of pressure, but the additions of DE Cameron Jordan (6-4, 287) -- son of former Viking great Steve Jordan -- and NT Shaun Rogers (6-4, 345) in particular have made huge impacts in the run game, making them much tougher to run on. The back seven of the defense is the weak aspect, so if the Vikings can open holes through the defensive front, they can have success running the football and breaking off big gains at the second level.
The last three meetings between these two sides have been close affairs -- one cruelly so for Minnesota fans -- but there is no real reason why the Saints shouldn't cruise to a comfortable victory in this game, dropping the Vikings one game closer to the best draft position they can get.