Monday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints will be defined by the return of Adrian Peterson and induction of Randy Moss into the Ring of Honor, but the game has intriguing matchups all over the field.
Will the Vikings’ talented defense shut down the Saints’ dynamic offense? Will New Orleans show improvement on defense? Will the Vikings’ offensive line protect Sam Bradford?
Let’s have a look at how the Saints and Vikings compare position-by-position:
Key stat: Drew Brees has led the NFL in passing yards in five of the last six seasons. Sam Bradford set a career high in QB rating but a career low in Yards Per Completion
There isn’t much debate over where Drew Brees stands among the league’s best quarterbacks. He’s got a 101-73 record since joining the Saints, has won a Super Bowl, leads the NFL all-time in completion percentage and hasn’t thrown fewer than 30 touchdowns since 2008. Brees is one of the smartest QBs in the NFL and has all-time great accuracy. At 37, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
As for Bradford, he finally has a stable situation after bouncing from St. Louis to Philadelphia to Minnesota. The Vikings have revamped their offensive line and added weapons at receiver and running back to bolster Bradford’s support group. What the Vikings will be looking for is not only improved effiency, but also quality performances in big situations a la third downs and late in games.
Brees faces a tough challenge against the Vikings’ defense. Last season, Mike Zimmer’s group opened the season by beating Marcus Mariota, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Cam Newton. Without several key weapons, it will be an uphill climb for Brees to put up big numbers.
With plenty of new starters on the Saints’ defense, Bradford has a chance to get off to a hot start.
Key stat: Mark Ingram gained 5.1 YPC last season, Dalvin Cook set Florida State’s all-time rushing record
If Adrian Peterson is still effective in any way, the Saints will have one of the league’s best backfields. Ingram is a versatile runner who is difficult to tackle and can catch out of the backfield (46 receptions last year). New Orleans drafted running back Alvin Kamara from Tennessee. He adds another receiving threat and some big-play capabilities.
Cook emerged quickly in training camp as the Vikings’ No. 1 running back. His patience and explosiveness are exceptional, making him a perfect fit for the Vikings’ new zone running scheme. Cook can also catch out of the backfield, giving OC Pat Shurmur all sorts of options. Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray will each have roles. McKinnon is likely to line up in the slot at times and Murray could be used in short-yardage situations or if the Vikings’ pass protection needs help.
Both teams’ running backs should play a big role in Monday night’s outcome.
Key stat: Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead combined for 150 catches last year. Cooks was traded to New England, Snead is suspended. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined for 153 catches.
The Saints are hoping that Tedd Ginn can pick up some of the slack left by the Cooks trade and Snead suspension, but they were Brees’s second and third favorite targets last year behind top-notch receiver Michael Thomas. Tight end Colby Fleener could have a bigger role after a somewhat disappointing first season in New Orleans.
The Diggs-Thielen combination was one of the league’s most effective 1-2 punches last season. They both caught 75% of passes their way, Diggs ranked in the top 20 in catches, Thielen was second in the NFL in Yards per Target. The biggest question mark is Laquon Treadwell. If he makes any type of impact, the Vikings will have a stacked receiving corps.
Key stat: The Vikings have a new starter at every position on the O-line, New Orleans will start rookie LT Ryan Ramczyk
With Terron Armstead out, Ramczyk will have quite the welcome-to-the-NFL opponent to start his career against in star DE Everson Griffen. The Saints will likely have to give their rookie some help, but the rest of the New Orleans line is solid. They added Larry Warford from Detroit and received the 16th best ranking from Pro Football Focus heading into this season.
The Vikings’ offensive line is majorly improved from last season with additions at both tackles and the emergence of third-round pick Pat Elflein as the starting center. Where the Vikings have a disadvantage is in chemistry. Outside of a quarter in the second preseason game, this starting five has not played together.
Key stat: The Vikings were fifth in sacks last year, New Orleans was 27th, but Saints’ DE Cameron Jordan has 17.5 sacks over the last two years
The Saints’ defensive line is improved by the addition of Alex Okafor and New Orleans is hoping that last year’s first-round pick Sheldon Rankins can take a big step forward. But they are not an exceptionally good group outside of Jordan, who is a top-notch edge rusher.
The Vikings have a case for being the NFL’s best defensive line. Danielle Hunter ranked third in the NFL in sacks last season. He joins two Pro Bowlers in Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen. The three technique position may have some questions against the run, but Tom Johnson is a strong pass rusher and the Vikings will mix and match with Brian Robison.
Key stat: Eric Kendricks had nine pass deflections and 70 tackles last season. Manti Te’o had 83 tackles and an INT in 2015 for the Chargers.
The Saints made an effort to improve their linebacking corps by adding Te’o, who was solid during his time in San Diego before suffering a season-ending injury early last year. New Orleans also added former Panther AJ Klein to solidify the group.
Eric Kendricks has emerged as one of the league’s best cover linebackers, using his quickness and instincts to slow down opposing running backs in the passing game. Whether Anthony Barr bounces back from a tough 2016 season will determine how good the Vikings’ linebackers end up being.
Key stat: Vikings ranked fourth in QB rating against, New Orleans was 29th. Saints rookie CB Marshon Lattimore had four INT, nine PD at Ohio State last year
New Orleans’ secondary has been awful over the past two seasons, but changes to the DB group could make for a big improvement this year. That starts with the Saints’ first-round pick Marshon Lattimore, who was one of the top CB prospects coming out of Ohio State this year.
The Vikings have an elite corner in Xavier Rhodes and a top-five safety in Harrison Smith. Rhodes will be locked on Michael Thomas while Smith causes havoc by lining up all over the field, blitzing, playing deep, playing robber and on and on. Whether rookie Mackensie Alexander can handle the nickel position (assuming Tramaine Brock does not start) will be the biggest storyline to watch in the secondary. Also, the Vikings are looking for another step forward from Trae Waynes.
Key stat: The Saints have ranked in the top 10 in points each of the last four seasons, while the Vikings were sixth last season and fifth in 2015 in points allowed.
Sean Payton vs. Mike Zimmer is a classic battle of a brilliant offensive mind versus a defensive guru. Giving each coach the entire offseason to prepare for each other should make for a terrific battle.