The New Orleans Saints greatest strength on offense is also one of the Minnesota Vikings’ greatest strengths on defense.
The Vikings have the No. 1 defense in the NFL in yards against and scoring. They also rank No. 1 when it comes to slowing down opponents’ running backs in passing yards allowed. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota’s defense allows just 30.6 yards passing to RBs per game.
The Saints have a quick-passing offense that uses Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram as top receiving options.
Here’s how Ingram and Kamara performed this season as receivers:
Kamara: 81 catches, 826 yards (10.3 yards per catch) five touchdowns
Ingram: 58 catches, 416 yards (7.2 yards per catch)
In Week 1, the Vikings allowed very little to Ingram and Kamara.
Kamara vs. Vikings: Four catches, 20 yards
Ingram vs. Vikings: Five catches, 54 yards
McCaffrey vs. Vikings: Three catches, 18 yards
Last season, the Vikings were still solid against opposing running backs ranking eighth, but they have cut the yards per game against down by 25 percent. At the center of the success is linebacker Anthony Barr, who has put together a solid 2017 season, ranking in the top 20 in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus metrics.
“A lot of teams it seems like nowadays [running backs are] their second or third leading receiver, so you have to treat them as such and make sure to have a man on them at all times.” Barr said, “I think it’s more difficult for running backs to get open because they’re coming out of the backfield, it takes longer for the play to develop and you can only run so many routes. So I don’t think they’re as threatening in the passing game as receivers are, but if you don’t give them attention, they can hurt you.”
Barr, who is in his fourth year, said that he has learned from experience how to read certain screens and short pass plays by focusing on the backfield.
“There are some screens that are more difficult than others. I’m not going to say which ones those are, but it all comes back to reading your keys,” Barr said. “Running backs, they kind of tell you everything you need to know. They kind of paint the picture for you on a given offensive play.
“Just understanding what the situation is. Down and distance is always a big factor. Then let the running back lead to you the play.”
Barr’s cohort Eric Kendricks has quickly become known as one of the league’s best cover linebackers. He ranked 26th of 81 linebackers in coverage this year by PFF scores and was slotted even higher last year.
“It’s all about timing, you have to understand the timing of the play, the timing of the routes that are behind you or in front of you,” Kendricks said.
Kendricks said stopping the likes of Kamara and Ingram is a team effort – including the defensive line.
“I know our D-linemen work hard on the screens, everyone works hard finding the screens,” he said. “We rally to the ball it comes down to tackling and team defense.”
The Vikings have rare defensive linemen like Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and even nose tackle Linval Joseph who can chase down running backs after they make the catch. This makes it especially difficult for O-linemen to get to the second level to make tackles against
The Saints do not use play-action as often as some of the opponents they could have faced like the Los Angeles Rams, but they may add that wrinkle more often when it comes to a playoff game with a familiar foe.
“It’s hard for the DBs when the middle of the field is vacant because you’re sucked up,” Barr said. “You’re going to get sucked up, it’s going to happen, play-actions you’re going to take a step forward at least. It’s about getting out, punching out, finding the vacant area and trying to fill it as fast as possible.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better of the last year at that. Our passing defense in terms of the middle of the field, I think last year we got hurt in the middle of the field and this year we’re tighter on that.”
If the Vikings can limit running backs’ role in the passing game, they force opposing QBs to throw down the field to gain big chunks of yardage. Then there is a domino effect. Edge rushers can pursue the quarterback on deeper drops, and QBs have to throw in the direction of elite defensive backs like Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.
They will all be keying on Ingram and Kamara on Sunday.