Grudge match. Revenge Game. Call it whatever, but this weekend’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints will be the most entertaining game of Wild Card Weekend, mainly because it features a never-ending chess match between arguably one of the best offensive minds in the game (Saints HC Sean Payton) and one of the craftiest defensive minds in the game (Vikings HC Mike Zimmer).
The battle between Payton and Zimmer will definitely be one to pay attention to, especially with Payton’s tendencies to feature playmakers such as Mike Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Taysom Hill; conversely, observing Zimmer’s defense adjust to this Saints offense will also be entertaining, as he’s been known to give quarterbacks (most notably Aaron Rodgers) fits with his disguised coverages and blitz packages. With this in mind, what do Minnesota and New Orleans need to ensure so that this game goes their way?
In order to win this game, Minnesota must do exactly what other opponents have done to New Orleans this season: attack the Saints’ secondary everywhere except for Marshon Lattimore. Eli Apple, Janoris Jenkins, and P.J. Williams do not hold up well in coverage, and have been taken advantage of by smaller, shiftier wide receivers (Deebo Samuel says hello).
If Lattimore indeed travels with Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs, OC Kevin Stefanski needs to prioritize an aggressive, up-tempo offense featuring Adam Thielen, Bisi Johnson, and Irv Smith Jr. Throwing away from Lattimore’s area makes life much easier for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who needs to find rhythm early if Minnesota is to win this game.
Playing up-tempo and aggressive, however, does not mean abandoning the run game. Gary Kubiak’s influence has been a godsend for this team, and they need to live by that mantra: use the run game to set up the pass. This obviously involves a heavy workload for Vikings runner Dalvin Cook, who needs to put this team on his back. Similar to Derrick Henry’s role in Tennessee, the Vikings will only go as far as Cook takes them.
Speaking of Irv Smith, tight ends should be Minnesota’s most useful weapon in this matchup because of their usage in this system. Both Smith and veteran Kyle Rudolph are exceptional run-blockers. However, they can be used as downfield threats as well as safety valves if schemed open.
Tight ends have been an important red zone resource for the Vikings throughout the regular season, but now that the team is in a win-or-go-home scenario within the NFC Playoffs, they must be unleashed as open field pass-catchers.
Minnesota cannot stop the Saints if they cannot stop the Saints’ best weapon, who is indeed All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas. While Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill are indeed very dangerous, Thomas is arguably the Saints’ MVP. That being said, the Vikings should play bracket coverage on Thomas on almost every down. Commit 2 or 3 defenders to his presence or he will wreck this game.
Minnesota can’tguardMike using normal zone or man coverage principles, but they need to do their level best to keep him from getting high-percentage throws from Drew Brees. Free safety Anthony Harris and defensive back Jayron Kearse should play an integral role in limiting Thomas as much as possible, because if they can’tguardMike, they will lose.
Do not give Xavier Rhodes an extended snap count. Rhodes has been awful in coverage this season, giving up a whopping 83% completion percentage when targeted. Especially if Sean Payton schemes Mike Thomas as Rhodes’ matchup in this game, the former All-Pro corner known as “Rhodes Closed” will become a liability for Zimmer’s defense. In order to avoid this as much as possible, play Rhodes sparingly, while giving Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes more snaps outside.
However, the easiest way to stop the connection between Brees and Thomas is to disrupt the pocket. While this may seem self-explanatory, New Orleans’ offensive line is one of the best in football, so a 4-man rush will probably not be enough to generate pressure on a quarterback as good as Drew Brees. Zimmer needs to do exactly what he does best: blitz.
He needs to trust his secondary (with the exception of Xavier Rhodes) to hold up long enough for the extra rushers to overwhelm the pocket. Especially with such cerebral and disciplined players like Eric Kendricks, Everson Griffen, Anthony Barr, and Danielle Hunter, Zimmer’s blitz-heavy nature allows for more 1-on-1s for those defensive linemen. Disrupt Brees’ timing and that’s a play well made.
Feature Deonte Harris and Taysom Hill. Reverses, screen passes, even regular handoffs force the defense to adjust to a different skillset. The more skillsets there are in an offense, the more difficult it is for a defense to adapt. Harris’ blazing speed can help him get to the edge, and on trick plays, his skillset can be a decoy that opens up the Saints’ downfield threats.
Hill, on the other hand, can throw, catch passes downfield, and run. He’s the epitome of a mismatch nightmare, because he’s too athletic for linebackers or safeties, and sometimes even corners. On top of that, he can throw. Long story short, New Orleans has an impressive arsenal of weapons who all can and should be featured during a time like this.
Speaking of weapons, the Saints need to release the beast that is Alvin Kamara. This hasn’t been Kamara’s best season, especially with his lingering injuries. However, if he is as healthy as the media portrays, he should be used the way he’s always used: as a reliable route-runner out of the backfield and out wide, especially when matched up on less shifty linebackers.
Kamara needs at least 25-30 touches from scrimmage to stay effective; these touches allow New Orleans to control time of possession, which is how they normally win games. Rather than giving their opponents a chance to score, the Saints just hold on to the ball and keep scoring. Kamara’s workload needs to be very high for them to accomplish this.
Instead of letting Dalvin Cook win this game with his legs, force Kirk Cousins to win it with his arm. Cousins doesn’t exactly have the best track record in important games, so there has to be some level of pressure he’s facing before this playoff game. If Minnesota loses, regardless of whether it’s Cousins’ fault or not, Kirk takes all the blame. No matter what.
The Saints defense needs to take advantage of Cousins’ playoff inexperience by pressing the Vikings’ receivers and constantly attacking with a blitz-heavy style, with strict emphasis on eliminating his safety valves. With no fallback option, New Orleans amps up the pressure on Kirk to beat their talented secondary (besides the backup corners, of course) downfield, and that works in their favor.
Speaking of Cook, stack the box on early downs at all costs. With injuries to rising stars Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, the Saints’ defensive line is somewhat vulnerable. Even though not many teams have run well against them, the Vikings possess one of the most improved offensive lines in football, led by 1st-round rookie center Garrett Bradbury.
If New Orleans doesn’t want to get dominated on early downs, they need to commit to stopping Cook as much as possible. Keep Minnesota behind the chains long enough so that Kirk needs to throw the ball. Rookies like Shy Tuttle will be asked to play a major role in this defense going forward, so helping out him and All-Pro Cameron Jordan challenge the line of scrimmage is the easiest way to win this game.
All in all, the Saints are rightfully the favorites, and they should win this game. The aforementioned chess match between Zimmer and Payton is also a grudge match, and New Orleans is riding a much stronger wave of momentum with their recent string of wins. Furthermore, New Orleans’ playoff atmosphere will make this game unbelievably difficult to win, and the Saints should get off to a quick start at home.
While the Vikings are a very talented team for sure (they would be favored against any other wild card team), this is the worst possible matchup for them, and the Drew Brees-Mike Thomas connection should carry the Saints to an easy victory.
Final Score: Saints 31, Vikings 21