Sunday, January 24, 2010

2010 NFC Championship Preview: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Favorite: Saints (61.0%)

Minnesota cranked a shockingly rattled Cowboys team in Minnesota last week, indicative of their season: Easy wins against teams that are either bad or good teams that are for whatever reason out of their element and don't show up. But they're going into the hostile Superdome in New Orleans this week against a Saints team that does everything they like to do, and arguably better than they do.

The Saints did lose their last three regular season games but don't be fooled: A la the Colts, they essentially folded their tent in Week 15 once they reached 13-0 and were assured of the #1 seed, and gave the backups more playing time. As they showed in last week's 45-14 romp over Arizona, they are just fine, and just too tough to stop on offense when they're trying.

As always, all stats are courtesy of Football Outsiders. All their advanced stats give you a closer look at the marginal utility of all teams and players over (or under) their counterparts.

Vikings Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.44 (A-)
Drive Success Rate: .724 (B)
Turnovers per: .092 (A)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: C-
Interior: C
Right End: C-
Pass Protection: C

Vikings backfield:

QB: Brett Favre: A+
QB: Tavaris Jackson: A
RB: Adrian Peterson: C (Receiving: B)
RB: Chester Taylor: F (Receiving: B)

If it seems Adrian Peterson's slid a bit this season, well... he has, and his line hasn't been all that strong either. Go figure the team's best success has been running near the left tackle, right in the vicinity of all pro LG Steve Hutchinson.

But while they've ground out some yards here, a big run there, the tailbacks haven't been very efficient. Brett Favre leaned on the ground game early in the season, but go figure his passing numbers took off as the season wore on. They had to, because he had to do more with the passing game as the season progressed. Good thing he had....

Vikings receivers:

WR: Sidney Rice: A+ (Rushing: A)
WR: Percy Harvin: B
WR: Bernard Berrian: C
WR: Greg Lewis: C+
TE: Visanthe Shaincoe: A
TE: Jimmy Kleinsasser: I thought you did this for a living

Again, Percy Harvin is good enough to be split to one of the ends instead of the 3rd wideout in a 3-wideout set, though maybe the reason he makes so many plays is because teams blanket Rice, cover Berrian, put a good linebacker on Shaincoe and Harvin's often left against safeties and nickel backs.
However, the bad news is that Harvin is questionable for the title game after spending the week with migraines. He's improved and expects to play but there's no telling what he can give the Vikes on Sunday after little practice. The Saints are also fairly effective in containing opposing tight ends, so don't expect Visanthe Shaincoe and his strained quad to get open too often.

The good news is that, despite Rice facing better cover corners this week, Bernard Berrian may see more open space on the other side. The vanquished Cowboys were more consistent in covering a team's top two receivers than the Saints were. While the Saints do a fine job of containing opponents' #1 receivers, they don't do as good a job against the #2 or slot receivers. Sidney Rice did have a great game against good cover corners, but Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter will definitely key on him and give him a harder time. Rice can still ring up 4-6 catches, and he is indoors on a rug despite being on the road so he'll have every bit the speed he has at home. Don't count him out: Just don't expect a repeat of last week's dominance.

However, unlike the mediocre Cowboys pass defense, the Saints can contain some of the Vikings' pass weapons, which puts a greater onus on Brett Favre and his running game to make plays on their own.

Vikings defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)
Points per drive: 1.52 (B-)
Drive success rate: .636 (A-)
Turnovers per drive: .118 (D+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: A
vs left end sweeps: D+
Right DE: B-
Interior run defense: B
Left DE: B-
vs right end sweeps: A

Pass Defense: D
Defensive line vs rush: B
Pass rush: B+
vs #1 WR: D
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D
vs RB: C-

There's a big problem looming, and it's not the crappy pass defense: Three of the Vikings' starting defensive linemen, Kevin and Pat Williams plus Ray Edwards, are all questionable with various injuries. Yes, players play hurt in the NFL all the time, but if you're questionable, your injury's bad enough to hamper strength and movement. Even if any or all of the above play, the usually great defensive line is going to get pushed around.

This not only will compromise the pass rush (and likely bottle up Jared Allen if he's the only healthy threat the Saints have to worry about), but the strong run defense as well. The linebacking for the Vikes hasn't been the same either since EJ Henderson's leg snapped like a twig a month ago. If the Saints decide to change it up and go with Pierre Thomas between the tackles, we may be surprised at how easily the Saints can stick their blocks and give Thomas enough space to get to the 2nd level of the front seven.

On top of that, the Vikings aren't particularly good at containing a team's #1 receiver, opting instead to balance their coverage and force that top receiver to make plays, and TBH the Vikes do give up an uncanny number of big plays in the secondary. They don't cover secondary receivers well, and the Saints love to use three wideout sets just like the Vikes do. Don't be surprised if some Saints receiver you don't hear much about, like Robert Meachem or Lance Moore, has a massive game. Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey have a great chance at big numbers as well. Drew Brees shredded the Cards while last week's game was competitive, and chances are likely he'll shred the Vikings too.

Vikings Special Teams:

Kicking: B (Kickoffs: D)
Kick returns: A+
Punting: C
Punt returns: C+

Percy Harvin is typically the key to the return game, but his injury compromises that return game, unless infrequently used Darius Reynaud (4 decent but mostly unspectacular returns all season) finds a crease or two on returns. The Vikes did not return a single kick in their 34-3 romp over Dallas last week.


Saints offense:

Points Per Drive: 2.56 (A)
Drive Success Rate: .742 (A-)
Turnovers per: .148 (C)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A
Left End: C-
Interior: A
RT: B+
Right End: A-
Pass Protection: B+

Saints Backfield:

QB: Drew Brees: A+ (Rushing: A+)
RB: Pierre Thomas: A (Receiving: A-)
RB: Mike Bell: C
RB: Reggie Bush: A (Receiving: C)

Saints Receivers:

WR: Marques Colston: A
WR: Robert Meachem: A+ (Rushing: A+)
WR: Devery Henderson: B
WR: Lance Moore: A
TE: Jeremy Shockey: A
TE: David Thomas: B-

Sure, the Cards didn't have the defense to pose much of a challenge last week, but the Saints have a ton of offensive weapons. Drew Brees is one of the top 3-4 QBs in the game today. Pierre Thomas is a workhorse relatively fresh since he doesn't have to carry a load... because fellow backfielder Reggie Bush is a freakish playmaker, and Brees has a full arsenal in the passing game: A rotation of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem (who is also hell on reverses and end arounds) and Lance Moore, as well as top-shelf receiving tight end Jeremy Shockey. No wonder nobody in the NFL has been able to contain this offense. The crappy Vikings secondary sure won't.

Saints Defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: D+)
Points per drive: 1.71 (C)
Drive success rate: .670 (C)
Turnovers per drive: .187 (A-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: D-
vs left end sweeps: D-
Right DE: F
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C
vs right end sweeps: A+

Pass Defense: C+
Defensive line vs rush: C-
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: A
vs #2 WR: C-
vs Other WR: C
vs TE: B
vs RB: C

One bad sign for the Vikes is that, with the exception of Pittsburgh, all the other teams that beat the Vikes this season sported a 4-3 defensive front. And the Steelers' linebackers are fairly big and tough, i.e. in some ways resemble D-linemen in size and strength. 4-3 defenses tend to generate a greater pass rush and give the O-line a tougher time in run blocking, though the weakness comes in pass defense (if the pass rush doesn't get to the QB) and when the rushers get past the trench as there are fewer linebackers to cover the 2nd level. Even if the line doesn't ring up sacks, consistently putting pressure on the QB is usually enough to disrupt the passing game.

Brett Favre's line in his losses:

4 games, 106 for 162 (65.4%, 40.5 attempts per), 1154 yards (228.5 per), 4 TD, 4 INT, 14 sacks (3.5 per)

In 12 wins: 257 for 369 (69.6%, 31 attempts per), 3048 yards (254 per), 29 TD, 3 INT, 24 sacks (2.0 per)

Obviously, QB turnovers and losses tend to go hand in hand. Sacks too, to some extent, and QBs tend to throw more in losses, as when the team falls behind they abandon the running game and throw the football. Note that Brett Favre only threw more than 31 attempts in one of Minnesota's wins: 48 times in Minnesota's 36-10 victory over Chicago on November 29, and Favre largely took over in that game because the Bears have a poor secondary and were playing a soft zone that contained their running game. It made sense to throw every down in that situation. However, with the book out on Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Favre's other weapons, opponents finally keyed on Favre's receivers and it's unlikely the Vikings get a window like that again.

As the Cards found out the hard way, the Saints are a good ballhawking team and can generate turnovers. Favre has gotten much better at avoiding turnovers, but on a bad day he's still good for a couple picks. Add in Adrian Peterson's penchant for the big fumble, and this could get away if the Saints get three turnovers and capitalize on at least a couple of them. The Vikings don't generate as many turnovers and generally have to rely on avoiding those mistakes, while hoping the other team does something stupid, to win the turnover battle.

Saints Special Teams:

Kicking: D- (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: B
Punting: D
Punt returns: D

Rarely does the Saints' fate come down to their below average kicking game. However, the kick return game could chew up a few big returns against a below average kick coverage unit.


So who has the edge?

Neither team has much of a pass defense, and with the Vikings' pass rushers hurting, 800+ yards total passing is not out of the question. For the Vikes, it will come down to whether they can avoid turnovers and keep pace on offense. The Saints are going to hold serve on offense. Getting Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor going and being able to kill the clock and keep that Saints offense off the field will certainly help the Vikings. However, the Vikings can't afford to make more than one big mistake, or Drew Brees and Co will make sure this game gets away from the Vikes fairly quickly. Despite their best efforts, the Vikes are in trouble given the Saints defense's nose for the football and, more specifically, taking it away from you.

That said, the Vikings shouldn't fold vs the Saints the way the Cards did last week should they fall behind. They've got enough talent, and the Saints have enough defensive holes, to make a thing or three happen and stay in this game if things go wrong for them. One common denominator in the Vikings' losses, aside from all coming on the road, is that they came against teams with tough defensive fronts. The Saints, for whatever rep their defense may or may not have, aren't particularly tough up front despite a 4-3 front and can be pushed back. That lack of magic formula is good news for the Vikes, even if they are on the road in arguably the most hostile indoor stadium in the NFL.

My friends have money on the Vikes to make the Super Bowl, so that's who I'm rooting for. However, history and the numbers indicate that Minnesota's facing an uphill battle under sea level in the Superdome.

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