On Sunday, both the Saints Offense and the Vikings Defense looked completely different from the first half to the second. Minnesota forced 2 interceptions, generated 2 sacks, and shutout New Orleans through the first 30 minutes of the game. In the 2nd half, the Saints dropped 24 points on one of the best defenses in the league. While the finish to this game may have stolen the headlines, the chess match on the other side of the ball was the most intriguing matchup of the weekend.
We should start with the battle of the #5-ranked running game vs the #2-ranked rushing defense. The Saints have an extremely versatile ground game, but they were unable to do much of anything against the Vikings. To be able to consistently stop the run, every member of the defense has to play to their responsibilities, and Minnesota was exemplary in every way in this category on Sunday.
Their defensive line is a physical and athletic unit that was able to consistently win 1-on-1’s, get off blocks to make tackles, draw stalemates on double-teams, and even sometimes fight through double-teams to make tackles.
Minnesota’s 2nd level defenders were just as good. Vikings linebackers did a great job all afternoon of recognizing double-teams and immediately attacking the line of scrimmage to fill gaps. They constantly played to their responsibilities, eliminating cutback lanes, which Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have taken advantage of all season. We rarely saw Vikings defenders take on lead blockers with the wrong shoulder, and this forced Saints running backs inside towards the teeth of the defense, where tacklers were waiting.
The below play is a great illustration of the Vikings’ discipline. Here, the Saints were calling an outside zone run for Alvin Kamara to the left side.
As you can see below, Vikings defenders were accounting for the 4 gaps right in front of Kamara.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks recognized the play and immediately attacked the line of scrimmage. He did not get caught moving side-to-side with the flow of the offensive line. Instead, he remained in his gap, eliminating the possibility of a cutback for Kamara.
Kamara had nowhere to go as Minnesota’s defense swallowed him up for just a 1-yard gain.
This was a regular occurrence on Sunday, with Minnesota’s defensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, linebackers playing to their responsibilities, and Saints running backs left with barely any daylight. The Vikings limited New Orleans to just 80 yards on 24 carries, leaving it up to Drew Brees and the passing game.
Without the ability to run the ball, Brees needed to be on top of his game. In the first half, he was not. Brees uncharacteristically missed a few throws early and badly underthrew an open Ted Ginn for his first of two interceptions. His early erratic play seemed to be due to the fact that he was playing a little too fast. He was obviously aware of Minnesota’s pass rush, and the internal clock in his head was sped up despite the fact that his offensive line was doing a pretty good job protecting him.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer didn’t really start bringing much blitz pressure until the final drive of the first half. This seemed to throw off the Saints’ timing and execution even further. All of the moving parts of Sean Payton’s offense were just unable to click at the same time. Either Brees was getting rid of the ball too early, his receivers were dropping passes or weren’t ready for his anticipation throws, or the protection was unclear about where the 5th rusher was coming from.
Just before the end of the half, the Vikings knocked the Saints to the very edge of field goal range by utilizing an overload blitz to generate a critical sack, as shown below.
Here, the Saints had 6 blockers (5 offensive linemen and running back Mark Ingram) to block 6 potential rushers (4 down-linemen and 2 linebackers). Notice that safety Harrison Smith was not accounted for.
With defensive tackle Tom Johnson aligned in the A-gap to center Max Unger’s right, Unger was forced to react to him at the snap.
This ensured that to Unger’s left, the Saints only had 3 blockers. The Vikings were bringing 4 pass rushers to that side, though. This included safety Harrison Smith, who, as we mentioned before, was not initially accounted for in the 6-man protection.
In order to create a pass-rushing lane straight to Drew Brees, the Vikings sent defensive end #96 Brian Robison across the left guard’s face, taking him to the inside. With Everson Griffen (#97) rushing to the outside, Minnesota was able to split the left guard and left tackle.
This left just Mark Ingram to block linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith.
Ingram took Kendricks, who was his responsibility, leaving Smith with a free path to Brees.
The Vikings didn’t really bring elaborate blitzes like this all that often. However, this play illustrates how they were able to sometimes break down New Orleans’ protection schemes by disguising who was actually blitzing and who was dropping into coverage. The Vikings are among the league’s best in not tipping which defenders are blitzing pre-snap. Through the first 30 minutes, the Saints didn’t have any answers. Brees was just 1-6, for 13 yards with 2 sacks against the blitz.
A few things changed in the second half. The Vikings lost starting safety Andrew Sendejo with the score 17-0. They also lost cornerback Xavier Rhodes for a critical stretch. This definitely had an impact. Additionally, the Saints were able to start two of their touchdown drives inside of Vikings territory off of a Marcus Williams interception and a blocked punt.
More importantly for the Saints, though, Drew Brees settled in. This is the benefit of having a 17-year veteran and future Hall-of-Famer under center. Brees and the Saints started doing things to be able to more clearly identify the coverage and the potential pressure. Their 2nd and 3rd touchdowns were great illustrations of this.
With the score 17-7, the Saints had the ball on the Vikings 3-yard line. On this particular play, Alvin Kamara was initially aligned offset in the backfield.
Brees used a silent hard-count (tapped the center who dropped his head down then up to simulate that he was about to snap the ball) to see how the defense would react. This enabled him to recognize that Eric Kendricks was creeping towards the line of scrimmage about to blitz.
Brees also noticed that he had an advantageous matchup in the slot to his right, with Michael Thomas in a 1-on-1 situation with Terence Newman. This was during the stretch of the game where Xavier Rhodes had been sidelined after a big hit.
Brees immediately yelled “kill, kill!” This meant that the Saints had called two plays in the huddle and he was “killing” the first playcall so they could run the second. Brees moved Kamara directly behind him so that he would be in a position to legitimately sell a run fake.
To ensure the defense bit on the fake, tight end Josh Hill motioned to the perimeter and back, a type of motion often used for crack-back blocks on tosses.
At the snap, Brees faked a toss to the left side. Keep in mind that a toss away from a blitz is an oft-used concept. This further helped sell the run. Minnesota’s deep safety and linebacker to the side of the toss action reacted hard to the play fake, and Kendricks carried out the blitz he was showing right before the snap. With his adjustments at the line, Brees had created a huge void in the center of the field.
Michael Thomas was easily able to beat Newman, now completely on an island, for the touchdown.
Later in the 4th quarter, with just over 3 minutes remaining and trailing 20-14, the Saints had the ball at the Vikings’ 14-yard line. Once again, Drew Brees needed to make some adjustments at the line to stave off a potential blitz. Just before the snap, with Alvin Kamara aligned in the backfield next to him, Brees looked over Minnesota’s defense and saw that he likely had man-to-man coverage across the board. He wasn’t so sure about the two linebackers in the middle of the field, though.
Based on what he had seen all game, either of those defenders could be blitzing. Either could be covering Kamara. Brees wanted more clarity. He sent Kamara to the inside-slot position to his right. Eric Kendricks followed.
Now Brees had a much clearer picture of the 5 man-to-man matchups he had to choose from. The alignment also made it easier for the offensive line to identify where potential rushers were coming from and understand their pass protection responsibilities.
A few beats after the snap, Brees was able to confirm the matchups he knew he would likely have pre-snap. Below you can see the route concept New Orleans was running to the right side of the formation.
Brees liked his matchup of Kamara running a wheel route from the slot versus Kendricks.
Despite the decent coverage by Kendricks, Kamara had enough of a step to give his quarterback a window. Brees put the ball on the money.
The touchdown gave New Orleans its first lead of the game.
The Saints were ultimately able to handle Minnesota’s pressure schemes in the 2nd half by making a few small adjustments to help define the location and magnitude of the pressure as well as the resulting matchups in coverage. As a result, Brees was 8 of 8 for 67 yards and 2 touchdowns against the blitz in the final 30 minutes. Talk about night and day from the first half to the second.
Drew Brees was simply outstanding in the 2nd half on Sunday, and if not for a never-before-seen finish to the game, this would have gone down as one of the signature moments of his Hall-of-Fame career. Instead, the Vikings are going to the NFC Championship game, where their defense will try to make sure that the Nick Foles-led Eagles offense doesn’t have nearly as much success as New Orleans did.