While the biggest storyline of this game might have been about Kirk Cousins, this matchup was determined on the other side of the ball. The Vikings were able to keep the potent Saints Offense from operating on all cylinders and taking control of the game. Drew Brees threw for just 208 yards on 33 attempts (6.30 yards per attempt). He turned the ball over twice and was under pressure all day. The Saints were never able to get into a rhythm, and it all started up front.
The Vikings’ pass rush was disruptive all afternoon. They didn’t need to bring many blitzes, as their front-4 was able to get after Brees on its own. Led by their two best pass rushers, defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, the Vikings were able to generate enough negative plays to ruin or end drives, including 3 sacks and fumble.
It started on the Saints’ first drive. New Orleans had a 3rd-and-goal from the 4-yard line. That’s when Minnesota’s d-line went to work. Focus on Griffen and Hunter, who had 1-on-1 matchups against left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
Both Armstead and Ramczyk were beat badly on this play. They would be tormented all day.
On 3rd-and-6 during the Saints’ next drive, Mike Zimmer moved Hunter and Griffen inside. The idea here was to get his best pass rushers matched up against guards, who are generally much less athletic and effective in protection than tackles. Focus on Griffen vs. left guard Andrus Peat.
Peat completely whiffed against Griffen’s spin move, creating instant pressure up the middle. Brees even tried to quick count the Vikings D here (something he did several times throughout the day) and Griffen was still able to get an effective pass rush inside. Brees was forced to throw the ball away. If he had time to hang in the pocket, Brees had Taysom Hill (#7) wide-open on a crossing route.
In the 3rd quarter, Sean Payton tried using play-action to kick-start his offense and give Minnesota a different protection look. Here, right guard Larry Warford would end up pulling to sell the run action.
Often times, a pulling guard gets the defensive end to crash inside in anticipation of defending the run. On this play, however, Everson Griffen did not really bite, and the result was another defensive end vs. guard mismatch. It also didn’t help that tight end Josh Hill stayed in to block on the other side and was walked back to the quarterback by Anthony Barr.
This sack on 1st down created a 2nd-and-20, thwarting the drive before it even began.
The Saints missed a big play on the next drive due to another great pass rush by Minnesota. First, we’ll show you the sideline angle. Focus on Michael Thomas, aligned to the right side of the formation. He would end up open at about the 50-yard line on this play.
Brees needed just a split second longer to be able to hang in the pocket and hit Thomas. He couldn’t though because of the pass rush. This time, it was defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo beating left tackle Terron Armstead inside to apply the pressure.
In the 4th quarter, the Saints finally looked to be wearing down the Vikings Defense. They had scored a touchdown on their previous drive, cutting Minnesota’s lead to just 3 points. The Vikings badly needed a play, and again, they got one from Danielle Hunter.
That’s another quick win inside for the Vikings pass rush, and this time it resulted in a fumble that Minnesota recovered.
We saw some of this from the Saints earlier this season. Remember that unexpected loss to the Falcons at home in Week 10? It was all because Atlanta was able to get quick pressure inside, preventing Brees from hanging in the pocket as routes developed downfield. On Sunday, the Vikings were able to get quick and unimpeded pressure on Brees regularly. They’re advancing to the Divisional Round as a result.
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