Saints' blueprint for championship repeat may hinge on stingy defense
The Saints defense sent a message with their performance against the Vikings, a team that averaged 29.4 points per game (second in the NFL) and finished fifth offense last year (379.6 yards per game). Minnesota scored just nine points, amassed a paltry 253 yards, and had only 12 first downs against a defense that was merely average in most categories last year, except takeaways (25th ranking, 21.3 points and 357.8 yards allowed per game).
"Nine points. Nine points,'' said Saints defensive tackle
There was a lot to be excited about if you're a lover of the Saints defense. Like the strong play of the New Orleans secondary, including new free safety
The Saints defense didn't blitz or hit Favre anywhere near as much as they did in the NFC championship game, sacking him just once, and getting real pressure only a few other times. But the Saints kept almost everything Favre threw in front of them, and correctly guessed that Minnesota's early focus would be establishing the running game through
Why? Because of history, several Saints defenders said. "We knew we had to be at our best early to stop the run, and we thought they'd run the ball because Brett's only been in camp two weeks or so,'' Saints defensive end
Saints middle linebacker
For New Orleans, it was a winning game plan and impressive first display of defensive muscle in 2010. The Saints hadn't won a game scoring 14 points or less since beating Dallas 13-7 in late December 2003, from the
"I don't think we're the team with the target on our backs,'' Ellis said. "They're not gunning for us, we're gunning for them. We're the ones with the scope.''
Without Rice's ability to stretch the field vertically and keep a defense honest, Minnesota lacked the explosiveness it was known for last year. Only tight end
Favre didn't look in sync with his receivers most of the game, and it appeared the lack of playing and practice this preseason could have been a factor. But maybe it all came down to missing Rice, the receiver who became his big-play partner and security blanket last season, grabbing 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns.
"There were not a lot of throws to be made far down the field,'' Vikings head coach
But that pulse wasn't strong enough to lift the Vikings over the defending champion Saints. Not when Favre didn't have a great night, and couldn't make the downfield plays that he routinely produced in 2009.
It was a strong showing in a return to what was Peterson's personal house of horrors last January -- the Superdome. In the NFC title game, Peterson fumbled twice and caused another turnover after a bad exchange with Favre. Unfortunately for him, Peterson played a key role in Minnesota staying home and New Orleans representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Peterson entered the game with 20 fumbles since 2007 (his rookie season) and spent most of this offseason trying to correct the one serious flaw in his game. He ran like he had something to prove against the Saints, even though his yardage total wasn't eye-catching. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his 19 attempts, and on the Vikings' 16-play, 66-yard second-quarter scoring drive (field goal), he was a horse, touching the ball eight times for 44 yards.
"I'm ready to carry the ball more,'' Peterson said. "I'm ready for that. I was close a lot of times out there to breaking tackles, to make big gains. But they have great players on defense who make plays, and they held us in check.''
And Peterson, though held in check, held onto the ball. For the Vikings, that's the best news of all from Thursday night.
This time? Not quite as heroic. Hartley missed both FG attempts against Minnesota, from 46 yards in the second quarter and more glaringly, from 32 yards in the fourth quarter. Both kicks sailed considerably left, with the second one belonging in the shank category. Maybe the Saints' Super Bowl hangover this season will be Hartley's alone.
Hartley's first miss wasted a Vilma interception at the Minnesota 34. His second miss gave the Vikings' restored comeback hopes with 9:14 left in the game, since Minnesota only trailed by five at 14-9 and could still win the game with a touchdown.
"My mindset was great,'' Hartley said. "I was hitting the ball real well in preseason, practice, and warmups. I went 0 for 2, but I was fortunate the way the offense and defense played. The offense puts some points up and the defense shut the Vikings out.
"Both (the misses) were completely on me. The snap and hold were great. Things like that are inexcusable at this level. I just need to go back to my techniques and understand what I did wrong. I need to come out next Monday night against the 49ers and put some points on the board.''
Some of the Saints defenders I talked to thought the same thing.
"We hit him some, but not as much as we did last game (in the NFC championship),'' Smith said. "When he had the ball, he did not look real comfortable. When we didn't hit him, we had someone in his face and he looked like that bothered him.''
Agreed. The Saints didn't blitz all that much, but Favre looked a bit edgy against New Orleans. Maybe he should have tried coming to training camp for once and getting a little more practice time in before taking on the Super Bowl champions at their home field.
Just a thought.