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Saints Pass Defense vs. Vikings Passing Attack

New Orleans faces a stiff challenge against an explosive Minnesota passing game in a crucial week four showdown.
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The 1-2 New Orleans Saints take on the 2-1 Minnesota Vikings this Sunday morning in London. It’s the first of five international NFL games this season and the third time the Saints have played in England. For New Orleans, the bigger focus is on ending their two-game losing streak.

An already underwhelming New Orleans offense is banged up coming into this game, meaning that the team may be more reliant on their defense. The Saints defense ranks 12th in total yardage, but has forced only three turnovers and has uncharacteristically struggled against the run this season.

They'll take on a talented Minnesota offense that can beat you in multiple ways. The Vikings have a dangerous RB duo in Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, along with a foursome of lethal pass catchers. Veteran QB Kirk Cousins leads a balanced attack, but can also put up prolific passing numbers.

It’s crucial that the Saints shut down Cook and the Vikings running game to make them one-dimensional, but can they withstand the challenge of Minnesota's talented receiving corps?

New Orleans Pass Defense

  • 22.7 points per game
  • 183.7 passing yards/game (5th)
  • 54.3% completion percentage
  • 2 touchdowns (1st)
  • 0 interceptions
  • 4 sacks/10 QB hits
New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during a NFC Wild Card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during a NFC Wild Card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY 

One of the most disappointing aspects of the Saints defense so far this year has been lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback. New Orleans has been among the NFL leaders over the last few seasons in sacks and pressures, but have just four takedowns so far this season.

The pass rush showed signs of life last week against Carolina, registering three sacks and eight pressures. Their disruption starts with a deep and talented rotation of defensive ends, led by All-Pro Cameron Jordan.

The 33-year-old Jordan is off to a slow start (1 sack, 3 tackles for loss) reminiscent of last year, but has the talent to turn it on at any time. Remember that he had 8.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss over his last four games of 2021.

Opposite of Jordan is DE Marcus Davenport, who is also off to a slow start. Davenport can be an unblockable force at times, but needs to produce better than the three pressures and no sacks on his ledger this season. Carl Granderson, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Payton Turner round out the edge rotation. They've also been surprisingly quiet for a group that produced 29.5 sacks and 59 QB hits last season.

The Saints also need more interior disruption from their defensive tackles. David Onyemata has the strength and freakish athleticism to wreck opposing blocking. Shy Tuttle is more of a run stopper, but can still tie up blockers and get inside push. Kentavius Street was signed this offseason to provide depth, but this group as a whole has yet to have a standout performance.

Star LB Demario Davis is equally effective as a blitzer or in coverage. Davis has a sack and three pressures so far, and can also lock onto opposing tight ends and track backs down in the open field. Fellow LB Pete Werner isn't used much as a blitzer, but has fluid athleticism in coverage duties.

Injuries have tested the depth of a deep New Orleans secondary that will be without S Marcus Maye (ribs) this Sunday. Veteran P.J. Williams and special teams ace J.T. Gray will take Maye's place and must elevate their play.

Veteran S Tyrann Mathieu must also step up to match the playmaking level he’s shown throughout his 10-year career. Justin Evans, another offseason acquisition, has played terrific football after not playing a game since 2018.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (19) catches a pass against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY

Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (19) catches a pass against New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23). Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY

The strength of this Saints defense through three games has been their cornerbacks, who have silenced stars like Mike Evans, D.J. Moore, and Robbie Anderson this season. It’s a unit that gets even stronger with the return of Paulson Adebo, who should see more snaps after limited duty in his first action of the season last week.

Veteran CB Bradley Roby has played well in Adebo's absence. Roby has broken up two passes so far and is allowing just 47.8% completion rate when targeted. Lattimore, a perennial Pro Bowler and elite cover corner, is playing even better. He’s giving up only 50% completion rate when targeted and often blankets his man so thoroughly that quarterbacks won't even test him.

Adebo's return strengthens an already strong coverage unit, with Mathieu and Evans providing excellent slot coverage against multiple receiver formations. The Saints are giving up a paltry 54.3% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, despite the lack of pass rush up front.

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Minnesota Passing Attack

  • 19.3 points per game
  • 240.3 passing yards/game
  • 5 touchdowns
  • 3 interceptions
  • 4 sacks
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to throw against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to throw against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Cousins has been mercurial throughout his career, but is capable of putting up big numbers in any game. He's thrown five touchdowns this season and completed over 62% of his passes so far this year, with all three of his interceptions coming in a week two loss to Philadelphia.

Cousins has a litany of targets to throw to, starting with third-year WR Justin Jefferson.

One of the league's elite wideouts, Jefferson has 18 receptions for 246 yards and two scores so far after back-to-back years of over 1,400 yards receiving and 196 total receptions. However, Jefferson has been somewhat quiet after pulling in nine catches for 184 yards and two scores during a season-opening win over Green Bay.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson (18) runs between New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) after a catch. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson (18) runs between New Orleans Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) after a catch. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Steady WR Adam Thielen might be one of the most underappreciated players of the last decade. A nine-year veteran, Thielen has four seasons of over 900 yards and 13 catches for 149 yards and a score this year. He’s a savvy route runner who is a security blanket for Cousins in key moments.

Another emerging threat is third-year WR K.J. Osborn. After 50 catches for 655 yards and 7 scores in 2021, Osborn has 10 receptions for 112 yards so far this year. He’s a dangerous deep threat who is quickly developing his intermediate game. Former first-round choice Jalen Reagor is an explosive threat who's trying to rejuvenate his career after a disappointing stint with Philadelphia.

Four-year TE Irv Smith Jr., son of former Saints TE Irv Smith Sr., is a dangerous receiver coming off a knee injury that sidelined him all of last year. Smith has seven catches for 68 yards so far, but has terrific athleticism to make plays downfield. His route running skills make him a mismatch for most linebackers.

Backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison aren't used extensively in the passing game, but both players are dangerous playmakers who can threaten a defense after a short reception. Fullback C.J. Ham is also an underrated target out of the backfield.

After years of shaky play up front, the Vikings have built a big and physical offensive line that forms a wall in front of Cousins. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw and RT Brian O'Neill are excellent blockers, while LG Ezra Cleveland is a Pro Bowl level interior presence.

What to Expect

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) defends Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (19) during a NFC Wild Card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) defends Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (19) during a NFC Wild Card playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Thielen has owned New Orleans defensive backs in five career meetings against them. He’s hauled in 84% of his targets for 37 catches and 560 yards, with three 100-yard outings and another of 97 yards. Jefferson pulled in six balls for 85 yards in his only matchup against New Orleans, a 52-33 Saints victory on Christmas Day in 2020.

A marquee matchup between Lattimore, Roby, and Adebo versus Jefferson, Thielen, and Osborn is a crucial showdown in the outcome of this game. However, the Saints have given up big plays to mediocre wideouts like Laviska Shenault, Shi Smith, Breshad Perriman.

It’s also vital that the Saints shut down Cook and the Vikings running game to make them one-dimensional. Minnesota is just 7-11 since 2020 when Cousins has more than 35 pass attempts.

Cousins has been magnificent against the Saints. His Minnesota teams are just 1-3 against New Orleans, but Cousins has completed over 68% of his attempts for an average of 304 yards with 9 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions in those matchups.

New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8). Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8). Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints can help themselves by putting heavy pressure on the Minnesota quarterback. Cousins has been sacked just four times so far this season, but opposing defenses have registered 35 pressures and 22 QB hits. Disruption of Cousins will usually cause errant throws which could lead to turnovers.

The Saints have yet to intercept a pass and have only forced three turnovers so far. With their own banged up and mistake-prone offense, pressure and turnovers from the New Orleans defense may be their best hope of evening their record at 2-2 on Sunday. 

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