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The defense comes up with more very good than very bad in a revenge road win

New Orleans still gave up too many easy plays in the passing game, but some big sacks and turnovers helped the Saints cruise to a win

First, my apologies for the lateness of this column. I had some hardware issues this week; unfortunately, those issues will also keep me from including any GIFs in this week’s column. You’ll get some makeup GIFs next week, I promise.

Now, onto the recap and news of the week:

For the third time in 14 months, the New Orleans Saints played the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium Sunday night.

For the first time, they won.

Fueled largely by a huge swing at the end of the first half, the Saints reversed the fortune of their last two meetings in Minnesota, beating the Vikings 30-20. After a shaky start on defense led to two long touchdowns on the Vikings’ opening two drives, the Saints buckled down and kept the Vikings off the scoreboard while scoring 23 straight points, turning a 13-7 deficit into a 30-13 lead.

That huge swing came immediately after Drew Brees’ first interception of the season, with the Saints trailing 13-10. The Vikings were driving again and had gotten inside the red zone when Alex Anzalone forced a fumble from Adam Thielen (the NFL’s leading receiver), which Marshon Lattimore scooped up and ran 54 yards the other direction. With an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Vikings receiver Laquon Treadwell after he took off his helmet and slammed it to the ground in frustration, a play which started at the Saints 18-yard-line ended at the Vikings 18-yard-line. The Saints scored two plays later to take the lead going into halftime, and never let up.

The pass coverage remained inconsistent even with the addition of cornerback Eli Apple. Apple started in place of Ken Crawley, a healthy scratch, and played better than Crawley if not great. The Vikings’ game plan seemed to primarily focus on targeting P.J. Williams in the slot; as he was in coverage on many of the successfully completed plays, and committed several penalties in coverage to boot. Thielen caught all seven of his targets for 103 yards and a touchdown; his partner on the Vikings, Stefon Diggs, caught 10 of 11 targets for 119 yards and a touchdown. However, Williams made up for it in a major way, when the pass rush pressure caused Kirk Cousins to panic and he threw a ball directly into Williams’ breadbasket, leading to an easy interception return for a score.

The pass rush was a standout unit Sunday night, buoyed in part by the injuries on the Vikings offensive line but also by the continued development of two of the teams’ first-round investments. Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport each had two sacks. Rankins seems all the way back from any issues lingering from the broken leg he suffered as a rookie and is coming into form as a consistent interior penetrator and disruptor. Davenport continues to get better every week, as he continues to grow and learn the moves to put his rare combination of length, quickness, and power to best use. He now has four sacks on the season. Unfortunately for the Saints, he’s going to have to wait a while to get any more, as he injured his toe on the last play of the game. He’s expected to be out for a month or so; the presumption is that last year’s third-round pick, Trey Hendrickson, will start to pick up some of the slack after being inactive much of the season due to injury, illness, or simply falling behind on the depth chart. It’s unfortunate timing for Davenport, who was not only starting to come on strong, as well as the Saints, who are continuing through a difficult stretch and have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. New Orleans faces the Rams, Bengals, and Eagles before a Thanksgiving night match against the Falcons; the hope is that Hendrickson will return for the next week’s Thursday night game against the Cowboys, or at worst the game after that.

The Saints’ usually stout run defense had a few breakdowns early on as well, giving up several long runs to Latavius Murray on the opening drive of the game before settling into their usual groove. Murray had carries of 6, 10, and 12 yards on the opening drive; those three carries accounted for half of his 56 rushing yards on the day. (He had 13 carries in total.) Still, with Todd Gurley coming to town Sunday, the Saints will have to tighten up, because he’s the kind of talent who can take maximum advantage to break big plays when the defense makes a mistake.

The offensive story in this one is pretty strange. Who would have thought the Saints could win a game– or even have a game– where Drew Brees only threw for 120 yards? Who would have thought the biggest pass play of the game would be thrown by Taysom Hill? Brees simply wasn’t need to make magic through the air, as the turnovers forced by the Saints scored one touchdown and set up the offense in the red zone for the second. The third score came on the opening drive, at the end of a 10-play, 81-yard drive, but the biggest play was a 44-yard pass from Hill to Michael Thomas.

Strangely, the Vikings outperformed the Saints on the whole:

Stat Saints Vikings
Yards 270 423
Yards Per Play 5.1 6.3
First Downs 270 423
Time of Possession 28:37 31:23

This game will go down as a great example of how turnovers are game-changers.

The undefeated Los Angeles Rams come to the Superdome Sunday afternoon in the Saints’ biggest test yet (New Orleans is 2.5-point underdogs at home). It’s not impossible for the Saints to pull off the win, but they’re absolutely going to have to shore up the pass defense. Rams head coach Sean McVay is excellent at exploiting a team’s weaknesses when he has the ball, and the Saints will have to plug their leaks and find schemes that are more difficult to exploit or disrupt the offense in some way, whether through pass pressure or disguising coverages well enough to fool Rams QB Jared Goff. (And ex-Saints receiver Brandin Cooks plays for the Rams now, so he might have a few insider tips on what the team does on both sides of the ball.)

The Rams’ defense is not as strong this year as had been expected, so offensively, the Saints certainly have a chance– especially as their strong interior line can negate the best part of the Rams’ defense, the interior pass rush of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. A win would put a 7-1 Saints team in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the NFC, with a tiebreaker over the would-be 7-1 Rams. With some big stops on defense– particularly if they can win the turnover battle– and an offense performing at high level, the Saints can win the game.

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