It took long enough but football season is finally here. All the baseless prognostication becomes moot as the real action finally unfolds for all to see. For fans of the Minnesota Vikings, a potential playoff season looms ahead but first, it all kicks off with a battle against the explosive New Orleans Saints.
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Here is what fans should be taking a closer look at Monday night.
Player to Watch
Dalvin Cook earned the starting running back spot due to a combination of his own performance, his enormous upside and Latavius Murray’s injury. Now that he is officially locked in at one on the depth chart, expect Pat Shurmur to use him a lot. The two backs may split some of the carries early but Cook will get many more touches via passes out of the backfield.
Many have Cook as their early favorite for rookie of the year and it is easy to see why. Despite a completely reshuffled offensive line, he has a lot of things going his way in week one. He begins his career in front of a rabid home crowd, with a quarterback who loves to utilize his running backs and against one of the weaker defenses in the league.
Position Group to Watch
Minnesota’s defensive backfield is a nice mixture of youth and experience. Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith are coming off Pro Bowl seasons. Terence Newman and Andrew Sendejo have loads of experience as starters in the league. Trae Waynes, though he struggled at times at nickel a year ago, has impressed in preseason and earned the starting corner job on the outside.
Though New Orleans is missing star power at receiver, it will be a tough first test for the defensive backs. Brees is always a threat to throw 40 times in a game and he has never failed to turn nobodies into superstars in his offense.
What will be interesting to see is how Zimmer uses Newman, Mackensie Alexander and newcomer Tramaine Brock. Against a passing attack like the Saints have, fans can expect a lot of nickel packages in the Vikings defense. Who gets the majority of those snaps is yet to be determined. Newman and Alexander will probably handle most of the duties in week one as Brock is just learning the system, but expect Brock to be in the fold as the season progresses.
To the Tape
The Saints, like many successful offenses these days, rely heavily on the passing game. In 2016, New Orleans was about 70-30 passing plays to running plays and it resulted in Drew Brees’ fifth career 5000-yard season.
A good percentage of Saints passing plays have the same general principle: one or two receivers stretch the defense down the field while the others stay underneath. This combination allows for Brees to find the downfield seam route or simply check down for an easy seven yards every play. It is a basic levels principle that has been quite effective for over a decade. See below:
Sean Payton also helps out his quarterback by frequently employing 6-man offensive lines and chipping on pass-rushers with tight ends and running backs. This usually gives extra time to the slowly developing route combinations and gives Brees that extra second to find his man. Payton will, like many teams nowadays, throw in a healthy dose of screen passes to receivers and running backs as well.
In the above game, week 13 last year against Detroit, the Lions held the Saints to just 369 yards of offense and 13 points. A big part of their success was due to zone discipline. The middle zone players in particular kept everything in front and did not allow plays behind them. It shows in the Saints’ pass distribution; Brees only attempted four passes down the field.
The Vikings defensive scheme is not much different from Detroit’s. They also run a 4-3 base scheme with a lot of nickel packages and blitzes from the linebackers. Expect Minnesota to use a similar plan to slow down the Saints offense.
Adrian Peterson is hardly the focal point on New Orleans but he will be for one game at U.S. Banks Stadium. Vikings fans will never forget the legendary 10-year career Peterson had in purple where he turned himself into one of the greatest running backs to ever put on shoulder pads. He is likely the last of the bygone era of the MVP run-first back.
It would be safe to assume that NFL schedule-makers marked this match-up for week one with number 28 in mind. Though Peterson is number two on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram, he is still poised to have an impact off the field even if the on-field production does not match the profile. He has admitted in interviews that this game will have a little extra sting in his mind and the media frenzy that will surround him should not be discounted. In Minnesota, he is number two on nobody’s depth chart.
Tomorrow: Who has the edge in each facet of the game and final predictions.