When the Saints came to U.S. Bank Stadium in early September, ex-Vikings star Adrian Peterson played just nine snaps, stared daggers at his head coach Sean Payton and finished with 18 rushing yards. However, Peterson’s impact on the Saints was much greater.
The future Hall of Fame running back altered New Orleans’ approach, likely as a driving factor toward a system that put quarterback Drew Brees under center and bulked up the Saints’ personnel around him.
“From the first time we played them to now, it’s a total difference,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “They were trying to establish the run with the two backs they had — Adrian and [Mark] Ingram. Now they found their swag.”
The two backs the Saints have now — Ingram, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher, and Alvin Kamara, likely Offensive Rookie of the Year — have lightened the load around Brees, both figuratively and literally.
The Saints offense has opened up since Peterson was shipped to Arizona in a midseason trade. They’re spreading out by allocating more snaps to receivers and fewer to tight ends. Ingram and Kamara are now taking the field at the same time, threatening defenses with two versatile skill sets.
Let’s take a look at the differences facing the Vikings, and what successes from Minnesota’s Week 1 win are still relevant ahead of Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game.
The Saints are now incorporating both Kamara and Ingram, playing two backs (including ex-Vikings fullback Zach Line) together on 16 snaps [28%] against the Panthers on Sunday. New Orleans played just eight such snaps [13%] when they were still feeling out the Ingram-Peterson-Kamara pecking order against the Vikings in Week 1.
They’ve since found a working formula with this duo. On this second-and-8 against Carolina, Kamara motions into the backfield with Ingram. The pair split to both sides, spreading the defense and creating two possible screens. Brees finds Ingram for the 13-yard gain out of a look the Vikings didn’t see from the Peterson-involved offense.
Kamara is averaging 12 snaps per game lined up as a receiver in the Saints’ past three games, enabling a spread offense now involving four receivers between Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead.
Their rhythm has worked for Brees, who recaptured the NFL completion record by connecting on 72 percent of his passes. Many of them turned into big gains for Kamara, who averaged 101 yards from scrimmage after the season opener in Minnesota, and Thomas, New Orleans’ No. 1 receiver who ranked third in receptions and sixth in yardage.
On this 1st-and-20 below, Kamara sinks five yards into the backfield and turns a quick grab into a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, Brees threw a nine-yard touchdown pass.
The Vikings still own one of the NFL’s surest-tackling secondaries, which helped lift Minnesota in September’s 29-19 win against the Saints.
The six members of the Vikings secondary — Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, Mackensie Alexander, Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo — combined for just 35 missed tackles this season, according to Pro Football Focus. That should help the Vikings limit the Saints’ big-play ability when New Orleans inevitably tries to avoid a strong pass rush, like the two plays below.
The Vikings finished with the NFL’s third-best red zone defense, which started with three goal-line stands against the Saints in Week 1. Opponents scored a touchdown on just 41 percent of red-zone drives against the Vikings, according to Football Outsiders, bested by only the Jaguars and Chargers.
Brees and the Saints went 0 for 3 back in September, due in part to plays like this from Harrison Smith on the third-and-goal below.