All this week we’ll be sharing coverage of the New Orleans Saints from The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La.. For their full reports on all things Saints, check out The Advocate website.
The schedule shows it happened this year.
Saints at Vikings. Week 1. New Orleans lost the game. It counted in the standings and everything. But that wasn’t the same team. Not on defense, at least. It’s hard to recognize this group, and that’s why the result should be thrown out.
It won’t be the same game on Sunday when New Orleans and Minnesota play in the divisional round of the playoffs. Quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook won’t be playing for the Vikings. For the Saints, safety Kenny Vaccaro, cornerback De’Vante Harris, linebackers Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein and pass rusher Alex Okafor won’t be suiting up after logging a good amount of snaps in the opener.
It’s a fool’s errand to try and draw meaningful conclusions from the first meeting when so many key participants will be missing from the rematch. In the case of the Saints, you can’t even look at the schemes and feel like you are watching the same defense.
During the early portion of the season, New Orleans was mixing in a lot of Cover 2 looks (both man and zone). New Orleans defended nine passes in Cover 2 against the Vikings. The look stayed in rotation throughout the early portion of the season, using it 10 times during a 52-38 win over the Detroit Lions in Week 6. It was sparsely used after that game until a Week 16 game against the Atlanta Falcons, when the Saints rolled it out nine times against the Atlanta Falcons.
But here’s why Week 1 was different than games later in the season when the Saints dusted off the Cover 2 looks: Vaccaro, who is now on injured reserve, did not often serve as the deep safety after Week 2. New Orleans tried to put him in that role to make him even more multifaceted than he already is, but it did not play to his strengths and was moved back in the box after the coaching staff admitted its error.
And it didn’t go well in the opening week. There were two chunk plays during the opening loss when Vaccaro was in the area when uncontested throws were surrendered. In the second quarter, wide receiver Stefon Diggs got between Vaccaro and Harris for a 20-yard reception. In the fourth quarter, tight end Kyle Rudolph got free for a 15-yard touchdown between Lattimore and Vaccaro. The safety either didn’t get down quickly enough, the cornerback didn’t sink far enough. Or both things happened.
The amount of exposure is low, but the New Orleans safeties weren’t typically targeted in Cover 2 throughout the season. Vaccaro was thrown at six times, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams five times each and Rafael Bush once, for a total of 17 targets, according to Sports Info Solutions. Whatever ailed New Orleans with two deep safeties on the field, particularly in zone, was cured as the season wore along.
There were some other oddities during the game. In the second quarter, the Vikings took advantage of New Orleans’ coverage by coming out with two backs, a tight end and two receivers, which put the Saints in their base personnel.
Minnesota split out running back Dalvin Cook and fullback C.J. Ham to the outsides. Marshon Lattimore and Vaccaro bracketed Cook, and P.J. Williams covered Ham. This left Craig Robertson as the initial man in zone against Diggs, and Manti Te’o was on Adam Thielen. Safety Marcus Williams shadowed Robertson, allowing Thielen to beat Te’o on a 35-yard post route.
Considering the Saints defense is so matchup based now, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening again. Lattimore will likely follow either Diggs or Thielen throughout the game. While it is not uncommon for a linebacker to end up in coverage against a slot receiver, especially in zone, it seems unlikely New Orleans would allow a snap to go off with two obvious mismatches for quarterback Case Keenum, who is now playing in place of Bradford.
There were several other blown coverages during the game, as well. In the second quarter, P.J. Williams got caught taking a false step toward the backfield which allowed Thielen to get open for a gain of 44 yards. And earlier in the period, Harris was caught watching the backfield which allowed Diggs to get open for an 18-yard touchdown.
In the fourth, Diggs got open again for a gain of 30 on a busted coverage, and then picked up running back Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield on a gain of 25.
The New Orleans defense hasn’t been perfect. There have been some busted coverages throughout the season, including some last week against the Carolina Panthers, but it’s night and day from how it looked the last time the Saints played the Vikings. That’s why the Saints shouldn’t place much value on this reel of film.