Vikings Pass-Rushers and Pass-Catchers Set for Key Roles in Opener

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

There isn’t a Minnesota Vikings fan on the planet that isn’t familiar with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Brees has continued to ascend beyond demigod status in New Orleans since last facing the purple and gold in 2014, but in Minnesota, he remains firmly entrenched on a forever-growing list of athletes most responsible for delivering the Vikings a gut-wrenching postseason loss on a silver platter.

“Without question,” the New Orleans signal-caller said during his midweek press conference. “I don’t think anyone is overlooking [Minnesota] around the league — certainly not us. These guys are arguably one of the best defenses in the league and have been the last couple years.”

One step ahead of the field as always; that’s just the type of player Brees is. He has been a leader for the Saints since the moment he touched down in Louisiana over a decade ago. Brees has been brilliant — no, legendary — both on and off the field since his arrival, a textbook match made in Heaven with his equally-brilliant head coach, Sean Payton.

It is hard to imagine New Orleans without its Hall of Fame quarterback, but there was once a time when Brees donning a black and gold jersey appeared to be nothing more than a pipe dream — but football has a way of dramatically shifting the dynamic when fans least expect it.

Drafted with the No. 32 overall pick back in 2001, the 6-foot, 209-pound Brees was once slated to become the face of the San Diego Chargers. And, to some extent, he succeeded in this endeavor — reaching the Pro Bowl during his third season as the team’s starter in 2004 while lifting a then-woeful Chargers team to the postseason for the first time since 1995.

But former San Diego general manager A.J. Smith had other ideas regarding the future of his quarterback. Instead of attaching himself to the hip of Brees as so many general managers and coaches have done with their elite passers, Smith elected to draft a high-profile North Carolina State quarterback by the name of Philip Rivers just months prior to Brees leading San Diego to its first playoff appearance in 10 years.

Then came the shoulder issues — an injury that unequivocally altered the future of not only the Saints but also the Chargers, Miami Dolphins and, to some incalculable extent, the league in its entirety. Ironically, it was now-San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch that flipped the script of the NFL, demolishing the former San Diego quarterback in the end zone while simultaneously causing potentially the second-most famous fumble — or should-have-been fumble, right Charles Woodson?

The ball popped free from Brees’ hands as Lynch connected, sending it to the ground where its unique shape and unpredictable movement took hold of the quarterback’s future. It bounced, awkwardly, as footballs typically do, and being the competitor he has always been, Brees launched himself toward the pigskin in an attempt to save the possession — but what he ultimately saved was New Orleans, both the franchise and, to some degree, the city as well.

Brees’ knees clanked to the ground as he desperately lunged forward in the direction of the loose ball, and as fate would have it, Denver Broncos defensive tackle Gerald Warren landed in the exact same spot, a few seconds after the Chargers quarterback, severely dislocating his throwing shoulder and — as we would discover months later — ending his tenure in San Diego.

“I think with this shoulder or not, I think you all will be asking the same questions,” a 27-year-old Brees told the media back in 2006. “Who knows what’s going to happen? And I don’t. I just worry about the things I can control, and right now it’s taking care of this thing.

“But I truly believe I’m going to get better and better every year.”

The injury did not sit well with San Diego’s general manager, who, at the time, had many believing that Brees would eventually have his contract extended in spite of the shoulder ailment. After all, he was the first signal-caller to lead the Chargers into January since a Stan Humphries-led roster limped its way into the postseason in 1995.

He never did receive the “franchise quarterback” contract extension pleaded for by many southern Californians. It was a calculated decision, one that in hindsight may be viewed as a massive failure by Smith and San Diego’s front office.

The Chargers general manager played it safe, deciding to move forward with a developing Rivers — who was acquired just one year prior from the New York Giants in exchange for a disgruntled Mississippi quarterback prospect known as Eli Manning who San Diego had picked with the No. 1 overall pick despite his well-documented refusal to sign upon being selected.

Rivers and the pair of players selected with the picks received in the Manning trade — linebacker Shawne Merriman (No. 12, 2005) and kicker Nate Kaeding (No. 65, 2005) — would go on to become cornerstone pieces of the Ladainian Tomlinson-led Chargers.

And Brees? Well, his journey into NFL history books was only just beginning.

San Diego’s lack of interest in returning Brees to Silicon Beach vaulted the one-time owner of the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record…

elsewhere, deep in the heart of Minneapolis, Sam Bradford cocks his head to the side, squints with some authority and chuckles to himself as a nearby iPad displays the slow-motion replay of a one-yard reception by Matt Asiata on 3rd-and-27 —

…into unrestricted free agency, an unprecedented state for a quarterback of Brees’ caliber. Bidding began almost immediately with the quarterback-needy Dolphins appearing to be the favorites to land the Purdue alumnus. Miami’s head coach at the time was a no-namer referred to as Nick Saban, an elite defensive mind whom some argued was held back from NFL success by the performance of his quarterback(s) — Gus Frerotte? Holding a team back? Blasphemy.

Brees was the all-time great (college) coach’s ticket to reaching the next level; the Dolphins had won nine games the previous season, rattling off six consecutive victories to close out the season only to fall just short of postseason play. With a 27-year-old gunslinger at the helm, however, Miami would have almost certainly given the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots a run for their money in the AFC East — but this dream held by countless Dolphins fans vanished almost as swiftly as it had appeared.

Miami, like San Diego, was terrified of Brees’ shoulder. There was a belief among some around the league that he had played his final snap in the NFL, and this swift-moving stance combined with a failed physical sent the Dolphins (spiraling) in a different direction entirely.

The Dolphins ultimately decided to forgo the opportunity to roster Brees’ ailing 5,000-yard shoulder in favor of Daunte Culpepper’s shredded right knee, as Saban sent a second-round pick to Minnesota for the services of the one-time unparalleled vertical passer. Miami would earn a 6-10 record the ensuing year, opening the door for Saban’s departure for a once-great college football program known as the Alabama Crimson Tide.

With Miami satisfied with a one-legged Culepper and San Diego in the process of moving forward with Rivers at the helm, the man most responsible for the Chargers reaching double-digit victories for just the third time since 1982 was stuck in limbo — his shoulder had been red-flagged and the city he called home for his entire career to date was giddy about its fiery new signal-caller.

Brees’ career could have ended right then and there, but the newly-minted 40-something-year-old head coach of the Saints had other ideas. Payton, who, at the time, was about to enter the first year atop the totem pole in New Orleans after the dismissal of Jim Haslett, was in search of a quarterback that could effectively run his high-octane, vertical passing offense — a role that required considerably more physical and cerebral talent than that possessed by incumbent starter Aaron Brooks, who had effectively worn out his welcome by this point.

Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis reviewed their options and ultimately decided to gamble on the injury-ridden quarterback from Austin, Texas — and the rest is history. Brees has since led New Orleans through unparalleled adversity en route to an 101-73 record and a 2009 Super Bowl championship over the past 11 seasons.

He has thrown for over 50,000 yards (earning seven passing titles along the way), connected for 385 passing touchdowns (including a pair of 40-touchdown seasons) and set the standard for completion percentage in three separate seasons — rewriting the record books twice.

This is the quarterback Minnesota will open the 2017 season against on Monday night — a revolutionary passer, one-of-a-kind leader, breaker of chains and, to the utter dismay of Vikings fans, a Super Bowl Champion.

 

DEFENSIVE GAME PLAN

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Slowing down the only quarterback in professional football history to reach the 5,000-yard passing plateau multiple times is no easy task. In fact, one may even argue that Brees and the Saints represent the ultimate test for Mike Zimmer’s highly-regarded defense.

Every team, coach and player has a weakness, however, and New Orleans is by no means an exception to the rule. Payton’s club has turned in a 7-9 record in three of the past four seasons, combining mediocrity with consistency in a way that would make Jeff Fisher blush.

It’s difficult to blame Brees for the team’s pedestrian 39-41 record over the past four seasons — even if he elects to shoulder the blame — however, as the Saints’ all-time leader in just about every passing statistic has led New Orleans offense to a Top-5 finish in total yards in 10 of his 11 seasons with the organization. The only year Payton’s offense fell short of this feat came back in 2010 when the unit free-fell all the way down to the six hole.

New Orleans has been as consistent offensively as any team throughout NFL history. In 64 games since the beginning of the 2013 season, Brees and Co. has failed to reach the 20-point plateau in just 16 games — surpassing the figure in 75 percent of games. Furthermore, Payton’s offense has only failed to reach double digits twice during the same time frame, which amounts to a minuscule three percent.

By contrast, Minnesota has failed to reach 20 points in 25 games (40%) and turned in a single-digit point total on eight separate occasions (12.5%). In fact, the most recent rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship yielded a 20-9 New Orleans victory and a second-consecutive game of under 10 points for Minnesota — a two-gloved quarterback did make his professional debut during this particular matchup, however.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

The point here is rather simple: Slowing down the Saints offense is a difficult task for any defense, as Payton does an outstanding job variating his play calls to keep defenders on their toes, and Brees is as good as anyone at getting the ball out of his hands quickly, hitting his pass-catchers in stride and, as a whole, executing the offensive game plan laid out for him.

As with any elite quarterback, there isn’t necessarily a “correct way” to hold Brees in check. There is a general formula for success — pressure the quarterback; stop the run; control the tempo; turnover free; etc. — but the vast majority of these tasks are much easier said than done. This is to be expected, however, as neutralizing Brees — or any surgical passer, for that matter — for a full 60 minutes is next to impossible.

That said, Minnesota doesn’t need to be perfect defensively to carve out a win on Monday. The table below illustrates how New Orleans performed in games that Brees attempted 40 or more passes last season.

OpponentFinal ScoreCompletionsAttemptsPassing YardsTD-INT RatioRatingSacksYards Lost
vs. Oakland35-34 — Loss28424234-0131.314
at N.Y. Giants16-13 — Loss29442631-089.5216
vs. Atlanta45-32 — Loss36543763-197.5217
vs. Carolina41-38 — WIN34494654-1118.215
at Kansas City27-21 — Loss37483673-1110.318
at Carolina23-20 — Loss35442852-199.3321
at Detroit28-13 — Loss31443260-363.317
at Tampa Bay16-11 — Loss25412570-348.519
at Arizona48-41 — WIN37483894-0127.9331
at Atlanta38-32 — Loss29503502-184.629

According to the data listed above, Brees attempted 40 or more passes in 10 contests during the 2016 season, of which New Orleans won only two. Moreover, the margin of victory at home against Carolina was a mere three points while the team’s road win over Arizona came by just a touchdown — which averages out to a differential of less than a touchdown. In total, the Saints were outscored by 42 points with a winning percentage of .200 in games when Brees was asked to throw 40-plus times — that, my friends, is a trend.

Now, although New Orleans typically lost games of this variety, it is worth noting that Brees was largely successful from a statistical standpoint despite the outcome on the scoreboard. This may be viewed in a handful of different ways depending on perspective. For starters, the table displays both definitive and up-to-date proof that Brees can “have a day” and New Orleans may still find a way to lose. In fact, it’s absurd how many games the Saints have lost despite their signal-caller carving up secondaries on a week-to-week basis.

Additionally, one may view this as a warning sign — many of the aforementioned losses came in extremely high-scoring affairs, which, speaking for the diehard Vikings fan here, is terrifying considering how anemic Minnesota’s offense has been over the past calendar year or so.

But, above all, this is a game the Vikings should be able to win. The atmosphere at U.S. Bank Stadium should be positively electric given the circumstances — first game of the year, prime time football, need I say more? — and New Orleans has yet to show any sign being capable of consistently stopping opposing offenses — both through the air and on the ground.

With two rookies (LT Ryan Ramczyk; CB Marcus Lattimore) set to play critically important roles in their respective NFL debuts coupled with Minnesota opposing them with a pair of their most consistently dominant players in one-on-one matchups (DE Everson Griffen; WR Stefon Diggs), the Vikings should be able to take care of business during Week 1.

Make the Saints one-dimensional on offense, and you’ll win 80 percent of the time. Simple enough, right?

Score Prediction: Vikings 24, Saints 20

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, unless otherwise noted; Information on Drew Brees injury courtesy of ESPN and Sports Illustrated;

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