Skol Scale Vol. 21: Coaching Gives Vikings Advantage Over Saints

In the 21st edition of the Skol Scale, Drew Mahowald previews Sunday’s NFC Divisional round matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints.

Sunday marks the most important game in the past eight years for the Minnesota Vikings franchise.

Minnesota earned a first-round bye in the playoffs and the right to host a divisional round playoff game.

Their opponent: the New Orleans Saints, the same franchise that gashed the Vikings’ hopes in the most recent franchise-altering game eight years ago in the 2009 NFC Championship game.

This time, the Vikings boast home-field advantage and the superior “on paper” team. Minnesota cruised to a 13-3 record behind a legendary defense and a more-than-capable offense. Mike Zimmer’s team has dealt with plenty of adversity throughout his tenure, delaying the realization of his coaching prowess and his team’s talent. That adversity has even leaked into this season, when the Vikings lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford to injured reserve after Week 5 and rookie phenom running back Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL following Week 4.

Yet, Zimmer’s squad employed the “next man up” mantra better than anyone could have expected. Case Keenum filled in admirably at quarterback, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon teamed up to fill Cook’s void, and the offensive line has dealt with many shuffles with little negative consequences.

Minnesota defeated the Saints 29-19 in a Week 1 matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium earlier this season — and the score isn’t very reflective of how one-sided the game really was. However, this Saints team is a completely different monster than it was 18 weeks ago. Head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have built a very balanced attack that has the firepower on both sides of the ball to overcome Minnesota’s home-field advantage.

This week’s Skol Scale is slightly different from those in the past. Instead of breaking down the past matchup and giving a preview of the upcoming game, this edition will focus solely on Sunday’s divisional playoff matchup. Which team has the edge?

Be sure to check out BetOnline before placing a wager on this weekend’s playoff games.

Key Matchups That Favor Minnesota

Coaching: I’ll start right off the bat with a super hot fire take. Sean Payton is a future Hall-of-Fame coach and one of the greatest offensive innovators the NFL has ever seen. Meanwhile, Mike Zimmer has zero playoff wins in nearly four seasons as a head coach. How can Minnesota have this advantage?

A coach’s impact on the game can be defined in many ways, but the most important for me is how the team executes in key situations — such as third down and the red zone. Any offense in the NFL can move the football to some extent, but the great ones succeed on third down and score six points when they get to the red zone. On the flip side, any defense can come up with the occasional sack or turnover, but the great ones consistently halt the opposition on third down or in the red zone.

The Minnesota Vikings have obliterated their opponents all season long on third down and in the red zone.

Minnesota’s defense allowed a third-down conversion rate of 25.2%, good enough for best ever recorded in NFL history. Zimmer’s unit doesn’t turn the ball over a ton or even register an eye-popping amount of sacks. It’s simply a very disciplined and well-schemed unit that executes. The Saints’ offense, despite Payton’s innovation and Brees’s elite talent, converted just 37.6% of third downs this season — 19th in the NFL.

Payton’s offense has been pretty darn good at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, doing so on 58.2% of opportunities (eighth in the NFL). However, one of the main reasons the Vikings destroyed the Saints 18 weeks ago was this red zone battle. The Vikings defense, which finished 2017 allowing the third-lowest touchdown percentage in the red zone (40%), held the Saints to four field goals, three of which were under 25 yards.

The under-the-radar coaching matchup this week is Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur against Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Shurmur led a top-10 offense despite the loss of a starting quarterback and running back in 2017. Meanwhile, Allen turned a Saints defense that has been a laughingstock for years into an above-average unit.

Allen has specialized in creating opportunities for his star players at multiple positions, thus creating a wide array of packages and stunts to throw at the offense. Shurmur’s heavy use of savvy misdirection and play-action concepts has created many easy opportunities for Case Keenum, especially in key situations.

Minnesota converted 43.5% of its third-down chances this season (third in the NFL), thanks to Shurmur’s pass-heavy tendency on third-and-short. The Saints allowed a third-down conversion rate of 41%, good for 27th in the NFL. The Vikings were also a top-10 red zone offense in the regular season, finishing ninth, with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 57.9%. New Orleans’s defense allowed the 14th-highest red-zone touchdown rate at 52.1%.

Advantage: Vikings.

Adam Thielen vs. PJ Williams: The flip of Adam Thielen into the slot and Stefon Diggs back outside may have been the best coaching decision the Vikings made prior to this season. Thielen has dominated in the slot, taking advantage of smaller cornerbacks all season long. New Orleans provides another opportunity.

In the Week 1 matchup, the Saints had no answer for Thielen in the slot. They tried various man-to-man matchups and coverage schemes to keep the ball out of his hands, but the man finished with nine receptions for 157 yards — seven receptions for 146 yards from the slot.

Williams has been New Orleans’s primary slot cornerback all season, and he has arguably been the weakest link of a pretty solid secondary. If Shurmur attacks this matchup heavily like he did in the previous meeting, the Vikings should have success.

Kyle Rudolph/Jerick McKinnon vs. Saints linebackers: Carolina destroyed New Orleans last week with its tight end Greg Olsen (eight receptions, 107 yards) and receiving-type running back Christian McCaffrey (six receptions, 101 yards). Minnesota can replicate some of that formula with Rudolph and McKinnon against a Saints linebacker corps that struggles to defend size at the tight end position and speed at the running back position.

Linval Joseph vs. Saints Interior OL: New Orleans just lost starting left guard Andrus Peat for the season, which means Senio Kelemete will slot in as the new starter with center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford. According to Pro Football Focus, the average run block grade for Kelemete, Unger and Warford is 46.7. Much of this has to do with the fact that Unger is a zone blocking style player and the guards are more of a man-blocking style, and meshing that together is usually a difficult task for any coach.

Their main assignment this week will be keeping Linval Joseph out of the backfield. Joseph (88.2 run defense grade per PFF) is the catalyst of a Vikings run defense that allowed the second-fewest rushing yards this season and the fifth-fewest yards per attempt. His strength and speed combination give him leverage on nearly every snap. The Saints’ dynamic backfield of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who each gained over 1,500 scrimmage yards this season, likely won’t have much success through the ‘A’ gap on Sunday.

Key Matchups That Favor New Orleans

Cameron Jordan vs. Vikings OTs: Minnesota’s offensive line has been stellar all season long, especially in comparison to the dumpster fire that was 2016. However, this doesn’t make the unit immune to elite players. Cameron Jordan is an All-Pro for a reason, recording 13 sacks in the 2017 regular season and acting as the main force setting the edge against the run for the Saints defense.

Jordan’s best trait might be that he can line up on either side of the line and wreak havoc. Both Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers (or Rashod Hill, if that’s how the Vikings configure the offensive line) have a tall task ahead of them in protecting Keenum.

Marshon Lattimore vs. Stefon Diggs: This will be an unpopular opinion for most of the readers here, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Lattimore has put together one of the finest rookie seasons at the cornerback position in recent memory, putting up Rhodes-like numbers on many occasions against some darn good receivers such as Mike Evans and Julio Jones.

Prior to his success against Josh Norman this season, Diggs had been routinely swallowed up by man-to-man shutdown corners in his career. Patrick Peterson, Janoris Jenkins and Richard Sherman, to name a few, have locked down Diggs in the past. Lattimore probably falls into the same category.

Norman’s success has been primarily in a zone coverage scheme (as has Sherman’s, to some degree), so Diggs still has yet to get that monkey off his back. Maybe it will happen on Sunday, but the right bet here is Lattimore.

Special Teams: I promise I won’t mention any of the past special teams slip-ups in Vikings playoff history. That’s not what this is about. Instead, this is about recognizing Will Lutz and Thomas Morstead. Lutz connected on 31 of 36 kicks in the regular season, including four of five from 50 or longer. Meanwhile, Lutz made 94% of his extra-point attempts. Kai Forbath’s numbers just don’t match that. Additionally, Thomas Morstead is widely regarded as the best punter in the NFL. Ryan Quigley has had a tremendous season, there’s no doubt about it, but Morstead’s experience and track record gives him the edge in the punter battle.

Of course, it’s impossible to forget about the plethora of return men on the Saints roster. Kamara just took a kick return 106 yards to the house two weeks ago. Ted Ginn Jr. and Tommylee Lewis give New Orleans two more speedy weapons to use as return men.

Skol Scale Figure: 6.5

Graphic designed by Brett Anderson

The Skol Scale reads 6.5 for this particular matchup, which is the most difficult draw out of any team in the 2017 NFC playoffs for the Vikings. New Orleans is the biggest threat to Minnesota’s Super Bowl aspirations. The 6.5 figure represents my opinion that if the Vikings and Saints both play to the level they have all season, the Vikings should prevail in a relatively close margin. Minnesota is the better, more well-rounded team.

However, the Saints do pose a few threats that could throw the Vikings off. While the duo of Ingram and Kamara has been held in check the past few weeks, there’s no doubting its home-run ability. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will be tasked with holding them in check, especially in the passing game, and that’s no easy task.

The opportunistic Saints defense is another element to consider that could favor the Saints. New Orleans intercepted 20 passes in the regular season, good for third in the NFL. Case Keenum has been superb at limiting his interceptable passes (though the interceptable balls he has thrown have been very pronounced) and he will need to continue that on Sunday. It’s undoubtedly the biggest moment of Keenum’s career, and this Saints defense will take advantage of any mistake that big-game jitters may cause.

An early turnover by the Saints could also result in an early lead for the Saints, another element that should scare Vikings fans. Minnesota’s offense is not built to come from behind, especially against a Hall-of-Fame quarterback. The Vikings will need to avoid an early double-digit deficit because they have very little experience playing with that kind of deficit this season.

Despite all of these factors, Minnesota holds the advantage in this game on paper due to the most important matchup discussed above — coaching. Zimmer and Shurmur have their respective units playing fundamentally sound and disciplined football, especially in key situations. Minnesota, incredibly, ranked in the top 10 in third-down offense, third-down defense, red zone offense, and red zone defense in the regular season. The same cannot be said for the Saints, who only ranked top 10 in one of those categories.

I guess the home-field advantage is worth mentioning, too. It already has the reputation as one of the loudest in the NFL. And now the Saints are coming to town, in a home divisional playoff game, eight years after the freaking illegal bounty gate that nearly ended Brett Favre’s life? Yeah, U.S. Bank Stadium will be absolutely rocking.

Buckle up, football fans — we’re in for one heck of a ride.

Prediction: Vikings 20, Saints 16

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