Saints Favored? Keys to Vikings Proving Oddsmakers Wrong.
Even after winning four straight games, including an amazing road victory in Atlanta and having knocked off the 49ers in their last home game, the oddsmakers aren’t yet buying into Josh Dobbs and the resilient Vikings.
Saints Favored? Keys to Vikings Proving Oddsmakers Wrong.
Apparently, Vegas thought the Vikings were done after Kirk Cousins’ Achilles injury since the inconsistent Falcons were favored by 4 ½ points last week. Now, even with the Vikings one of the hottest teams in the NFL and playing at home, the Saints were 2 ½ point favorites as of Thursday even though Dobbs will have a full week of preparation to get much better acquainted with Kevin O’Connell’s offense (that he managed to succeed in last week) and his new teammates.
At 5-4, New Orleans leads the suspect NFC South, but so did Atlanta last week, and that didn’t stop the Vikings. The Saints have not beaten a team with a winning record (the Vikings are now 5-4) and struggled to defeat the Bears 24-17 in New Orleans last week. NFL games always are hard to predict, but this point spread seems out of whack and will likely change closer to a pick’em game by Sunday, especially if Justin Jefferson’s hamstring is healed so he can make his return off IR (although it appears he will likely be held out at least one more week).
Here are my keys to a Vikings win over the Saints:
1. Run the ball better: this was my No. 1 key last week, and it remains the case in order to balance the offense for Dobbs. The Vikings improved from 31st in rushing to 29th this week only because Dobbs scrambled his way to 66 yards on the ground.
Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers produced only 69 rushing yards between them (after combining for one yard in the first half) so the run game was better in the second half at Atlanta and needs to be effective from the start against a Saints defense that is better in pass defense (7th) than in run D (17th). With Akers gone for the season with another Viking falling to an Achilles injury, it’s now on Mattison and Ty Chandler (perhaps with overdue help from Kene Nwangwu) to be productive, and for the offensive line with help from the tight ends, wide receivers, and fullback C.J. Ham (who should play more snaps) to open holes.
It will greatly help if star tackle Christian Darrisaw returns from his groin injury that sidelined him last week. And Dobbs should continue to use his legs when needed (his outstanding 4th-and-7 run for 22 yards with 52 seconds left saved the game last Sunday). Bears QB Tyson Bagent rushed for 70 yards against the Saints last week.
Rollouts and bootlegs will work well for the mobile Dobbs, as they did last week, so if he does take off, he can get to the sideline and hopefully avoid big hits. But the Vikings need to keep Dobbs healthy, and too much running is dangerous, especially if the next option at QB this week is the shaky Sean Mannion if Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens are not ready to return.
2. Win the turnover battle and protect the ball, Josh and the rest of Vikings skill players: the Vikings are plus 3 in turnover ratio during their winning streak after a disastrous start to the season in this area. The Saints come to town leading the league in takeaways (18) and ranking third with a plus-eight turnover ratio (Vikings now are minus 5). Dobbs was careless with holding the ball out last week, which led to his two lost fumbles. He needs to be more cognizant of his ball security, which the coaches are surely harping on, and not force throws as the Saints lead the NFL with 12 interceptions.
3. Get healthy, J.J., K.J., and Darrisaw — keep playing great Jordan Addison and a good week to target T.J. a lot: the Saints pass rush is not great with only 17 sacks (25th ranked), and Kirk Cousins had a good day with 273 passing yards against the Saints in the 28-25 win in London last season.
DE Cam Jordan (son of ex-Vikings tight end Steve Jordan) is slowing down at 34 with only two sacks, but he has 31 tackles. His fellow DE Carl Granderson leads the team with 5.5 sacks and will be a handful for Vikings left tackle David Quessenberry if Darrisaw can’t play, so Quessenberry will need help if that’s the case. Pro Bowl linebacker Demario Davis is a quality blitzer with three sacks, and he has 65 tackles to lead the Saints’ seventh-ranked defense.
New Orleans’ top two corners — Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo — have been tough on wide receivers, but Jefferson had a big game last year against the Saints with 10 catches for 147 yards, so it would be great for the Vikings if he can return but O’Connell said Wednesday that playing J.J. this week would be “a little aggressive.” It may be tough for the coach to keep Jefferson out as he’ll be lobbying to play against his hometown team.
K.J. Osborn is in concussion protocol, so we’ll see if he’s able to go or if there will be more snaps again for Brandon Powell (who caught the winning TD pass in Atlanta) and Trishton Jackson, who had a third-down drop but then made a diving catch for a two-point conversion.
T. J. Hockenson should be a featured target for Dobbs on short and intermediate routes and in the red zone, as the Saints are allowing a 110.4 rating on passes to tight ends (eighth worst in the league) and gave up two TDs last week to Chicago’s Cole Kmet.
4. Defense stop the run and get after Carr: the Saints aren’t a great running team (19th), but Alvin Kamara is a dangerous dual-threat player, and Taysom Hill is a multi-purpose weapon which as a wildcat QB threw for a TD last week, ran for 52 yards on 11 carries and he also caught a TD pass against the Bears. Hill has hurt the Vikings in the past.
Carr has been average overall this season (17th ranked passer), but he played well the past two weeks with 521 passing yards, 4 TDs, and no interceptions against the Colts’ and Bears’ mediocre defenses.
The Saints have given up 21 sacks (middle of the pack). NFL sack leader Danielle Hunter (10 sacks) is a key as always. DC Brian Flores said the Atlanta game was Hunter’s best of the season despite no sacks, and he was a big part of holding the Falcons to field goals after the two Dobbs fumbles.
5. DBs and Jordan Hicks must do a good job in coverage against a good group of WRs and Kamara: if Carr has time to throw, he has four good targets the Vikings must cover in Chris Olave (50 catches, 563 yards, 2 TDs), Michael Thomas (38 for 439, 1 TD) and deep threat Rashid Shaheed (26 for 501, 19.3 yard average, 3 TDs) plus Kamara out of the backfield (43 receptions).
It will be very interesting to see how much the usually heavy blitzing Flores sends extra rushers at Carr after throwing a few blitzes at Taylor Heinicke last week. It can help Hunter face fewer double teams when the Vikings blitz, but they need to sack or pressure Carr when they do blitz.
6. Special teams a key against Saints: the Vikings will have to be on their game in punt coverage against the speedy Shaheed, who ranks third in the league with a 15.4-yard average and had a 76-yard punt return TD against the Packers in Week 3. Ryan Wright should kick the ball out of bounds to avoid returns, and Greg Joseph needs to boot his kickoffs out of the end zone as Shaheed also returns kickoffs.
Joseph needs to stay hot after his 5 for 5 kicking day last week following a few weeks of struggling. He had a great game in the 28-25 win over the Saints in London last season, going 5 for 5 on field goals including the 47-yard game winner with 24 seconds remaining.
Jay Ward has to avoid special teams miscues, such as lining up offsides or running into the kicker on field goals and extra points. And Brandon Powell had a 24-yard punt return, and a significant return by him (or by Ty Chandler on kickoffs) would be a big help in what should be another close game.
The Saints have a rookie kicker in Blake Grupe, who has missed five field goals this season (18 of 23), so perhaps the crowd noise and pressure of a big game could rattle him.
For those who think Dobbs had a one-time great game in Atlanta, that actually was his fourth game this season with a passer rating of 99 or better (with three of those games as the starter for the dreadful Cardinals, including a Week 3 upset of the Cowboys). He’ll go into the Saints game feeling much more confident after 10 days of learning the offense and with an NFC Offensive Player of the Week award to his credit from the Atlanta game. He’ll surely feel the love entering the game from Vikings fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
This is another game against a team the Vikings could be competing with for a wild card spot, so winning the head-to-head matchup (the first tie-breaker) will be a big boost to the Vikings’ playoff hopes, just as their win in Atlanta was last week.
I think the magic from Atlanta carries over to a home win for the Vikings this week, with Dobbs making enough plays passing and running and the defense forcing key turnovers once again. I pick the Vikings 23-20.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Vikings are hoping for a win over the Saints, coupled with the 4-4 Chargers winning at home against the 6-2 Lions. If that daily double occurs, the Vikings will be only ½ game behind Detroit with a favorable schedule ahead, and the two games with the Lions in the final three weeks with a potential opportunity to win the NFC North for the second straight year. I think Justin Herbert is due for a big game, and the Chargers get the win at home over the Lions, who were blown out in their last road game at Baltimore.
2. The two conference leaders are on a bye this week — 8-1 Philadelphia and 7-2 Kansas City (leading the AFC based on their better record in conference games compared to similarly 7-2 Baltimore). The Eagles and Chiefs meet in a terrific Monday night matchup in Kansas City when they return to action on November 20.
3. Other interesting matchups: the 49ers try to stop their three-game skid on the road against the league’s hottest team — Jacksonville (five straight wins). Brock Purdy needs to stop throwing interceptions as he did twice in the last two losses to the Vikings and Bengals. The Jags are tied with the Saints for the league lead with 18 takeaways. Star receiver Deebo Samuel is back from his shoulder injury, and Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams (ankle) also is expected to return, so I’ll pick the more talented 49ers.
5-3 Cleveland is at 7-2 Baltimore in a big game in the NFL’s best division — the AFC North, where all four teams have winning records, including the 5-3 Bengals, who have four straight wins behind the now-healthy Joe Burrow and they host the Texans led by red-hot C.J. Stroud (after his rookie record 470 passing yards in the win over the Bucs last week). The Steelers also are 5-3 and host Green Bay (3-5). I think the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers all emerge victorious on Sunday.
4. What a mess for the New York teams: the Giants were drilled 30-6 by the Raiders last week and have lost QB Daniel Jones for the season with a torn ACL. The G-Men are 2-8 since beating the Vikings in last year’s wildcard round (including the divisional playoff loss to the Eagles and their 2-7 start this season).
The Jets looked bad in their 27-6 loss to the Chargers on Monday night, as QB Zach Wilson was sacked eight times. At 4-4, the Jets are still in the playoff hunt, but it’s doubtful they’ll still be alive in six more weeks when Aaron Rodgers is hinting he could be ready to play (and that would be a record for an Achilles injury healing from when he was hurt in the season opener).
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl