Last week, the Minnesota Vikings played their best defensive game of the season as they completely shut down Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. The defensive line played a phenomenal game, recording five of the Vikings' six sacks. The secondary also did a great job in coverage by not giving up any big plays.
On the offensive side of the ball, Brett Favre and Sidney Rice displayed some incredible chemistry that led to three Vikings touchdowns.
Coming off of their best performance of the season, the Minnesota Vikings face their toughest matchup yet in the New Orleans Saints.
While the Cowboys had a high-powered offense, the Saints have even more firepower, leading the NFL in points scored during the regular season. The Saints also boast a great secondary that forces a lot of turnovers.
The Vikings will also be entering a hostile environment in the Superdome, where the crowd will be deafening. This is a difficult matchup, but the Vikings can certainly win it if they can play assertively and enforce their game on the Saints.
Heading into this game, there are four keys to the Vikings taking control of this game:
1. Hit Drew Brees
The Saints gave up just 20 sacks all season, good for fourth best in the NFL. Drew Brees is not easy to get to.
However, the Saints spend a lot of their time in shotgun spread formations. They like to get teams out wide so they can see what kinds pressure may be coming. This allows Drew Brees to see blitz packages and pick them apart. According to Scout.com Senior Analyst Ed Thompson, Brees is the best quarterback in the NFL against the blitz.
Drew Brees has been picking apart the blitz all season, putting up a higher completion percentage and a higher yards per attempt than in non-blitz situations.
However, the New Orleans Saints may make the same mistake that the Dallas Cowboys made: believing they can defend against the Vikings' front four with minimum protection packages.
The Saints rarely max-protect on passing plays. Jeremy Shockey, like Jason Witten, is more likely to chip and go than to stay in protection.
This opens up an opportunity once again for the Vikings. Jared Allen and company completely dismantled the Cowboys' minimum protection by sacking Romo six times and hitting him 10 more times.
If the Saints try to block with just five or six, they will feel the pressure from the Vikings front four. The Vikings are the only team in the NFL that consistently gets to the quarterback without blitzing.
However, if the Saints adjust based on what they saw last week against the Cowboys, the Vikings may face more max-protect. If that becomes the case, the Vikings need to bring the occasional blitz to get pressure on Brees.
The reason Brees is so good against the blitz is that he faces it with minimum protection. This allows him to hit one of his five potential receivers quickly in single coverage.
If the Vikings can force the Saints into max-protect situations, they should take advantage and still apply the pressure. If they don't, they may risk letting Brees pick them apart with all day to throw.
Whether the Vikings face minimum or maximum protection up front, they need to apply the pressure and hit Drew Brees to win this game.
2. Establish a Running Game
While the Vikings tried their darndest to establish the run against the Cowboys, it was their one weakness last week. Adrian Peterson ran 26 times for just 63 yards.
A little-known fact about the 13-3 New Orleans Saints is that they have a very poor run defense. The Saints gave up 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season, good for seventh-worst in the NFL.
This defense was on display when the Arizona Cardinals' Tim Hightower took the first hand-off of the game last week for a 70-yard touchdown.
The Vikings need to open holes for Adrian Peterson against this weak run defense, and they need to do it early.
There were only two or three plays during the Cowboys game in which Peterson actually had a hole to run through. The rest of the run plays consisted of him and the offensive line merely pushing the pile forward for two or three yards.
There was one bright spot for the Vikings' running game last week, though. With Percy Harvin in the backfield, the Vikings were able to both use him as a decoy and rip off some decent runs.
Harvin carried the ball three times for 23 yards and was in the backfield on various other plays as a distraction.
It is very difficult for teams to contain both Peterson and Harvin at the same time. While the Vikings can't do this every down because Harvin is not a fullback, he is a great change-of-pace.
If the Vikings can get Peterson going and give him some holes to run through, they won't have to throw as many passes in Darren Sharper's direction. The Saints boast a secondary that held teams to a 68.8 quarterback rating and forced 26 interceptions.
Winning the time of possession battle could also be the equivalent of scoring seven points for the Vikings, just by limiting the number of possessions Drew Brees has to work with.
Any way you look at it, the Vikings need a running game to win on Sunday. They have the opportunity to do that against a weak run defense, so they must take advantage of the situation.
3. Get Sidney Rice in Single Coverage
Sidney Rice scored three touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys. Twice, he scored in single coverage. On the third score, Rice was uncovered after he laid a chip-block and released into the secondary.
The chemistry between Brett Favre and Sidney Rice has been an incredible development this season. Coming into 2009, it was a make-or-break year for Rice, whose first two campaigns were disappointing.
Favre has entrusted Rice with the most targets on the Vikings team and it has paid off.
While Rice may not have the blazing speed of Randy Moss, his ball skills are very similar. He is incredible at tracking the deep ball and almost always seems to come down with the catch.
His speed and route running may even be underrated as he seems to often beat coverage deep.
If the Vikings are able to establish a run game against the Saints, they will open up the play-action passing game.
This will be the Vikings' opportunity to get Rice in single coverage. The Vikings will also have to find a way to distract Darren Sharper, who will likely be given the task of covering over the top of Sidney Rice.
With speedy second and third receivers in Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin, the Vikings can force the Saints into picking who to cover. If the Saints do decide to cover Rice, Brett Favre can hit Harvin over the middle or Berrian streaking down the sideline opposite Rice.
The key for Favre will be to shy away from throwing into double and triple coverages on Sidney Rice. Most of the Vikings' passing scores this season have come in single coverages that Favre has exploited.
If Sidney Rice gets open in single coverage, you can bet Brett Favre will hit him in stride for a big play.
4. Contain Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush ran with aggression when he got the ball last week. This may have been the first time in Bush's NFL career that he ran over a defender while carrying the ball.
Bush is playing not only for a Super Bowl, but for a spot on a contending team (and a contract) next season.
Maybe this has led him to start running like the weight room beast he is instead of running like 160-pounds-dripping-wet DeSean Jackson.
The Vikings are not strangers to Reggie Bush embarrassing them. In 2008, the Vikings gave up two punt return touchdowns to Bush and the Saints. While the Vikings still pulled out a victory, the game was much closer than it should have been because of Bush.
There are a few different ways the Vikings need to contain Bush, since he is so versatile.
First, contain him in the run game. This is not a major concern, as the Vikings' front seven should not have a huge problem bottling up the Saints' rushing attack.
Still, if Bush hits the second level, he could be gone, so the Vikings need to hit him early at the line of scrimmage.
Second, the Vikings must contain him in the short passing game. The Vikings can contain Bush in both the run game and short passing game by having Antoine Winfield spy him.
The Vikings are an above average tackling team, but the player that almost never misses a tackle is Antoine Winfield. The Vikings' linebackers are not fast enough to get to Bush and take him down quickly, so they aren't going to get the job done.
Putting Winfield on Bush will keep the big plays in check and assure that Bush is taken all the way to the ground.
Finally, the Vikings need to contain Reggie Bush in the return game. Chris Kluwe cannot afford to send line drive punts at Bush like he did in 2008. Kluwe needs to kick it forty yards and sky high.
The Vikings should take a lesson from the 2009 Florida Gators, who almost never allowed a punt return. They merely kicked it intermediate distances and as high in the air as they could.
Just as the Vikings contained Miles Austin last week, the Vikings need to contain the big-play threat in Reggie Bush.
If the Minnesota Vikings can get after Drew Brees, establish a strong running game, get Sidney Rice in single coverage, and contain Reggie Bush, they should be able to book their flight to Miami.