The end of the Vikings’ 13-win regular season left a little to be desired for coach Mike Zimmer, with Drew Brees and the Saints now in the way of a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
“I think we were efficient offensively in the last three games,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think we were exactly explosive, so hopefully we can be a little bit more explosive. It may be one of those kinds of games.”
Big plays are a staple for these Saints, the NFL’s most explosive offense with 99 plays ending in gains of 20 or more yards. So the Vikings are figuring out ways to keep up without assuming a shutout by their own No. 1 defense.
Bigger steps are wanted from the Vikings’ 11th-ranked offense. They produced only five explosive plays in victories against the Packers and Bears to end the regular season. Could they pull something from the 29-19 Week 1 win against the Saints, when quarterback Sam Bradford and company lit up the scoreboard with deep passes resulting in nine plays of at least 20 yards?
Not unequivocally. The differences start at Vikings quarterback and continue with the Saints defense.
“They’re different from a personnel standpoint and different, like us, as a team who found their identity,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “They’ve got great cover guys and guys who can get after the passer as well. When you’re doing both, it makes it hard to throw the ball downfield.”
Since Bradford’s injury, the Vikings’ identity hasn’t really been the deep ball. Quarterback Case Keenum stepped in and won 12 games with an offense that settled into a rhythm through his precise timing and strong decision-making, as well as effective play designs creating space for their receivers and backs.
So big plays don’t necessarily mean the long ball. In the Week 15 victory against the Bengals, Keenum had six completions of at least 20 yards. Only one of those passes — a 20-yard touchdown to receiver Stefon Diggs — actually traveled that far past the line of scrimmage.
The rest were screens and route combinations that put receiver Adam Thielen and running back Jerick McKinnon, among others, in wide-open spaces for easier completions. McKinnon had a 41-yard catch and run against the Bengals. Thielen had a similar 21-yard burst.
Those plays dried up against the Packers and Bears, which is something Zimmer wants to change.
“We had a high percentage of completions,” Zimmer said. “But you want to get some big plays in there and we really didn’t generate big plays.”
Thielen (20 of 20-plus yards) and Diggs (14) lead the Vikings in big plays. The receiving duo torched the Saints the first time around, combining for six of the nine gains of at least 20 yards.
New Orleans’ defense has since matured with two rookies — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams — leading the Saints with five and four interceptions, respectively. New Orleans finished with a 10th-ranked scoring defense (20.4 points per game) creating havoc through 99 pass deflections (and 20 interceptions, ranking third).
In Week 1, however, the Vikings benefited from a Saints defense still trying to get on the same page every snap.
“Maybe one was a broken coverage,” Thielen said, “but other than that, it was just football.”
The Vikings “did a pretty good job protecting the quarterback,” Rudolph recalled, back in Week 1. Bradford was hit only twice while he lit up the Saints secondary.
“It doesn’t come from just one position,” Diggs said. “Big plays can come from O-linemen making huge blocks down the field or receivers making huge blocks down the field for running backs. If everybody is doing their job, it’s going to happen the way it’s supposed to.”