As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with the Saints at Mall of America Field, we asked Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times Picayune, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report on New Orleans. Here are four things you need to know …
1) Drew Brees has been so great so often, the fans and media in New Orleans have simply come to expect brilliance week after week.
Brees’ regular-season numbers in his six seasons in New Orleans: a .676 completion percentage, an average of 296.5 passing yards per game, 187 touchdown passes in 92 games.
“He’s been good from the minute he got here in 2006,” Triplett said. “And I assume he’s gradually gotten better over that time. But we’re just so used to it.”
Look, Brees has been a star for a long time. And yet this year, he’s dialed in more than he’s ever been. His .709 completion percentage leads the NFL and is also a career-best. He’s also thrown for a league-best 4,368 yards through 13 games, on pace to shatter Dan Marino’s single-season record
of 5,084 yards.
Brees has also cut back on his mistakes; he has 11 interceptions through 13 games this year after throwing a career-worst 22 picks a year ago.
“Last year, I think at times he was pressing and trying to do a little too much when they didn’t have much of a run game,” Triplett said. “Now they’re just so balanced. They still pass a majority of the time. But there’s more of a running threat that Brees seems to have settled right back into the same comfort zone he was in during the Super Bowl season.”
2) Yes, tight end Jimmy Graham is all that and more.
Can you say diamond in the rough? Graham was a basketball player at the University of Miami and played only one season for the Hurricanes on the gridiron, making 17 catches for 213 yards and five touchdowns in 2009.
Now? He’s an elite NFL pass catcher on his way to the Pro Bowl with 80 receptions this season for 1,101 yards and eight scores. Yes, Graham owes a lot of his success to Brees and offensive mastermind Sean Payton. Brees, don’t forget, developed similar chemistry with converted basketball player Antonio Gates during his final two seasons in San Diego. Payton, meanwhile, spent three seasons molding Jason Witten into a difference-maker during his time as Dallas’ offensive coordinator.
Said Triplett: “This offense is so dynamic and so diverse that they’ll throw to anybody’s that open. They work the middle of the field. They hit quick slants, swing passes. And for years I’ve thought, ‘Man, if they had a legitimate, stud tight end in this offense, he could just put up monster numbers.’ Now we’re seeing it.”
Graham’s ability to get in synch with Brees has been marvelous.
“We saw it in the early mini-camps and in training camp when he was a rookie,” Triplett said. “Graham would just go down the seam and linebackers didn’t stand a chance. He’s so athletic he makes awkward catches and consistently goes up and gets it.”
One last trivia note: Graham and Darren Sproles have combined for 154 receptions this season and neither was on the Saints’ Super Bowl team of two years ago.
3) The Saints lost to the Rams this season.
“It was baffling as it was happening too,” Triplett said.
How did that happen? The Saints allowed six sacks and rushed for only 56 yards. The Rams scored 14 points late in the first half, getting a Steven Jackson touchdown run and a Brandon Lloys touchdown catch within 53 seconds of each other to take a 17-0 halftime lead. The Saints never recovered.
That’s one small sign of hope for the Vikings, who are currently seven-point underdogs.
On top of that, the Saints remember the sting of last season when surprising home losses to Cleveland and Tampa Bay cost them the NFC South title. They also dropped their playoff opener to a 7-9 Seahawks squad.
“Not that the Saints fear the harmless opponent,” Triplett said. “But I don’t think they’re going to take this game for granted or take anything casually.”
4) Defensively, New Orleans could use a much more consistent pass rush if they are to become a serious threat to win the NFC.
On the way to winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Saints’ defense was opportunistic, coming up with 45 takeaways and scoring seven defensive touchdowns during the regular season. This season, New Orleans has forced 12 turnovers with only two defensive TDs. The Saints have also failed to generate a consistent pass rush; their 27 sacks rank 20th in the NFL.
Yes, there are reliable veteran playmakers all over – from defensive end Will Smith to linebacker Jonathan Vilma, from cornerback Jabari Greer to safety Roman Harper. That gives the Saints much-needed confidence.
“But the one thing they’re lacking most is a bona fide pass rush,” Triplett said. “Even with them blitzing as much as they do, they get a lot of hits and hurries on quarterbacks but not a ton of sacks. And they’re not forcing nearly enough turnovers.”