Of all the things you know about future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, the most debilitating should be he’s the NFL’s least-sacked and least-pressured quarterback, while throwing for an NFL-best 100 passer rating when pressured, at age 40 (according to Pro Football Focus).
For a Vikings defense that has pressured better than its covered at times this season, Sunday’s NFC wild-card game in New Orleans presents plenty of challenges. Among them is somehow pressuring the unflappable Brees, even with a premiere edge-rushing duo in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen.
“He reads things so quickly,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “He sees it and gets the ball to the quick plays. They have a bunch of varied things. They have the play actions. They have the quick throws. They have the screens and the bubbles and then they have their shots down the field on the play actions. Then they’ve got a big quick game. We’ll have to try to do our best.”
1. Even when the Saints can’t rely on a quick-passing game, and you’ve seemingly got Brees where you want him on third and long, he can find the hole in the defense.
Brees’ impeccable feel in the pocket, combined with a hyper-quick release and Sean Payton’s schemes, spearheaded the Saints’ top-five scoring offense for a fourth straight season.
The pocket presence really stands out on plays like this third-and-9 during the Saints’ 48-46 loss to San Francisco this month. The Vikings and 49ers both boast a strong four-man rush, finishing the season each with 48 sacks, and are well equipped to succeed in these situations — third and long, empty backfield and a 4-on-5 rush. After all, Brees needs *some* time to complete a 10-yard pass for a first down.
An initial problem on this play are the releases of receiver Ted Ginn (#19) and running back Alvin Kamara (#41). Kamara leans left into his whip route, and Ginn follows behind to prevent being pressed at the line. Another issue is the presence of receiver Michael Thomas (#13), who requires a safety over the top when bigger yardage is required. This leaves the corner, unable to press, isolated on Ginn with no help on the far side of the field.
Yet another problem is how Brees floats away from the pressure while keeping his eyes downfield and finding Ginn for the first down.
2. Did the Falcons show ways to slow the Saints?
During a 26-9 win in November, the Falcons became the only team to hold Brees under 10 points in the Superdome in his 14 years as a Saint. Three weeks later, Atlanta held the Saints to 184 passing yards in a 26-18 loss.
Brees has only been sacked 12 times in 10 full games this season; half of those came from the first meeting — the Falcons win. It was a master showing of interior pass rush by Grady Jarrett, who had 2.5 of the Falcons’ six sacks in a game the Saints lost left guard Andrus Peat to injury.
The Vikings will have a hard time replicating the interior pass-rushing success, because Peat is now playing and the Vikings don’t boast a talent like Jarrett on the inside. However, while it’s generally a bad idea to blitz Brees, the Falcons were able to generate pressure with the occasional, well-designed attack that is typical of Mike Zimmer’s Vikings.
On this third-and-5 play, the Falcons run a zone blitz dropping defensive end Vic Beasley (#44) into coverage and blitzing cornerback Isaiah Oliver (#26). Atlanta shows pressure with both linebackers over center (look familiar?).
Oliver (#26) times his rush perfectly behind an interior twist with one Falcons linebacker and a defensive tackle. The immediate hit prevents Brees from an accurate throw to either tight end Jared Cook (#87) or receiver Michael Thomas (#13). You don’t fool Brees very often, but this was a rare example where he didn’t see the blitz coming.
One noteworthy bit for the Vikings defense: Only the Jaguars were flagged more for holding penalties than the Saints offense this season. New Orleans had seven players with at least three holding calls, including both tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill.
3. The Falcons went as far as three-man rushes on obvious passing downs, which included this 4th-and-2 play near the end of the Saints’ 23-9 loss in November.
Atlanta runs a two-deep safety coverage rolled toward Thomas (#13). The Falcons’ underneath defenders focus heavily on the interior targets in Cook (#87) and Kamara out of the backfield, with the slot corner playing the initial receiver slant. Defensive lineman Jack Crawford (#95) drops into coverage and hits Cook, slowing him, while quick pressure is applied by a twist from Grady Jarrett (#97).
No, the Vikings don’t have Jarrett, but they’ve moved defensive end Everson Griffen inside to run stunts like this. Creative ways are needed to get pressure on Brees even with three- and four-man attacks.
4. The Vikings need a healthy Eric Kendricks on Sunday.
Kendricks is recovering from a left quad injury suffered against the Packers during the Dec. 23 loss. He was sidelined from practice before resting against the Bears, and it’s unclear his availability in New Orleans. The Vikings need him because of how well he’s played against receiving backs like Kamara, who caught 81 passes this season.
Kamara is a freak athlete who can win straight up, but the Saints also deploy him in many advantageous spots like well-designed screens or pre-snap motions like this third-and-goal below.
Kamara first motions out of the backfield to align wide right. He then begins an end-around motion before cutting it off at the snap and running to the flat. The recognition and speed of Falcons linebacker Deion Jones — not unlike Kendricks — helps lead to this sack.
5. Receiver Michael Thomas is bad news for a Vikings secondary that has surrendered 18 of its 23 passing touchdowns to receivers and gave up seven 100-yard games this season. The good news is only three of those touchdowns came after the Week 12 bye — and just one since the Dec. 2 defensive debacle in Seattle.
“We’ve been playing better,” Zimmer said. “We’re doing things better technically. We seem to be in the right place a lot more often than we were before, so we seem to be playing with more discipline. We’re going to keep staying on it, keep grinding this week.”
Thomas’ record-setting campaign included an NFL-record 149 catches, an NFL-leading 1,725 yards (7th-highest ever) and nine touchdowns.
This 49-yard catch illustrates the Brees-to-Thomas connection in one frustrating play, if you’re the defense.
Thomas (#13) lines up in the slot across from San Francisco’s K’Waun Williams, one of the NFL’s best slot defenders this year. Watch closely as Thomas takes a half step left before exploding right to get the inside. Then when Williams catches up to Thomas, Brees places a perfectly-thrown ball over him for the huge gain. If the defense drops a safety into the box on first down — like San Francisco does here — the Saints’ response is lethal.