The Vikings entered Sunday night with a track record of struggling to cover underneath targets, particularly running backs. They watched as backs have broken off big plays including 56-yard catch and runs ranging from San Francisco’s Kyle Juszczyk to L.A.’s Todd Gurley.
One of the Saints’ primary weapons, running back Alvin Kamara, was primed to continue this trend. And he did in the first half, when Kamara took 11 touches for 59 yards and two touchdowns.
But head coach Mike Zimmer made a key adjustment for the Vikings at halftime, removing linebackers Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson from their assignments on Kamara in favor of faster defensive backs like Jayron Kearse and Harrison Smith. The results: Kamara took his nine touches in the second half for just 27 yards, including two catches for only five yards.
Of course, team-wide matchups will vary greatly depending on the opponent. But it’s a tactic the Vikings should consider deploying again, especially with Chicago’s Tarik Cohen (30 catches for 398 yards) and New England’s James White (55 catches for 459 yards) coming up on the schedule.
Below we’ll look at the Vikings’ defense on Kamara, and other relevant takeaways from the 30-20 loss to the Saints.
1. Pressure report: This was not a good protection game from a Vikings offensive line facing a Saints defense that had struggled to take down the quarterback in its first six games of 2018. The Saints doubled their sack average with four on Kirk Cousins. There was plenty of blame to go around. Guard Danny Isidora, making his second NFL start, was beat badly by Sheldon Rankins on an inside move for the first sack. Cousins failed to throw it away and nearly fumbled on the second sack, by Marcus Davenport. Center Pat Elflein was worked into the backfield by Rankins on the third sack. Davenport then beat Rashod Hill for the fourth sack.
Receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are so good at getting open, the Vikings can — and probably should more often — deploy 7-man protections like they did on Cousins’ 4th-goal touchdown to Diggs and his 14-yard connection to Thielen. But they moved away from those heavy protections later in the game, and rookie Brian O’Neill particularly struggled when he was left alone against Saints star Cameron Jordan.
On defense, the Vikings did not sack the quarterback for the first time since last year’s Week 13 win in Atlanta, a stretch spanning 13 games. The Saints rarely took the time to throw a deep ball with quarterback Drew Brees, whose 2.47-second average time before throwing was the seventh fastest among all quarterbacks in Week 8, according to PFF.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter’s streak of seven straight games with a sack came to an end against Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Hunter’s tackle of the Saints’ Taysom Hill was ruled a run stop, not a sack, at the end of the game. Hunter’s biggest impact came on third-and-goal. He pressured Brees, who shuffled left and missed a wide-open target in the end zone. The Saints would kick a field goal.
Defensive end Stephen Weatherly came the closest to a sack when he was unblocked on a Vikings blitz, leading to Brees’ overthrow and interception to safety Harrison Smith. It was Brees’ first interception since he was last in U.S. Bank Stadium in January.
2. Thielen and Diggs’ ability to shake defenders has best produced out of the slot, where the Vikings have gained the second-most yardage (694 yards) of any NFL receiving duo behind only Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd (792 yards), according to Pro Football Focus. That continued Sunday night when Thielen and Diggs combined for eight catches for 132 yards while starting routes from inside formations.
The duo made Sunday night an initial horror for Saints slot cornerback P.J. Williams, who was flagged twice for illegal contact including the 13-yard pass interference for grabbing Aldrick Robinson’s arm. The penalty set up Latavius Murray’s 1-yard touchdown leap. Thielen had the most impressive play against Williams with a 14-yard grab made behind the defender’s helmet. Diggs turned the slot corner around on a 31-yard grab that Williams had initially lined up to prevent the deep fade. But Diggs cut inside and still managed to get around the back of Williams to move the ball to the 1-yard line.
NFL’s WR duos with most slot yardage:
1. Cincinnati’s Green and Boyd: 792 yards
2. Minnesota’s Thielen and Diggs: 694 yards
3. L.A. Rams’ Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods: 648 yards
4. Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins: 529 yards
5. Baltimore’s Willie Snead and John Brown: 507 yards
Williams got his revenge with a hand in both critical turnovers. His helmet jarred the ball out of Thielen’s hands, leading to Marshon Lattimore’s 54-yard return and later a Saints touchdown. Williams also had the interception returned for a touchdown in the third quarter when Diggs and Cousins miscommunicated.
3. Anatomy of a play: As expected, Kamara was a nightmare matchup for Vikings linebackers Kendricks and Eric Wilson. So much so in the first half that head coach Mike Zimmer adjusted his coverage approach at halftime to deploy defensive backs on Kamara instead.
At the end of the Saints’ first drive, the Saints set up a simple foot race for Kamara (#41) to beat Wilson (#50) to the perimeter for the first touchdown.
The Vikings got little resistance from Kendricks, Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris on the play side with blocked out of the short touchdown run. Wilson, and probably most NFL linebackers, couldn’t win that race against Kamara.
Kamara got the best of Kendricks (#54) on the first play after Adam Thielen’s fumble just before halftime. Brees stared down Kamara the whole way on this option route out of the backfield, which he took 17 yards to the Vikings’ 1-yard line.
Watch below, where you’ll see Kendricks struggle to cover Kamara man-to-man out of the backfield.
So, after halftime the Vikings tweaked the coverages and put defensive backs on Kamara. The Saints’ lightning-quick running back was still able to beat safety Jayron Kearse for an 8-yard catch and run to convert third-and-3.
But the Vikings got the desired result on this play below. After running a lot of two-deep safety shell coverages in the first half, the Vikings defense played closer to the line of scrimmage in the second half. You’ll see all 11 Vikings defenders in the frame below, including Smith (#22) and Harris (#41) both just seven yards back. As the play clock ticks, Smith rolls hard toward the line and covers Kamara on the screen to turn it into a 3-yard loss.
Kamara is an undesirable matchup for almost any NFL defender, but the Vikings’ halftime adjustments helped.
Kamara’s first half: 11 touches, 59 yards, two touchdowns
Kamara’s second half: 9 touches, 27 yards
4. Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph had varying impacts in their returns. Joseph made his presence felt immediately, showing off his power to beat an inside zone block for a run stop on the game’s first play — a 3-yard gain by Kamara. Joseph was the Vikings’ best defender on the field, finishing with six tackles (two for a loss) and a hit on Brees. His quick reaction time on a Kamara screen led to a 5-yard loss, derailing a Saints drive in the first quarter.
Griffen had some rust to knock loose. He was flagged twice, including an early jump to gift a first down on third-and-1. He and rookie cornerback Holton Hill were also beat to the perimeter on an 11-yard run by Mark Ingram at the end of the game, when the Vikings needed a quick stop down two scores with 4:26 left. Griffen didn’t seem to have the same burst to the perimeter or in his pass rush, which is understandable given his quick return from a five-week absence.
5. Some curious time management decisions came from Zimmer and Cousins. After Thielen’s fumble and the Saints’ quick score before halftime, Zimmer chose to sit on the ball with 30 seconds left and two timeouts instead of taking shots to get into field goal range while trailing 17-13. Zimmer acknowledged afterward that Thielen’s fumble factored into his decision to not push the ball downfield before halftime.
The Vikings also burned nearly 90 seconds off the clock between a 1st-and-goal at the Saints’ 6-yard line through a 4th-and-goal touchdown throw to Thielen to cut the deficit to 30-20. On three plays with the clock running, Cousins hiked the ball with :07, :11 and :15 seconds left on the play clock, displaying a lack of urgency toward the end of the game.