NEW ORLEANS – The Vikings had the second-worst third-down defense in the NFL’s 12-team playoff field and were missing their top two slot corners heading into the loudest stadium in sports to face future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and his .790 completion percentage on third downs.
So what happened in the third-down tussle between Brees and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s allegedly outmanned, overmatched mutts on the other side of the ball?
Brees was dominated. He threw for 17 yards on third down. He averaged 3.4 yards with two first downs on 5-for-7 passing. He was sacked by Everson Griffen on third-and-goal at the 4 after an opening-drive fumble by Adam Thielen. And he was intercepted by Anthony Harris on a deep ball on third-and-6 near the end of the first half.
Vikings 26, Saints 20 in overtime. The NFC’s sixth seed upset the 13-win third seed and heads to San Francisco to face the top seed.
So, Everson, what in the heck happened on third down?
“Just giving them different looks,” Griffen said.
You can say that again.
For starters, Zimmer pulled the surprise of the season by trusting Andrew Sendejo, a safety whose strength is not inside agility and speed, to man the slot corner position when the presumed fill-in candidates were safety Jayron Kearse and rookie corner Kris Boyd.
After some early bumps, the Vikings made it work. Just as Zimmer said they would after announcing Friday that Mackensie Alexander was out for the game and Mike Hughes for the season.
Sendejo wasn’t a glaring weakness and he had an excellent pass defense on a deep ball.
Anything else, Everson?
“Putting me and Danielle [Hunter] inside,” he said.
That was a twist the Saints clearly didn’t see coming. In many passing situations, the Vikings moved Hunter and Griffen to tackle and used Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo outside.
Hunter and Griffen each had 1½ sacks. Hunter’s full sack came with a strip that the Vikings recovered when the Saints had the ball at the Vikings 20 with 4:18 left and down three points.
“I came through and Brees was right there,” Hunter said. “I knew when he’s going down, he’s always [got the ball out] trying to throw the ball to someone.”
Zimmer called the defensive line moves “a scheme thing.” Clearly, he wanted his best pass rushers going against guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford rather than tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. Ramczyk just made first-team All-Pro, while Peat is one of Pro Football Focus’ lowest-ranked guards.
“It’s always nice when you do something and it works,” Zimmer said. “It doesn’t always work, but you have to try it.”
Griffen set the tone early. The Saints’ first three possessions ended with Griffen getting a sack and two more third-down pressures.
“Just bringing pressures,” Griffen said. “Just doing our job. Never panicking and staying in tune to the play call and then going out and dominate.”
The pressure up front took a lot of the pressure off Sendejo having to play wildly out of position.
“We were pretty shorthanded in the secondary,” Zimmer said. “So we had to mix up some coverages a little bit. We had some pressures in there. Change up a couple times, but we did not give them a big dose of anything today.”
Zimmer said Sendejo “competed his rear end off” and that “having three safeties out there was OK.”
Especially when one of them, Harris, made another incredibly athletic interception — his seventh of the season — on a deep ball.
“It was being aggressive, playing my coverage, getting a good break and just not being satisfied with just the pass breakup,” said Harris, whose play helped hold the Saints to a 36% success rate (4-for-11) on third down.
Not bad for a defense that ranked 19th in third-down conversions (39.72%) this season.
“If you look at the plays we made,” said All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks, “it’s just playing winning football on third down.”