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LET THEM EAT: Saints Pass Rush Takes Aim at Reshuffled Vikings O-Line

After putting up a grand total of 17 sacks in 4 games during the recently-completed 2017 NFL Pre-Season, it's probably safe to say that the New Orleans Saints defense -- specifically the Front 7 -- is feeling pretty good about themselves at the moment.

But with a road trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota to officially open the 2017 regular season now just days away, the thought of carrying that type of pass rush productivity over to the games that actually count is something they would like the whole world watching live on ESPN Monday Night Football, to see for themselves.

After this past weekend in which all 32 NFL teams were required to cut down to their Final 53-man rosters, the Saints defense suddenly might just get that very opportunity.

As Associated Press NFL writer Jon Krawczynski reported yesterday, the Minnesota Vikings' decision to cut former starting offensive right guard Alex Boone last weekend, now ensures that the Vikings will go into the Week #1 2017 NFL regular season opener against the Saints with 5 different players in the 5 starting positions.

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

The Vikings now are down to O-Lineman Joe Berger as the only "holdover" from their offensive line of a year ago, and he has moved from center to right guard.

''I feel good,'' Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said to Krawczynski and other reporters yesterday. ''I've sat in that room a lot and these guys have good conversation. They work good together and we've been mixing around the rotations quite a bit.''

If Zimmer is "feeling good" about the prospect of having a reshuffled O-Line play their first game together as a collective unit, then it's probably safe to say he's overly optimistic at best.

And in any event with Zimmer's optimism aside; the thought of going against a reshuffled O-Line for the Saints defensive Front 7 has to be an appealing one, to say the very least.

Krawczynski says that injuries and ineffectiveness on the offensive line were the two biggest problems for the Vikings offense last season.

Their inability to score in the red zone, sustain drives and avoid penalties contributed to the Vikings dominant defense (ranked #2 overall in 2016) getting "worn out" as the season went on, which directly caused Minnesota to miss the 2016 NFL Playoffs after an undefeated 5-0 start to their season.

While it's more than fair to say that Vikings starting QB Sam Bradford has to share in that blame for the Vikings collapse, the issues faced by the Vikings O-Line certainly didn't help matters any.

Bradford under center at QB for Minnesota in all their losses during the 2nd half of the 2016 season where the Vikings offense continually failed to convert key 3rd down situations; and struggled on a handful of game-ending 4th quarter offensive drives where he couldn't lead them to any points at all. 

Bradford is known to get rattled at times as well, and for Saints fans watching at home on Monday Night who are eager to see how the Saints defense -- the team's biggest and most glaring weakness for what has seemed like forever -- will fare after the impressive Pre-Season they've had, the idea that they'll get to do it against a revamped Vikings offensive line sure does potentially sound like a whole lot of fun.

Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press

However, it might not be much fun for the Vikings and their fans, if they aren't able to gel together quickly against a notably improved Saints defensive Front 7 from a year ago.

Upgrading up front was Minnesota's top team's biggest priority in the 2017 off-season. Vikings GM Rick Spielman signed new starting left tackle Riley Reiff and right tackle Mike Remmers in Free Agency, and then also drafted All-American Pat Elflein out of Ohio State in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

And instead of keeping Boone, whom the Vikings shelled out "big bucks" (4 years, $26.8 million) for in 2016 NFL Free Agency but who declined Spielman's request that he take a cut in pay this year, Spielman decided to take the $3.4 million 'hit' in guaranteed money and cut Boone anyway --- along with 2015 fourth-round draft choice T.J. Clemmings and 2016 fourth-round pick Willie Beavers in what Krawczynski says was a pretty dramatic "overhaul".

This Monday Night against the Saints, the Vikings will start Reiff at left tackle, Nick Easton at left guard, Elflein at center, Berger at right guard and Remmers at right tackle.

However --- NONE of them saw any action together in the Pre-Season, while Reiff recovered from a back injury and Boone switched sides and started at left guard.

As Krawczynski notes: out of all of the position groups throughout the entire NFL, chemistry is most important to the offensive line.

That's because ALL FIVE players have to not only understand their own assignments, but also have to know where their teammates are going to be to make things work.

It's unlikely though with with a rookie at center and only a few practices together thus far as a "starting 5", that they'll be as prepared for the game as they would really like to be.

Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

''I'm more than confident in all of the guys out there,'' Remmers told reporters yesterday ''We're going to go out there and we're going to fight. It's going to be a fun one.''

''Even just going against our defense every day in practice, it's the best look you can get,'' Elflein said. ''I feel like all of that has gotten me ready to play.''

They'll have to be ready for a Saints defense that seems to have gotten its collective act together this past off-season, after finishing 4 out of the last 5 seasons ranked near the bottom of the NFL.

It was evident just how improved they are from this time last year and definitely from the past several seasons, and it's something ("building" a new defense) that has been a priority for the Saints this off-season, under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

"That's just been building," Saints linebacker Craig Robertson told the media in the locker room after their Pre-Season win over the Los Angeles Chargers a few weeks ago, in a game where they recorded 8 sacks, an interception, 12 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for a loss, 6 passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery along the way, during a 13-7 win.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

"You're playing this game for a long time and as a kid, you start to realize guys start trying to have pressure and trying to force stuff. And you realize you just got to have fun, so that's what we've been trying to do."

"It's just a mentality," linebacker Mantai Te'o said. "We're trying to develop a culture of excellence, a culture of being perfect. It doesn't hurt to strive to be perfect. We understand that we're never going to be perfect, but why not strive to be?"

If the Saints defensive Front 7 is anything near perfect on Monday Night in Minneapolis, it could be the Vikings who will end up on the short end of things.

Even though it's a home game for Minnesota, Krawczynski says that the environment will be loud at U.S. Bank Stadium, because of the premise of playing a nationally-televised game on the NFL's regular season opening weekend --- which in turn will make communication an even bigger key for the Vikings offense.

Remmers told Krawczynski and other reporters yesterday that the Vikings O-Line group is making preparations to account for the noise, and Zimmer said he is watching them closely in team meetings to see how everything is coming together.

''I don't think the calls will be anything different, but it's just making sure everybody is on the same page,'' Zimmer said. ''No different than any other position really.''

Remmers, who is playing in his 5th NFL season, downplayed the narrative that's out there regarding the Minnesota O-Line's inexperience playing together as a starting unit; since Reiff is in his 6th NFL season, and Berger is a 13-year pro.

Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Additionally, Easton played in 11 games last year for the Vikings and had 5 starts total; so Remmers feels that all of that experience will be exactly what Minnesota will rely heavily upon early in the 2017 regular season, until the Vikings O-Line  gets the chance to develop some cohesiveness. 

''You've got to be ready for everything,'' Remmers said. ''We've been preparing for this moment for a while so we're all looking forward to it.''.

As of this moment, so are Saints fans and the Saints defensive Front 7 as well.

As the younger generation of folks like to say nowadays when ever an opportunity arises to be successful: "Let them eat".

If the Vikings reshuffled offensive line 'starting 5' is unable to protect Bradford from the improved Saints defense, it just might turn into an "all-you-can-eat" buffet.................

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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