When the Saints travel to Minneapolis this upcoming Sunday Night to face the Vikings in their long-anticipated re-match of last year's NFC Divisional Playoffs, the focus will no doubt will be placed upon the New Orleans defensive secondary and how they are able to successfully (or unsuccessfully) manage to cover the Minnesota star WR duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Thielen is currently the NFL's #1 ranked WR in the entire League, with a whopping 67 receptions for 822 yards through Minnesota's first 7 games. As noted by ESPN,com Vikings beat writer Courtney Cronin: additionally, this past Sunday in the Vikings' 37-17 win at New York over the Jets, Thielen became the first player in the Super Bowl era to record 100 yards receiving in each of his team's first seven games.
The late Charley Hennigan is the only other player to achieve the feat, doing so for then Houston Oilers back in the the old AFL (American Football League) in 1961. Perhaps even more impressive: Thielen was regularly seeing double-coverage from Jets DB's Parry Nickerson and Jamal Adams, but he still broke free on nine catches for 110 yards and a touchdown.
A huge factor in Thielen's red-hot start has been the fact that whenever Thielen's teammate and fellow star WR Stefon Diggs has been shadowed by the opponent's #1 CB this season thus far, it's allowed Thielen the opportunity to maximize his match-up.
And it's that very same match-up that could cause even more nightmares for a Saints secondary that despite the team's successful (5-1) start to the season, hasn't always performed up to par in recent weeks. The Saints pass defense is currently ranked 30th out of the League's 32 teams.
It's unclear at the moment as to how just how the addition yesterday of newly-acquired Saints CB Eli Apple in the trade with the New York Giants will impact this particular game, and whether or not he will even see any action at Minnesota Sunday Night; or if the coaching staff will decide to keep him under wraps for now until Apple gets acclimated to the new scheme.
Regardless if Apple plays or not, given that Thielen operates mostly lined up at the slot position, it likely means that current starting Saints slot CB P.J. Williams will be the one to draw the one-on-one match-up with Thielen; along with some additional coverage help "over the top" from strong safety Vonn Bell.
While Williams has had his share of decent moments, he's also struggled at times — and there isn't any doubt that the Vikings and QB Kirk Cousins will look to throw directly at his way in Sunday Night's nationally-televised contest.
There's always the possibility that the Saints could bring starting #1 CB Marshon Lattimore a bit closer to the inside to help Williams "shadow" Thielen, but chances are that Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will want to keep Lattimore in man-coverage against Diggs.
From Allen's point of view, the plan likely is to simply "limit" the damage done by the Vikings superstar WR duo; since the reality is that it likely would be difficult to completely shut both of them down.
While the tandem certainly will put up some numbers in receiving yardage, the goal in this particular instance would be to keep them out of the endzone or at the very least, force them to settle for kicking a field goal.
In the two games (the 2017 Regular Season Opener last September and the Divisional Playoff game) that New Orleans played at Minnesota last year, Thielen and Diggs caused the Saints secondary an inordinate amount of grief because of their precision route-running; which consisted of either crossing patterns or deep posts against Allen's man-coverage.
It would come as a surprise if Minnesota didn't look to attack New Orleans in a similar fashion yet again Sunday Night; which in turn makes it all the more imperative for the Saints pass rush to have one of its best games of the season so far — or else this contest could become a "shootout".
There isn't any question that one of the main keys to success for New Orleans in this contest will be if the Saints defensive line can "bring the heat" against Cousins; who has put up some huge numbers in the passing game every time that he's faced the Saints when he still played for the Washington Redskins,
Cousins ironically faced the Saints last year in the Skins' 34-31 loss at the Superdome, in which he passed for passed for 322 yards and 3 TD's, finishing 22 of 32 with no interceptions.
It goes without saying that the Saints will need to bring some big-time pressure against Cousins in an attempt to not only get Cousins rattled and a bit "off" of his game; but to also to help provide some support for the constantly-evolving Saints secondary.
Thus far through the Vikings' first 7 games, Cousins has been solid if not spectacular, although he did struggle somewhat surprisingly last weekend in New York during Minnesota's 37-17 win on the road against the Jets.
Cousins has been sacked a total of 19 times in 7 games; and as noted by Minneapolis Star-Tribune writer Andrew Krammer, Cousins has quickly found out that the Minnesota O-Line isn't as good as the O-Line that protected him when he played for the Redskins.
As Krammer points out: Cousins’ average time before throwing with the Vikings is now 2.43 seconds, compared to his season averages of 2.52, 2.68 and 2.50 during his three seasons as Washington’s starter.
One thing that could work to the Saints defense's advantage is that Cousins in the past has had some issues with ball security, including a sack-strip-fumble last year by Vonn Bell in that same Saints win over the Redskins in the Superdome.
Earlier this season in Minnesota's 27-6 upset loss at home to Buffalo, Cousins fumbled 3 different times as the Vikings O-Line wilted under the constant pressure of the Bills defense; most notably Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff.
Reiff was pegged with a league-high 12 pressures allowed in that game, according to Pro Football Focus, as he struggled mightily with Bills edge rusher Jerry Hughes.
The Bills were aggressive in play and game plan, sending extra rushers on six of Cousins’ 17 dropbacks in the first half. Cousins completed 4 of 6 passes for a total of 14 yards on those plays.
Clearly if the Saints D-Line can perform this Sunday Night in a similar fashion to the Bills defense a few weeks ago, it could give Cousins a lot of heartache; although that's easier said than done.
Part of the reason why the Saints secondary has struggled is because of the at-times anemic Saints pass rush this season; which ranks 22nd overall in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, at 6.2%.
That's simply not going to get the job done against the Vikings passing attack; making it all the more imperative for Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to implement a solid game-plan for this one.
Bottom line: the Saints D-Line needs to "bring the heat" — or else Cousins and his two Vikings superstar WR's will have the New Orleans secondary right where they want them to be....