Mitchell Trubisky didn’t stand a chance.
Three guys down on the line. Three guys up. Even the initial picture the Minnesota Vikings created was murky. Pressure could've been coming from anywhere. Then, when the Chicago Bears snapped the ball on a critical third down, the view again changed for the offensive line.
The guy standing outside of the defensive end stunted inside and attacked the “A” gap (between the guard and center). The guy in the other “A” gap dropped into a zone. Five guys rushed, and the protection surprisingly picked it up, with a running back on the blitzer who stunted into the gap between the guard and center.
But it wasn't enough. Trubisky stepped up in the pocket and was quickly sacked.
There are more exotic examples, but this is one of the hallmarks of Mike Zimmer’s defense. The Vikings coach likes to keep offenses guessing and make things as difficult as possible on the pass protection.
“They bring a lot of guys up to the line of scrimmage, so it puts stress on the quarterback trying to decipher who is coming and who is not,” said tackle Terron Armstead, one of the Saints offensive linemen who will face a strong, tricky Vikings defense at 3:40 p.m. Sunday in the NFC divisional playoffs in Minneapolis.
“(There's) stress on the O-line passing off this person or that person. Schematically, they have some things that work to their advantage, and they have the personnel to execute it.”
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The personnel and scheme have come together to help Minnesota form the NFL’s top defense in yards (275.9) and points (15.8) allowed per game. But where the efficiency has really shown up is on third downs. The Vikings have only allowed teams to convert on 25.2 percent of attempts, which doesn’t bode well for a New Orleans team that has made good on only 37.6 percent of its third downs.
The stats tell the story, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Saints haven't seen any real weaknesses in Minnesota’s third-down package. "Organized" and "focused" were two terms often used to describe the Vikings in this area.
It also helps that Minnesota has a talented front seven and a scheme that puts it to use, and a secondary, headlined by cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith, that doesn’t surrender much.
So, in other words, with a stout front seven and players who can cover, quarterbacks often have to make quick decisions and can’t find open targets.
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“Zim’s coached that package for a long time now and created havoc with people,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Now all of a sudden you have Pro Bowl safeties, Pro Bowl corners, you have a pass rush, and it’s pretty much the formula when you talk about a great defense. It’s the talent. It’s the coaching. All those facets.”
This week will put the New Orleans’ depth on the offensive line to test. The team has cycled through players on the line all season because of injuries, and it hasn’t been an issue throughout the season.
But the Vikings will put that to the test.
One of the things Minnesota likes to do is blitz the gaps between the guard and center. That could be an issue this week considering that New Orleans will be without left guard Andrus Peat, who landed on injured reserve after suffering a broken fibula against the Carolina Panthers. Senio Kelemete will start in his place.
Plugging holes on the line is not a new issue for the Saints. Kelemete has played 60 percent of the snaps this season and performed as well as anyone else on the line. His teammates voiced confidence in his ability to handle the job this week. But this is the week you’d like to be at full strength, not the other way around.
The Saints feel like they have a good grasp on what the Vikings will try to accomplish. The offensive line would have liked a stronger performance in a 29-19 loss to Minnesota in Week 1, but the line only allowed seven pressures, which isn't bad.
That number was exceeded in several other games, though the overall performance looks worse considering New Orleans only rushed for 59 yards.
“(They have) a lot of stuff installed all the time, and it’s well-known,” guard Larry Warford said. “They do a lot of junk to mess with the O-line and backs, and we just have to prepare the way we prepare this whole week.”
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The Saints know third down has been an issue of theirs all season. They’ve tried to find ways to fix it. The team hit on a couple big third downs during last week’s wild-card win over the Panthers, but those two were the only good ones out of eight attempts. At some point, it has to get better.
It’s impossible to avoid third down altogether. But it’s about every down. And against a defense this good, every one of them is going to be a fight.
“Every play is that important and (every) yard, and every inch is that important to get yourself in a third-and-manageable situation,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “To be able to move the chains.”
The Saints' goal is to leave the game making sure no one can say they never stood a chance.
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