Welcome back, “Monday Night Football 2017-18.” Oh how we’ve missed you. From Jon Gruden’s smoothie operation to the football itself, we’ve longed for you like a Stark longs for a family reunion. Finally, you’ve made it back home and retaken your rightful place above the battlefield.
To welcome us back to “Monday Night Football,” two matchups await this week, with the Vikings hosting the Saints and the Broncos hosting the Chargers. This preview will focus on the Saints-Vikings matchup, and you can find Jared Dubin’s breakdown of Chargers-Broncos here.
In the lead-up to the game, new Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who spent the first decade of his career running through defenders in Minnesota, admitted he wants to “stick it” to his former team. Unfortunately for Peterson, I just don’t see that happening. For reasons I’ll get to below, I’m taking the Vikings in this season’s first installment of “Monday Night Football.”
The prediction: Vikings 24, Saints 21
Kickoff: Sept. 11, 7:10 p.m.
TV: ESPN (Check local listings)
1. Home Brees vs. Road Brees
Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game. But he isn’t the same quarterback on the road. That’s not to say Brees has been bad on the road. He just isn’t superhuman away from the Superdome
Alleviating Brees’ road woes is the fact that the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium is covered by a roof (just ask the birds). In Brees’ career, he has posted a 102.5 passer rating in domes while his rating drops to 90.3 outdoors and 91.0 in stadiums with retractable roofs. Brees will be indoors Monday night. That matters.
But there’s another reason why Brees may struggle in this game.
2. The Vikings’ dominant secondary
The Vikings boast one of the league’s best defenses, specifically because their secondary is downright dominant. That secondary should be able to handle the Saints’ high-flying aerial attack, which is led by Brees and receiver Michael Thomas.
First up is the Vikings’ 27-year-old cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who snagged five interceptions in 14 games last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes allowed an NFL-low 47.0 passer rating in coverage.
Fifth on that list — one spot ahead of Richard Sherman — was Terence Newman, who allowed a 62.0 passer rating. Newman, 39, only totaled one interception last season, which is why he’s often overlooked as one of the game’s best corners. But he shouldn’t be overlooked. He deserves praise, especially considering his age.
Together, Rhodes and Newman surrendered 65 receptions on 131 targets (49.6 percent) for 674 yards (5.1 YPA) with three touchdowns, and six interceptions, per PFF. You won’t find a better cornerback duo, statistically speaking.
It’s worth noting, that Newman isn’t even the Vikings’ second cornerback. That role belongs to the younger, but much more inconsistent Trae Waynes, who is listed ahead of Newman on the depth chart. Last season, Waynes racked up three interceptions and allowed four touchdowns and a 77.4 passer rating in coverage, according to PFF. Those aren’t bad numbers — his passer rating in coverage ranked 18th among all cornerbacks — but it’s impossible to know which version of Waynes the Vikings will get Monday night.
Waynes remains the Vikings’ biggest question mark heading into the season and this game. If Waynes is at his worst, Brees will carve him up.
And then there’s Tramaine Brock, who landed with the Vikings last week via trade from the Seahawks. In 2016, Brock picked off only one pass with the 49ers, but he was PFF’s 21st highest-graded cornerback. Unfortunately, Brock is questionable for Monday night’s game with a groin injury.
Even if he can’t play, the Vikings are well equipped to prevent Brees from popping off. I didn’t even mention Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who finished last year as PFF’s 12th-best safety. There’s a reason why the Vikings gave up the third-fewest passing yards last year and, according to Football Outsiders, featured the eighth-best passing defense. That reason is Mike Zimmer and the talented players he gets to coach up.
3. Peterson won’t get personal revenge
The natural response to the previous section may be to point toward Peterson and Mark Ingram. Can’t the Saints lean on their running game?
It’s true that the Vikings are worse at defending the run than the pass. But they’re not awful, just average. A year ago, they ranked 20th in rushing yards allowed, 17th in yards allowed per carry, and 16th by Football Outsiders’ metrics.
Still, the idea persists. Why don’t the Saints go run-heavy instead of testing the Vikings’ proven secondary? They probably won’t because that’s not what Sean Payton does. The Saints ranked 19th in rushing attempts last season, 20th in 2015, 19th in 2014, 26th in 2013, 29th in 2012, and — you get the point. Meanwhile, they ranked second in pass attempts last season, second in 2015, second in 2014, fourth in 2013, second in 2012, and — again, you get the point.
Part of that is because of to the Saints’ horrific defense, but it also has to do with Payton having Drew freakin’ Brees to throw the ball. And to no one’s surprise, they’re damn good at throwing the ball around. Last season, they finished fifth in yards per attempt and tied for the second-most passing touchdowns.
Even if the Saints opt for a more balanced approach on Monday night, it’d be surprising to see Peterson “stick it” to his former team. For one, he’s 32 years old and coming off a serious knee injury. Two, he’s in a crowded backfield with the incumbent, Mark Ingram, and the flashy rookie, Alvin Kamara. Ingram and Peterson are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, so expect them to take on similarly sized workloads.
The over/under for Peterson’s rushing output in this game is set at 54.5 yards. I’d take the under considering the last time we saw Peterson he was averaging 1.9 yards per carry and the next time we see him he’ll be splitting carries with Ingram. Now, if he were facing a defense similar to his own, I’d be more optimistic. But he’s not.
4. About that Saints defense
The Saints’ defense is not the Vikings’ defense. They’re on the other end of the spectrum.
Last season, they allowed the sixth-most yards and the second-most points in football. They were the second-worst defense by DVOA. Things aren’t going to get better in 2017. To remedy the problem, the Saints went out and drafted cornerback Marshon Lattimore with the 11th overall pick. Lattimore may be the best rookie cornerback and he may be a great player eventually, but expecting one player — one rookie — to fix the catastrophe that is the Saints’ defense is asking far too much.
Yes, I’m also aware that Saints brought in linebacker Manti Te’o, but I’m choosing to ignore that signing because Te’o is coming off a torn Achilles and he wasn’t any good before suffering that injury. They also signed linebacker A.J. Klein, but Klein has never started more than eight games in a season.
Keep in mind that the Saints lost defensive lineman Nick Fairley for the season because of an unfortunate heart issue. That’s not their fault or Fairley’s, but his absence will be felt on the field.
This perpetually awful Saints defense will be awful again. It’ll begin Monday night.
5. Stop with the Sam Bradford bashing
And so, Bradford is going to experience a successful outing. That’s largely because of the Saints defense being stuck in a permanent state of ineptitude and also because of Bradford’s ability as an NFL quarterback.
Let’s stop with the Bradford bashing. He’s not the awful quarterback he’s made out to be. In his first season with the Vikings, he set an NFL record with a 71.6 completion percentage. The common response to that stat is that he completed all of those passes because he’s a dink-and-dunk quarterback. That’s not necessarily false, but to put his style of play into context, his 7.02 yards per attempt ranked 19th in the NFL. Derek Carr, an alleged gunslinger, averaged 0.01 more yards per attempt than Bradford.
Furthermore, even though Bradford doesn’t go deep often, when he does, he’s unstoppable. According to PFF, Bradford accumulated the third-highest passer rating (121.5) on passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Only Matt Ryan and Tom Brady were better in that department.
Bradford also compiled a 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and generated a 99.3 passer rating, which ranked one spot behind Brees’ passer rating. He did all of that despite getting sacked 37 times or, put another way, he averaged a sack on 18.8 percent of his dropbacks (tied for the sixth-highest sack rate, per PFF). He overcame that by the league’s second-highest passer rating under pressure, according to PFF.
No one is saying Bradford is on the same level as Brees, but he’s a solid quarterback when healthy, a quarterback who gives his team a chance to win.
Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar, who knows more about football than I ever will, agrees. In his weekly quarterback rankings for Bleacher Report, Farrar ranked Bradford as the sixth-best quarterback. Here’s why:
And that’s the real story of Bradford’s 2016—he learned a different system and was entirely efficient despite perhaps the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the league. Bradford is able to do this because of his great accuracy, and that starts with his mechanics—he steps into throws with efficient motion, and he also throws with the sense of anticipation that will allow his receivers to move into defined openings. That sense of timing elevates him in to the NFL’s top level at the position. Only Aaron Rodgers had a better quarterback rating under pressure last season than Bradford’s 87.7, and with the Vikings upgrading their offensive line a bit in the offseason, that should help a bit.
Bradford and the Vikings’ offense drew a favorable matchup to kickoff their season. Look for Minnesota — with rookie Dalvin Cook playing a big role too — to exploit that matchup.