September 10, 2010

Saints shut down Vikings in tough season opening win, 14-9

The Saints defense pitched a second half shutout as a low-scoring match was won by a hard-fighting Saints team.

What was billed as a thrilling, high-scoring grudge match turned out to be a battle of field position and ball control, an old-school game that started with a bang by the Saints offense and ended with a slow smothering of the Vikings defense.

The Saints jumped onto the Vikings with a high-firing offensive assault, opening the 2010 season with a perfectly-placed strike against the questionable, injured Vikings secondary with a 28-yard bolt over the middle to WR Marques Colston, who caught it in stride.  A strike over the middle of Lance Moore moved the chains again, then after a short incompletion, Reggie Bush patiently ran left side past blockers and lowered his shoulder into two tacklers. 

On 3rd and 2, Brees out of the shotgun scrambled right and found an improvising, deep-running Devery Henderson with a pass down the right sideline.  The 29 yard scoring pass was the first points of the NFL season on the first drive of the Saints' season, but was not a sign of what was to come Thursday night in the Superdome.

That five play, 77-yard, 1:56 drive was nothing like the remaining 58:04. 

Bush's eight yard rush on the first series would account for all but one of the Saints' first half rushing yards (9), and one third of the Saints rushing attempts in the first half.  The next thirteen plays by Brees and the offense were rushing plays, netting 47 yards and three first downs.

The Saints forced their only turnover of the game when pressure by a right side overload blitz forced Favre to throw a weak-armed strike over the middle.  MLB Jonathan Vilma stepped in front of Shaincoe for the easy interception to the Viking 29 with 2:27 left in the half.

But here at the end of the first half, the Saints tried to control the ball before halftime, and failed miserably. Twice, Pierre Thomas was sent into the left side of the offensive line and went no where, an incomplete pass on third down and a missed field goal later, the Saints had nothing to show but a single touchdown for first half dominance.  Hartley's 48-yard miss wasn't close and sailed wide left of the net, an uncharacteristic bungle by the Saints 8-for-8 clutch playoff placekicker.

Favre, who had found only three points in the first 28 minutes of the game, got the ball back after Hartley's miss with 1:19 left.  Favre moved the ball down the field and into the end zone with back-to-back deep strikes over the middle to TE Visanthe Shaincoe.  33-yard and 20-yard strikes past the Saints' secondary to the deceptively fast Shaincoe were enough to allow the Vikings to recover from a first half of domination and take a 9-7 lead.

DT Remi Ayodele blocked the extra point, salvaging a little momentum from the disappointing ending of the half.

The Saints entered the locker room down 9-7.  They didn't convert a single third down, in six attempts in the first half.  Thanks to Favre's 64-yard drive, fueled mostly by two passes to Shaincoe, the Vikings had outgained the Saints 188-149 yards.  The Saints had attempted three rushes in the first half, fewer than any team did in any half of the entire 2009 season.  And when they did try to rush at the end of the half, they were stuffed cold.

The Saints defense had been pinched by RB Adrian Peterson more than once, as Peterson ran through arm tackles and resisted the Saints' constant attempts to rip the ball free.  Half of Favre's 127 passing yards came inside the two minute warning on his only touchdown drive of the night, but the Saints secondary was beaten badly on two plays by Shaincoe.  The Saints didn't hit Favre often as the Vikings employed a short, quick passing game and a heavy dose of Peterson, who rushed for 57 of his 87 yards in the first half.

We're not sure what was said at halftime, but the Saints came out in the second half with the determination to run the ball down the Vikings' throats.  Pierre Thomas would get the job done, and Roman Harper would slam the door on Favre's passing connection to Shaincoe.

Shaincoe, who talked a big game during the offseason including a Twitter feud with FS Darren Sharper (did not play, on the PUP), was held without a catch on two passes thrown his way in the second half.  Roman Harper punctuated that squeeze with a beautifully-played batted-down shallow crossing pattern, one of the best plays against the pass that Harper has made in his career.

The Vikings only employed only one play action attempt, and it resulted in a sack by a hard-charging, nimble Sedrick Ellis, who collected the Saints' only sack of the game.  The Saints didn't batter Favre much at all on the night, clearly the Vikings game plan was built around avoiding the brutalization he suffered in January.

Pierre Thomas hit the ground running after the Vikings punted away the opening possession of the second half, the first of five second half punts by Kluwe.  Thomas carried the ball 17 times in the second half, netting 70 hard-fought yards including a one-yard plunge in the third quarter that turned out to be the game-winner.

That plunge capped an 11-play, 74 yard drive that took 6:43 off the clock.  48 of those yards were produced by Thomas, including the final 21 yards, when he caught a 15-yard swing pass then plunged for gains of five and one yards behind a determined offensive line.

The Saints scored touchdowns on their opening possessions of both halves, but it was enough to win the game.  14 points was the fewest ever scored in a Sean Payton Saints win.

Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter shut down the wide receivers of the Vikings, playing without injured receiver Sidney Rice. Speedster WR Percy Harvin caught only one of five passes thrown his way.  Shaincoe, Peterson and backup RB Albert Young caught nine of Favre's 15 completions.  Wide receivers Greg Camarillo, Greg Lewis, Bernard Berrian and Harvin each caught only one pass.

The rest of the third quarter was an exchange of three-and-outs, before in the fourth quarter the Saints embarked on a 5:29 drive that would end in a momentum-crushing turn of events.  The Saints were finally driving again, reading the Viking red zone behind the legs of Thomas and a first down strikes to Colston and Jeremy Shockey.  On third down from the 14, Robert Meachem couldn't reel in a catchable ball that grazed the fingertips of leaping defenders in the end zone.  On fourth down, Garrett Hartley missed a 32 yard field goal, his second miss of the night, matching the number of missed attempts in all of 2009.

Losing out on 7 and 3 points on successive plays, the Saints handed the ball back to Favre in what is usually a situation in which the veteran makes his opponent pay.  But a holding call on Phil Loadholt and back-to-back huge stops by CB Jabari Greer, including an open field takedown of Peterson for a three yard loss, stopped Favre at the Saint 44, and forced Kluwe's final punt with 5:40 left in the game.

Favre wouldn't see the field again.

Pierre Thomas' 10-yard spinning, bowling-over blast for a first down inside the two minute warning sealed the game.

It was a sneaky knockout punch, the Vikings even called their final timeout with 1:49 left.

Brees kneeled three times, and the game was over.

The Vikings played parts of the game without starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, forcing right tackle Loadholt to flip to the left side, and without starting center John Sullivan, who had been battling a calf injury.  That lack of continuity on the offensive line, plus the absence of timing with Sidney Rice, surely contributed to the Vikings' lack of production in the second half.

The Vikings ran for 30 yards and passed for 44 yards in the second half, a complete shutdown by the Saints' dominant defense.  The Saints' offense helped by controlling the ball for a whopping 21:07 in the final 30 minutes.  The Vikings found only two first downs in the second half, and ended all five drives with punts.

After the game, Garrett Hartley claimed full responsibility for both misses, insisting that the snap and hold was "great".

Payton reported no injuries in the game.  LB Anthony Waters bruised a thigh on special teams he should be fine.

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