Beating the Saints' pressure

Brett Favre had more success throwing the ball in last season's NFC Championship Game when the Saints brought additional pressure. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- We've had our fun discussing late hits, cheap shots and payback. We've heard Brett Favre say the beating "didn't really hurt," listened to the New Orleans Saints brashly plot a repeat performance and wondered if the Minnesota Vikings have adequately fortified their quarterback depth.

I hope you've enjoyed it. Because now it's time to drop the drama and recognize a secret nearly hidden in the 2009 NFC Championship Game: The Vikings handled the Saints' aggressive blitz schemes significantly better than they did the four-man pass rush. Ultimately and ironically, Minnesota took the Saints out of their high-energy pressure and forced them into a more traditional scheme by the end of the game.

"The pressures?" Favre said this week. "We handled them pretty well."

Close your eyes and start your internal video. Dial up the final play of the Vikings' first possession. Saints safety Darren Sharper charged the left side of the offensive line just as Adrian Peterson took a handoff. Peterson juked Sharper (with the help of a Jim Kleinsasser block), burst into the secondary and galloped 19 yards untouched into the end zone.

Now recall the two first-half plays when Sharper came on a "zero blitz" that in essence ensured he wouldn't be blocked. On the first, Favre spotted receiver Percy Harvin over the middle and rifled the ball just before Sharper arrived, completing a 20-yard play to convert a third down. On the second, Favre found receiver Bernard Berrian on the right sideline for 13 yards and another successful third-down play.

After Berrian's reception, Favre said, "we didn't see that blitz anymore."

It's true that the Saints transitioned to some blitz schemes later in the game. Without question, their pressure impacted the outcome and figures to play an important role Thursday night at the Superdome. And we can't forget that the Vikings' offense remains in flux after a summer-long string of injuries, late arrivals and health emergencies.

But believe me when I tell you the Vikings are drawing great confidence from their performance last January, one that netted 475 total yards and was ultimately felled by turnovers rather than an inability to handle pressure or move the ball.

"We feel like we have playmakers outside," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, "and if we can hold up long enough inside and block them up to give Brett enough time to get it out there we'll make big plays. I think it showed itself in that game. We were still able to make plays even when they had a free rusher.

"Yes, we kind of take it as a challenge. We want to block them up, and we want to be able to make them pay for it when they do it. Most of the time when you make them pay, you run them right out of it. They say, 'We better think twice about doing that.' And that's what we have the ability to do."

Indeed, the reality is that good offenses embrace and invite the type of defense the Saints play, knowing that if their quarterback can release the ball quickly enough, the numbers will dictate favorable matchups downfield. Consider the chart accompanying this post, which spells out Favre's performance against the Saints' blitz compared to their standard four-man pass rush.

The Saints' most effective move that night, Favre said, was to pull back the pressure during key points of the second half. The resulting coverage numbers led to both of Favre's interceptions, including the fourth-quarter pass snatched by cornerback Tracy Porter that turned the Vikings away from a potential game-winning field goal.

"In a roundabout sort of way, that's kind of the beauty of that defense," Favre said. "You get so caught up in pressures, blitzes, things like that, that your time clock speeds up. What do you do now? Take a deep breath. That's obviously easier said than done."

So what does all of this mean for Thursday night? Favre, Bevell and coach Brad Childress have all gone out of their way to depict the offense as a work in progress following Favre's post-camp arrival, Harvin's bouts with migraine headaches, Sidney Rice's hip surgery and center John Sullivan's calf injury. Rice will miss the first half of the season, and as of Tuesday, it's not clear whether Sullivan or backup Jon Cooper -- or even left guard Anthony Herrera -- will be holding down the middle of the line.

But we'll soon find out if the Vikings are justified in drawing confidence from their January performance or if their offense is too unfinished to handle this type of defense. With Peterson, Harvin, Berrian and Visanthe Shiancoe still on the field, the Vikings have enough weapons to capitalize on pressure. But Childress warned that the Vikings are "not by any stretch" close to where they were by the end of last season.

That dynamic would seem to put a premium on Peterson controlling the game on the ground. Remember, Peterson's 122-yard performance in January was his best over the final 2 1/2 months of the season. But given the Saints' own explosive offense, it's hard to imagine the Vikings winning without getting a significant contribution from their passing game.

Which brings us back, as always, to Favre and the reason the Vikings so desperately pursued him this offseason. Success against pressure ultimately comes down to a quarterback's ability to identify the open area, release the ball quickly and absorb the inevitable hit that follows. That's how Favre amassed 310 passing yards in January, and it's the type of elite play the Vikings will need to win Thursday.

Missing from this analysis is a simple but still-overlooked fact: Like the Vikings, the Saints' defense is also in its own transition. Sharper won't play because of a knee injury and their linebackers have been shuffled all summer. That's why it's hard, from a clinical sense, to go along with the prevailing theory that the Vikings are overmatched in this game.

We know both teams have a road map for how they plan to win. The evidence is all there on that 8-month-old video. But the unpredictability of the NFL's Week 1 means we should probably leave it the way Favre did the other day. "Who knows what will happen in this game -- either way," he said.