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Can Mike Zimmer’s Defense Keep Drew Brees in Check?

Can Mike Zimmer’s Defense Keep Drew Brees in Check?

Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Luke Inman contributed video to this story.
Photo Credit: Brian Curski

Three times over the previous three seasons, head coach Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings have hosted Drew Brees and walked away feeling good about their performance against the 13-time Pro Bowler. The Vikings won two of those games, and in the game they lost the Vikings held Brees to a 13-year low in passing yards.

The future Hall of Fame quarterback is now north of 40 years old, playing as well as he’s ever played and preparing to face the Vikings on his own turf — against a defense that’s no longer as formidable as it’s been the past several years.

The Vikings’ road map to victory isn’t without obstacles, but the clearest route hinges upon slowing Brees, who’s thrown 22 touchdowns and one interception over the past seven games, tossing three or more touchdowns in six of those.

“He’s moving well in the pocket,” Zimmer said. “He’s not a runner, but he moves well in the pocket when he gets pressure, goes to the side. He knows where the check downs are, and he’s very accurate. His completion percentage because of those things I think is extremely high.”

Back in 2014, Zimmer made one of his first strong impressions as an elite defensive coach when the Vikings held Brees and the Saints to 20 points in a 20-9 loss at the Superdome, their only regular season game there in Zimmer’s tenure. After a three-year break they met again to kick off the 2017 season and held the Saints to four field goals until a meaningless last-minute touchdown drive. Vikings 29, Saints 19.

Later that season, Brees was tremendous in the second half of the NFC Divisional playoff game, which will forever be overshadowed by a little play dubbed the Minneapolis Miracle. But Brees was also neutralized in the first half of that game as he threw two interceptions en route to a 17-0 halftime deficit.

“Yeah, he underthrew one,” Zimmer said of Brees’ first half. “We played pretty good in the red zone. There were several things that happened there. We’re going to have to play like that again.”

And then there was the 2018 meeting where the Vikings self-destructed with a pair of costly turnovers, including a pick six, that led to 14 New Orleans points. Brees relied on his running game in the second half but was a non-factor through the air while the Saints won 30-20.

The reality is, though, that most quarterbacks look subpar at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the noise can play a factor in an opponents’ communication. Only five quarterbacks in 33 regular season or playoff games at U.S. Bank stadium have come out with a passer rating over 100.

In their last three games against Brees, the Vikings held the Saints to just 35% success on third down (10 of 29), a respectable effort that is still higher than the Vikings’ usual allowance rate at home. Since opening U.S. Bank Stadium, they are the only team in football to allow a third-down conversion rate below 30%.

But historical greatness can’t last forever, and this year the Vikings’ third-down defense has dropped off. After finishing first the last two seasons, Minnesota dropped to 19th in 2019, and they have the sixth-worst third-down defense on the road, allowing 44.6% — symptoms, perhaps, of overall defensive decline.

“We’re getting a lot of different things on third down,” Zimmer said. “Some of it is we’ve been making mistakes. Some of it they’ve had good scheme. Some of it we’ve been getting beat one on one, so we’ll just keep fighting our rear ends off try to get off. Would help if we weren’t in third-and-threes a lot, too.”

Zimmer’s final addendum isn’t without significance. The Vikings’ third-down defense faces a to-go distance of 6.5 yards, the second-shortest in the NFL. They have faced 71 third downs between one and three yards, the most in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the Saints are fifth-best in the league at home on third down with the third-shortest to-go distance.

Third-down stats are fairly indicative of a playoff game’s result. Teams that have completed 50% of more of third downs have gone 25-6 since 2014. Teams that convert 30% or less have gone 10-23.

“I think the biggest challenge for all quarterbacks on third down is getting everyone on the same page relative to the protection because this is the down where you see some different looks,”  Saints coach Sean Payton said on a conference call. “Mike [Zimmer] and the defense for Minnesota gives you a ton of challenges with their double-A gap mug with the linebackers, their edge pressure either with the nickel or with the strong safety, so they force you on third down to have a plan for four, five, six, seven defensive looks, aside from just your route plan.”

Keeping the Saints off schedule on earlier downs will be key, which could mean being more aggressive with the first- and second-down pass rush, as they showed on this first down in the playoffs back in 2017. The Vikings blitzed Brees 16 times in that playoff game as Brees was sacked twice but also threw two touchdowns against the extra pressure.

Blitzing Brees is risky, though. Brees has the league’s highest adjusted completion percentage (83.1) and top passer rating (100.0) when facing pressure this year, per Pro Football Focus.

Counterpoint: Brees was also the league’s top pressured passer in 2017, and Zimmer didn’t seem hesitant to blitz in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean, however, the Vikings don’t respect what Brees can do.

“It’s hard to trick him because he reads things so quickly,” Zimmer said. “He sees it and gets the ball to the quick plays. They have a bunch of varied things. They have the play-actions. They have the quick throws. They have the screens and the bubbles and then they have their shots down the field on the play-actions. Then they’ve got a big quick game. We’ll have to try to do our best.”

Obviously, those to-blitz-or-not-to-blitz decisions become easier when it’s third and long, like when Harrison Smith dropped Brees on a 3rd and 10 before the half two years ago.

Better yet for the Vikings would be generating pressure with only four rushers.

The difference between this year’s group and previous teams might be its coverage. Blitzing a quarterback like Brees requires faith that the back end will be secured, which hasn’t always been the case this season. Xavier Rhodes allowed the fourth-highest completion percentage of all NFL corners and was relegated to a three-man rotation, just a couple seasons removed from being regarded as a shutdown corner. His regression alone seems to have made the Vikings pass defense more vulnerable, and Sunday the secondary will be pitted against the league’s top receiver in Michael Thomas.

Minnesota recorded 34 sacks this year without the aid of a blitz, more than nine team’s season-long total, blitz or no blitz. Finding a way to apply pressure with four rushers will be crucial.

Brees only seems to get more formidable with age, and Sunday he’ll have one of the league’s top home-field advantages at his back.

The Vikings will need a vintage performance to best him, which may come down to third downs and pocket pressure.