All season long, the Saints have relied on their run defense to get them in favorable situations on second and third downs against run-dominant teams. In Sunday’s Wild Card matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, their approach will be no different.
Despite having a solid passing attack, the Vikes depend heavily on their run game to try to set up everything else in their offense. They rank fourth in the league in rush attempts per game.
While the analytics community would roll their eyes at this approach, head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski feel that Dalvin Cook is electric enough of a back to center their offense around. At times, they’re proven right.
Cook is undoubtedly one of the best ball carriers in the league at eluding and breaking tackles, ranking in the top 10 of yards after contact, despite missing two games.
However, this type of play style has often played right into the hands of the Saints defense, ranking fourth in rush defense and not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 42 games (regular season or playoffs).
One of the victims of the stingy Saints run defense this season was Ezekiel Elliott in Week 4, when the Saints held the former All-Pro to 35 yards on 18 carries in a stellar defensive outing.
The reason I bring up this game is because the Cowboys hold a similar offensive philosophy to the Vikings: Stick to the run game with your bell-cow back, even if it may not be working, to set up the pass game.
Much like the Vikings, the Cowboys ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts per game despite having a largely successful passing offense.
With that being said, I dove into the defense’s performance against Zeke in that game and analyzed what aspects of their performance made it so effective. But more importantly, how these aspects can be used to slow down Dalvin Cook.
Keeping Gap Integrity
Any good run defense starts with gap integrity. Every gap has to be accounted for to prevent a hole from opening up for the running back to squeeze through, and the edges have to be sealed.
Here, Marcus Davenport and Cam Jordan seal the edges, While Demario Davis takes the front-side A-gap. Sheldon Rankins has the front-side B-gap, Shy Tuttle plugs up the back-side A-gap and AJ Klein mans the back-side B-gap. Six men for six gaps.
This is the result:
Edges sealed and not a single empty gap, front-side or back-side, to run through. This is a running back’s nightmare.
Helping Each Other
The Vikings typically like to run a ton of outside zone schemes, like the Cowboys do on this play.
To successfully defend a zone run, you have to not only be stay true to your gaps, but also beat blocks. David Onyemata does both here, plus a little extra.
The ‘Boys run outside zone with Zeke. Initially, Onyemata should be responsible for the backside B-gap, and Davis the backside A-gap. But Davis gambles.
Davis attempts to go around and behind the play, leaving the A-gap open and space between Onyemata and Malcom Brown.
Onyemata does a great job of shuffling his hips and covers two gaps on his way to stuffing Elliott for no gain.
Keeping Linebackers Clean
To consistently stop the run, the defensive line has to do a good job of clogging up holes and taking on multiple blockers to keep their linebackers clean to make plays on the ball carrier.
Shy Tuttle does so here.
Dallas attempts to run inside zone. A key aspect of inside zone working is the offensive linemen getting to the “next level” when there is no defensive lineman in their path. This means they need to get from the line of scrimmage to the linebackers.
What Tuttle does here is eat up not only his block, but the center, who is attempting to carry upfield to get a block on Davis.
This leaves a gap open for Davis to go make a play on Zeke.
Plays like this don’t always garner recognition for the big D Tackles. So Shy, if you see this, good job.
Being Fast to The Edges
This will especially be key against the Vikings, who like to occasionally run tosses to Dalvin Cook to utilize his speed.
Minny will run this with a pulling guard or with just a fullback, in more of a zone look. But here, Dallas pulls the right tackle and right guard on the power toss.
Klein isn’t the fastest guy in the world, but he does a good job of getting on the outside shoulder of the receiver trying to pin him, and sets the edge. This gives Kiko Alonso and Vonn Bell time to catch up to the play.
Alonso is really the hero of this play, because he sacrifices himself and takes out two blockers (the pulling guard and the fullback) in doing so. This allows Bell and Eli Apple to swoop in and make the tackle on what seemed like a promising play, but ending it with a minimal gain.
Minnesota will put Kirk Cousins under center and use a ton of 12 and 21 personnel to run out of and set up their play-action passes.
While stopping play action passes may not depend on stopping the run as much as you’d think, it certainly can’t hurt.
If the Vikings continue their zone-heavy running scheme on early downs, the Saints should be able to get them in some unfavorable situations on longer 2nd and 3rd downs by beating one-on-one blocks and staying true to their gaps.
If they do so, they could have similar success to how they stymied they Cowboys’ offensive attack, and come away with a much-needed victory in the Dome.