MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings’ 29-19 victory over the Saints in the season opener is remembered most for the way Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford fired his passes with ease and accuracy, finishing 27-for-32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
Mostly forgotten is the way New Orleans drove to Minnesota’s 19-yard line, 2-yard line (twice) and 6-yard line before settling for field goals.
The Saints finished 1-for-5 in the red zone in Week 1, their only touchdown coming late in the fourth quarter when the Vikings held a comfortable lead at 29-12.
Heading into Sunday’s NFC divisional-round rematch at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Saints’ to-be Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees says there is a drastic difference in his squad.
“It’s night and day,” he said. “You’re still trying to find yourself (early). You’re still trying to establish your identity. That feels like ages and ages ago.”
With an eight-game winning streak midseason, the Saints built the NFL’s second-ranked offense in 2.44 points per drive in the red zone, according to footballoutsiders.com. The Vikings defense, meanwhile, has gotten even better from that first-week performance, ranking second with 1.39 points allowed per red zone drive.
“I don’t even remember Week 1, honestly,” said Vikings leading tackler, linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Maybe its better that way because the Saints are a better team than the one that started the season 0-2. At that point, Adrian Peterson was still their starting tailback; since a midseason trade sent him to Arizona, tailbacks Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have become the first running back duo to each top 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a single season.
Against the Vikings, Kamara had seven carries for 18 yards, Peterson six for 18 and Ingram six for 17. Since then, the Saints have altered the way they use Kamara, a favorite for NFL offensive rookie of the year. Among rushers with at least 100 carries, the third-round pick from Tennessee leads the league with a 6.1 yards per carry. He also caught 81 passes for 826 yards, including four for 20 against Minnesota.
“They use him a little bit more, spread him out of the backfield a little bit more,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “They use him as a receiver some, he catches the ball some on screens. But he’s in the backfield, as well. He played against us the first game, but I guess they’re using his abilities a little bit more now.”
Then there’s Brees, whom Anthony Barr marveled at while watching the Saints’ 31-26, first-round victory over Carolina on Sunday. During a second-quarter touchdown drive, Brees threw a perfect pass to tight end Jeremy Hill for a 25-yard gain that caught Barr’s eye.
“I think it’s just how quickly he gets the ball out and how accurate he is; you could have a guy covered,” Barr said. “I think you saw (Sunday) night, the tight end down the seam, and the (Panthers defender) was pretty locked up and (Brees) threw a back-shoulder to him perfectly. ... You think you are in perfect position and you’re not.”
Defensively, the Saints have put themselves in better positions. A pair of rookies — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams — made their pro debuts against the Vikings and it showed. Combined with a Week 2 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots, the Saints were last in the league, allowing 388 passing yards a game.
After the Vikings game, Lattimore, a first-round pick from Ohio State, said, “We had to do better with communication.” The Saints defense is now ranked 15th in the NFL, allowing 326 yards per game, and Lattimore is a defensive rookie of the year candidate.
“(Lattimore) has been playing lights out and he gets a lot of recognition, as he should,” Vikings receiver Jarius Wright said. “... The difference is earlier in the year, I think, they were not confused but just working with new guys. I do think that the secondary has settled in. I think they will play well.”
Another expected threat for the Vikings is Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, son of former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan. Jordan sacked Bradford in the opener and has added 12 more since.
“He’s as good of a defensive end as there is in the league,” Zimmer said.
While the Vikings have changed — Bradford and starting running back Dalvin Cook were both injured and replaced by Case Keenum and Latavius Murray — the consensus is the Saints have changed for the better.