EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — One of the strengths of the Vikings defense is a pair of linebackers, two players who are former college teammates who know each other inside and out.
Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks line up next to each other in Minnesota's scheme, and also routinely go get food together and hang out at each other's apartment away from Winter Park.
The former UCLA duo will need to be at their best on Sunday when the Vikings welcome the Saints to U.S. Bank Stadium for a Divisional playoff matchup.
"Communication is going to be crucial," Kendricks said. "Every year we get in this defense, we get further and further along and get better at understanding (things).
"Sometimes you just talk. Even though you know where you're supposed to be, you talk just because that's how we like it," Kendricks added.
That's because one of the strengths of the Saints offense is a pair of running backs — two players who likely didn't know much of each other before this season.
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara formed one of the most productive running back duos in NFL history this past regular season and now routinely do postgame interviews together standing side-by-side.
"They're both exceptional," Kendricks said. "They've had a lot of yards apiece, but it's about minimizing that."
The New Orleans tandem produced a season for the ages, as they became the first pair of running backs in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a season.
Ingram, the seven-year veteran and former Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama, ran for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding 416 receiving yards.
Kamara, who looks like a third-round steal out of Tennessee, was more balanced — 728 rushing yards and eight scores to go along with 826 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Kamara's 81 receptions ranked second on the Saints, while Ingram's 58 catches were third-most. At times, New Orleans lines both players up on offense to put pressure on the opposing defense.
"They've both been very effective. I think they're starting to go a little more two-back and put both in at the same time," Barr said. "Little wrinkles here and there, but I think we'll be ready."
It will be strength against strength, as the Saints will try to get their duo the ball in space. Minnesota, meanwhile, will counter with a collective effort that includes Barr, Kendricks, safety Harrison Smith and other members of the Vikings top-ranked defense.
View practice photos from Wednesday, January 10 at Winter Park.
Minnesota fared well against dual-threat running backs this past season.
According to the analytics website Football Outsiders, the Vikings ranked first in the NFL by limiting opposing running back to 30.6 receiving yards per game on 6.9 pass attempts per game. The league average was 44.1 receiving yards allowed per game to running backs on 7.3 pass attempts per game.
Kamara had 38 total yards on 11 offensive touches in Minnesota's Week 1 win, but he's been a Rookie of the Year candidate ever since.
The Vikings know they will likely see a heavy dose of No. 41 on Sunday.
"They use him a little bit more, spread him out of the backfield a little bit more. They use him as a receiver some; he catches the ball some on screens," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "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."
Added Barr: "We didn't know too much about him. He went to Tennessee, so he was pretty effective at Tennessee, but now, he's kind of the playmaker on that offense … he's a tough player. I wouldn't say an afterthought, but he wasn't the main focus [in Week 1] because he hadn't put anything on tape yet. But now he has a season of really good stuff, is probably going to be Rookie of the Year, and it's well-deserved."
Kamara's all-around game highlights the balance of the New Orleans offense, as the Saints ranked fifth in both passing and rushing yards per game.
It was a Saints attack led by a pair of game-changing running backs, and something the Vikings will be ready for in Sunday's playoff showdown.
"It's just being locked in and reading your keys, because the running back is going to tell you where the play is going a lot of the time," Barr said. "I think we we're focused on that, you can kind of have an idea if he's getting out, if he's blocking, if he's check-release and running a screen, all that type of stuff."