EAGAN, Minn. — It was earlier this month, the Vikings first game in October, that Minnesota was preparing to go up against the NFL’s top rushing defense in a Week 5 matchup against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Fast forward to the end of October for Sunday’s matchup against the Saints, and the Vikings will once again see the league’s best defense against the run.
New Orleans enters the primetime game on Sunday Night Football allowing a league-best 72.3 yards per game. The Saints also top the league in rush average, as they are giving up just 3.12 yards per attempt. New Orleans has, however, allowed six rushing touchdowns, which is tied for 16th with 10 other teams.
“Well, you look at this defense, and they’re No. 1 in the NFL against the run,” said Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. “They’ve lost one game this year, and it was coincidentally the only game they gave up a hundred yards rushing.
“So they’re very, very stout against the run, their offense is scoring a ton of points, so they’ve been in some shootouts, but they’re still a very, very good defense,” Rudolph added.
The Saints allowed 112 total rushing yards in Week 1 to Tampa Bay in a 48-40 loss, but New Orleans has since won five straight games, holding its opponent to 77 yards or less four different times.
Rudolph and Vikings running back Latavius Murray pointed to Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, and the teammates around him, noting they do everything well in the run game.
“Just look at the personnel that they have,” Rudolph said. “They have fast, physical linebackers; their front seven, obviously everybody knows how good of a player Cameron is … we know a bunch about him, but he’s playing at a really, really high level right now.
“A lot of those guys get credit for rushing the passer,” Rudolph added, “but he’s just as good against the run as he is rushing the passer.”
Murray, who leads the Vikings with 330 rushing yards, added: “It starts with their front. Obviously Cameron Jordan is a great player and their linebackers are definitely downhill, good playmakers. They have good speed.”
The Vikings rank 27th in the NFL with 87.4 rushing yards per game but have shown signs of improvement in recent weeks.
Murray ran for a career-best 155 yards in Week 6 against Arizona as the Vikings ran for a season-high 195 yards. Minnesota then added 88 rushing yards Sunday against the Jets, which was the third-highest output of the 2018 season.
Even better, all four of Minnesota’s rushing touchdowns (three by Murray and one by quarterback Kirk Cousins) have come over the past two games.
And that’s with an offensive line that will likely field a fourth starting combination in eight games on Sunday against the Saints.
“I just think it’s a testament to how hard those guys work and the game plan,” Murray said of the recent success in the running game. “When somebody goes down, the next person is able to come in, and we’re still able to do the things we want to do and block things up and still run the ball the way we want.”
The Week 8 matchup against New Orleans might be the toughest task for the Vikings ground game so far in 2018, but there is no doubt they will face it head on.
“Every week there is a test we have to step up and take,” Murray said. “So with the No. 1 rush defense coming in, it will be a challenge and a good one.”
A non-divisional, divisional game
By the time Sunday night’s game is over, the Vikings and Saints will have met for the third time in 412 days.
Minnesota has played Green Bay the same number of times since the 2017 season opener, but the Saints will actually move ahead of NFC North foes such as the Bears and Lions for number of games played against the Vikings in that span.
And on the other side, the Saints will have seen the Vikings the same number of times as Atlanta and Tampa Bay — and one less time than Carolina — teams that make up New Orleans’ NFC South opponents.
In a way, it feels as if the Week 8 tilt has turned into a non-divisional, divisional game between Minnesota and New Orleans.
“If you think you know this defense because you played against them twice, there’s so many new faces, changing parts, that if you don’t do your due diligence and study as much as you would any other opponent, you’re kind of doing yourself a disservice,” Rudolph said.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton concurred during a conference call this week.
“They were asking me about this the other day, and it feels almost like a divisional game because you played the team twice last season,” Payton said. “What I mean by that is you’ve got the cut-ups, you’ve got two games from a year ago, much like you would have in your own division.”
It’s not as if the rosters are the exact same from last season, however, even from the January playoff matchup.
There are 37 of 44 starters on both sides of the ball that remain on each team, but there are new faces such as Cousins, Saints rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport and Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
“There’s obviously new year, new faces,” Rudolph said. “They’ve got guys over there – the first-round pick [Davenport] is playing at a really, really high level. [He is] Dave Morgan’s buddy from UTSA.
“A couple new safeties, obviously, Kurt Coleman’s a guy that we’re familiar with and played with here, played against him in Carolina last year,” Rudolph added. “Manti [Te’o], obviously, a guy I [practiced] against in college. A couple guys that we played against the first game [last season] but then were hurt for the second game.”
No matter who is on the field in Week 8, Sunday night’s showdown should be a good one.
Zimmer: Griffen has ‘a little rust’
Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen has now completed two practices with the team since returning from a monthlong hiatus earlier this week to work on personal health issues.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Thursday offered his take on where Griffen stands.
“I watched him on tape yesterday. I watched him a little bit today,” Zimmer said. “Any time you’ve missed four weeks or whatever it was, there’s a little rust.”
Zimmer said he has “not made a determination” on whether or not Griffen will play Sunday against New Orleans.
And if Griffen does play, Zimmer said he didn’t know if the defensive end would be on a limited snap count.
“We haven’t discussed it yet,” Zimmer said.
For the Vikings: Tom Compton (knee), Anthony Barr (hamstring), Xavier Rhodes (foot), Andrew Sendejo (groin) and Dalvin Cook (hamstring) did not participate. Riley Reiff (foot) and Linval Joseph (ankle/knee) were limited. Zylstra (neck), Anthony Harris (knee), Kentrell Brothers (groin) and Everson Griffen (not injury related) were full participants.
For the Saints: Jermon Bushrod (not injury related) and Mitch Loewen (neck) did not participate. Terron Armstead (knee), Cameron Meredith (knee), Craig Robertson (hamstring) and Taylor Stallworth (ankle), Max Unger (hand), Marcus Williams (groin) and Andrus Peat (concussion) were full participants. The Saints placed Josh LeRibeus, who was listed Wednesday as did not participate, on Injured Reserve.