EDEN PRAIRE, Minn. —Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer made his point about a way to keep points of the scoreboard.
Over and over again — from Vikings organized team activities in the spring, to the final training camp practices at Minnesota State, Mankato, and even to the hallways of Winter Park — Zimmer stressed performing well on third downs on offense and defense.
Minnesota limited opponents to a conversion rate of 25.2 percent on third downs (51 out of 202) this season, which was the best mark in NFL history since the league began tracking that statistic in 1991.
That performance has been accompanied by Minnesota finishing the season first in the NFL in points against (15.8) and yards allowed (275.9).
The emphasis was double-stamped by Zimmer in the Vikings Week 9 bye, with laser focus applied to third downs and play in the red zone.
In Week 10 at Washington, Minnesota limited the Redskins to a 5-for-14 showing on third downs and allowed touchdowns on two of four trips inside the Vikings 20-yard line. The offense, conversely, converted 8-for-12 of third downs and went a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone.
With a balanced and potent Saints attack (second in total yards, fifth in rushing, fifth in passing and fourth in points per game) on its way, third downs and red zone are just as important as ever. New Orleans scored the most points (19) and had the second-best conversion rate on third downs (4-for-11, 36.4 percent) of any Vikings foe that visited U.S. Bank Stadium in 2017.
"We spend an extra day on it," Zimmer said on Thursday of his approach throughout this season. "We have a group third-down meeting, [which] we had today, and then we'll have more tomorrow."
"Then we spend a lot of time on third downs in the red zone," Zimmer added later. "So we have a third-down meeting, red zone, and then we talk a lot about third downs in the red zone."
It is quite common for teams to work on first and second downs on the first practice day of a week, shift to third downs on the second day and wrap with red zone work on the final day.
The results have reinforced the emphasis.
Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards on Thursday credited the focus by defensive players and the way the unit works together on the key plays.
"I think it's a concentration on the detail of our guys," Edwards said. "Our pass rush and our pass coverage, they go together, and guys understand what we need to take away from week-to-week. Going out and executing the plan that we have in, so their attention to detail with that has been the biggest bonus for us."
'1, 2, 3 Mississippi'
Zimmer said he wants defensive players to understand that they might not be able to sack Drew Brees much, but there are still ways to affect him.
Brees took 20 sacks this season and attempted 536 passes, a team allowance rate that ranked second in the NFL. He is mobile in the pocket and lets the ball go in a hurry, Zimmer said.
"Yeah, they understand that they're not going to get to him a lot," Zimmer said. "He's only been sacked 20 times, and typically he's getting the ball out at 2.5 seconds."
Zimmer said tight coverage by the back end of the defense could slow Brees slightly.
"If we can get him to pull it down, to get it to 3.0, then we have a chance to hit him," Zimmer said.
The average time depends on the type of throw and protection scheme from play to play, he said, but added that Brees' accuracy doesn't seem to be affected by needing to hurry a throw.
"In normal things, generally you judge at about 3, so most quarterbacks get it in 2.7, 2.8," Zimmer said. "But he has a lot of quick throws, and he knows – the best thing, not the best thing, he's extremely accurate, but he knows where to go with the football, and he gets it out quick."
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said he's seen the Vikings affect quarterbacks' internal clocks this season.
"One of the things that Minnesota does well – the coverage is tight, and the clock in the quarterback's head is quicker because the pass rush is present," Payton said. "And that leads to more mistakes. When we used to play in the street or in the yard, you used to say, '3-Mississippi rush' before you had to throw the football, and there was always that kid that went, '1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi' and began rushing early, so it's kind of like that. You're hoping to get it inside that 3-count."
Words of inspiration
Texas natives Case Keenum and Brees have connected a couple of times during their careers. Keenum, 29, kept tabs on Brees, who will turn 39 Monday, from high school to college to NFL.
Brees, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, also turned his eyes on Keenum's college career with the Houston Cougars, and the two have a few more similarities.
Keenum told media on Thursday that another Super Bowl MVP, Kurt Warner, had sent him a text of inspiration. Warner famously began the 1999 season as the Rams backup and filled in after Trent Green was lost for the year.
"Kurt Warner texted me and had some good things to say," Keenum said. "[He's] somebody I've looked up to for a long time. Really solid — obviously a solid player but a solid guy, so I appreciate that."
View practice images from Thursday, January 11 at Winter Park.
For the Vikings: Terence Newman (foot) did not participate Thursday. Shamar Stephen (ankle) and Everson Griffen (foot) were limited. Kyle Rudolph (ankle), C.J. Ham (neck), Anthony Harris (knee), Xavier Rhodes (foot) and Pat Elflein (shoulder) were full participants.
For the Saints: Brandon Coleman (neck) and Michael Mauti (illness) did not participate. Michael Hoomanawanui (back), Terron Armstead (thigh), Trey Hendrickson (ankle), Sheldon Rankins (ankle) and P.J. Williams (ankle) were limited. Cameron Jordan (knee) and David Onyemata (thumb) were full participants.