If quarterbacks are so often the headline-makers in the NFL, the players who garner 90 per cent of the sport’s coverage and can be relied on to move the needle, then today’s clash between the Minnesota Vikings (2-1) and the New Orleans Saints (1-2) should provide a refreshing change.
The first game of the 2022 International Series, taking place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, sees two teams who may lack a superstar QB but have plenty of top-tier talent across the board, ready to wow the London crowd.
That’s no knock on either the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins - who is probably somewhat under-appreciated around the NFL - nor whoever plays under centre for the Saints (with regular starter Jameis Winston battling back and ankle injuries, backup Andy Dalton may be called into service) but when other QBs heading to London this month include Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and even presumed future star Trevor Lawrence, the sheen around today’s starters wears off slightly.
The fact that Dalton gave name to the mythical ‘Dalton Scale’ when he played for the Cincinnati Bengals due to his unavoidable averageness also tells its own story. Dalton, so the theory went, was the ‘prime meridian’ of quarterbacks. If your QB was better than Dalton, then he was a potential long-term option, while if he was worse then you needed to be looking for a new starter.
As for the man himself, he was good enough to lead the Bengals to the play-offs for five consecutive years from 2011-2015 (not to be sniffed at, given the fact the franchise had reached the play-offs just twice in the preceding 20 seasons) but not good enough to win a single game once there. It’s also telling that within two years of moving on from Dalton, the Bengals had made the Superbowl.
Now 34 years old, he’s declined from his days in Cincinnati but, if pressed into action today, he’s unlikely to let the Saints down, even if, by the same token, he’s unlikely to win the game for them single-handedly.
The Saints will need to rely on their non-quarterback stars if they’re to improve on their 1-2 record so far this season. Getting running back Alvin Kamara - who is battling a rib injury - going would be a start. At his best, Kamara is a dynamic, game-breaking player both on the ground and through the air but 100 yards on 24 carries and five receptions for 19 yards, with no touchdowns, so far this season has underwhelmed.
Top wide receiver Michael Thomas won’t play due to a foot injury but Chris Olave, who was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the month after catching 17 passes for 268 yards, has hit the ground running in the league and his 147-yard display in last week’s defeat to the Carolina Panthers shows what he’s capable of.
Yet it’s on defence where the Saints truly have blue-chip players. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has gone to four Pro Bowls since being drafted in the first round in 2017, hard-hitting linebacker Demario Davis is an ironman at the heart of the Saints D, defensive end Cam Jordan is set to become the franchise’s all-time sack leader this season and safety Tyrann Mathieu is a man reborn since retunring home to New Orleans. All four men were voted by their peers into the NFL’s ‘Top 100 Players’ over the summer.
And NFL analyst Maurice Jones-Drew acknowledges that the Vikings will have to cleverly scheme their plays to get the best of a defence that has held the Buccaneers and the Panthers to 20 and 22 points respectively over the last two weeks.
“You have to find a way to put your best player on their worst player,” explained Jones-Drew. “I want to move Justin Jefferson around as much as possible so he's not covered by [Marshon] Lattimore and he's covered by someone else.
“I want to be able to find Adam Thielen on certain downs, I want to get Dalvin Cook in space on certain linebackers. If we have to chip because Cameron Jordan is so tough to deal with, then we formation a player in there.
“As a football player, you see it as a challenge and how do you rise to the occasion. If I'm a left tackle, I've got to block Jordan and I've got to win that rep. You start to break the game down into plays, or quarters or series. How many times can we get Justin Jefferson on a linebacker, or a safety? How many times can we get Dalvin Cook in space? That's how you go out and start attacking these guys.”
As Jones-Drew alludes to, the Vikings will need to find ways to allow their offensive stars to dominate proceedings against this tough Saints D.
Justin Jefferson is in the conversation for best wide receiver in the league as he enters his third season. He’s normally undefendable - and 246 receiving yards already this season would certainly suggest so - but he’s been held to just 48 and 14 receiving yards respectively in his last two games. The Vikings will look to get him going at his usual rate of 90.6 receiving yards per game.
Adam Thielen ably complements Jefferson in the passing game as the team’s second receiver, while Irv Smith Jr is an explosive tight end option.
Yet the Saints’ main weakness defensively is stopping the run, having already allowed two 100-yard rushers through three games, and Dalvin Cook is a man who can exploit that further. Cook has been fighting a shoulder injury but 203 rushing yards, despite exiting early due to that injury last week, is an impressive return for the season so far.
He’s one of the league’s best all-around backs, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield. His ability to turn a 1-yard loss into a 4-yard gain is so valuable for the Vikings, perhaps even more so than his ability to break a big play and eat up huge yards. All signs point to him playing despite the shoulder injury and his presence on the field will force the Saints not to completely load up on stopping Jefferson.
It may well be that the quarterbacks decide the outcome of the game this afternoon - it is the most important position in sports after all - but if you look away from the men under centre, you’ll be able to watch some of the league’s very best players go to work.