Case Keenum didn’t start the season opener at quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, but the New orleans Saints have seen plenty enough of him the past several weeks to get a feel for what he gives Minnesota entering Sunday’s Divisional Playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Keenum solidified himself as Minnesota’s starter after Sam Bradford’s injury – Bradford started against the Saints on Sept. 11 – and easily had the best season of his NFL career, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns, with seven interceptions in 15 games, with 14 starts. He had career highs in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, games played and starts.
Saints Coach Sean Payton said a recent spate of common opponents has helped New Orleans gain some familiarity with Keenum.
“You can see him getting the ball to a lot of different guys,” Payton said Wednesday morning, during a teleconference with local media. “These guys, I think, have done a great job on offense. I think they’re playing a game that suits both sides of the ball.
“When you start looking at their statistics, they’re getting the ball down the field, so they’re getting their chunk plays. They’re in the top 10 in rushing, scoring the same way. I think they’ve done a great job with play action. The thing that’s impressive about him is not only on the spot, but off the spot, his location when he’s moving.
“It just seems like all we’ve seen prior to studying this week was Vikings tape, because they had played the Falcons, they had played Carolina. We were just watching a lot of their tape over the last month and it’s been impressive. Those guys have done a real good job and coaches have done a great job with them.”
THE OTHER FOOT: The Saints are well aware of how crucial noise can be in creating a home-field advantage. They enjoy one of the league’s best advantages in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But New Orleans has been in positon where the cleat was on the other foot, too. That’ll be the case Sunday in U.S. Bank Stadium, so figure on there being a lot of crowd-noise simulation for the Saints during practice this week.
“I think any time you go on the road, especially in a playoff atmosphere to an indoor environment, it’s one of those challenges you have to work hard at all during the week,” Payton said. “The focus, both in the run game and passing game, how you motion, when you choose to move guys around, it’s going to require the poise and attention to detail during the week.
“This will be the loudest. Clearly, the loudest (road) environment we play in this year.”
“X” MARKS THE SPOT: Minnesota is represented on the All-Pro and NFC Pro Bowl teams by several members of the league’s No. 1 defense. Among them is cornerback Xavier Rhodes, whose numbers (two interceptions, 10 passes defensed) are much more reflective of opponents’ wariness than inactivity.
“I think what you have to do is you have to look closely at your formations,” Payton said. “You line a guy up way outside the numbers, and he’s a tremendous corner. He’s someone that can get his hands on you, he’s real physical at the line of scrimmage, playing with a lot of confidence. I think you’ve got to be smart when you’re throwing in that direction and then you’ve got to understand his leverage and what coverage they’re playing behind it.”
Most of what the Vikings are doing is working. In addition to having the league’s stingiest defense in points (15.8) and yards (275.9) allowed per game, the Vikings also are tremendous on third down (25.3 percent, which also is best in the league).
“You’re getting, No. 1, a real good pass rush, so the time to throw it is quicker,” Payton said of Minnesota’s third-down success. “No. 2, you’ve got an extremely talented back end, the corners as well as the safeties. And then, I would say a pressure package that causes you problems with linebackers up in the ‘A’ gaps, slot pressure, strong safety blitz.
“You start factoring those things in, and then you take a good scheme with great players, and you end up with the No. 1 defense in the league. (Vikings coach Mike Zimmer) Zim’s coached that package for a long time now, and created havoc with people. And now all of a sudden, you’ve got Pro Bowl safeties, you’ve got Pro Bowl corners, you’ve got a pass rush and it’s pretty much the formula when you talk about a great defense. It’s the talent, it’s coaching, it’s all those facets.”
GOOD LUTZ WITH THAT: Saints second-year kicker Wil Lutz made 31 of 36 field-goal attempts in the regular season, tying a franchise single-season record for makes, and blasted a 57-yarder against Carolina in the wild-card game, the second-longest postseason field goal in league history. Lutz has gone five straight games without missing a field-goal attempt; his last miss was Dec. 3.
“He’s playing well,” Payton said. “He’s kicking well – we get to see more of it maybe than you do. The concern when you’re attempting a field goal of that length (against Carolina) is twofold. The flight is going to be different, which means its more prone for a block, and if you don’t capitalize on it, the field position (that you give up). He had some good hits last week in practice, we watched him kick each day and you can kind of see how the ball is taking off his foot. That was a great kick.”