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Vikings at Saints: Five things to watch

Situational downs will be important

1. Few NFL teams – if any – enjoy a home field advantage as decisive as do the New Orleans Saints. Last year, when New Orleans finished 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it outscored opponents by an average score of 34-16. Only twice, against Atlanta and San Francisco, were the Saints held to 23 points. In the other six games the Saints posted at least 31 points and only once, against San Francisco, did they surrender 20 points. So, absolutely, it'll be good for the Saints to be in the Dome for the home opener this season. (Footnote: The Saints have won their last 17 home games under Coach Sean Payton, by an average score of 38-17). But players also realize that the building isn't going to win a game for them. They're going to have to execute better, especially when it comes to "situational" downs – get off the field on third down on defense, convert third downs on offense, stay away from critical penalties and miscommunication. That said, being at home – in front of a loyal and vocal following – should help.

2.  *Payton was right when he said that if you'd told him the Saints would *run for as many yards as they have in the first two games, he'd have believed the team would've achieved different results. Anyone would've believed that if the Saints had 313 rushing yards in two games, they would have a victory. But the bottom line in a bottom-line business is that the Saints are 0-2, and are without leading rusher Mark Ingram (broken hand). The guess here is that the Saints have been so successful in the run game – and Minnesota likely will want to stymie the pass and dare New Orleans to produce via the run – that the Saints still will put up decent numbers with Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Remember this, too: In this offense, a screen pass or swing pass to a running back essentially is the equivalent of a run. So the production could come on handoffs or on short passes. Minnesota allows 111 rushing yards per game, so it's not as if the Vikings have been stellar in that department.

3. The Saints have two sacks and one forced turnover in the first two games. Those numbers have to change. Actual sacks may not be as critical if the Saints are successful in applying pressure to Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel. Making him uncomfortable could force a hurried throw or a bad decision (he has four interceptions) and sometimes, those are almost as good as sacks, especially if they keep Minnesota's offense in down-and-distance situations that are favorable to New Orleans. But this defense absolutely needs to start forcing a few more turnovers, to keep the scales balanced. Offensively, the Saints only have committed three but because the defense only has forced one (Jairus Byrd's strip and Corey White's fumble recovery against Atlanta), the three have loomed large. An extra opportunity or two for the offense is huge; an extra stop or two, via a turnover, is even bigger.

4.  Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is a problem. He's Minnesota's leading rusher (three carries for 102 yards and a touchdown), receiver (seven catches for 82 yards) and a dangerous kick returner (three, for 71 yards). At 6 feet 2, 220 pounds, Saints defenders say that Patterson can absorb and initiate contact like a running back, but can run away and score from anywhere on the field. The Vikings line him up all over the place. Last year, he scored four touchdowns receiving, three rushing and two on kickoff returns. The Saints preach "population to the football." They're definitely going to have to practice what they preach when Patterson has his hands on it.

5. It would've been impossible to keep Saints players from tracking what was happening in Minnesota this week. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, perhaps the best in the league at his position, won't be playing this week or any time soon as he awaits resolution to his child abuse case. What the Saints can't do is assume the Vikings will enter in a weakened state, ready to be dominated. Quite the opposite could be true – without its best player and coming off a 30-7 loss to New England, Minnesota could throw caution to the wind in this road game. The Saints have to seize this opportunity; a quick score or two, coupled with a few stops, could start a snowball effect. The first step is for players to treat Minnesota as a serious threat.

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