New Orleans signal caller Drew Brees is off to a fast start to the season throwing for eight scores and running up a 106.9 rating. He and the Saints will have a chance to get over the .500 (2-2 SU) hump at home in the Superdome Monday night when they host the Minnesota Vikings (1-3). Both teams come in with key injuries, the Vikings without star LB E.J. Henderson and the Saints minus rookie DL Sedrick Ellis.
The Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints have both had their share of injuries one month into the NFL season. But most people wouldn’t recognize the most important missing pieces from Monday night’s matchup between these two clubs.
The Vikings have officially listed middle linebacker E.J. Henderson as doubtful with two dislocated toes, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is quoting sources that say Henderson will be out for a month. Henderson is to the Vikings what Ray Lewis is to the Baltimore Ravens: the team’s best tackler and a leader on the field. His absence is going to loom large when the Saints have the ball. Replacement David Herron is an undrafted rookie from Michigan State.
Word from the Star-Tribune early Monday morning had Henderson and free safety Madieu Williams (neck) staying behind while the rest of the Vikings made the trip to New Orleans. Missing Henderson’s run defense is bad enough, but Williams, at least when healthy, is very good in coverage. The Vikings need all the coverage they can get against Drew Brees (106.9 passer rating).
The Saints will also be down a few good men on Monday night. The biggest spotlight goes to the skill players: WR Marques Colston (thumb) and TE Jeremy Shockey (groin). But those injuries haven’t kept Brees from being named the NFC’s offensive player of the month for September. The Saints have excellent depth downfield, and Brees is connecting on 72.3 percent of his pass attempts.
The bigger issue for the Saints is 307-pound defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis. The rookie from USC is a premium run-stuffer and one of the few bright spots on one of the worst defenses in the league. Ellis is out 2-4 weeks with a torn meniscus; this leaves the Saints with only three healthy tackles in a matchup against the dominant Vikings run game.
These major injuries on defense have barely made a dent in the betting odds. The Saints are holding steady as 3-point home favorites with a total of 46½. At press time, most of the action was coming in for the Saints and the Over. New Orleans is 2-2 SU and 3-1 ATS on the season, with two wins SU and ATS in two games at the Superdome. Minnesota is 1-3 SU and ATS, losing twice as road dogs.
The key for the Vikings in this matchup isn’t just the running of Adrian Peterson, but also the return of left tackle Bryant McKinnie from a four-game suspension. McKinnie is 6-foot-8, 335 pounds and a former Outland Trophy winner; he’ll protect QB Gus Frerotte’s back while opening lanes for Peterson, who prefers to run on the left side. And those should be wide lanes with McKinnie lining up next to five-time Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson (6-foot-5, 315 pounds).
While the Vikings beef up their offensive line, the Saints remain short in the trenches after suspending left guard Jamar Nesbit four games for violating the league’s steroid policy. This has actually worked out in the short term – rookie Carl Nicks has taken over the starting job to rave reviews. Too bad he’s on the other side of the line from Peterson.
The Saints O-line is ranked sixth in pass protection, allowing just four sacks and giving Brees all the time he needs to gun the ball. However, New Orleans is only No. 22 in run blocking and particularly ineffective in short-yardage situations. Those weaknesses will only be magnified against the superior Minnesota defensive line.
The Vikings are 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six meetings with New Orleans, but the most recent was three years ago. There are several strong trends for the over. The best of the bunch: 8-0-1 in the last nine Saints games. All the missing defenders from this game should keep that trend on track for another week.
Kickoff is at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.