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Third down usually means big trouble for Vikings' foes

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer during the first quarter Nov. 23 against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit. Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — In the Vikings' locker room Thursday, Jan. 11, defensive players were rousting teammates to their next meeting. The topic: third down.

Clearly, they've been doing their homework.

The Vikings (13-3) enter Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints with the best third-down defense in the NFL, allowing conversions to a new set of downs 25.2 percent of the time in 16 regular-season games. That is the NFL's best third-down defense in several years, dating at least back to 2002, according to statistics compiled by ESPN.

Saints coach Sean Payton called the Vikings' effectiveness the perfect blend of scheme and personnel.

"When you put a good scheme and real good players together, that's what you're seeing now," he said this week.

The Saints (11-5) and quarterback Drew Brees will be tested Sunday, Jan. 14, at U.S. Bank Stadium by a team whose past five opponents have converted a combined 12 of 65 third-down opportunities — 18.4 percent. Three of those opponents — Chicago, Cincinnati and Atlanta — managed to do it just once all game.

"We've been good, really, all year long on the third downs," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, "but probably more so the last few weeks."

It's not by accident.

"We spend an extra day on it," Zimmer said, "and we have a group third-down meeting. We had one today, and then we'll have more tomorrow. Then we spend a lot of time on third downs in the red zone. We have a third-down meeting, red zone meeting and then we talk a lot about third downs in the red zone."

Inside the red zone, the Vikings have allowed nine first downs in 33 chances, 27.3 percent and third in the NFL behind Buffalo (24.2) and Detroit (26.1). Opponents are averaging one touchdown in the red zone per game, third in the league, according to teamrankings.com.

"If they don't convert third downs, then it's field goals, right?" Zimmer said. "But typically when there's a third-down conversion in the red zone, it ends up costing you touchdowns."

As Payton mentioned, it's a combination of scheme and talent; more to the point, it's a combination of a pass rush that can force a quarterback to throw too soon and a secondary — and linebackers — that can cover receivers tightly.

Zimmer said this week he likes "versatile safeties," and he has one in Harrison Smith, whose ability to line up nearly anywhere and either rush the quarterback or cover a receiver makes it hard for quarterbacks to read a scheme. The Vikings also like to show blitz before dropping linebackers such as Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, whose speed and instincts have been a major reason Minnesota has the top-ranked total defense in the NFL.

Brees will present a challenge; at 38, he's seen it all in 17 NFL seasons and 12 playoff games, but he's still one of the quickest passers in football.

Zimmer said quarterbacks are judged on whether they can release a pass within three seconds of the snap; Brees, he said, does it in 2.5 seconds. And while Brees is not a real threat to run — he officially rushed 33 times for 12 yards this season — he moves well in the pocket and seems to have a preternatural sense of where to throw a pass in a pinch.

Asked how he might attack Brees, Zimmer said, "I don't want to give away my rush plan. You just have to try to affect him." Sacking him, he acknowledged, will be difficult. His players understand that, Zimmer said.

"He's only been sacked 20 times, and typically he's getting the ball out in 2.5 seconds, so they understand," he said. "Part of it is talking to them about continuing to rush, and part of it is we've got to be tight in the coverage. If we can get him to pull it down, to get to 3.0 (seconds), then we have a chance to hit him."

The Vikings beat New Orleans 29-19 in Week 1, but that was before the Saints got their running game on track with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the first two running backs to each gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.

On the other hand, Minnesota has a uniquely talented defense that has been together under Zimmer for three years now and is comfortable adjusting on the fly with total faith in the scheme.

Asked if he could recall when that became the case, Barr thought for a moment before answering. "I don't know," he said, "but I know we do it now."

Third-down efficient

The Vikings and New Orleans Saints meet in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, a matchup that will challenge the visitors to solve the NFL's best third-down defense.

Team Defense (rank) Offense (rank)

Vikings 25.2 percent (1) 43.5 percent (3)

Saints 41.0 percent (27) 37.6 percent (19)

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