Saints will offer a test to high-scoring Vikings
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -- Keep an eye on the lines when Minnesota's offense takes the field against the New Orleans defense in the second round of the NFC playoffs on Saturday.
The Vikings will use three Pro Bowl linemen to protect Daunte Culpepper and his gimpy ankle from the Saints' front line, which led the NFL with 66 sacks.
But don't ignore what's going on downfield.
Saints head coach Jim Haslett faces the same dilemma as every other team that has taken on the Vikings.
If he double-teams Randy Moss and Cris Carter, the Saints could allow Robert Smith to have a huge rushing day. If they concentrate on Smith, they risk giving up the long ball to Moss or shorter passes to Carter. Two opponents failed so miserably, they allowed all three to gain more than 100 yards.
Haslett concedes that he has tough choices, but bristles at suggestions that his secondary can't contain Moss and Carter.
"We match up against anybody in this league," Haslett said. "If you look at our guys, everybody says your secondary is this and your secondary is that. But they continue to go out and play hard and fight and scratch, and that is how we will play these guys. Their receivers will have their hands full this week because our guys will go out and play hard."
Cornerbacks Kevin Mathis and Alex Molden, who became a starter in the Saints' base defense when Fred Weary's knee was injured with four games left in the regular season, will be given the primary responsibility of stopping Moss and Carter. Help will come from safeties Sam Knight and Darren Perry.
There isn't an all-star in the group, but the Saints argue that the secondary can cause problems for the two Pro Bowl regulars.
"We've got some feisty cornerbacks," Saints linebacker Keith Mitchell said. "They might not be the tallest, but they're feisty. They'll get in your face. I think that's something that nobody's done all year to Moss.
"Moss, he's not used to anybody putting their hands on him. Usually, you see a cornerback bailing out on him, trying to get downfield because you're expecting the deep ball. We're going to have some guys that are going to get in his face, get the jam on him and try to shut him down a little bit."
The Vikings have shut themselves down in their last three games, all losses. Smith, the NFL's second-leading rusher, was held to 130 yards rushing. Carter caught 15 passes, but Moss was held to nine. An ankle injury limited Culpepper to 19 plays in the Vikings' final regular-season game at Indianapolis.
The Saints presented problems for St. Louis last Saturday in a 31-28 playoff victory. They held Marshall Faulk, the NFL's MVP, to 24 yards rushing and intercepted three passes by Kurt Warner, the MVP in 1999.
But the Vikings believe a bye week will do wonders for Culpepper's ankle and an ailing running game. The extra time also has given the Vikings' offense line -- led by center Matt Birk and tackles Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer -- extra time to prepare for what probably will be the best pass rush they will face.
"They do a very good job of collapsing the pocket," Steussie said. "You've got [310-pound Norman] Hand pushing up the middle and then you've got two very good, very fast defensive ends pushing the outside closed. And then you've got a great player like La'Roi Glover, who sometimes goes unblocked."
"The numbers speak for themselves: Their defense is very good," Culpepper said. "It's just a challenge for the offensive linemen, and for me to not be sitting back there holding the ball. Find the receiver and get the ball out of my hands. Help the offensive linemen out."