Vilma, Defense Huge Part of Saints' March to Title Game
NEW ORLEANS -- After the Saints had singed Arizona with a bevy of offensive formations and weapons in their 45-14 divisional playoff victory here on Saturday, it was evident offense remains the team's signature.
But this team knows its defense provides the ink.
What separates the Saints from being a one-dimensional, fun-to-watch offensive cabaret that simply outruns and outscores teams is a defense that has completed a dynamic makeover. Limiting the Cardinals to 14 points after they had scored 51 against Green Bay reinforced to the Saints that they entertain with offense but win huge postseason games like these with defense.
A timely reminder with Brett Favre and the explosive Minnesota Vikings' offense coupled with a bruising Vikings defense in town on Sunday for the NFC championship game.
"It's a matter of really wanting it as a defense, and we really want it,'' Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "I think the two turnovers we caused early against Arizona changed everything for their offense. It got them on their heels some and it gave us even more confidence to let loose. We won the physical battle.''
Each of the four teams in the conference championship games won that battle. It is a common ingredient of the quartet -- defenses that win the mano-mano tangles over four quarters, that consistently tackle firmly and with punch. Defenses that create turnovers.
A key question entering the game: How was the Saints' defense going to negate Cardinals vibrant receiver Larry Fitzgerald?
They did it by holding Fitzgerald without a catch until the Saints were up 35-14. Fitzgerald finished with six harmless catches for 77 meager yards. And the Saints defense limited his longest catch to 16 yards.
Especially telling about the Saints defensive mindset was their stand in the final minutes of the third quarter. It was already 45-14 and that is what the Saints defense decided the score would remain.
The Cardinals had driven from their 20-yard line to the Saints' 9. It was fourth-and-2 and the Saints held and reacted as if they had just prevented Arizona from taking the lead.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams excitedly congratulated his players after that sequence as they returned to the sideline.
"Yes, to us, there was a big difference between 21 points allowed and 14, regardless of the fact we were well ahead,'' Williams said. "You're playing in a big game at that moment but you are always building for the next one. And that was a defensive stop for pride and for standing. Some things you want to become a habit.''
With his cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter healthy, Williams recognizes that his defense can play press coverage out wide and enjoy the chance to be tricky with the other nine defenders. The Vikings will see plenty of this tactic in the NFC title game.
And the way Minnesota's defense is excelling, the Saints know this chance to reach Super Bowl XLIV hinges on both offenses entertaining -- but one defense rising.
"That has to be us,'' Vilma said. "I'm proud to be a captain of this group. We've come a long way.''
So far, in fact, that after the game Vilma and his linebacking peers exited the locker room and returned to the field to take a group photo on the Louisiana Superdome field. One for keepsake.
``I just wanted our group to have something to remember how special this is and what it means for us and the city,'' Vilma said. ``These kinds of chances in these kinds of games do not come around often in this league. As a defense, we know that.''
Favre on Target
Something the Saints' defense will find in its video study of Favre's play against Dallas is how accurate his passes were and how he was able to avoid the rush, create new passing lanes and throwing adeptly on the move.
All game against Dallas, Favre kept delivering passes on his receivers' numbers where they could run effectively after the catch. All game, he moved just enough right or left and was effective on sprint-outs and roll-outs to avoid sacks and punish Dallas downfield.
Nimbleness is not a trait often associated with 40-year-old quarterbacks.
But Favre in his 309th consecutive NFL game produced his best playoff outing in terms of passer rating (134.4) and touchdown passes (four).
The Saints view Favre much like they did veteran Cardinals passer Kurt Warner -- they must get there and they must hit him.
The chances should be plenty.
The Vikings gave Favre 24 pass attempts in their 34-3 drilling of the Cowboys. I expect he will get even more in the NFC Championship Game.
So does Favre. He expected this season to be one where he primarily handed the ball off to running back Adrian Peterson and threw it maybe 15 times a game.
"Boy, I was mistaken,'' Favre said. "But I have been able to answer the call.''
Ryan's Gutsy Call
It was the call of the game and the call of their season. Jets with the ball at the San Diego 29-yard line with 1:09 left and ahead 17-14. Fourth-and-1. Go for it? Get it and deny the Chargers offense a chance for game-ending heroics? You bet.
Thomas Jones got the ball. The play was "40-Blast." Two yards gained.
Jones told me on Monday morning about the call and the play: "They knew what we were going to run. 40-blast has been a signature play for us in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Guys come off the ball man-to-man and beat their man. The fullback Tony Richardson isolates on the linebacker. My job is to beat the first tackler on the first hit. This is a smash-mouth, old-school play, as old-school as it gets. If you can't stop it, it is demoralizing for a defense and for a team. It is a play all about the combination of power and will.
"What kind of push can your offensive line get in that situation? It boils down to that, too. I ran it right behind the guard (Brandon Moore) and the tackle (Damien Woody) and we had a tackle at a tight end (Wayne Hunter) on that edge. Those are three 300-pound guys.''
Before the play, the Jets huddled on the sideline during a timeout. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer along with quarterback Mark Sanchez with head coach Rex Ryan involved and ..... center Nick Mangold?
Yes, Mangold was front and center in that discussion.
That says plenty about the importance of Mangold and how the Jets view him. This four-year player has been a Pro-Bowl selection after each of his last two seasons.
"Nick is a very intelligent player,'' Jones said. "They wanted to know from him what kind of push we could get and where would the best one would come from. Being the center, he knew what the Chargers' defensive line had been doing all game and what we could expect. He has to get the snap count right in that situation, so that is another reason for him to be in that conversation. He makes the line calls. Everybody on that line follows his lead.''
Obviously, his coaches pick critical spots to do the same.
And here is what Jones had to say about the emergence of rookie running back Shonn Greene: "For me, being a leader is all about being responsible to everyone. Especially young guys. When I first came into the league, Michael Pittman did it for me. I've tried to do the same for Shonn. He made it easy by being willing to accept advice and by being a very humble guy. There is room in every NFL game for two running backs to do what they do best and contribute. It's working.''
Seeking First Title
Colts owner Jim Irsay has his Super Bowl trophy in tow. Irsay won it all in Super Bowl XLI.
But three owners whose teams remain enjoy a special chance to reach their first Super Bowl.
Minnesota's Zygi Wilf, New Orleans' Tom Benson and the Jets' Woody Johnson are invested and hyped over their teams' chances. Over this rare personal chance.
Benson has a chance to reach the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Wilf still has a chance to win the first Super Bowl for his franchise. Johnson still has a shot to win the Jets' second championship and first in 41 years.
Other NFL owners may be more vocal or more high-profile than this trio. But this is their shot to separate from the pack and bask in the elusive glow of what their teams being in these conference championship games means.
"I know that Zygi has always wanted to be the owner that brought the Vikings and their fans their first championship,'' a Vikings source said. "He has been committed to that, he has longed for that since his first day of ownership and he was worked for it. The franchise understands this from top to bottom. It is a key ingredient to getting to the place where you are one victory away from reaching the Super Bowl. It's part of the leadership edge required to finish the job.''