Minnesota Vikings hope for running start against New Orleans Saints defense

Posted on Jan 22, 2010 in Local Issues, Sports

By Nakia Hogan, The Times-Picayune
January 22, 2010, 6:00AM

tim-hightower.jpgChris Granger/The Times-PicayuneArizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower ran 70 yards for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints on the first play from scrimmage of the divisional playoff game. The Saints have allowed 12 rushing plays of 20 yards or more this season, eight of which have been in the first quarter, including six on the first possession of the game. At an early morning staff meeting the day before Saturday’s 45-14 victory against the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had another game he wanted to play with his assistant coaches.

The “What If” game.

“As trite as this may sound, the day before the game at an 8 a.m. staff meeting, I posed a bunch of what ifs, ” Williams said. “The first what ifs was tell me what your body language is going to be, tell me what your demeanor is going to be, tell me what your coaching point is going to be, tell me how you are going to react if something bad happens on the first play of the game.”

Guess what?

“I’ll be damned if it didn’t happen.”

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On the first play from scrimmage, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner took the snap from center and handed the ball to running back Tim Hightower, who dashed through a hole on the right side of the line, avoided two failed attempts at tackles by Saints safeties Roman Harper and Darren Sharper and sprinted 70 yards for a touchdown.

“I didn’t even watch the back run to the end zone, ” Williams said. “What I did was I stepped back and looked at all my coaches. And they responded very well. The players needed us. They didn’t need more stress.”

What the Saints defenders got Saturday after the long run was some tutelage and motivation.

The coaches worked almost in unison, Williams said, to help correct the miscues on Hightower’s score. They chatted with players and looked at the offensive set the Cardinals came out in.

This wasn’t anything new for the players and coaches, though. They’ve been in this position more times than they have wanted.

While Hightower’s run was the longest run allowed by the Saints’ defense this season, it wasn’t the first time a back has broken free for a big gain.

In their 17 games this season, the Saints have allowed 12 rushing plays of 20 yards or more.

Continuing a perplexing trend, eight of those runs have come in the first quarter, including six on the first possession of the game.

The Saints likely can’t afford such miscues in Sunday’s NFC title game against the Vikings and All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 1,383 yards and 18 touchdowns in the regular season.

“We are definitely trying to get that fixed, especially against a team like the Vikings, who are known to come out and score a lot of points in the first quarter, ” Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. “We can’t continue to allow that to happen. And we are doing our best to get that fixed.”
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Typically, the Saints have mended their blown assignments during games. But the task this week, several Saints said, is to not allow the big runs to happen in the first place.

Williams and Coach Sean Payton said the Saints’ struggles to stop the run early on in games have no recurring theme.

“No, I don’t think (there’s a theme), ” Payton said. “I guess the similarity being when they happen early in the game. But they’ve been plays that have been different schemes, different type of runs.

“When it happened last week, certainly on the first play of the game, it takes a little of the energy out of the stadium. But we were able to come back with the next drive and score. So I think it’s just been the start, and I know Gregg and those guys on defense are working their tails off to start games the right way and will continue to do that.”

At times Williams said the Saints have used poor run fits, meaning the players have attacked through the wrong gaps, allowing gaping holes for the runners to sprint through.

On other occasions, running backs have cut back against the Saints’ over-pursuing defense, running across the back side of the line for long runs.

Hightower’s score was simply defensive end Bobby McCray getting sealed and Harper and Sharper whiffing on tackles.

“It’s real simple when you watch the film, ” Williams said. “In this last ballgame, we have two unblocked players at the point of attack and they don’t make the tackle. So that (touchdown run) is probably going to happen.

“It usually comes down to fundamentals. It really is not as much about schemes, it usually just comes down to the execution of fundamentals. And that player (Hightower) made two of our better tackling guys miss at the point of attack.”

Although that run stunned the crowd, momentarily silencing the sold-out Superdome, the Saints players and coaches said they didn’t come close panicking.

Instead they buckled down, yielding just 31 yards on the Cardinals’ next 14 carries.

“Obviously, it’s not good to have experience with that, but we have experience with that, ” Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. “It had happened before so we knew that game wasn’t going to be determined by that one play. Since we had seen that before earlier in the season, there was never any panic.”

The key, however, is trying to play with the same discipline in the opening of the game as the Saints do in the later stages.

But that’s easier said than done.

“I don’t have any explanations of why that happens, ” Shanle said. “If I knew why, Gregg would be mad at me for not telling him why.”

“Do I like those big runs? No, it kills me, ” Williams said. “I don’t like those big runs. But the fact that we are able to adjust and not let them happen again is real good.”

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