Saints could kick Vikings to the curb with kicking game
It is easy to get caught up in offensive and defensive numbers when it comes to analyzing football matchups.
Those are the units which occupy the field the most.
Going into the NFC Divisional playoff game pitting the New Orleans Saints against the Minnesota Vikings, it is the classic matchup of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
The Saints finished the regular season second in the NFL to the Patriots in total offense per game, averaging 391.2 yards per contest. New Orleans was fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 28 points per game while Minnesota led the league in allowing the fewest points per game at 15.8 per contest. The Vikings were the top-ranked team in the NFL in total defense per game, allowing just 275.9 yards per game.
If this game is a close one, which the oddsmakers are predicting with Minnesota established as a 3 1/2 to 4-point favorite, it could be the third element which could decide the game.
Overall, the New Orleans have an improved kicking game over a year ago and that could be a huge factor Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Perhaps the X-factor is Alvin Kamara.
With the season on the line, Sean Payton went with is best all-purpose player in the deep position on kickoffs down the stretch of the regular season and it paid dividends.
Kamara did not have a chance to return kicks against the Panthers due to the outstanding deep kickoffs by Graham Gano.
We saw what Kamara can do, to become a special player on special teams, in the game at Tampa Bay, returning a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown.
Tommylee Lewis has been mostly fine returning punts, other than a crucial, costly fumble at Tampa Bay which set up a Buccaneers touchdown. Lewis has returned 14 punts for an 8.2 yard average per return.
Wil Lutz has converted 31-of-36 field goal attempts (86.1 percent) and 47-of-50 extra points. Lutz has done a solid job on kickoffs with 66 percent of his 94 kickoffs going for touchbacks and he has clearly been better indoors, where he will be this weekend.
Former Saints kicker Kai Forbath has allowed half of his 88 kickoffs to be returned. He has converted 32-of-38 field goal attempts (84 percent) and 34-of-39 extra points. In New Orleans in 2015, Forbath kicked in 10 games, hitting just 9-of-13 field goals and 33-of-34 extra points.
In the punting game, Thomas Morstead has been among the top five punters in the league this season, averaging 47 yards per punt. Equally as impressive is the fact that 26 of Morstead’s 60 punts (43 percent) have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
Ryan Quigley is nowhere near that level, finishing 34th in the league in gross punting. He averages 42.2 yards per punt on 71 punts.
Marcus Sherels averages 9.5 yards per punt return and 24.6 yards per kickoff return while Jerick McKinnon averages 26 yards per kickoff return.
Minnesota is 25th in the league in kickoff coverage and 22nd in the NFL in punt coverage. Of course, the Saints are 28th in kickoff coverage, not an impressive statistic, though it is academic if Lutz kicks touchbacks. New Orleans is eighth best in punt return coverage, largely thanks to Morstead’s hang time and good gunners on the punt squad.
In a close game, Lutz would appear to be more dependable than Forbath while Morstead certainly has the edge on Quigley. Kamara, without a doubt, has a chance to make a difference on kickoff returns.
If this turns out to be a field goal margin contest, it could well be the Saints’ kicking game which provides the edge necessary to reach the NFC Championship game.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…