The New Orleans Saints are hoping to win their season opener on Monday for the first time since 2013, but the matchup against the Minnesota Vikings won’t be easy.
In addition to playing a primetime road game in a loud stadium, the Saints will face a Vikings team with a stellar defense and an offense capable of being efficient.
Here are three key matchups that could determine the outcome:
Saints offensive tackles vs. Vikings defensive ends
Ryan Ramczyk’s debut at left tackle for the Saints comes at an unfortunate time, but everyone should quickly learn how ready he is.
The Vikings boast one of the NFL’s top groups of defensive ends with Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. All three had at least 7.5 sacks last season, and Ramczyk will likely face one of them each play.
Don’t be surprised if the Saints frequently put a tight end on the left side or have a running back chip to help Ramczyk. No matter how confident the team is in the first-round pick, helping him block seems like a logical move.
With a strong season in 2016, right tackle Zach Strief has earned the benefit of a doubt even at age 33, but one misstep by the veteran could result in a negative play. Ramczyk and Strief will have to play well throughout the game to keep Drew Brees upright and help the offense move down the field.
Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas vs. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes
It’s unclear if Rhodes will travel to cover Thomas the entire game, but any time the two face each other it will be the matchup to watch.
Rhodes is aggressive, strong and fast, and his performance the past four years helped him earn a new contract that makes him the third-highest paid cornerback in the NFL in terms of annual value.
But, Thomas is certainly not scared of a challenge. If anything, he seems to relish opportunities against good cornerbacks, and after talking this offseason about his plans to show improvement, Thomas draws a matchup that will give him an opportunity to show whether or not he’s grown.
With Willie Snead out, Thomas will surely be Brees’ go-to target for the next three weeks. Thomas will find it difficult to create separation against Rhodes, so he’ll have to showcase his ability to make contested catches.
Saints linebackers vs. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
This game will be a test in many ways for the new-look group of Saints linebackers, especially with Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford favoring quick and accurate passes.
The toughest challenge for the Saints, though, will be covering Cook because he’s such a weapon in the open field. In 2016, Cook averaged 14.8 yards per reception, and with the Vikings likely running a lot of shotgun, Cook will probably be running a lot of routes.
As good as the Saints linebackers looked this summer, they still mostly struggled covering rookie running back Alvin Kamara. Kamara and Cook are different players, obviously, but the linebackers will have to cover well in the game to limit Cook’s big-play ability.