With all the talk about late hits on Brett Favre(notes) in the NFC Championship game, and all the folderol about how the overtime format was unfair to His Brettness because ... well, because His Brettness didn't get to the Super Bowl, the one primary difference between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints in 2009 was one player who switched between the two teams. Safety Darren Sharper(notes), let go by the Vikings, signed a lowball deal with New Orleans and absolutely thrived in Gregg Williams' pressure-based defensive schemes. Sharper intercepted nine passes and had 11 passes defensed last year, an amazing total for a guy in his mid-thirties at a position that usually throws guys out by the time they hit the big 3-0.
That said, Mr. Favre recently told NOLA.com that given the choice, he might prefer to see Sharper on the field for tonight's rematch instead of cooling his heels on the sideline. Sharper will spend the first six weeks of the 2010 season on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. And Favre wonders if that isn't a bad thing.
"What has made Sharper such a good player I don't want to say has hurt him, but you can kind of use his aggression against him," Favre said. "That's easier said than done, because there are a lot of factors that go into it: time to throw, being able to double move, and things of that nature. (But) I played with Darren, played against Darren, and he'll roll the dice. ... (He's a) very, very instinctive player."
You may think that Favre's either being a jerk or just steamrolling the Saints with a little pre-game fibbing, but Sharper was exploited by the Vikings in the NFC Championship. As I detailed on Football Outsiders in February, Adrian Peterson's rushing touchdown was a delay play against a blitz, and it's exactly what Favre's talking about. From the article:
Peterson's 19-yard touchdown run was actually a pretty good example of how a team can get too creative against the run, and wind up paying for it. The Vikings went with I-formation and two tight ends on the right. Pre-snap, tight end Jim Kleinsasser(notes) motioned left as Sharper started coming down from safety like a bat out of hell, reading run all the way.
The Saints' front line bit on the initial direction of fullback Naufahu Tahi(notes), and when Peterson cut back, Sharper had been taken out by a Kleinsasser block. Smith was so concerned with getting in the backfield and attacking Favre, there was no backside defense to speak of. Peterson had a straight-line run to the end zone, one of the easiest he'll ever have in his career. Since the Minnesota line has been vulnerable all season, and Kleinsasser's probably the team's best blocker when Steve Hutchinson(notes) isn't 100 percent, that was an interesting gambit by Williams.
Because second-year DB Malcolm Jenkins(notes) doesn't yet see what Sharper sees with those veteran eyes of his, Jenkins might be predisposed to hang back and watch plays before reacting against the Vikings' explosive offense. And as Favre said in the NOLA.com piece, that might be a problem -- if the Saints can mix less risky coverages with the kinds of jailbreak blitzes Williams prefers (and Favre doesn't do as well against), New Orleans will have a distinct advantage. They won't have to leave huge downfield gaps that are easy to charge through.
"I think right now, I'm sure things could change in this game, but Jenkins seems to be playing a little more like Coach (Gregg) Williams wants him to play it and doesn't want him to think outside the box yet," Favre continued. "Once again, that's just my opinion, but you just don't see him at this point being as aggressive or risky or whatever as Sharp does."
Could Darren Sharper be the difference in the second Saints-Vikings game in 2010? Most certainly - and this time, as great as Sharper is, it might be his absence that sets the tone.