NFC South: Bryant McKinnie
There is never a good time for the Saints to lose a player the caliber of defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, but this could possibly be the worst time.
Ellis will miss up to four weeks after undergoing surgery on his right knee Friday, only days before New Orleans takes on running back Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings. Worse, the Saints are entering a stretch in which they face four of the league's top seven rushing offenses over the next six weeks.
And make no mistake about it, Saints opponents will run the ball early and often because the best way to slow quarterback Drew Brees and New Orleans' offense is to strand them on the sideline. Few NFL teams have a more effective run game than the Vikings (141.2 yards per game, sixth in the league), and Peterson will be especially dangerous on Monday night. He loves to run left behind left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is returning to the lineup following a suspension, and left guard Steve Hutchinson, who will enjoy a big mismatch against Ellis' replacements.
Saints defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs didn't rotate his interior linemen much last week, but it's uncertain whether undersized former starting defensive Brian Young can handle three-down duty like Ellis did. Instead, Gibbs may use a combination of defensive tackle Antwan Lake on run downs and Young on passing downs. Still, that duo can't come close to filling Ellis' shoes.
Ellis was a force against both the run and pass, but opponents now have some flexibility to target Lake (a marginal pass rusher) and Young (vulnerable against the run) with their play calling. And because Gibbs' one-gap scheme requires the tackles to expend a lot of energy creating upfield penetration, the blow to the Saints' depth at the position could be crushing, especially given the matchups on the horizon.
The Saints' pass defense could also takes a huge hit. It's unlikely we'll see anything resembling Week 4's six-sack performance while Ellis is on the shelf. Defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith won't face nearly as much single blocking on the edge without Ellis in the lineup to draw extra attention inside. It also affects the back end. Without Ellis, the Saints could be forced to either put a safety in the box to stop the run or blitz in passing situations to get pressure on the QB. Either way, the cornerbacks will be left in single coverage, which is definitely not their strength. The Saints better find a way to get to the QB in passing situations and fast, or there could be big plays downfield in the passing game for their opponents.
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