Linebacker Eric Kendricks faces challenge in absense of teammate Anthony Barr

October 27, 2018 GMT

The Vikings have slowly but surely regained their footing as one of the best defenses in the NFL. After giving up 327 yards and 27.5 points per game over their 1-2-1 start to the season, they have given up only 247 yards and 18.3 points per game over their current three-game winning streak.

But their opponents in that streak, the Eagles, Cardinals and Jets, have a combined 7-14 record while the Saints, their opponent Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, will be the third-toughest offense, statistically, that the Vikings have faced this season.

The Saints are averaging 409.8 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL behind two previous Vikings opponents in the Rams (446.4) and the Packers (421.0). The Vikings lost 38-31 to the Rams and tied the Packers 29-29.

But they will be at a true disadvantage with linebacker Anthony Barr missing the game because of a hamstring injury. That means that linebacker Eric Kendricks will be thrust into the spotlight to help guide the defense against one of the best passers in the game in Drew Brees, who has a ton of weapons at his disposal.

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Pass defense a point of pride

Kendricks, who signed a five-year, $50 million this offseason, ranks 17th in the NFC in tackles with 44, a number that leads the Vikings. But more important, he’s getting more comfortable in coverage and has four pass deflections this season.

Kendricks said pass defense is one of the areas the team is constantly trying to improve.

Does he look forward to playing in coverage?

“It depends, you know?” Kendricks said. “I enjoy the challenge, but it can be tough at times, especially with these looks that they’re giving us. But that’s why you have to watch film and prepare.”

Being a middle linebacker means that Kendricks is one of the key players when it comes to sharing defensive audibles before the snap, which will be especially tough with a quarterback as smart as Brees.

“It starts with communication, and if we have good communication out there and good energy, we can do a lot,” he said.

Gophers bowl hopes alive

The Gophers’ 38-31 win over Indiana was one of the wilder back-and-forth contests in recent memory with Indiana scoring 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to tie it.

But Tanner Morgan’s 67-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Rashod Bateman with 1 minute, 34 seconds left on the clock showed that coach P.J. Fleck never lost faith in his young team even after the Gophers committed three second-half turnovers and lost running back Shannon Brooks and lead receiver Tyler Johnson to injuries.

“We had to go finish the game,” Fleck told Fox Sports 1. “It was one of those frustrating moments [after blowing a big lead] and you say, ‘Let’s go win the game.’ Freshman to freshman. That was a big play.”

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Yes, it was an impressive game for the freshman Morgan, who finished 17-for-24 with 302 yards and three scores to keep the Gophers’ hopes for a bowl game alive.

“This is the youngest team in college football,” Fleck said. “I’m so proud to coach them.”

Baldelli talks Tampa success

When the Twins made Rocco Baldelli their new manager it was the latest in a long line of front office and coaching personnel who have left the Tampa Bay organization for bigger opportunities.

There’s no doubt that the Rays have been one of the premier organizations in baseball while dealing with tight budget constraints. In 2018 they had the lowest payroll in baseball at $68.8 million while posting the sixth-best record in the American League at 90-72.

On top of that, several of their executives have had great success after leaving Tampa Bay. Joe Maddon won a championship with the Chicago Cubs while former General Manager Andrew Friedman has moved on to being president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where they have won four straight division titles and reached back-to-back World Series since Friedman took over.

Does Baldelli hope to continue that run of post-Rays success?

“I am going to show up every day and do everything I can to do that,” he said. “I like to look ahead and think about what we’re trying to accomplish, but I like to think about what I have to do today and tomorrow and next week before I like to look ahead.

“I like having goals, but I like having short-term goals, a lot, too. I think that’s how you get to where you want to be.”

Baldelli said he actually doesn’t consider the Twins roster young or thin.

“I wasn’t overly concerned with anything like that,” he said. “I actually saw a young, good group of players that play with energy and have an opportunity to really do some nice things. They have real ability that I think if we get them in the right frame of mind and right situation with the right resources, I think they could make great leaps and do great things.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com