The last time these two teams met was the unforgettable playoff game in Seattle in January 2011. The Seahawks beat the defending world champion Saints 41-36 despite a 400+ yard and no interception effort from Drew Brees, while Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck threw for less than 300 yards, but four scores, mostly at the expense of safety Roman Harper. The real hero of that game was Marshawn Lynch though, picking up 131 yards and one of the amazing post-season TD runs on just 19 carries.
Here are three key factors to watch for in this contest.
Stopping Jimmy Graham
The Seahawks ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary has stifled wide receivers all season, but the Saints present a unique challenge: stopping TE Jimmy Graham. Seattle has been one of the stingier defenses against tight ends this season – they’ve only allowed two scores to this position, both coming against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and one which was an unpredictable jump-pass from RB Mike James). They have not faced a tight end of Graham’s caliber (in terms of a receiving threat), but they did contain both Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez. Davis only caught three passes for 20 yards before leaving with a hamstring injury in the 4th quarter; he was also the target on two picks, one which involved him split out wide against Richard Sherman, who won that battle down the sidelines. Gonzalez also only caught three passes vs. this defense, which doesn’t include one that went right through his hands on a 2nd-10 in front of Kam Chancellor on a play negated by a defensive off-sides flag.
It will be interesting to see how they defend Jimmy Graham. The former-third rounder leads all tight ends in yards (946), targets (95), catches (65), and TD catches (11). Graham, who lines up everywhere (including out wide as a receiver), has beaten every defensive position this year (yes, the Falcons tried to cover him with defensive end Kroy Biermann more than once). Some of his highlights include beating superior CB Patrick Peterson on a slant pass for a 7-yard score and dragging a Jet and Falcon safety into the end zone for deep TD grabs. The only game in which he was shut down was in New England where Aqib Talib shadowed him on nearly every play before leaving due to injury (Graham was also injured later in this contest). This will be a matchup to watch throughout the game; there is no doubt Gruden will be watching and commenting on it.
Marshawn Lynch vs. Saints Run D
The Saints’ defense has been better against the run than against the pass this season, and have only allowed two 100+ rushers (Doug Martin and Chris Ivory). It should be noted though that Martin had 144 yards and Ivory, an ex-Saint, had 139, while Stevan Ridley had 96 and DeMarco Murray had 89 on the ground. The usually solid ground defense can be attributed to sophomore third-round DE Akiem Hicks (who did have his worst effort of the year against Dallas), journeyman D-Lineman now playing NT Broderick Bunkley, Cam Jordan, and rookie safety Kenny Vacarro. Some of the weak links in this area include ILBs Curtis Lofton (whose 2013 resume is littered with red-graded run defense performances) and David Hawthrone (whose worst grade here came last week against the offensively-inept Falcons).
This unit will be tested, as they were in the 2010 playoffs, by the beast that is Marshawn Lynch. The former Bill leads all RBs in missed tackles (55), tied for second with Knowshon Moreno in TDs (9), and third in yards-after-contact (566). He could also have some more yards and TDs if Seattle hadn’t inexplicably called some QB runs in goal-to-go territory (the MNF game in St. Louis was a good example of this). Can the Saints stop arguably the best player on the Seattle offense?
Drew Brees vs. Seahawks Secondary
Drew Brees is, once again, one of the best signal-callers in the league. He has the fourth-best passing grade, third-best completion %, and is second-best, behind Peyton, in yards and TD throws. Brees is much more dangerous at home, however, with a +15.8 passing grade compared to a +2.9 grade on the road. The only negative grade he suffered came in New England. His only pick-six, thrown directly to LB Mason Foster, came on the road in Tampa Bay early in the year.
The former Super Bowl MVP will be operating against arguably the toughest opposing home field advantage in the NFL, as well as one of the league’s best secondaries. Not much needs to be said about Richard Sherman, one of the league’s best CBs, but he, after getting a little cocky in the last game vs. the Vikings (heard via the mic he was equipped with), did get burned for a deep TD pass by Christian Ponder and Jarius Wright. There’s also Earl Thomas, who has the second-best coverage grade among his peers (and the best grade on this unit); he too isn’t invincible though, as evidenced in the Tampa Bay game where he got beat for two scores. Former Hokie Kam Chancellor is also solid (+2.2 coverage grade). This defense will be without starter Brandon Browner and backup Walter Thurmond though, leaving 2011 sixth-rounder Byron Maxwell to fill the void. On the year Maxwell has seen 139 coverage snaps in eight games, been targeted 23 times and allowed 15 catches for 161 yards and a score while also defending three passes. The Falcons game is his most noteworthy one – he successfully defended an end zone pass to Roddy White, but was later beat by undrafted rookie Darius Johnson for a TD.
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