The game of the year didn’t prove to be anything of the sort last night with the pivotal and much anticipated encounter between the Seahawks and the Saints getting out of hand early in the home team’s favor and never recovering from that point. Seattle established a 17-0 lead before New Orleans so much as registered a first down and though the Saints were able to recover to 17-7 on their next drive this was not to be the start of a comeback, merely their high-water mark in a game that sends a resounding message around the entire NFC with only a month to play.
The Seahawks controlled this game throughout with a strong team performance with a few individual standouts making the difference to spread the lead further. The Seahawks took out the Saints’ passing game in the way you perhaps wouldn’t have expected. Their stable of pass rushers got a big play early from Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett but for the most part it was down to their defensive backs but in particular their linebackers covering up Drew Brees’ key targets, never allowing the Saints’ passing game to develop any sort of momentum.
Nothing went right for the Saints and having had a chance to give themselves the inside track to homefield advantage with a win here they now find themselves back in a tie for the lead of their own division with what now becomes an even bigger matchup against the streaking Carolina Panthers back at the Superdome on Sunday. The Seahawks instead retain the No. 1 seed in the NFC and with a two game lead with four games to play it now seems all but certain that the road to the Super Bowl from the NFC runs through Seattle.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Slow Start with No Recovery
Things got off to a bad start for the Saints last night as a blocking break down on the very first play of the game left Brandon Mebane unblocked to tackle Pierre Thomas for a 4-yard loss. After a failed deep shot at Richard Sherman on third down, momentum quickly shifted to the Seahawks and — aside from a near miss for the Seahawks on their opening drive when Max Unger fell on a Marshawn Lynch fumble — that momentum was never wrested back towards the Saints. In a whirlwind first quarter the Seahawks got to grips with the Saints’ ground game, their longest gain on a fullback handoff to Jed Collins on the final snap of the quarter, and we got a glimpse of what was to come for much of the night with Seattle linebackers displaying air tight coverage on whoever entered their zones. Compound that with fumble recovery for a touchdown and you have the nightmare start that left the Saints with too much to do. This defeat ensures that the Saints will likely have to come back to Seattle if they want to make it New York for the big dance in February, one of the many lessons they will have learned from last night is that they can’t repeat such a disastrous start in any return match.
Active Vaccaro Unable to Make a Telling Difference
The tide in this game was too strong for one person to turn but one Saints’ defender to walk away with a creditable performance was Kenny Vaccaro who at least gave his team the opportunity to turn the early tide in this game. On the third down stop that set up the Seahawks’ field goal attempt to take a 3-0 lead, Vaccaro forced a fumble from Marshawn Lynch as he tried to spin out of contact and lunge for extra yardage towards the first down markers. At such an early stage a turnover could have been big in taking some of the sting out of the early going, but alas (for the Saints) Max Unger fell on the ball and the Seahawks took the fullest advantage from their forced fumble just five plays later. Vaccaro led the Saints’ defense with five defensive stops this week taking his season total to 19 just outside the Top 10 among safeties league wide.
Starved of the Big Plays
We are used to seeing the Saints bust out a series of big plays in every game they play, but this week, and not necessarily down to them playing particularly poorly, the New Orleans offense was starved of the opportunity to make the big plays that customarily stoke the fires of this offense. Jimmy Graham’s pair of 20-yard receptions marked the high in this Monday night encounter with Drew Brees going 0-for-6 on deep shots. His most productive region of the field was short and intermediate targets between the numbers hitting 12-of-14 for 103 yards and a touchdown but at less than 10 yards per attempt this was never going to be the level of production to put any kind of fear into the Seattle defense. The pass rush was not a massive reason for the struggles with Brees pressured on only 12 of 39 drop-backs the Saints simply couldn’t get open or get the looks they wanted against the Seahawks’ coverage. Unable to make plays down the field, the Saints also struggled to make plays after the catch with Richard Sherman’s pair of missed tackles marking the few times the Saints’ receivers could hit the open field.
Seattle – Three Performances of Note
Wright Maintains his Form
Entering this game in a rich vein of form in coverage (+4.4 in his last four games) K.J. Wright was in for a tough test to maintain that form against the Saints’ passing offense but he came up with the goods in a stellar performance. Serving to prove that you don’t have to force incompletions to have a big game in coverage, Wright made a living out of sticking close for immediate stops after the catch to prevent the Saints’ dangerous open field runners form breaking free. On eight targets Wright surrendered six receptions but only 23 yards, allowing fewer than 2 yards per reception after the catch. Covering Darren Sproles in primary coverage he allowed -1 yards combined on two targets while also sniffing out a screen to force a throw away from Drew Brees preventing a third target that he likely would have buried for a loss. But it wasn’t just short areas in which Wright excelled, though, as he made two impressive plays down the field against the Saints’ tight ends. On the same drive he tracked Ben Watson downfield and across the formation to break up a pass before going man-to-man with Jimmy Graham down the right sideline maintaining close coverage to force Graham out of bounds as they competed for the ball, preventing any chance of a completion to turf New Orleans off the field on fourth down. The longest completion Wright allowed all night was a 9-yard gain by Pierre Thomas.
Wilson Epitomizes the Execution
For the Seahawks, (aside from K.J. Wright) this really wasn’t about spectacular or dominant individual performances, it was about consistent team-wide execution taking advantage of the situations that their play calling got them in to. Russell Wilson’s first two touchdown passes were to open receivers with his second scoring pass just before the half showing Wilson and the Seahawks’ willingness to go against the old adage that you should never throw against the grain on a pass play. More than once in this game, clearly spotting a weakness in the Saints’ defense, the Seahawks had Wilson roll right and throw back across field outside the left numbers, on this occasion finding Doug Baldwin wide open on a crossing route for pivotal score just before the half. There was more than an air of fortune about his third scoring pass, but while Brees and the Saints struggled to make things happen through the air Wilson and the Seahawks had no such struggles. Plenty efficient against a base pass rush (16-of-24, 194 yds, 2 TD) Wilson made the Saints pay on the rare occasion that they did send extra rushers (6-of-6, 116 yds, 1 TD).
Maxwell Passes His First Test
Losing two cornerbacks in a week, the Seahawks found themselves delving down the depth chart this week, but rather than being a target point and a potential weakness for Drew Brees to exploit, Byron Maxwell (+2.3 coverage) looked completely at home in the Seattle secondary. Targeted only three times, Maxwell surrendered just the one catch and came up with two pass defenses. One of those came on an out-and-up to Jimmy Graham late in the third quarter, closing to knock the ball out of Graham’s hands just as it looked like he might be able to bring it in for a big play to push the Saints down the field. Passing a test of timing this week Maxwell will face a test of physicality next against the likes of Anquan Boldin when he and the rest of the Seattle defense head down the coast to face off with the 49ers.
– The Seahawks surrendered only 2.9 yards after the catch per reception to the Saints last night, New Orleans’ previous low was 4.0 against the 49ers two weeks ago and they have surpassed 5 yards per reception eight times this season.
– On passes aimed 10 or more yards down the field last night, Wilson went 7-of-10 for 203 yards including Doug Baldwin’s touchdown.
– Though only pressured on 12 of 39 drop-backs, that pressure made its mark with the sack sparking a touchdown and Brees going 3-of-11 for 26 yards, a 39.6 passer rating on the others.
PFF Game Ball
Probably the form coverage linebacker in the league right now K.J. Wright reinforced that point with a spectacular display covering the Saints’ dangerous weapons all over the field last night.