3TFO: Saints @ Seahawks, Divisional Round
When the 9-2 Saints traveled to the 10-1 Seahawks back in Week 13, the game had the potential to be one of the best matchups in Monday Night Football history. Instead the Seahawks jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and never looked back, while the Saints offense earned its worst yards per play mark of the Sean Payton era. It was the kind of victory that made you want to give Seattle the NFC title right there and then.
It’s fitting that after virtually handing the Seahawks home field advantage that Monday night, the Saints will now be the first team to put it to the test. A Week 16 home loss to Arizona has taken away some of Seattle’s air of invincibility, but CenturyLink Field is still as intimidating an environment as you’ll find in the NFL. The Saints sunk even further after that Week 13 defeat by losing their division and first round bye to the Carolina Panthers, but they finally earned their franchise’s first road playoff win last week in Philadelphia.
Decibel levels and weather forecasts will play their role on Saturday, but let’s turn our focus instead to the on-field matchups. The Saints have plenty of reason to believe they can pull off the upset, but they’ll likely have to come out on top of these key battles. If they don’t, the Seahawks should have a clear path to the NFC Championship Game.
Saints Receivers vs. Seahawks Coverage
One of the lasting images of that Seattle Monday night win was Cliff Avril strip-sacking Drew Brees and Michael Bennett returning the fumble for the touchdown. That may have given us the impression that the Seahawks harassed Brees in the pocket all game, but that actually wasn’t the case. Brees was pressured at a rate rate just slightly higher than his season average, and he still completed over 60% of his passes. But how then did the Sehawks hold him to a miserable 3.9 yards per attempt, his lowest rate in a game since 2004? You can thank some of the soundest coverage we saw from a team this season.
All season long, the Saints thrived on the ability of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Jimmy Graham to beat opposing linebackers and shred them for extra yardage after the catch. No running back group in the league had more yards after catch or forced missed tackles on receptions than the Saints did. But linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner were all over the field for the Seahawks that night. They may have allowed 12 of the 16 passes they saw in coverage to be completed, but only two of those went for first downs and they didn’t miss a single tackle. The Saints averaged 156 yards after the catch per game this season, but collected just 66 against Seattle. Wright will be out this week with a broken foot, but next man up Malcolm Smith is a good linebacker in his own right.
Not just settling for shorter throws against the Seahawks’ speedy linebackers, Brees also tried to beat Seattle over the top. But despite finishing second in the league in Deep Passing this season, all six of Brees’ throws more than 20 yards downfield fell incomplete, with four of them batted away by the Seattle defenders. Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell allowed just one reception for seven yards on six targets in coverage. Now that Seattle has Walter Thurmond back, they’ll be even better-equipped to match up with the Saints multiple receiver packages. Brees will certainly need a great game to pull off an upset this Saturday, but his receivers will have to do a much better job, both before and after the catch, against Seattle’s suffocating coverage.
Saints Running Game vs. Seahawks D-Line
Despite their reputation, the Saints showed last week that they don’t need to rely solely on their passing game to move the ball. Even without Thomas, New Orleans ran the ball 36 times for 185 yards against the Eagles defense. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson combined for a +5.7 grade and eight missed tackles on their carries, earning our Game Ball in the process. Ingram showed why he had the highest Elusive Rating of any running back with 50 carries this season, and the rookie Robinson showed why he led the league in missed tackles back in preseason. Up front it was a team effort, with every single Saints offensive lineman earning a positive run block grade. Jahri Evans, who had a rough stretch early this season, continued his recent surge by manhandling the Eagles interior line and engulfing their linebackers on the second level.
The Seahawks poor run defense up front proved to be their undoing last season, as they surrendered 167 yards and 6.4 yards per carry to the Falcons rushing attack in their Divisional Round loss. Playing in place of defensive end Chris Clemons, who tore his ACL the week prior, Bruce Irvin was helpless in the run game. But that was then, and this year’s Seahawks defensive line, with the fourth-most run stops in the league, is much stouter up front. Brandon Mebane’s +22.7 run defense grade and Tony McDaniels’ +17.4 put them second and fourth among their fellow defensive tackles this season. On the edges, Bennett and Red Bryant both finished Top 12 in Run Stop Percentage among 4-3 defensive ends with at least 100 run defense snaps. The Saints had an excellent rushing performance last week, but will need an even better effort to beat this deep Seahawks front line.
Russell Wilson vs. Saints Secondary
If you’d told me that the Saints held Marshawn Lynch to 45 rushing yards in their first meeting, I would’ve given New Orleans a good chance to beat the Seahawks. But the Saints defense instead allowed the second-highest yardage in a game this season, thanks to a great night from Russell Wilson. He was on point from his very first drop back, when he scrambled right and threw a pinpoint pass on the run, over a leaping cornerback and underneath a closing safety, for a 21-yard gain. Wilson led the league with 355 pass yards and 17 first downs on scrambles this season, but he didn’t always need his legs to beat New Orleans. With 7:54 left in the 2nd quarter, the Saints sent eight rushers at him and he calmly threw a teardrop pass over the top to Doug Baldwin for a 52-yard gain. Wilson talked afterwards about having a good gameplan for the Saints blitzes, and the numbers bore that out. On the nine drop backs where New Orleans brought extra rushers, Wilson was 8-for-8 for 122 yards, a touchdown, and a perfect passer rating.
Rob Ryan may resist his natural inclination to blitz, as he did last week when he only called for four against Nick Foles. But that would force the Saints to maintain their coverage longer, and it’s questionable whether they may have the personnel to do so. Keenan Lewis had a Pro Bowl-worthy season and allowed eight yards in 24 coverage snaps against the Eagles, but is recovering from a concussion. When he left last week’s game, Rod Sweeting was shaky in reserve. Corey White had a solid game against Seattle in Week 13, but he’s allowed two touchdowns with a -6.5 coverage grade in the last four weeks. Malcolm Jenkins allowed a season-high 95 yards on coverage to the Seahawks, and thanks to Kenny Vaccaro’s injury he’s again playing alongside Roman Harper, who allowed the most yards of any safety in the NFL in 2012.
Vaccaro’s loss will loom even larger if Percy Harvin does in fact suit up for the Seahawks. Not just a traditional safety, Vaccaro was the Saints main slot cornerback and allowed just one yard in 32 total coverage snaps against the Seahawks in Week 13. Trevin Wade has taken his place, but if Harvin is healthy then the second-year cornerback will have the unenviable task of defending one of the league’s most uniquely dangerous offensive weapons. If Wilson is as impressive as he was in Week 13, it may be an impossible one.
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