ReFo: Saints @ Seahawks, Divisional Round
Ben Stockwell analyzes how the Seahawks, assisted by the elements, kept the Saints out of rhythm and advanced to the next round of the playoffs.
ReFo: Saints @ Seahawks, Divisional Round
A second trip to the Pacific Northwest ended in defeat for the New Orleans Saints and brought to an end their participation in this NFL season. Much like their first visit to Seattle on Thanksgiving weekend, they made mistakes in the first quarter (this time on special teams) that made the game tougher than it should have been before it was even 15 minutes old.
This time around, however, the Seahawks weren’t in the same clinically ruthless form and the Saints, though down by two scores for most of the game, were never put away. New Orleans would rally and threaten the sort of late comeback that would have seen Seattle rue their failure to make this game as comfortable on the scoreboard as it seemed for so long in terms of their control on the field.
Both defenses had the upper hand up front with a pair of big individual performances on each defensive line. In the end it was the Seahawks who got the big plays on defense and, crucially, had the game’s most telling individual performance on offense.
There was no repeat of the “Earthquake Run” of a few years ago but Marshawn Lynch showed some of his best form of the season exactly when it counted to carry Seattle through to their first conference championship appearance for eight years. The Seahawks showed in this game that they are far from invincible but at the same time they also displayed their depth and breadth of talent just how difficult it will be to beat them next Sunday when they host the Panthers or the 49ers.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Jordan Leads The Way Up Front
Now looking forward to his trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, Cameron Jordan led a strong display from the Saints’ defensive line that wasn’t enough to stop Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle ground game. Each of Akiem Hicks (+3.0), Brodrick Bunkley (+1.2) and Jordan himself (+3.5) graded positively in run defense notching their share of stops (seven between them) against the run and re-directing runs at the source. However, when you can then break 13 tackles, mostly from the guys behind this trio, that effort up front doesn’t always yield the results that it would seem to deserve.
Jordan added to his strong day in run defense with a consistent and productive day as a pass rusher. Yet he couldn’t make the telling play that Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett managed which could have turned this game in New Orleans’ favor. The Saints defensive line highlighted the fact that you can get at the Seahawks offensive line and disrupt Marshawn Lynch. The rest of the New Orleans defense proved the concept that you must make your first up tackles and back up the disruption from your big men up front.
Graham Kept Quiet Again
On their last visit, Jimmy Graham got the Saints’ sole touchdown to prevent a shutout but aside from that was kept quiet by K.J. Wright and the rest of the Seattle defense. The second time around didn’t see Graham assert his presence against the Seattle secondary in the way he has against so many other defenses this season. Targeted five times yesterday he caught only one pass for eight yards with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor breaking on the ball to break up four passes aimed in his direction. Well aware of the threat that Graham poses, the Seahawks’ safeties were in no mood to afford him the room to operate. Never a tight end who will contribute as a run blocker, Graham was a non-factor last night as a result of his inability to be a difference maker in the passing game.
Tackling Demons Return
Rob Ryan has led a terrific turn around for the New Orleans defense this season but at its heart this unit still uses the same personnel that missed 128 tackles in the 2012 regular season. The 2013 number was cut to 77 but a playoff game in Seattle yielded a return to past form. Back in the 2010 Wildcard game the Saints missed 17 tackles and only fell two short of that yesterday afternoon, all 15 of them coming against the Seahawks’ ground game. In their Week 13 visit tackling wasn’t a problem, the Saints missed six tackles against the Seahawks, only surrendering two to Lynch. He’d matched that number on his first two carries alone and by the end of the game only Cameron Jordan on the Saints’ starting defense hadn’t missed a tackle.
Seattle – Three Performances of Note
Engage Beast Mode
Most of those missed tackles from the Saints’ defense came courtesy of Marshawn Lynch (13 of the Saints’ 15 missed tackles) who channeled his performance from the Wildcard game three years ago, topping his missed tackle total from that memorable game by one. His +3.5 rushing grade yesterday was his second highest of the season (+4.5 at Atlanta, Week 10) and his fifth rushing grade of +2.0 or above this season.
Lynch didn’t get a massive amount of help from his offensive line up front but he was still able to work himself into one-on-one matchups against the Saints’ defenders both inside and outside. Clearly, those one on one encounters favored the Seahawks running back. In miserable conditions the Seahawks’ passing game wasn’t a factor but Lynch showed the sort of form to reinforce the thought that, if necessary, he can drag this team to New York single-handedly. The task won’t get any easier against the 49ers or Panthers next weekend.
Bennett Makes His Mark Again
How the Seahawks were able to get Michael Bennett so cheap last offseason is still beyond me. Bennett turned in another performance yesterday to remind the entire league just what they missed out on season and he will (presumably) be even more expensive in a couple of months time. Rushing from the left defensive tackle spot more often than any other position (17 of 39 pass rushes), Bennett was able to exploit his matchup with former divisional foe Jahri Evans consistently.
All but one of his half dozen pressures (1 Sk, 5 Hu) came against Evans and his forced fumble of Mark Ingram on the first play of the second quarter also came off of a block by the Saints’ right guard. The Seahawks struck it rich by sweeping up Avril and Bennett on value deals during free agency last spring. Their combined strip sack of Drew Brees early in the third quarter was an emphatic reminder to the rest of the league of what they missed out on.
Thomas and Chancellor Lower The Boom
It wasn’t just in shutting down Jimmy Graham that the Seahawks’ safety duo of Kam Chancellor (+5.7) and Earl Thomas (+1.1) made their presence felt against the Saints yesterday as two of the game’s standout performers. Breaking up four passes, Chancellor and Thomas made the middle of the field a no-fly zone for the Saints with Brees completing only five of 11 intermediate passes targeted between the numbers.
Chancellor added to his work in coverage with a couple of stops in run defense and was as disruptive against the run as much working off of blocks as he was unblocked which is more normal to see for a safety. This wasn’t a perfect game from Thomas with one big misjudgment playing a part in a 52-yard gain for the Saints in the fourth quarter. Even that can’t take away from the excellent game that he and Chancellor brought to the field yesterday to lead the Seattle defense.
– Those 13 missed tackles by Marshawn Lynch yesterday were comfortably a season high (previously nine at Indianapolis) after breaking only two against the Saints first time around. Next week he will look to repeat that trick after breaking only two against the Panthers first time around along with five and three in two encounters with the 49ers.
– After his struggles in his first start against the Panthers (-3.7), Terron Armstead rebounded with three straight positive grades finishing his (short) rookie season with a very strong showing (+4.4) yesterday.
– After notching five pressures yesterday (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 3 Hu) Cliff Avril has kept alive his streak of recording multiple pressures in every single game he has played in this season.
PFF Game Ball
Should that be Beast Mode or Playoff Mode? Only a pair of touchdowns and a baker’s dozen of forced missed tackles on the ground as Marshawn Lynch powered the Seahawks through to the next round.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.