Spare me your Peyton Manning returning to Indianapolis, or the aforementioned quarterback facing off against Tom Brady or the stifling Chiefs defense. The game of the year will take place on Monday Night Football in the Pacific North West as the Seahawks host the New Orleans Saints.
We all remember what happened the last time both teams fared against each other. Marshawn Lynch and his “Beast Quake” run made the ground shake and the likes of Tracy Porter and Darren Sharper could never be seen in the same light again as their feeble attempts to tackle “The Beast” continue to resonate in our minds, three years later.
But that was then and three years afterwards, although some of the same cast of characters are present (only Roman Harper is left from the defense) from that tremendous wild-card game, the Saints and Seahawks will provide us with a great matchup from a schematic and player personnel standpoint.
Here are six key points for each time in order to win this potential NFC Championship preview.
Saints-Seahawks 5 key points:
1. Run defense
Although the Saints are 12th in total rushing yards allowed, they are 4th in yards per carry surrendered. The discrepancy arises due to the Saints piling on teams, forcing them to throw the ball. But when teams have stayed committed to the run against the Saints, they have been able to gash them up the middle of the field.
In week 9, the Jets had 198 rushing yards. (Saints loss)
In week 7, the Patriots had 141 rushing yards. (Saints loss)
In both games, the Jets and Patriots also won the time of possession battle.
The Saints weakness against the run has been up the middle. Conversely, the Seahawks are adept at running iso-plays with fullback Michael Robinson being one of the better run blocking fullbacks in the game. The Seahawks, who have no superior when it comes to the amount of rushing attempts this season, will deploy Marshawn Lynch on a consistent basis. The Seahawks have the third ranked rushing attack in the league and will benefit from the return from Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini.
The sample size is small, but the Saints can definitely be run on and that will be a key to controlling the clock and keeping Drew Brees off the field.
2. The middle of the field
One of the best individual matchups will be between Earl Thomas and Jimmy Graham. Both have been two of the premier players at their respective positions this season in the league. When looking at this battle, it will be imperative for either Graham or Thomas to own the middle of the field.
Graham, is one of the new-era “move” tight-ends, which means he can stay in-line at the line of scrimmage, or he can move to y-receiver position or even operate from the slot, which is where he plays roughly 30 percent of his snaps.
Drew Brees’ ability to manipulate safeties by looking off one receiver and throwing it to an open one, is one of the more underrated aspects of his enormous skillet.
On the flip-side, you have Earl Thomas who roams the middle of the field like an assassin. He seems to always be around the football with his terrific range.
Look for Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham to run rough-shot in the middle of the field on Monday. It will be up to Earl Thomas and to a lesser extent, Kam Chancellor, to patrol the area inside the numbers.
3. The screen game
One of the keys to beating the Saints is to curb their screen game. New Orleans is by far the best in the league at it because they have patience runners after the catch in Darren Sproles (48 catches, 468 yards) and Pierre Thomas (56 catches, 506 yards), while their guards like Jahri Evans and Brian De La Puente, can quickly act as convoys for the runners to gain extra yardage. The Saints use the screen game to establish their running and passing game. Those easy dump off do more than just pad Drew Brees’ stats; they also allow Sean Payton to use it like a running game that can gain chunk yardage because of the low risk for turnovers and it is such a high-percentage play.
For Seattle, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Right, who respectively play the Mike and Sam linebacker positions, will have their work cut out for them, as they will be the main components to sniff out the screen pass with the key’s that they pick up during film study or simply gut instinct. Failure to contain Thomas and Sproles will make for a long day for the Seahawks defense.
4. The QB battle
Obviously Drew Brees has the pedigree and he is on pace for another 5,000 yard, close to 40 touchdown season, but we’re also seeing Russell Wilson bring his game to another notch as the league leader for rushing yards for a quarterback . Wilson’s completion percentage is nearly identical from last season (64 percent), but he is making more plays with his feet, either by flat-out rushing the ball or using his feet to extend plays and find open receivers.
When looking at Brees and Wilson, obviously, they have been great stories throughout their careers as two players who have needed to overcome the thought that their height would be an impediment towards being starting calibre quarterbacks. Obviously, that has turned out to be a non-factor as both Brees and Wilson have become terrific players and two of the best leaders at their positions, let alone overall in the National Football League. You see it with both quarterbacks who have such great command of their teams and the huddle. In late game situations, when key third downs need to be converted, they are two of the better quarterbacks in the league.
Hard not to believe that the winner of this game will be heavily predicated on who wins the matchup between the “diminutive” quarterbacks.
5. Gallette/ Jordan/ Saints pressure vs Okung and Giacomini
The Saints have turned a 32nd ranked pass defense in a top-5 passing defense due to the improved play of their secondary. Keenan Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro, Mike Jenkins and Jabari Greer have played great this season. Their success however cannot be mentioned without giving credit to a pass rush that is tied for second in the NFL with 37 sacks. Cam Jordan and Junior Gallette have been key in provided the pressure in Rob Ryan’s 3-4 blitzing scheme. The Seahawks have finally seen the return of their stellar tackles in Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini. We’ve seen Seattle struggle, most notably against the Rams, when both tackles were not present. In week eight, Wilson was sacked seven times and could not get any flow or momentum in the passing game. Both Giacomini and Okung returned prior to the bye week against the Minnesota Vikings who could only manage to sack Russell Wilson once.
What makes the duo of Jordan and Gallette so fearful is that they can line up in a multitude of positions. Gallette mostly plays as a standup linebacker, but has played with his hand on the dirt. Jordan excels either as a 3-4 five-technique , a 4-3 seven technique and I have seen line up as a nine-technique. Essentially this entails the depth at his the defensive end lines up. The five technique lines up in front of the tackle, the seven on the inside shoulder of the tight end and the nine on the outside shoulder of the tight end. Jordan also plays a lot as a standup linebacker. Jordan combines great speed and strength and is a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate. His matchup against Russell Okung, who is in many regards the premier left tackle in the league, will be integral for the winning team.
6. Home Field advantage
Seattle has an NFL-best 13 game home winning streak that is on the line against their toughest test so far this season. I have always dubbed Century Link field, “The great equalizer”. Regardless of the strength of team the Seahawks may have, when a road team comes through the pacific northwest, regardless of their record, their chances of winning the game greatly decrease. The Seahawks are very rarely an underdog in a game because of the advantage the 12th man gives them. This advantage spans through the defense which is sixth in the league in false start enduced at home. As both teams come in with 9-2 and 10-1 records, the edge has to go to the Seahawks.
During their 13 game home winning streak, the Seahawks have outscored opponents 567-249, averaging a whopping 40.5 points per game and only giving up 17 points per game. In their last 13 road contests, they are outscoring teams 457-354, but allowing an average of over 23 points per game.
Although I hate making final predictions, it is hard for me to go against Seattle when they are at home. I see a potential shootout, with the Seahawks pulling away at the end.
New Orleans 30, Seattle 35