When the Saints traveled to Century Link Field for their week 13 Monday Night matchup, they looked like a team unprepared and completely out-coached.
After last weekend’s wild card victory against the Eagles, it is safe to say the Seahawks will not see the same Saints team they saw on December 2nd.
From a roster standpoint, the Saints feature the same set of players who were thoroughly embarrassed in the first matchup. From a schematic and philosophical standpoint, however, the Saints are willing and able to feature a game plan that can dethrone the number one seed in the NFC. For the Seahawks, they come into this monumental matchup– which is a rematch of the “Beast-Quake” playoff game, from three years ago–with the confidence that they can systematically dissect the Saints offense and defense like they did in the first meeting.
Here are five things to watch out in this matchup
Crowd noise: It has been stated a myriad of times but say what you will about the overall impact of the 12th man, but the Saints could not adjust to the high decibel levels of Century Link Field. The crowd noise adds a psychological factor that is incredibly hard to account for. Drew Brees and the offensive line had new noise cancellation ear plugs, but when you hit a new crowd noise level of 137 decibels, no amount of noise cancellation features will be enough to bypass the 12th man’s level of noise–a crowd that has helped force 2.36 false starts per game, which is the highest amount of any home crowd since 2006.
The Saints went as far as to paint the Seahawks logo on center field of their practice facility. They also pumped out two sets of loud speakers to replicate the crowd noise that is exhibited at Century Link Field. Those sound like admirable tactics to prepare for the noise, but there is nothing that can truly simulate a true game-like experience at Century Link.
Seahawks secondary: In the first meeting, Brandon Browner unavailable to play due to injury and an impending PED use suspension. His replacement, nickel cornerback, Walter Thurmond, had also been unavailable due to injury. Not only did it not matter that two of their three best corners were absent, but their replacement, Byron Maxwell, played as well as any of them had played all season.
The Seahawks run a triangle scheme with their defensive backfield. It can look like a man-to-man pre-snap read and turn into a cover three look. Their corners play the type of press-man coverage that will try to jam and re-route the receiver, which completely disrupts the timing between a quarterback and receiver. As mentioned, the Seahawks have the talent at corner with Sherman having another fantastic season. Maxwell has played well down the stretch of the season and Thurmond has returned from his injury. The kicker is Earl Thomas who plays at the top of the triangle. Thomas has been playing at an all-pro level all season and he has the type of talent to be the anchor of this defensive formation. Many teams play two-high safeties, but the Seahawks will allow Thomas to roam free and making plays using his terrific range. Their strong safety, Kam Chancellor conversely plays at the line of scrimmage at a higher rate.
The Saints were completely flustered during their first matchup. None of their receivers could get loose on the outside and the defense that the Seahawks deployed completely neutralized the Saints deep-middle passing attack. Suffice to say that if the Saints cannot debunk the Seahawks triangle, the likes of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, who typically excel in the slot, will be corralled.
The Saints run game: Mark Ingram had his best game as a pro with 18 carries, 96 yards and a touchdown. This will be the recipe for the Saints to come away with a victory. It sounds easier said than done and it is mentioned every week by analysts, but it really is elementary. The formula to quell crowd noise is to run the football and control the tempo of the game. The Saints did it last week as the away team in one of the more hostile environments in Lincoln Financial Field. Pierre Thomas did not play last week and will be a questionable play for Sean Payton, even if he is cleared to go. Ingram endeared himself well to his teammates, coaches and fans, who most would consider a disappointment since he’s been drafted in the first round out of Alabama.
The Seahawks are vulnerable against the run, despite having a very talented rushing defense, featuring the likes of Red Bryan, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel. New Orleans must continue to establish the run, and stay steadfast ensuring they do not get away from that strategy.
Saints pass-protection vs. Seahawks pass-rush: Terron Armstead played a beautiful game last week at left tackle for New Orleans. The position has been one influx all season with Charles Brown and Armstead going through their ups and downs. Armstead gets another test today with the Seahawks who can rotate four to six players at that position. Michael Bennett, Bruce Irwin, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril can each rush the passer and they are not pigeon-holed into one spot of the field. They attack the quarterback from all vantage points. Forget that Brees was only sacked once. He was hit and pressured into bad throws and an inability to push the ball down the field.
The Seahawks defensive tackles, who I had mentioned earlier, are also adept at rushing the passer up the middle of the pocket. This aspect is crucial as Brees absolutely loves stepping into the pocket. Offensive linemen are usually never factored in from a fans perspective, but I urge you to remember the names of Armstead, Grubbs, De La Puente, Evans and Strief. They will factor into every aspect of the Saints offensive game plan.
Containing Russell Wilson: Wilson and the Seahawks passing game have struggled a little over the last three weeks, but he did humiliate the Saints defense in the first meeting. He broke containment whenever he wanted and connected on big passing plays with his diminutive wide receivers. I attribute Wilson’s style of quarterback play to that of a point guard in basketball. He creates openings and passing lanes with his legs. He does not just standstill as a passer when the rush breaks down on his pocket. Junior Gallette and Cam Jordan will need to rush him quickly or else they must keep containment. You simply cannot wildly rush Wilson without accounting for his ability to escape the pocket.
With Percy Harvin returning from a hip injury and the plethora of ways he can be used, such as in the return game, as a backfield runner and in the screen game, Wilson will have more than enough weapons (along with Jerome Kearse, Golden Tate and Zach Miller), to bring his ‘Houdini’ act for an encore against the Saints.
The weather will be a little worse than the first meeting with a lot of rain and some cold weather. The home-field advantage that the Seahawks craved all season long will be the key factor for the Saints and Seahawks matchups. Century Link Field is what I call the great equalizer. Regardless of the teams and roster makeup, the pendulum gets swung in the Seahawks direction when they play at home. It gets swung ten-fold when they have the type of roster they can feature. Ultimately, there are too many aspects that are against the Saints. They will need Pierre Thomas and Keenan Lewis to be healthy to remotely have a chance at taking this game. One positive is how they defended LeSean McCoy last week and prevented him from obtaining any big runs. The same must be done today against Marshawn Lynch if the Saints want to prevail.
Prediction: Saints 20-Seahaws 30