Take Two: Seahawks Prep For Saints
By Corbin Smith
Not long after Shayne Graham's game-winning field goal split the uprights to send the New Orleans Saints to the NFC divisional round, quarterback Drew Brees addressed the media and immediately began taking questions about his team's impending return to CenturyLink Field to face the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks.
The veteran quarterback and his team remember what happened six weeks ago when they traveled to the Pacific Northwest and got run out of the building in a 34-7 defeat on Monday Night Football. Brees had one of his worst performances since coming to New Orleans in 2006, throwing for a meager 147 yards and struggling to throw the ball down field all evening. The Saints couldn't establish a running game, totaling just 44 yards on the ground and leaving the offense one-dimensional.
Despite the awful showing, Brees remains confident in his team and calmly told the press, “We're going to need our best effort to beat these guys. But if there's a team that can do it, I believe that's us.”
Coming off of a thrilling 26-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Saints finally found a way to win a road playoff game, and Brees believes his team is peaking at the right time. After slipping down the stretch by going 2-2 in the team's last four games and dropping to a wild-card spot, New Orleans faced immense pressure heading into a tough game in Philadelphia. The Saints didn't lose a game this year at home, but Sean Payton's squad struggled mightily on the road. The Saints won only three out of eight away from the Mercedes Superdome in 2013.
Not many people gave the Saints a chance against the red-hot Eagles on a cold winter night. But Brees found his groove after throwing two ugly interceptions in the first half and the combination of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Khiry Robinson did a tremendous job giving New Orleans balance on offense. The Saints gashed Philadelphia's defense for 185 yards rushing, as Payton showed a new willingness to utilize the ground game to help his passing attack. Brees ended up throwing for 250 yards and a touchdown, with much of that damage coming in the second half.
Facing the Seahawks will present new challenges, as Brees and Payton will have to deal with the NFL's stingiest defense. This rematch will be a true battle of strengths, as the Saints' second-ranked passing offense will have to be at its finest to move the football against Richard Sherman and Seattle's top-ranked pass defense. Another strong performance from Payton's stable of running backs would do wonders to open up the passing game, but the Seahawks' run defense has been playing at an elite level in recent weeks.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows that his team can't enter this game thinking about what happened when these teams met on Dec. 2, and he's made "hitting the reset" button a major point of emphasis this week in preparation for the Saints.
"We start all over again. It has nothing to do with what happened before," Carroll reiterated during his Monday press conference. "We learned and we gained information in the game, as they did. But we start all over again, and we’re going to start from scratch, and take a look at what’s happened since we played them."
Carroll understands the stakes, and he won't let his team enter Saturday's game with big heads thinking they have a victory in the bag. Players have been saying the right things all week, and the coaching staff will continue to prepare the Seahawks for a challenging battle with one of the NFC's best teams.
What will dictate the final result of this highly-anticipated rematch? Even though it hasn't been that long since these teams met in Week 13, both teams are different than the ones that played that evening, and it would be shocking if the game unfolded like the previous one. With so much more hanging in the balance this time around, expect a tightly-contested game between two well-coached teams with Super Bowl aspirations.
For Seattle to advance to the NFC championship game, Carroll and offensive coordinator Darell Bevell must find a way to get the offense rolling early. Like the Saints, Seattle sputtered to a 2-2 finish down the stretch after opening the season with victories in 11 of their first 12 games.
While the defense continued to play like the best unit in football, and recorded 11 interceptions in Seattle's final three games, Russell Wilson had arguably his worst three-game stretch since being drafted and the running game has been stagnant for close to two months. Injuries and inconsistency along the offensive line have played a role in both of those developments, but the Seahawks have also appeared to employ undesirable offensive game plans entering recent games.
Wilson threw for 310 yards in the victory over New Orleans, but he averaged only 171 passing yards per game in the Seahawks' final four games and hasn't been near as accurate as usual. He only managed to complete 11-of-27 passes in a shocking loss to the Arizona Cardinals at home in Week 16, his second game this year completing less than 50 percent of his passes. Wilson's ability to improvise plays with his legs makes him a special quarterback, but at times late this season, he's been too quick to leave the pocket when defensive pressure wasn't as bad as he anticipated. Hopefully extra time in the film room, coupled with injuries in the Saints' secondary, will help him alleviate this problem and bounce back.
Star running back Marshawn Lynch also hasn't been near as productive as the season winded down, as he failed to rush for 100 yards in a game after a Week 10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Lynch only ran for 45 yards in Seattle's win over the Saints, and Bevell will need to get his workhorse back rolling to help take pressure off Wilson and the passing game. "Beast Mode" did show signs of waking up in the season finale with 97 rushing yards against the St. Louis Rams, and a week off probably did wonders for his body after carrying the football 301 times this season.
Re-establishing the run game would create problems for the Saints' defense, especially if Percy Harvin makes it through this week, and the Seahawks opt to activate him for this weekend. Harvin has missed all but one game this season and appeared to be on the verge of landing on Injured Reserve as late as last Monday, but Carroll surprised the media when he revealed that the speedy receiver would start practicing. Seattle had great success throwing the football against New Orleans last time, but considering recent struggles with receivers getting open, adding Harvin could be just what the doctor ordered.
Carroll insists that his Seahawks will move past the last game between these teams. Defensively, it wouldn't be a bad idea to look at what worked well that evening. Payton has been appropriately deemed a "mad scientist" and will make adjustments to find success moving the football, but Seattle shouldn't completely abandon what frustrated Brees and company in Week 13.
Instead of placing one player on standout tight end Jimmy Graham, defense coordinator Dan Quinn used multiple players in different coverages to hold him to only three catches. Injured linebacker K.J. Wright won't be in the lineup Saturday, but Quinn will be able to continue using safety Kam Chancellor, as well as Malcolm Smith and Byron Maxwell to keep Graham at bay.
New Orleans will most likely make running the ball a bigger priority than last time, and controlling the line of scrimmage will be key in trying to prevent big runs. Since two bad games against the Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle's front seven has done a much better job tackling and limiting runs. With Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald manning the middle, New Orleans could have a tough time running between the tackles, and that could force New Orleans into being one-dimensional again. Seattle can't expect a perennial Pro-Bowler like Brees to struggle as much as he did in Week 13, but replicating similar success against him would be much easier if the running game never gets on track.
If any area needs adjustment for the home team, it could be the Seahawks' plan for pressuring Brees. New Orleans made several big changes late in the season, but moving rookie tackle Terron Armstead into the starting lineup as a replacement for Charles Brown has paid off the most. Brown started against Seattle and struggled to keep ends like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril away from Brees, eventually leading to Armstead's promotion. Armstead may be the most athletic tackle to ever enter the league, as he ran a 4.72 40 time at the Combine in March — and while he has given up a few sacks since becoming a starter, he's done a better job giving Brees ample time to read coverage and throw the football. The Seahawks have great confidence in Avril, Bennett, and Chris Clemons — and the rookie will face a major challenge going up against any of these three players. But his presence could be a game-changer for New Orleans, if he's able to give Brees just a little more time in the pocket.
This game has the making of a potential classic, and if last week's wild-card games were any indication, being the home team doesn't guarantee wins in the playoffs. Seattle enjoys incredible home-field advantage at CenturyLink, but the best team will win this game regardless of location and whatever happened in the regular season. The Saints will have to deal with the league's most raucous crowd, but the experience they gained in Seattle earlier this season can only help them.
It would be unrealistic to think that the previous Seattle-New Orleans contest doesn't have any bearing on game-planning for Saturday, but Carroll understands the importance of focusing on the task at hand and not dwelling on the past. Both teams have learned a great deal about one another from their previous encounter, and this game will simply come down to which coaching staff does the best job taking advantage of these lessons. Seattle prepares each week as if it's the last game of the season, and that should be beneficial in a game of this magnitude.
“I think it’s just human nature that you like to think it’s going to be the same," said Carroll. "But we know better than that. So we need to respect this opportunity for what it is. It’s a great championship matchup for us.”
If his team can embrace the moment and not overlook a team that it handled easily earlier this year, Seattle has a great chance to play another week. If not, Seattle could easily face a long winter wondering what if.