Here we go with a Divisional Playoff edition of Five Things to Watch (in no particular order) tomorrow when the Seahawks play the Saints:
1, Can the Seahawks again bottle up Drew Brees?The biggest key to Seattle’s 34-7 win over the Saints at CenturyLink Field on Dec. 2 was the defensive effort on Brees and the New Orleans passing game, which was held to a net of 144 yards, its lowest total since 2010. Seattle did it by getting good pressure on Brees and playing suffocating coverage in the secondary. According to ESPN, Brees was under pressure on 28 percent of his 39 dropbacks, his third-highest percentage of the season, in the first game. New Orleans also did not have a passing gain of longer than 20 yards in the first game and Brees was 0-8 on pass attempts of 15 yards or longer as the Saints either could not get separation, or didn’t execute when they did have a rare opening deep. A key will be whether the Saints can get tight end Jimmy Graham (just three catches for 42 yards in the first game) more involved this time.
2, Saints vs. Surroundings: While the Saints are a battle-tested team that still features 10 players from the squad that won the Super Bowl following the 2009 season, there was no doubt they were unnerved by the surrounding early in the Dec. 2 matchup at CenturyLink. Miscommunication led to a four-yard loss on the first play and the Saints fell behind 10-0 before they seemed to settle down, at which point the Seahawks were well on their way to victory. Seattle scored 17 points in the first quarter against the Saints, their most in the first quarter in any game this season. A similar start could lead to a here-we-go-again feeling among the Saints. But if the Saints can withstand the early onslaught, the tide of emotion could shift to New Orleans believing this game will be different.
3, To Blitz or not to Blitz? Under first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints became known this year as one of the most blitz-happy teams in the NFL. That backfired in the first game against the Seahawks, however, as Seattle time and again took advantage of man coverage in pressure situations to convert big plays. According to Pro Football Focus, Russell Wilson was 8-8 when the Saints blitzed for 122 yards and two touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the first game. The Saints altered course in last week’s 26-24 win over the Eagles, by one calculation blitzing just four times. So it will be a matter of intrigue whether Ryan decides to play the Seahawks more straight up in this game — and recall the Saints held Seattle to just 3.3 yards rushing in the first game — or again brings pressure. Seattle adding receiver Percy Harvin to the mix could be the real wildcard in this equation as the Seahawks will look to get him in as many man-on-man situations as they can.
4, What about Percy? As mentioned above, Harvin could be the real X factor in this game, drastically changing the dynamic of the Seattle offense — consider that the Seahawks’ No. 3 and No. 4 WRs against the Rams were Bryan Walters and Ricardo Lockette, each practice squads guys most of the year (and no offense meant to them, just that there’s a difference there in expected production). Harvin says he is healthy and Pete Carroll says he will play without limitations. So if he gets 30 snaps or so, and also regular KOR duty, look out.
5, And the running game: My thought all along has been that the only way a team beats the Seahawks at CenturyLink is to run the ball to a respectable degree. The Saints didn’t do that in the first game (44 yards on 17 carries) but have shown more commitment to the run since then (185 last week). Anything over 100 or so could cause Seattle some serious issues. Seattle, meanwhile, had 127 against the Saints. But Marshawn Lynch had just 45 and Seattle averaged only 3.3 yards per carry. Breno Giacomini said flat-out this week that “we’ve got to run the ball better” than the Seahawks did in the first game. Could be just as simple as whoever runs better, wins.