In week 11 of the NFL season the Seahawks embark upon the teams most unique test thus far as they travel to New Orleans to play in the Superdome, where hollers and 'Who dats' shower opposing players and help create a year round playoff atmosphere. The Seahawks are 5-4 and on top of the NFC West in a position that is unexpected by many, but has been the goal of this organization from day 1. Riding the momentum of a shocking and borderline dominant 36-18 victory over the Cardinals in week 10, the Seahawks look towards Sunday as a much anticipated opportunity to measure the Seahawks organization against one of the best in the NFL; Coach Pete Carroll knows many question the legitimacy of the Seahawks as a contender this season, and this matchup against the defending Super Bowl champions couldn't come with better timing in trying to answer some of those doubts.
The cutting edge
Coach Pete Carroll described Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams as "a marvelous coach who is on the cutting edge of aggressive, attacking defense" in terms of creating pressure, disguising coverage schemes and giving opposing offenses problems; "Their defense shines through," as Williams' scheme provides defensive flexibility for a Saints defense that is 1st in scoring defense and 3rd in pass defense. As Matt Hasselbeck noted Wednesday, the Saints are very aggressive bringing pressure on third down; they like to empty the middle of the field pre snap by bringing the deep Safety, as well as other Cornerbacks, in motion to the line of scrimmage; after the Quarterback has read the coverage, a Safety will break back into the deep middle of the field to play single high, effectively center field. In this situation, the Quarterback is unsure of where the pressure is coming from and what the Safety's coverage responsibility is. The defense also shows the capability to statically line up and disguise coverage's without using motion; the coverage scheme the defense shows pre snap is not always what they execute post snap. Furthermore, the Cornerbacks, notably Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, are among the most aggressive in the NFL and are notorious for jumping receiver routes creating tipped balls, interceptions and opportunities.
The offense has a chance
The Saints defensive aggression gives the opposing offense opportunities if the Quarterback can identify blitz and coverage schemes before the snap; understanding what the defense is going to do after the snap is instrumental in beating the saints. Hasselbeck explains, "It'll be challenge on the road, I can't imagine a tougher scenario but it's ok; I think we are excited to try." The Seahawks need to continue to integrate the running backs into the passing game to neutralize the pressure from outside the Defensive Ends, especially with Cornerbacks off the edge; throwing to the Runningback forces the defense to account for the space that is left empty when blitzing the Cornerback. When asked on Wednesday why the Seahawks don't use more screens, Coach Carroll replied, "we have them in every game plan, we are continuing to work at it and think it's a good phase of the offense." Don't be surprised to see the screen game used more often this weekend, especially on second down. Additionally, I would like to see Leon Washington used more as a receiver out of the backfield to further neutralize the Saint's aggressiveness; a wheel route up the sideline would be a great way to get Washington in space. The offense needs to create chances on Sunday.
A big connection
Matt Hasselbeck's last reliable, big target was 6'5, 230 pound Joe Jurevicius who caught 10 touchdowns in 2005. The chemistry displayed Sunday with 6'5, 230 pound Mike Williams has the look of something much more potent. You could see in the season's first game that Williams would need time; he showed his propensity to drop balls early in the game, especially on throws that turned him completely towards the Quarterback, blind to the defensive backfield. If you kept going his way though, Williams would make a play and usually a big one. Last week, Mike Williams seemed to hit a new level; a level eerily similar to those two seasons at USC. When asked if he felt offense turned a corner, Coach Carroll replied, "We'll have to wait and see. Next week we have to come right back out, protect the Quarterback, catch it well and protect the football. Those things add up, and we need consistency." Mike Williams continuing to be accountable for double digit catches per game, or close, will help bring that consistency. This week Williams finds himself against a group of corners all at least six inches shorter than him; the Seahawks must look his way often, especially in the red zone, to exploit his size advantage. Williams is not the only Seahawks receiver that has a size advantage over the Saints' corners; 6'1 Ben Obomanu earns his second start opposite Williams after competing his way up the roster. When Hasselbeck asked Obomanu to adjust his motion on one play in practice this week, Obomanu replied, "you mean the way Darrell (Jackson) used to do it;" It dawned on Hasselbeck how long Obomanu has been contributing to this team: Hasselbeck, "I said have you been here that long? But He's so steady, he always does things right. So many more guys than him have been looked at, but he's the guy who is dependable." Hasselbeck needs to continue to rely on the dependable Obomanu Sunday, as another solid all around performance will take pressure off Williams and create room for Deon Butler to work in the slot.
Saints Quarterback Drew Brees possesses a unique combination of skills that places him among the NFL's elite throwers; he makes up for his lack of height and average with intelligence, accuracy and an uncanny pocket presence. Furthermore, Saints Head Coach Sean Peyton is one of the NFL's most dynamic offensive play callers. When asked how the Seahawks planned to contain Brees, Coach Carroll replied: "We have to do a variety of things, mix our coverage, mix our rushes, try and keep him off balance. You have to mix defenses against the best Quarterbacks and you have to make sure you take care of the running game first, otherwise you become too static." If the Seahawks are able to neutralize the Saints running game with minimal personnel, two or three down lineman, the defense can focus on confusing Brees. "We play our best football when we play the running game, and allow us to do what we want."
The big play
Drew Brees noted earlier in the week the Seahawks are a team that, like the Saints, does a good job of creating a pass rush through use of sub packages with extra defensive backs and various combination blitzes. Unlike the Saints who are #2 in the league allowing only 5 pass plays over 30 yards, the Seahawks are worst in the NFL allowing 18 passes over 30 yards; Brees mentioned that fact several times this week. He believes that if he can identify who is on the field for the Seahawks and where the pressure is coming from, he will be able to exploit matchups against us.
A major key to the Saints offense is the big play; this season the Saints are averaging less than 7 yards per pass attempt, down from 8.5 last year. In an attempt to create a downfield passing game, the Saints employ the "expressway" package. The Saints start in a 2 x 2 wide receiver formation; one receiver motions across into a trips formation. As this creates confusion, Brees re-evaluates the defensive matchups as the motion forces the defense to declare assignments, showing the scheme. The Saints are not afraid to challenge all areas of the field, as Brees makes precise enough throws to get around good coverage. Marcus Trufant has been a victim of having solid coverage beat by better throws this season; he is likely to spend the majority of the game covering Saints receiver Marques Colston, who possesses great size and strong hands, and is Brees' preferred all field target. Furthermore, the Seahawks secondary must be prepared for a variety of pre snap motion using three and four receivers, as the Saints most unique weapon is the capability to cause confusion and capitalize.
Control the middle of the field
If the Seahawks are to have a chance at beating the Saints they must control the middle of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. The Seahawks will look to heavily re-establish Lynch and Forsett inside the tackles; the defensive unit looks to shut down the Saints short passing game and inside running attack, forcing the Saints into uncomfortable situations, such as third and long.
For the defense to be successful in stopping the Saints from continuing drives, two aspects of the Saints offense must be limited: the underneath passing game and the inside running game. Receiver Lance Moore often runs short routes in the middle of the field and is a very adept at reading coverage, finding the "soft" spot in the zone; Reggie Bush is returning from injury, but in the two games he played this season he was "a factor;" the Saints find ways to get Bush in space, often on short passes near the sidelines. If the Seahawks are successful in bringing pressure up the middle, it will disrupt the timing Brees has with these two players and clog throwing lanes. As the Saints are without starting Runningback Pierre Thomas, their ability to create an effective inside running game may be limited; Brandon Mebane and Junior Siavii need to be disruptive and limit the running backs effectiveness inside. If the defense is able to create confusion and control the space in the middle of the field, the Saints offense will be limited.
The Seahawks offense needs to control the middle of the field with a successful running game; Hasselbeck noted earlier in the week the Saints load the box with 8 defenders pre snap to stop the pass, not the run. Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett should be heavily involved, ideally 35-40 combines touches, in helping wear down the center of the defense. Furthermore, I would like to see Coordinator Jeremy Bates be creative in establishing the running game; use some goal line sets on first and second downs to offset the blitz packages of the Saints. The Seahawks have been establishing up to four Tight Ends as blockers on some goal line plays, and can find an advantage by using those same formations to create a power running game in other areas of the field.
The expected return of Russell Okung
The rookie Left Tackle out of Oklahoma State has made an impact in the small amount of time he has stayed healthy enough to be on the field. On Monday, Coach Carroll spoke of his experience with Okung: "Russell is cleared for practice this week, he needs to get his reps. He is very frustrated, but I've tried to acknowledge the fact it's ok to be frustrated by this, it just hasn't gone how we hoped. There is nothing we can do but get through it, and we are cognizant of how tough it is on him." Carroll clearly has an understanding of how to manage and maintain his players psyche; he showed an active approach in helping Russell harness his emotions and learn how to physically push through the injury. A healthy Okung would be a huge boost to this offensive live; Mike Sando of ESPN posted a chart earlier in the week that shows how effective Okung has really been. In mainly comparing Okung and backup Tackle Tyler Polumbus, there is a major difference in the average yards per carry (YPC) of Runningbacks when each player was in the game. When Okung plays the Seahawks gain 3.6 more YPC when running by Left Tackle from 2 back, 2 Tight End formations, and an additional 2.6 yards per carry out of 1 back, 1 receiver formations. Furthermore, when the Seahawks run from 2 back, 3 Tight End formations, primarily near the goal line, the Seahawks run for -.2 YPC with Polumbus in the game compared to 1.0 with Okung. The most crucial difference between Okung and Polumbus is that Lynch averages 4.6 YPC with Okung compared to 1.7 with Polumbus. The Seahawks need Russell Okung.
Take advantage of the opportunities
The Seahawks need to solve the red zone mystery as they have continually failed to take advantage of opportunities to score points this season; another 2 for 8 performance scoring touchdowns when inside the 20 yard line will not produce a victory in New Orleans. The Seahawks need to show more aggression in the red zone; in the fourth quarter last week when the Seahawks had first and goal on the 1, Jeremy Bates called three straight unsuccessful runs using three or four tight end sets. I felt throwing once, perhaps on second down, was highly necessary to keep the defense honest and the offense unpredictable; additionally the failed 4th and 1 Quarterback sneak at the Cardinals 16 yard line at a crucial point earlier in the game is another example of the Seahawks failing to keep a calculated and consistent offensive aggressiveness. Simply put, the Seahawks need to score points when they get the opportunity.
The Saints built a championship football team by taking advantage of and executing opportunities both on and off the field. An opportunistic Seahawks football team knows they most likely only get one chance at competing versus the Saints; if the Seahawks are to one day emulate the Saints, a good start would be capitalizing on the opportunity Sunday in New Orleans.