Matt Hasselbeck broke out for 366 yards passing against the New Orleans Saints. The performance was in such stark contrast with how Hasselbeck and the Seahawks offense had played just weeks earlier against the Oakland Raiders that I wrote a series of posts examining how it was possible and what had changed.
My conclusion was that Seattle established a deep passing attack early and then benefited from New Orleans protecting itself from the deep pattern. The Saints moved their corners into off coverage and that allowed Hasselbeck to target high percentage underneath patterns, and allowed those patterns a chance to run after the catch and turn short receptions into valuable gains.
As it turned out, the strategy worked for both teams. Seattle had a breakout offensive performance but the Saints won. The Saints stiffened in the red zone and were able to force the Seahawks into countering touchdowns with field goals. Seattle had five scoring drives but scored only 19 points. New Orleans had five scoring drives and scored five touchdowns.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would probably call that an achievement. He believes in a bend but don't break defense that allows yards, but forces turnovers and prevents touchdowns. Here's the twist: red zone performance and turnover differential are extremely unpredictable. Over time, bend but don't break defenses break down.
Looking through Williams career, you see these huge swings. His first three seasons as a defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, the Titans were mediocre, ranking 12th, 12th and 15th in points allowed. Then in 2000, Tennessee broke out allowing the second fewest points and the fewest yards in the NFL.
Williams road that achievement to a head coaching job in Buffalo. He again started slowly. The Bills had the 29th and 27th ranked scoring defense in 2001 and 2002, but the fifth ranked scoring defense in 2003. He was fired after the Bills finished 6-10.
He was hired by Joe Gibbs and "made an immediate impact" or whatever. The Redskins finished fifth and third in scoring defense in 2004 and 2005. Then they collapsed in 2006, falling all the way to 27th in scoring defense and 31st in yards allowed. Washington rebounded in 2007, finished 11th and 8th respectively, but Gibbs was on his way out and so was Williams.
He spent a season in Jacksonville (21st) before signing with the Saints. New Orleans was not a good defense in 2009, finishing 20th ranked in scoring defense and 25th ranked in yards allowed, but it was an opportunistic defense. The Saints were third in the NFL in turnover margin. This season New Orleans ranks 23rd in turnover differential, but seventh in scoring defense and fourth in yards allowed.
Williams is an accomplished defensive coordinator, but his is a high risk approach that may or may not be sound. He blitzes often and puts his corners on islands. Hasselbeck and Jeremy Bates targeted that tendency and forced the Saints secondary into a defensive approach. Mike Williams ran a sluggo and streaked past Jabari Greer for 68. Seattle targeted Greer again, and Obomanu roasted him for a gain of 42. That produced the picture to the left. Greer has no idea the ball is even targeting him.
If Seattle could duplicate that attack, it would be a long ways towards winning. Some of Seattle's stalled red zone drives could flip turning three into seven. A modest improvement from the defense could keep the Saints from scoring 30-plus. But it's debatable whether Seattle truly can duplicate that performance.
For one, Hasselbeck is not skilled or talented at passing the ball deep. His rainbow to Williams was pretty, no doubt, but it was also an exception this season, the last three seasons, and truly within Hasselbeck's career. He once was better at throwing deep passes, but Matt didn't make the Pro Bowl through bombs. He's West Coast in the pejorative.
For another, the Saints started a backup at free safety, and Usama Young looked clueless attempting to break and double team deep patterns. He was instrumental in creating the one-on-one coverage Seattle exploited. Starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins is a technically sound cover player and has had a Pro Bowl caliber season. He will not be mill around looking for an assignment if Seattle attempts to challenge New Orleans deep again.
Maybe most importantly, targeting Greer deep and exploiting his aggressiveness underneath is a tactic that requires a certain amount of surprise, and that surprise is spent. Obomanu will not likely benefit from an uncontested jump ball against an unaware corner. And if the Saints are not forced into off coverage, the run after catch that powered the Seahawks passing attack could disappear. 188 of Hasselbeck's 366 passing yards, a sliver over half, were achieved through run after catch. On the season, the eight Seahawks targeted for receptions have averaged 41% of their total receiving yards through yards after catch. 28 of Seattle's 32 receptions produced run after catch. Seattle bent Williams defense, but it held. If the Seahawks could bend it again, maybe it would break, but can they?
I don't know. Would you settle for a cliffhanger? Later in the week, when who the Seahawks will start hopefully becomes clearer, I will post some looks at what worked for the Seahawks against the Saints and some guesses at Seattle's game plan this Sunday. With starting quarterback still very up in the air, projecting a game plan is impossible. I think any game plan against a Gregg Williams defense must attack the blitz, must attack corners put on islands and must be built around the big play. Williams is a gambler, and gamblers lose big. The Seahawks are not going to be able to suffocate the Saints the way they suffocated the Rams, but if a couple big plays break their way, the Seahawks might just be able to trade haymakers, stay ahead, and ride its offense to an unlikely victory.