The Seahawks vs the Saints: A closer look

Jonathan Ferrey

The latest prediction for the Seahawks’ next game.

It's been a while 12th man. I hope the bye week and Thanksgiving have treated you well. As for me, I have a love hate relationship with the bye. I love that the Seahawks get a week to heal up and iron out any schematic problems they've exhibited, but seeing all the other teams play without the Seahawks is always frustrating. Still, the bye week is here to stay and while I may not enjoy it for the duration, it's clearly a net plus for the league.

A Retrospect

After a couple weeks of surprisingly close games, the Seahawks were written off by the national media. Those proclamations were made despite the Seahawks playing without key players in key positions. A great deal of those injuries have since healed and we've seen a glimpse of what the Seahawks can become.

The Seahawks were dominant against the Vikings. I include no qualifiers because their performance deserves literal clarity. The Seahawks casually moved the ball down the field. They stifled the opponent's offense. In all the Seahawks overcame the obstacles presented to them on offense, defense, and special teams. The only blemish was a run game that was below average - still passable and useful - just below average.

This next section allows readers to assess how well my predictions have played out. As always, this post will rely heavily on stats (all stats through week 11), mostly from football outsiders. You can read more here.

On to the recap!

Where my predictions were right!

  • Christian Ponder would have a poor game (turn the ball over a few times, throw for few yards and be heavily pressured).
  • Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings would end the game without many yards.
  • Russell Wilson would have additional time in the pocket.
  • Overall, the offense would perform similarly to the game against Atlanta.
  • The score differential would be around 21 points.

Where my predictions were wrong.

Somewhere in between.

  • John Carlson would not pose a threat.
  • Marshawn Lynch would have a great game.

At a Glance

With a playoff spot exceedingly likely, the Seahawks now set their sights on more. Looming large is Seattle's next opponent. This game could decide home field advantage throughout the playoffs and is one of the most exciting games the Hawks' will play all year.

On the other side of the ball are the Saints. Having returned to prominence, they boast their usual compliment of offensive weapons, and cunning head coach. A surprising aspect of their quality this year however, has been the play of their defense. With some true talent, Rob Ryan has developed one of the most surprising and effective defenses in the league.

Both teams have talent on both sides of the ball. Both teams have strong coaching behind them. Both teams have home field at stake. Without looking at any evidence, I feel comfortable predicting that this game will be close. Oh, and I also feel comfortable predicting this will be one hell of a game. Grab your popcorn 12's, we're in for a show.

The New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints' Offense

As a human being who watches the NFL regularly, I am contractually obligated to mention Drew Brees first. If you were not aware of that rule, you're actually agreeing to it by watching the game at all. They slip the language in on that part where the grizzly sounding guy speaks very quickly. It's easy to miss.

Drew Brees is kind of a quarterback machine. To date, he ranks 2nd in yards (3,647), 3rd in completion percentage (68.3), 2nd in passing TD's (28), 6th in yards per attempt (8.31), and 4th in quarter back rating (107.3 - 5th in QBR: 71.3). Really, the only thing Brees is average in, is total interceptions, but that total is blunted by his raw attempts which rank 4th (439). More concretely, Brees throws an interception about every 55 passes (on average).

With that kind of mastery, it's easy to see why the Saints' offense keeps humming along year after year despite coaching turmoil, personnel turnover, and age degeneration. Beyond those simpler stats, Brees ranks 2nd in DYAR and 4th in DVOA. Interestingly, Brees also ranks 15th in rush DVOA (for quarterbacks). He's that kind of quarterback that isn't afraid to run when he needs to, or when it'll gain an easy first down. The more you watch him and learn about him, the more you realize how apt the Brees-Wilson comparisons are. It's easy to see why Wilson has tried to emulate Brees and how successful the strategy has been.

Frankly, if Brees were throwing to a broken waterbed, an oversized tub of pickles, and a pangolin, I would still predict a couple of TD's and an efficient game. Unfortunately, for the rest of the NFL, Brees has some nice receivers to throw the ball to as well.

Of Brees' targets, I'll start with the biggest threat: Jimmy Graham. Were Jimmy Graham not injured earlier this season, I firmly believe he would be leading the NFL in receiving yards. As it stands he merely has 946 yards (14.6 yards per catch) and is prorated for around 1,400 yards on the season. He's also a beast in the red zone with his 6'7" frame. He has 11 touchdowns (on pace for about 16).

After Graham, the next leading receiver is Marques Colston. An absolute steal in the 7th round of the 2006 draft, he's still going strong. His game this year has been hampered a bit by knee issues and he looks to be on the decline. However, aside from a few games where he was clearly not himself, he's been a dependable guy. He has 569 yards and is on pace for about 830 yards.

Behind Colston are a number of different receivers with around 450 yards or so. The most surprising has been Kenny Stills, a fifth round rookie who looks like the next great Saints receiver. Filling out the remainder of pass catchers are a couple of running backs (Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas) and a few specialty receivers (Robert Meachem can run deep).

In all, Brees and his toys make up the 3rd ranked offense by DVOA. Surprising no one, their pass offense ranks 3rd (behind Denver, and San Diego). The only blemish on their total offense is on their run offense, which ranks 17th in rush DVOA - about average.

That average ranking in the run game may seem surprising given that the offense in total has only rushed for 1075 yards and 3.9 yards per carry (or only 150 yards more than Marshawn Lynch), but we should remember that the Saints don't run the ball very much as a team. Adjusted for opponents and on a per-play basis, they're not bad.

Continuing with the run game, Pierre Thomas is the featured back and Seattle fans should admire his running style. He's a big powerful back, good in pass protection, and remarkably efficient. He's really only had a couple games in which he's played poorly (Chicago, Miami, and Arizona). He's also not a bad pass catcher. As of now, he has 56 catches for 403 yards.

Their next leading rusher is Mark Ingram with 252 yards and a sterling 5.0 yards per carry. That per carry number is surprising. I had myself convinced he was mediocre after two seasons of 3.9 yards per carry. Glad to see him playing more effectively this season.

Lastly, we have the dynamo: Darren Sproles. Predominantly the third down back, Sproles doesn't actually run the ball very much with only 38 carries on the season. Instead, he's used as another receiver on third down. His play brilliantly meshes with Jimmy Graham, forcing all kinds of matchup problems and difficult decisions for defensive coordinators. He's a dangerous weapon to be sure.

The New Orleans Saints' Defense

As it turns out, Rob Ryan really is a good coordinator. I didn't necessarily believe he was bad before, but when he was the defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Browns, and Cowboys, I was skeptical. As it turns out, his work with the Cowboys was actually pretty solid, and the talent on the Browns and Raiders likely left something to be desired. It's too bad that coordinators don't receive some sort of award at season's end, because Rob Ryan would certainly make a good candidate.

One of the most beneficial changes to the defense has been their switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This has allowed Cameron Jordan to become one of the more dangerous 3-4 ends in the league. On the other side of the line, Akiem Hicks has been having a monstrous season. These two players in tandem give New Orleans the ludicrous ability to generate pressure with three players, though most often they use 4.

Given their ability to generate pressure up front, you might think the Saints put 7-8 players in coverage and ask opponents to find tight windows. That might work, but Ryan is an aggressive coordinator and enjoys generating pressure from all kinds of angles. An astounding 14 players have sacks for this defense (unless I've missed someone).

As an aside, I've also seen him use a three safety look a number of times. I think it has more to do with maximizing the talent he has than schematic genius, but it's still pretty neat.

Speaking of safeties, the Saints have three good ones. Roman Harper is solid, as is Malcolm Jenkins. The exciting new comer is rookie Kenny Vaccaro. Early in the year it looked like Kenny Vaccaro would contend for defensive rookie of the year and while that kind of hype has died down, Vaccaro has still played well.

Helping the safeties shepherd wide receivers have been the Saints' cornerbacks. Starting the season were two solid veterans: Jabari Greer, and Keenan Lewis. Lewis in particular, was underrated last season. Unfortunately, that tandem won't be playing this Monday as Greer has been placed on IR. That leaves Corey White as the replacement. White may perform better after receiving first team snaps, but he was not very good on Thursday against the Falcons.

Rounding out the defense is the line backing corps. Seahawks should recognize the steady, if unspectacular, play of David Hawthorne (and Will Herring!). Next to him is Curtis Lofton, the "middle linebacker" of the defense. Both players are better against the run than the pass, but both are solid in pass defense as well.

Flanking those two, are Junior Galette and Parys Haralson. Galette is one of the sack leaders on the team and a consistent source of pressure. Haralson is the closest player I can describe as a weak link (after White, perhaps), but it's a stretch to call him even that.

A theme you might have noticed while reading those descriptions was an emphasis on the pass. Indeed, the talents the Saints have collected on defense have been aimed at stifling passing offenses. So far, they've done pretty well. Behind the 1st ranked adjusted sack rate in the league, the Saints defense ranks 5th in pass defense DVOA. Overall, their defensive DVOA ranks in at 12th.

The only blemish on the Saints' record is their run defense which ranks a paltry 30th. For a simpler stat, they allow 4.8 yards per carry - 29th in the league. I'm not really sure what to think about that ranking though. I'm not going to suggest their run defense is good, 30th and 29th are just too low. The ranking could be explained in part by pushing opposing offenses into passing situations via the score. However, I think above other explanations, the Saints have chosen to be poor in run defense.

Think about it this way. Given the enormous salaries of quarterbacks and the limitations of being proficient in every area of football, some aspect of the team must wane. The Saints have clearly chosen run defense.

On a sort of meta-strategy level it makes even more sense. Unless there are turnovers (including time expiration), each team will have an equal amount of possessions. Assuming a great deal of efficiency from Brees, opposing teams must score to compete. If running the ball helps set up an opposing offense, the Saints will take it because it also drains time. If an opposing team grinds down the clock, then they are essentially betting they can be as efficient on offense as Brees. Unfortunately for other teams, that strategy doesn't seem to work all that well. (And that's all before getting to the good defense too.)

I would say that this team is very well coached, but that would understate the situation. This is an organizational effort. A good one too.

The Seattle Seahawks

As always, you should read up on Kenneth's stats post. As for the basics: the Seahawks now rank 1st in total DVOA. Their offense has moved up slightly to 6th while their defense has regained the top ranking once again. The passing offense DVOA has moved up again to 5th as the rush offense continues its steady presence at 4th. On defense, the pass defense DVOA ranks 1st, by a wide margin. Surprisingly, the rush defense didn't rise very much, 14th to 12th, but I suspect the Vikings' garbage time runs may have had something to do with it. On a special note, Seattle now ranks 1st in special teams DVOA. Seattle doesn't lead in any one area and their kick return DVOA remains below average, but they're near the top everywhere else.

On a different note, I didn't think Brandon Browner would return to the Seahawks next year, but with his recent suspension, his return seems even more unlikely. Worse still, Walter Thurmond has also been suspended.

It's difficult to understate how important losing two very good cornerbacks are. What's really frustrating isn't necessarily the drop off from starters - Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane are serviceable - it's the drop off from the role players. Having Walter Thurmond as the nickel corner was an enormous boon. Now, the Hawks' will have to depend on players that are relative unknowns. Will those players be able to cover Sproles in the slot? Will they be able to hold up against Brees? We'll see.

It's a concerning state of affairs, to say the least.

The Matchups

The Saints' Offense vs the Seahawks' Defense

I'm going to start with the part of the Saints' offense that I find least intimidating - their run game. They currently rank 17th in rush DVOA whereas the Hawks' rank 12th (likely better). Their main back - Pierre Thomas - is the physical kind of back. Like physical wide receivers, the Seattle defense generally does a good job containing physical opponents. Combining the superior run defense, the home field advantage, and the Saints' tendency to pass the ball, I don't think Pierre Thomas will have a good day on the ground. Ditto for Mark Ingram.

On the other hand, Darren Sproles is the exact kind of back that could cause problems for the Hawks' defense. I would actually be more afraid if he were receiving more touches that Thomas or Ingram. After all, the backs that have demonstrated speed and sharp cuts have hurt the Hawks' in the past. In all likelihood however, Sproles' damage can be contained on third down if he runs the ball. Where I'm more afraid is when he's asked to be a component of the passing game.

Talking about the passing game is talking about a matchup of strength vs strength. The third ranked pass offense playing against the first ranked pass defense (by DVOA). Colston against Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor against Jimmy Graham, Earl Thomas against Drew Brees, it's an exciting matchup for sure.

Let's begin with the Saints starting receivers: Colston and Lance Moore. Colston is a physical receiver, and as I've said before, Seattle cornerbacks tend to out-physical their opponents. Receivers like Anquan Boldin, Jordy Nelson, Vincent Jackson, and others have had difficulty generating any kind of separation. Further, past Seattle corners have been successful at using their length to disrupt any passes that are thrown to the physical receiver. Normally, I would be happy to suggest that he would finish the game without much impact. However, Byron Maxwell is somewhat of an unknown quantity. I think he'll play alright, but he's going to be targeted quite a bit on Monday. Between Sherman and Maxwell, I think Colston will have an average game: around 50-70 yards and a touchdown.

The other starting receiver -Lance Moore- is intriguing as well. The term "starting" is a bit arbitrary considering how frequently players are subbed in and out, but I asked the fans over at Canalstreetchronicles if there was a receiver that fit the "shifty, precise route runner" mold. Their responses generally pointed to two receivers, Kenny Stills (who we'll get to) and Moore. The Seahawks' troubles against shifty receivers this season has been diminished in part because of Walter Thurmond, but as we know, he won't be playing this game. Additionally, I'm assuming that Antoine Winfield will not be playing this game. All that said, Moore is having one of his worst seasons. Given his struggles this season, I think it's fair to suggest his damage may be limited. I wouldn't count him out, but I think he'll end up with somewhere around 30 yards - a bit above average for him.

If Moore doesn't provide early, I wouldn't be surprised to see Stills find more playing time. He's been up and down this season. One game he'll have a great performance and the next he'll be held under 40 yards. Interestingly, all the games in which Stills has had a good performance, he's also had one or more long catches (21 yards or more). Those two events are obviously correlated, but the implication is that he struggles when he can't get deep. Considering the Hawk's aversion to deep passes, I would expect him to not have a gargantuan day - somewhere around 40-60 yards. Similarly, I would expect the same of Robert Meachem, who is essentially a deep route runner.

Next on the receiving docket are the running backs. I'm actually pretty confident that Pierre Thomas should not have a good game receiving because the Hawks' rank 3rd in DVOA against receiving running backs. I'm a little bit more nervous about Darren Sproles, however. He's the exact type of running back the Seahawks have trouble containing. Additionally, while Seattle ranks highly against running back receivers, the Hawks' haven't really played an opponent that would challenge that aspect of their defense. Further, Darren Sproles ranks 2nd in receiving DVOA among running backs. I think he's going to cause a lot of trouble on Monday, with close to 60 yards receiving.

Saving the best for last, we come to Jimmy Graham - the Saints' most dangerous weapon. I think many Seahawks fans would point to the Kamtrak as a likely man cover, and the numbers would bear that out. Seattle currently ranks 3rd in DVOA against tight ends. Despite this ranking, Seattle has allowed some tight ends to have proficient games. Generally, these proficient tight end games come when the opponent has a quarterback that can effectively use their tight end - like Brees. In all, I think there's a very high likelihood that Graham will have over 100 yards and a couple of TD's. That guy is a beast.

In doing these predictions, one of the things I've noticed is that wrong proclamations can have cascading effects. For example, when Seattle's offensive line imploded during the game against the Rams, all of my predictions went out the window. There was no run game because of the penetration. There was no time to throw, and in response to that line implosion, the offense couldn't operate (save for some Golden magic).

I feel a similar chain of cause and effect might permeate this game. If Brees' offensive line doesn't hold up in this game, his chances of throwing interceptions increase dramatically. If that happens, we all know what the Seahawks love to do.

How will the Saints' offensive line hold up? That's tough to say. Charles Brown has been serviceable at left tackle while Zach Strief has been all around solid. On the interior, the Saints employ two Pro-Bowlers at guard and a center who should have been one.

When I asked New Orleans fans how to stop Brees, they all pointed to interior pressure as the key component. Will Seattle be able to generate interior pressure? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. New Orleans ranks 6th in offensive adjusted sack rate, and Seattle ranks 6th in the defensive equivalent. I'll split the middle ground and say Brees will experience some pressure (maybe a few sacks), but not enough to throw him off his game completely. Look for Brees to have 300+ yards and 3-4 TDs.

The Seahawks' Offense vs the Saints' Defense

Let's start with the exciting part. The Saints' rank 30th in rush defense DVOA. Interestingly, the Saints fans I talked to were mostly incredulous with that statistic. I can see their point of view, but I think their skepticism might be a product of the Saints' game strategy. Simply put, opponents haven't really had the opportunity to run the ball.

We've seen the Seahawks run well against defenses that have ranked much higher (most notably, the Cardinals). It's seems likely then, that Marshawn Lynch will eclipse 100 yards rushing. For my part, I predict something around 120 yards and two TD's. Scoring is going to be paramount on Monday and with Lynch doing his part, the receivers are going to have to do theirs.

To see if there was a specific wide receiver profile that played well against the Saints, I went through each game and noted the leading receivers. Like any good pass defense, they yielded no pattern. That is, week-to-week, the leading receivers changed body types and positions. The only pattern that looked promising is that the Saints may not be as proficient against slot receivers. The numbers support that as well. The Saints rank 12th in DVOA when defending the third receiver.

Luckily for the Seahawks, they have two wide receivers that are excellent in the slot. Not only that, but due to the injury to Greer, they may see more opportunities. In all, I expect both Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin to have nice games with somewhere around 70 yards a piece.

I'm less optimistic about Golden Tate. Keenan Lewis is a sound corner who plays quite a bit of man coverage. Additionally, the safety play of the Saints' has been pretty top-notch. I struggle to see how Tate is going to find open spaces against this defense unless Russell Wilson does his crazy thing.

Speaking of Wilson doing his crazy thing - I think he might to have to. As it stands, Seattle ranks 31st in adjusted sack rate. That's pretty damn terrible. Now, as any good Hawks' fan would tell you, that ranking is immensely affected by both tackles missing significant time. However, last year when both were healthy, they still only ranked 20th. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, adjusted sack rate isn't everything, but the consistency is there. The Seahawks line is much more effective in run blocking than in pass blocking and it shows when Russell has to scramble for his life.

When the Seahawks' line is dominated, they increase the probability of having offensive games like against the Rams or Panthers. The issue with carrying that kind of analysis over to this game is the improvement of the offensive line.* What this game really reminds me of is the Arizona game. In that game, Arizona generated plenty of pressure on Wilson, but he was still able to have an efficient game.

In all, I think the offensive line should struggle giving up two to three sacks. Russell Wilson should have an efficient offensive game ending somewhere around 230 yards passing and a TD. He'll also rush for 50 yards and a TD.

*The Panthers played a healthy compliment of the offense, but that game was very short on possessions and the Seahawks ended the game in Panther territory, removing potential points.

On a bonus note: the Seattle punt coverage and return game is vastly superior to New Orleans'. The problem of course, is that a Drew Brees offense doesn't punt very much.

X Factors

The Seattle Offensive Line. Seattle's offensive line played reasonably well against the Vikings. Pete Carroll noted that they suffered from rust in the run game. Byes may help with injuries but I don't think they help with rust and if the offensive line starts slow, the Seahawks may end up paying the price.

The Seattle Defensive Line. Of the two units - Seattle's defensive line and New Orleans' offensive line - I think Seattle's unit has been more variable in their play. When I asked New Orleans fans how to stop Drew Brees, they all pointed to putting him under pressure. It's not a very interesting answer, but it's a tried and true method. If the Seahawks are able to put Brees on the ground frequently, Seattle should end up winning. (Turn up the heat 12th man!)

Percy Harvin. We all saw what a factor Harvin can be against the Vikings. If he's able to play the entire game and make an impact, the Hawks' may have enough offense to win the game. As of Tuesday, Harvin was day-to-day, so we'll see.

Frosty the Snowman. Snow! don't generally believe in those cold-weather quarterback stats. They generally focus on cold weather/warm weather splits, but those splits are often conflated with home/road splits. Of course a quarterback is going to play at a lower level on the road - let's stop blaming it on the weather. That said, if Monday's weather is a blizzard, it'll affect the passing game.

The Narrative

If you look at playoff games, they often end up in shootouts. It's not that the defenses in those games are bad, it's just that even good defenses give up yards and points to good quarterbacks - like Wilson and Brees. Therefore, I think this game will end up as a shootout. Brees has too many weapons, both in quantity and diversity of skill set, for the Seahawks' defense to slow him down too much. In fact, this game reminds me of the Detroit game last year where one player drew a lot attention (Jimmy Graham - Calvin Johnson) and another benefited (Darren Sproles - Titus Young) On their defensive side, New Orleans' weakness of rush defense will hurt them this game and allow the Seahawks' offense to get going. Ultimately though, I think the Saints will win a close game. Let's hope I'm wrong!

Prediction: Saints win 38-34

Recap Stats

This section is dedicated to me owning up to my predictions. The predictions are graded on a 10 point scale where 1 is completely wrong and 10 is completely right. As always, if anyone submits their own grades of my predictions I'll include them in the average. Further, if YOU, the reader, include predictions in this format, I'll include them as "The Field."

Where my predictions were right!

  • Christian Ponder would have a poor game (turn the ball over a few times, throw for few yards and be heavily pressured). - 9 - And he was. This prediction was pretty on the money.
  • Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings would end the game without many yards. - 9- Greg Jennings was actually injured, but Simpson was ineffective.
  • Russell Wilson would have additional time in the pocket. - 7.5 - He was pressured more than I thought he would be, but this offense is so devastating when he has time to throw.
  • Overall, the offense would perform similarly to the game against Atlanta. - 8 - The run game wasn't as effective, but the Hawks' moved the ball as they pleased.
  • The score differential would be around 21 points. - 9 - Got it! The Vikings scored a touchdown in garbage time and the Seahawks scored on a pick 6. Otherwise, I would have nailed the score exactly.

Where my predictions were wrong.

  • Adrian Peterson would have an above average day rushing. - 3 - This game was nothing like last year's.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson would "make the Hawks' pay" on the kickoffs. - 3 - He was still good, but he didn't end up making the Hawks' pay.
  • Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate would have nice games. - 3.33 - Doug Baldwin had a nice game, but the others didn't. Call it 1 out of 3.

Somewhere in between.

  • John Carlson would not pose a threat. - 5 - He was alright, but not frightening.
  • Marshawn Lynch would have a great game. - 4.5 - He was serviceable, but the blame would fall more on the offensive line and their rust than Lynch.

This Week's Average: 6.133...

Total Average: 5.702...

Lastly, a special thanks to the CanalStreetChronicles and their great fans. They love to talk some trash, but it's in good taste. Thanks for answering my questions, and with all due respect, I hope you lose on Monday.

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