Seahawks vs. Saints gameday notebook

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Due to a combination of the Thanksgiving holiday break, my fiance's birthday, some self-inflicted Black Friday shopping, and pure unadulterated laziness, I didn't really do much scouting of the New Orleans Saints over the past week and instead have relied on my excellent colleagues here to do a lot of the grunt work. The least I can do is re-point to some of their articles in case you were away from the site during the bye week.

Below, I've included some excerpts from some work that was done here at Field Gulls over the past week or two, plus added a large bonus section at the end by Field Gulls reader Ken Droz, who emailed me some well-laid-out research and prose on the Seahawks' home-field advantage, comparing Russell Wilson at home to Drew Brees on the road. Please make sure you scroll down and read that. First though...

Notables...

- From Alejandro's excellent game preview post, "The Seahawks vs the Saints: A closer look":

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).

As for their defense:

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.

- From Michael Sawyer's excellent research-driven piece, Explosive Opponent Preview: The New Orleans Saints:

We come into this game knowing full-well how explosive the Seahawks are. To update some numbers from their victory over the Vikings, the Seahawks have a total of 100 explosive plays this season. Remember that for our purposes, an explosive play is any running play gaining 12 yards or more and any pass play gaining 16 yards or more. The Seahawks also have shown some balance in their explosive plays, with 41 explosive runs and 59 explosive passes.

Seattle has 64 total drives with at least one explosive play (I call these "explosive drives"). The Seahawks have scored on 43 of those drives, good for 67%. However, this score-rate is under-performing the historical league average of 75%.

On defense the Seahawks are, as we expect, dominant. They have only allowed 64 total explosive plays on the season (26 runs and 38 passes). The Seattle defense has only yielded 43 explosive drives and opponents have a score-rate on those drives of only 53%.

I've charted the Saints' explosive plays on offense from each game in the table above. As they are in the standings, the Saints are right on the heels of the Seahawks in terms of explosive plays generated. What jumps out is the clear lack of explosive balance. About 77% of the Saints explosive plays are generated by one man: Quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints only have 22 total explosive runs on the season, nearly half of the Seahawks' total. In fact, it took the Saints 2 1/2 games until their first explosive run of the season.

While this team doesn't heavily utilize the explosive run, they clearly don't rely on it, either. We know how good Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles are. However, Kenny Stills has emerged as a legitimate deep-threat for Brees this season. Stills has 12 explosive plays on the season, four of which are touchdowns. The Seattle secondary will need to own the red-line to negate Stills. Oh by the way, stop Jimmy, Drew and Darren while you're at it, too. Thanks.

If the Saints have one thing down, it's explosive score-rate. The Saints are right around the neighborhood of the Seahawks in terms of total explosive drives (64 for Seattle and 62 for New Orleans). However, the Saints convert explosive plays into points and they do that very well. 46 explosive drives end in a score, with 31 of those as touchdowns. That means they score a touchdown on half of their explosive drives. That's pretty damn good.

- From Rob's exceptional look at the spread from this morning, NFL Odds, Week 13: Seahawks vs. Saints ATS:

Let's look at a few trends, courtesy of our partners at OddsShark.com. Hmmm, encouraging news is that New Orleans is 2-3-1 ATS over its last six games and 1-4 ATS in its last five games on the road. Seattle, meanwhile, is 13-3 ATS in its last sixteen games at home.

- A few possibly notable tidbits from around the interwebs:

Home Field Advantage:

As I pointed out in my quick scouting report for CanalStreetChronicles, in Seattle's last 18 home games, they've gone 16-2 and haven't given up more than 24 points in that span. They've won 13 in a row at home. In fact, the Hawks have yet to lose at home when Russell Wilson is at quarterback. Obviously, prior record at home means nothing in this particular game, but you can see that Seattle plays very well at home and the crowd noise and potential for bad/cold weather makes it a very hostile place to play.

Per NFL Stats and Info:

The Saints' point differential at home (+104) is 99 points higher than their road differential (+5), the third-biggest disparity in the league.

Compare to Seattle, whose home-field advantage is well documented since Seahawks Stadium / Qwest Field / CenturyLink Field opened in 2002. Since then,

The Seahawks' point margin is 937 points higher at home (+635) than on the road (-302), the second-biggest disparity in the league.

From Kenny's post on Seahawks Home Field Advantage:

Did you know though that despite their 7-9 record, the 2010 Seattle Seahawks were 4-0 when they won the turnover battle? And three of those instances came at home. They were 2-2 when they had the same number of turnovers as their opponents.

Seattle was 1-7 when they turned it over two or more times that season and were -9 on the year, which was only good for 27th in the NFL. But at home in the playoffs, they went evensies with New Orleans and won. Some people also said that it had something to do with some sort of run, but those reports are still unconfirmed according to Stack.

That year they were +1 in eight home games and -10 in eight road games.

In 2011, they were +6 in home games and +2 in road games.

Last season, they were +15 in home games and -2 in road games. And you may remember that they haven't lost at home since Christmas Eve, 2011.

This season, they are +6 at home and +5 on the road, but they still have three more home games left. Last year, they were helped tremendously by Arizona's eight turnovers against them in Seattle. And hey, the Cardinals haven't yet come to town this year! (Though they got rid of John Skelton, aww nuts!)

At CenturyLink this year the Seahawks have turned it over eight times and forced 14 turnovers. They are averaging a final score of 32.4-15.4 at home. On the road it's "only" 24-17.

Relatedly, per ESPN Stats and Info,

There's also a noticeable dip in Drew Brees' performance on the road. Any quarterback would rather play at home, but Brees' completion percentage at home leads the league. His completion percentage in road games ranks 12th.

Field Gulls reader Ken Droz emailed me some research he had done on this subject, and asked that I include at the site if it fit anywhere. I think now is a perfect time for his work.

From Ken:

Road Brees vs Home Wilson

-----------------------------------

Let's compare Brees's five games on the road this year to Wilson's five games at home. (Rankings will exculde non-QBs with passing attempts)(all rankings/stats are through Week 12, and do not include games from this week):

Completions
Brees (road): 125/201, 25.5/game (#7) 62.2% (#14)
Wilson (home): 77/115, 15.4/game (#40), 67.5% (#7)

Brees is ranked #3 in pass attempts per game, Wilson is #41

Net passing yards per game
Brees (road): 295/game (#5), 7.5/attempt (#17)
Wilson (home): 201/game (#27), 8.75/attempt (#3)

Touchdowns
Brees (road): 9 (#7), 1.8/game (#13), 4.5% pass attempts (#21)
Wilson (home): 9 (#7), 1.8/game (#13), 8% pass attempts (#4)

Interceptions
Brees (road): 5, 1.0/game, 2.5% pass attempts
Wilson (home): 4, 0.8/game, 3.5% pass attempts

Passer Rating
Brees (road): 89.7
Wilson (home): 107.4

So, Road Brees throws a lot more, about 17 more attempts per game than Home Wilson, but is 5.3% less accurate.
Interestingly, Home Wilson has still thrown as many touchdowns as Road Brees, and Road Brees has 1 more interception.

Prior to the Saints' Thursday's game in Atlanta, a moderate gap existed between TD/INT ratio for these QBs, but with those stats now strangely separated by just a single INT, I'd like to call this part of the comparison a draw... but it frames nicely the wide margin between them in pass attempts.

Bear in mind that Brees has attempted 75% more passes on the road than Wilson has at home for the same TD total, one more INT and 50% more yards.

Of course the modifier for how the passing game functions here is the defense, so let's look at some Seahawks home passing defense vs. Saints road passing defense numbers.

Completion percentage
New Orleans D (road): 19.4/31.4 61.78% (#16)
Seattle D (home): 16.8/30.8 54.55% (#3)

Pass yards per game, Pass yards per attempt
New Orleans D (road): 218ypg (#8), 7.0ypa (#16)
Seattle D (home): 165.4ypg (#2), 5.4ypa (#2)

Pass TD/INT per game
New Orleans D (road): 1.0 (#3) / 0.4 (#30)
Seattle D (home): 1.0 (#8) / 2.0 (#1)

Passer Rating
New Orleans D (road): 88.2 (#13)
Seattle D (home): 55.9 (#1)

So it looks like the devil is in the details. You don't have to throw against New Orleans Defense when they are on the road much to be efficient. They give up considerably more yards per attempt than their yards per game suggests, and Wilson is #3 in the league for yards per attempt at home, suggesting this is a much better matchup for him than people think.

Additionally, the Saints haven't been good at intercepting the ball, and Wilson rarely throws them at home anyway. Brees throws a lot of passes, which is ideal for Seattle's propensity for intercepting the ball, especially at home. Seattle has been so much better than the rest of the NFL at intercepting the ball at home, their interception per attempt percentage of 6.49% is a full 37% higher than the next best team (#2 Chicago, 4.74%).

Only two teams in the last 10 seasons (as far back as I can see) have been that good. For comparison, on the road, New Orleans intercepts just 1.27% of passes attempted, the 8th worst in the league.

On paper, this passing matchup looks to favor the Seahawks much more than anyone will be bold enough to recognize. Where Wilson is strong (yards, TDs, INTs per attempt), New Orleans' defense has been vulnerable on the road. Where Brees appears to be strong (sustained passing attack) is precisely where the Seahawks D has appeared to feast at home. The sample size may still be too small, but New Orleans will need to play better against the Seahawks on the road than they have played against the teams they've faced outside of New Orleans thus far to overturn what that sample foretells.

If you were to name a "key to the game" for these passers, these numbers would suggest that the most important stat for Wilson will be completions (and completion percentage), while for Brees, the most telling statistic appears to be interceptions.

Completions are getting easier to come by against the Saints on the road, though for the first half of the season they were incredible. On Thursday Night Football, however, Matt Ryan completed 30 of 39 passes. Wilson has been very good at completing passes at home. New Orleans doesn't intercept a lot of balls and their receptions translate to yardage quickly, so finding a way to stay near his average of 67.5% will chew up the field against a team that gives up big yardage on few passes.

For Brees, the key will be avoiding interceptions. The Seahawks' Bend But Don't Break philosophy is made for guys like Brees, who throw a lot of passes. This has been a problem for him on the road, relative to the player we think him to be, although he was flawless in Atlanta. If he throws in the neighborhood of his 40 attempt average, the Seahawks should be able to pick at least a couple off, but if he can keep the ball from falling into the wrong hands, he can stick to what he does best and consistently bend them into the end zone.

If we can draw any conclusions about these team's run games, it is safe to assume that Seattle will plan to run the ball at New Orleans a lot. New Orleans ranks #8 highest for teams on the road in opponents' percentage of rushing attempts. At home, the Seahawks average more rushing attempts than every team except for Buffalo. They also rank #10 in yards per rush attempt at home, with 4.3.

When you put those together, it should come as no surprise then that the Seahawks are crushing the rest of the league in rushing first downs per game at home, at 10.0. For comparison, New Orleans on the road averages 5.0 rushing first downs per game, and they are #24 ranked for fewest yards per carry on the road.

New Orleans actually has been calling 5% more passing plays as a percentage of total plays called on the road than they do in the dome, but it is a result of seeing their rush attempts decrease by about five per game and their pass players holding their ground. Seattle, at home, already averages a league-high 57% rushing play percentage, while just five teams in the NFL are above 50% at home.

The Saints, on the road, average 35% rushing plays, ranked #25 in the NFL on the road. Seattle's rush defense is solidly in the middle of the pack. Giving up big days to some lesser backs right before giving Adrian Peterson the business, it's still tricky to know what they are.

On the road, just two teams (prior to Week 12) (Houston and Cleveland) produce fewer rushing touchdowns per game (0.0 each) than New Orleans (0.2), while just two teams have more rushing TDs per game (Minnesota, 2.0; and Washington, 1.8) than Seattle at home (1.6). Lynch leads the NFL at home in this category at 1.2 TDs per game at home (only ADP has a better combined rate in home and away games this season, 0.91 per game to Lynch/Moreno at 0.82). Surprisingly, Russell Wilson is actually the #2 rated yards per attempt ranked rusher in the NFL this season, at 5.7 yards per carry.

Most of these numbers have come behind a woeful offensive line, which explains in part why Wilson is second to only Cam Newton in rushing attempts by a quarterback. Surprisingly, Wilson has also been sacked five times less than Drew Brees at home, although when playing on the road, he has gotten crushed.

That being said, although he led the league in fumbles through the first seven games, Wilson hasn't fumbled since Week 7. In his last two games, he has not thrown an interception (just two in his last 6 games) and has been sacked just twice in his last three games.

After averaging 7.6 rushing attempts per game and 3.3 sacks per game through Week 8, he has since averaged just 3.3 rush attempts per game and 0.67 sacks per game, suggesting that the offensive line is finally giving him better protection.

His passer ratings since losing to Indy have been: 98.5, 122.1, 117.6, 91.3, 134.6, 151.4, and 105.1, an average of 115.8. His yards per attempt in those games has been 9.4 yards per game. To put that in perspective, during that span, Peyton Manning has not matched Wilson's average yards per attempts in any one of his games, and matched both Wilson's interceptions and fumbles for the entire season in just those six games.

Okay, so back to Drew Brees. Brees has been curiously pedestrian on the road, albeit with a few very good games. At home he enjoys an advantage no less than what the Seahawks have offered Wilson. (Here's a link, for Seahawk fans that might take issue).

Interestingly, on the road, New Orleans is still ranked #11 (while the Seahawks surprisingly hold the top road ranking).

Although he throws an average of 40 passes per game home or away, Brees has averaged 1.37 fewer passing TDs per game on the road, his completion percentage is 11.3% lower on the road for 1.5 fewer yards per pass, he has thrown one more interception in one fewer game, and his QB rating drops by a full 32.5 points.

He's still an exceptionally good passer, but moreso when measured by his net yardage and TDs, than when compared to Wilson per attempt. His impressive numbers appear to be largely a product of his demanding volume of pass attempts per game, which is certainly a credit to his ability to shoulder the load, and a responsibility that he probably shares with every great quarterback in history.

So it isn't fair to say that Brees throws many interceptions - he's very efficient - but he does throw a lot of passes, which is how the Seahawks secondary gets their interceptions, and critical to their success. The Seahawks have recorded two interceptions in 3 out of 3 games they have played in which their opponent threw more than the league average of 36 passes per game.

In games where opponents throw 30-36 passes, they've recorded two interceptions in 2 of 3 games. In games of less than 30 attempts, they've recorded 2 interceptions in just 2 of 5 games, which includes Andrew Luck's 29 attempts for 0 INTs for the win.

Their diminished Legion of Boom this week should help provide Brees with better targets. Still, opposing quarterbacks in Seattle average the lowest passer rating, 55.9, lower than Brees has compiled since November 29 of last season, so look for the to fight over the middle ground between that number, and Brees's 89.7 on the road.

-----------------------------------

(Huge thanks to Ken for that amazing research).

Go Hawks.

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