Explosive Divisional Preview: The New Orleans Saints

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It's explode or go home in a Divisional Round rematch of the Monday Night Massacre. Let's take a closer look at the match up.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

Who are "They" anyway? "They" seem to have quite a lot to say; "They" also seem to always be able to come up with the pithiest remarks to convey complex human feelings. "They" are probably that one Twitter handle you follow that has about 50,000 followers and only tweets witty tidbits of life wisdom in 140 characters. "They" say a lot of different things.

One of the things "They" say is that the New Orleans Saints are a pretty good football team. These Saints will come marching into CenturyLink Field on Saturday in a Divisional Round tilt with the Seattle Seahawks. These very same Saints attempted to win in Seattle just over five weeks earlier and were quickly crushed.

My first Explosive Opponent Preview came shortly before that Monday night massacre. Consider this more of an Explosive Opponent Update than a preview.

Anyway, to the numbers!

The New Orleans Offense

Week

Opponent


Ex. Run

Ex. Pass

Total

1

vs. ATL

0

9

9

2

at TB

0

5

5

3

vs. ARZ

3

8

11

4

vs. MIA

1

10

11

5

at CHI

0

5

5

6

at NE

4

6

10

7

BYE

8

vs. BUF

2

5

7

9

at NYJ

1

5

6

10

vs. DAL

6

9

15

11

vs. SF

1

5

6

12

at ATL

4

7

11

13

at SEA

1

2

3

14

vs. CAR

1

7

8

15

at STL

0

6

6

16

at CAR

1

5

6

17

vs. TB

2

7

9

Wildcard

PHI

4

5

9

Season Totals


31

106

137

Avg. per game

1.82

6.24

8.06

After their season-low output of only 3 big plays against Seattle, the Saints quickly returned to their explosive form to close out the season. The have averaged 7.6 big plays per game since Week 13. What surprises me is their Wildcard victory in Philadelphia; the Saints managed to maintain a rare balance between big runs and big passes. Their four big rushes was their most in a game since Week 12 and is only the fourth time this season they've made more than four big rushing plays in a game. Sean Payton's run-heavy game plan paid off, much to Mark Ingram's benefit.

I'm not too worried about the Saints new-found commitment to and success in the running game. Seattle has stiffened up a previously suspect run defense, allowing only four total big rushes in their final five games and only an average of 76.8 yards per game in that same span. Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel have been dominating the interior of late and should be able to maintain their high level of play in the playoffs.

I am worried about Drew Brees, who was the 2nd-most explosive passer in the NFL this season behind only Matthew Stafford. Brees was uncharacteristically jumpy in Week 12 as he was hit, hurried and harassed all night long. His receiving options were also shut down and his running game was non-existent. I don't expect an elite quarterback of Brees' caliber to deliver a similar performance on Saturday. I sure hope he does, though.

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Total Explosive Plays: Ranked 5th

Explosive Passes: Ranked 3rd

Explosive Runs: Tied with Houston for 23rd

Player

Passing




Rushing




Receiving





Plays

Yards

TDs

Y/PA

Plays

Yards

Y/C

TDs

Plays

Yards

Y/C

TDs

Drew Brees

105

2843

19

26.8

2

29

14.5

0





Mark Ingram





12

234

19.5

0

2

39

19.5

0

Pierre Thomas





7

103

14.7

0

9

196

21.8

1

Khiry Robinson





5

95

19.0

0





Darren Sproles





4

84

21.0

0

9

233

25.9

1

Jed Collins





1

12

12.0

0





Jimmy Graham









26

738

28.4

6

Kenny Stills









15

504

33.6

5

Marques Colston









19

426

22.4

2

Robert Meachem









8

281

35.1

2

Lance Moore









9

214

23.8

2

Ben Watson









7

159

22.7

0

Nick Toon









2

53

26.5

0

The above chart highlights each Saints player with at least one explosive play this season, including the playoffs. Jimmy Graham is clearly the biggest explosive receiving threat available to Brees. Even against Seattle, Graham was able to net himself two explosive catches. His size, speed and receiving acumen has posed a match-up nightmare for defenses all season. Kam Chancellor, Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin will all be tasked with shutting him down, though I know everyone on that defense wants a crack at Graham. Kenny Stills is the next threat, which means Byron Maxwell, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas must maintain their own excellent play and keep Stills in front of them once again.

Without the "screen-whisperer" K.J. Wright (or maybe with, who knows), Jeremy Lane and Malcolm Smith must do their part to contain and shut down Darren Sproles, whose dual-threat ability has netted him 13 total big plays this season (4 rushing, 9 passing). The injury to Pierre Thomas could prove critical as New Orleans should surely miss his big-play ability (15 explosive plays this season).

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Explosive Passes: Drew Brees ranked 2nd

Explosive Rushes: Mark Ingram tied with 3 other players for 34th

Explosive Receptions: Jimmy Graham ranked 18th

Result For

Number

Touchdown

45

Field Goal

21

Turnover

14

Punt

9

End of Half

3

Season Total

92

Score Rate

72%

The above chart highlights the number of total explosive drives the Saints have this season. They have scored on 66 out of their 92 total drives for a rate of about 72%. Pete Carroll's staff claims the historic league average score-rate is about 75% so the Saints offense is doing well in capitalizing on the opportunities their explosive plays have given them.

The New Orleans Defense

Week

Opponent


Ex. Run Alwd

Ex. Pass Alwd

Total

1

vs. ATL

2

8

10

2

at TB

5

4

9

3

vs. ARZ

2

4

6

4

vs. MIA

3

4

7

5

at CHI

3

7

10

6

at NE

3

8

11

7

BYE

8

vs. BUF

3

4

7

9

at NYJ

3

4

7

10

vs. DAL

2

4

6

11

vs. SF

2

1

3

12

at ATL

0

4

4

13

at SEA

3

6

9

14

vs. CAR

3

2

5

15

at STL

2

3

5

16

at CAR

1

3

4

17

vs. TB

2

3

5

Wildcard

at PHI

0

3

3

Season Totals



39

72

111

Avg. per game

2.29

4.24

6.53

The Saints defense has made a wild turn-around from 2012 to 2013. Last season, the Saints set records for defensive misery in yardage allowed but under the watch of the luscious locks of Rob Ryan, the Saints now sport the 10th ranked unit per DVOA.

After being embarrassed by Russell Wilson and the Seahawks the Saints defense has refocused, allowing an average of 4.4 big plays per game in their past five games. Two things of note jump out to me: the consistency of the Saints big pass play defense and the entire defensive performance against Philadelphia.

The Saints have only allowed 3 big passes in four consecutive games and only just 2 against Carolina in Week 14. With the injuries this secondary has had to deal with, especially to rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, consider me impressed with such consistently solid defensive performance the past month.

The Philadelphia Eagles were far and away the most explosive team in the NFL this season, coming into their Wildcard match-up averaging a little over 10 big plays per game. The Eagles were also the most explosive rushing attack averaging 3.5 big runs per game. The Saints shut down the explosive Eagles, holding them to no big runs and only 3 big passes.

With the struggles the Seattle offense has had generating big plays the past month, coupled with the Saints recent stoutness on defense, this match-up of the Seattle offense and Saints defense will be the most intriguing to watch in my mind.

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Total Explosive Plays Allowed: Ranked 11th

Explosive Passes Allowed: Tied with the New York Giants for 5th

Explosive Rushes Allowed: Tied with Tampa Bay for 26th

Result Vs.

Number

Touchdown

31

Field Goal

19

Turnover

16

Punt

11

End of Half

3

Season Total

80

Score Rate

63%

This chart shows the total number of explosive drives the Saints defense has yielded over the course of the season, playoff game included. They have only allowed 50 scores off 80 total big play drives, good for a respectable 63% score-rate against.

The Verdict

In my recent predictions, I seem to be giving the Seahawks offense too much credit and the Seahawks defense too little. Seattle's defense has met or bested each of my predictions for their opponent's explosive play results. Seattle's offense is the opposite story; they simply fall short of my predictions.

For Seattle's offense, I believe New Orleans will change their game plan slightly. It seemed the Saints were selling out to stop the running game in Week 12, expecting their secondary to win the one-on-one match ups that both blitzes and loaded boxes allow. We may see the Saints play with two high safeties to eliminate the deep throws that Darrell Bevell is so fond of and Russell Wilson so proficient at. That would mean the Seahawks would see more seven man fronts against 12 personnel, which gives the Seahawks the advantage in the running game. Further, this situation would make for the apparent improved health of Luke Willson very important. Willson has shown the chops to be an effective receiver and while not quite up to Zach Miller-levels in run blocking, is proficient in that area. If Seattle can be explosive running and throwing the ball out of 12 personnel, watch out New Orleans.

While I believe Luke Willson can be effective in this game, I worry about the inconsistencies of our offensive line. Against the Rams, it seems as though each lineman took turns either getting blown by, whiffing on a block or holding. If only one lineman is having an off-day on the majority of plays, fine. If every lineman takes turns having bad plays...

Luckily, the front seven for New Orleans is nothing like that of the Rams. Still, I believe the Seattle offense will be slow out of the gate but finish the game with 4 explosive runs and 4 explosive passes.

Oh, and apparently there's this guy, Percy Harvin, who might be playing, too. He's a little explosive in his own right.

On defense, the task is simple: we must ask this unit to go out and do exactly what they've done for the past five games, including repeating their Monday night performance against the Saints. We may see the Saints attempt to scheme Jimmy Graham open through stacked sets and other means to defeat tight man coverage. Darren Sproles may also see a bigger role through wheel routes, leaks and screens. The New Orleans offense may try to grind out drives that take up plenty of time with lots of plays but few explosive ones, if any. Hell, they may even hurry-up no-huddle the whole damn game to keep the defense from resting and attempt to mitigate the crowd.

In the end, I believe that the Seattle defense just has way too much talent. The speed, length and intelligence of every major contributor on this defense is such that even a markedly improved offensive output from the Saints will not be enough. I only see the Saints making one big running play (which means Brandon Mebane will be terrorizing Mark Ingram all day) and five big pass plays (including one long touchdown throw to Kenny Stills).

The Seahawks will end their Divisional Round game against New Orleans with the big play advantage of 8-6 and will win the scoring advantage 28-20.

You know what "They" say, after all: The best team is the one with the most points in the end.

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