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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Marching In For An Upset?

Anyone else had a manic last month or so? Just us? Well never fear, your favourite British linemen are back from our unplanned hiatus.

Last weeks playoff games were incredible, from the shootout in Indy to the frozen tundra of Lambeau we were wined and dined on a stellar four course spread, but this week should be even better. We've been handed a trio of rematches from the regular season and a classic Colts-Patriots showdown, but not quite as it used to be.

With Denver-San Diego, Indy-New England and San Fran-Carolina all looking like tight and tense games there's one that the form book suggests won't be all that close, so lets take a look at it...

New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks - Saturday 4.25pm (ET)

A rematch from their week 13 encounter, which was billed as a clash of the titans but ended up as something of a damp squib in which the Seahawks trounced the Saints 34-7.

That game really bought two narratives to the fore, Seattle's invincibility at home and New Orleans' poor road form. Since then though, those have changed some what. The Seahawks looked extremely mortal in a week 16 loss at home to Arizona while the Saints have won their first road playoff game under Sean Payton (Other than the neutral-site Superbowl) with last weeks victory over Philadelphia.

But even with those instances, the Seahawks home field advantage is still going to be an enormous factor. They have an average scoreline of 30-13 at home this season, compared to 23-15 on the road, so how can the Saints attempt to overcome such an advantage?

First and foremost they need to stay aggressive. Sean Payton's surprise onside kick in the Superbowl will go down in NFL Lore as one of the gutsiest calls of all time and he's already green-lit a field goal audible that gave Luke McCown a 4th down pass attempt. It would be no surprise to see something along similar lines in this game to allow the Saints an extra possession. But it's not just fake punts and 4th down attempts, they also need to just execute better. The week 13 game saw several blown coverages from the Saints as well as key drops and missed blocks. They simply can't allow that to happen again. Seattle is a team that feasts on the mistakes of their opponents. They had a league-best 39 takeaways and have a backfield that punish everything from poor coverage to blown contain and arm tackle attempts. The Saints need to be perfect on both sides of the ball and pounce on any error the 'Hawks make. They could also use a helping hand from Lady Luck, who abandoned them in week 13.

In week 13 there were two key fumbles; Marshawn Lynch lost the football in the red zone, only for Max Unger to recover it and the Seahawks to kick a field goal. There was also a Cliff Avril sack-fumble on which the ball found the arms of Michael Bennett who waltzed into the end zone. That's a 10 point swing which killed the Saints, the Bennett play, which came in the 1st quarter to make it a 10-0 game, gave the Seahawks win a sense of inevitability as well as upping the decibel level at the Link. Fumble recoveries are one of the true "lucky events" in football, and if Saints had scooped up both of those balls who knows how things might have ended.

Everything that could go wrong did for the Saints in the first half, and it ended up being the worst offensive game of the Payton-Brees era as they managed just 3.4 yards per play. But that should come as no surprise given just how incredible the Seahawks pass defense is. Football Outsiders has the 'Hawks pass D as the best since the '09 Jets and it's little surprise when you consider the talent in the secondary and deep pass rush rotation. If they Saints get too pass-heavy then it's going to be a long game, particularly with the raw project that is Terron Armstead at left tackle. Brees what hit 6 times and hurried often in their game, and if they want to move the ball with any consistency the Saints will have to do a better job of keeping Brees clean.

Maybe the Saints should try to keep it on the ground then? Last week Mark Ingram had the best game of his disappointing career, amassing 114 hard-fought  yards at 5.4 a touch. Unfortunately the Saints aren't the efficient rushing attack they once were. Since Carl Nicks left in free agency the Saints yards per carry has plummeted from 4.9 yards per carry in 2011 down to just 3.8 this year. It's not all the lose of Nicks of course, but as we all know guards key to a lot of what goes on with the ground game and the fact is that Ben Grubbs hasn't been as good in the black and gold as he was in purple.

The problem isn't just that the Saints are an iffy rushing team, but that the Seahawks are a surprisingly good run stopping team. They've improved from -8.2% DVOA, good for 12th, to -15.1% this year (8th). A lot of that is the continued improvements of their young linebackers as well as the addition of Michael Bennett who is a superb run defender on the edge. Brandon Mebane continues to be a powerhouse in the middle of the line as well, making it tough work for teams to get any push inside.

Either way you cut it, the Saints are going to have a tough time of it on offense. They might have one of the best receivers in football in Jimmy Graham, but even he was limited in their last game getting just 3 catches for 42 yards (although he did account for their only score on a 2 yard catch). If they can't get Graham causing havoc then they're really in trouble. Darren Sproles poses nightmares to most teams, but Seattle have the likes of KJ Wright at outside linebacker who can keep track of him.

So if the Saints aren't likely to score many points they're going to have to limit Seattle's offense. This can be done, but it takes a lot. Arizona were able to hold Russell Wilson and Co. to just 10 points when they won in week 16, and that was done mostly by being disciplined upfront with their rush lanes and keeping contain. Wilson is a good pocket passer, but he's most dangerous when the pocket breaks down up and he can create passing lanes by rolling out. He'll drive Rob Ryan crazy if he escapes the pocket with regularity again. Arizona's front 7 is a level (or 5) better than the Saints, but New Orleans does have the players that can keep Wilson inside the pocket. Cam Jordan and Junior Galette have had good seasons and will need to be at their best up front and win against the 'Hawks line if they're to stop Wilson ablibing them to death as well as trying to control Marshawn Lynch.

That's the battle up front, but what about on the edge? New Orleans have suffered a pair of injuries to their secondary since week 13. First impressive rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro broke his ankle and then last week Keenan Lewis, who had been keeping DeSean Jackson quiet all day, suffered a concussion. It looks like Lewis will play, but without Vaccaro the Saints look worryingly thin at the back end. And even more worryingly Percy Harvin is expected to play.

Just how much of a role Harvin will play is a mystery, but any time he's on the field the Saints will need to keep a close eye on him. Even as nothing more but a diversion tactic Percy Harvin will have an impact on the Saints defense and Ryan's faith in leaving his corners in single coverage on the outside.

After all that you're expecting me to make some loud and proud statement about how it's a forgone conclusion that Seattle will wipe the floor with the Saints again and that you should bet next month's rent on them to win. But far from it.

There are scenarios where the Saints can win this, football games aren't played on paper after all. Maybe the occasion will be too much for the Seahawks fans. Maybe the lose an early fumble, get behind 10-0 and suddenly the crowd is dead, the noise replaced by a nervous silence. And let's not forget that Drew Brees, he of outrageous passing stats and a stunningly quick release, is lining up on the other side. Everything went against the Saints last time these two teams faced off, and while they submitted a terrible performance Russell Wilson had his best day as a professional QB. It's unlikely that those performances repeat and another perfect storm is created. And I don't know if you were watching last week, but anything can happen in the NFL!

My pick is the Seahawks by 5, but I wouldn't be too surprised if this time next week we're talking about how much confidence the Saints have as they go to San Fran/Charlotte for the NFC Championship Game.

- Toby Durant (@TDOnSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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