Tuesday, January 7, 2014

An Early Look: Saints And Seahawks Evenly Matched

Photo by Jeff Marsh

Experiencing the glory that was a 34-7 beat down of the Saints earlier this season can make it difficult to assess a rematch. Seattle so thoroughly destroyed the Saints in nearly all phases of the game that the convenient narrative is that the Seahawks will impose their will once more. Even with the injury issues for the Saints, and the possible return of a player like Percy Harvin, this feels like a game that will be decided in the fourth quarter between two closely matched teams.




Momentum Roughly Equal

Ashley Fox, over at ESPN.com, suggested that the Saints may be getting hot at the right time. Besides being the most tired cliche of the NFL playoffs, it also is not true. New Orleans is 3-3 in their last six games including their win in Philadelphia last week, and have outscored their opponents 135-132. They won their final game at home 42-17 against a Bucs team that had nothing to play for, and beat the Eagles on a last-second field goal. Both were solid victories, but there is not much to suggest they have found new life. 

Every national pundit is glomming on to the idea that the Seahawks are playing poorly, and that the Saints are catching a vulnerable team. When a team starts 11-1, vulnerability is all relative. Take Seattle's last six games. They are 4-2 and have outscored their opponents 152-72. Even if you just narrow it to the last four games when the Seahawks went 2-2, they outscored their opponents 77-45. There are a number of playoff teams that would be quite happy to have the Seahawks six-game performance record, and everyone would pick the Seahawks performance over the Saints.

New Orleans comes in with one thing the Seahawks do not have this year, and that is a playoff win. That makes things about equal between both teams in terms of momentum and confidence.

Offenses Roughly Equal

This can't be true. Can it? The Seahawks offense is tanking and the weakness of this team, and the Saints offense is one of the best in football and led by genius offensive mind Sean Payton and Hall of Fame thrower Drew Brees. Once again, the truth evades the superficial. 

Seattle scored more points per game (26.1) than the Saints (25.9). Seattle had a better Red Zone scoring percentage (56% - 54%). Seattle was the more efficient scoring offense, scoring 0.43 points per play run compared to 0.38 points per play for New Orleans. Take it a step further. Compare their performance against like opponents.

Both teams played, St. Louis, Arizona, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Carolina. The high-powered Saints offense averaged 23.6 points per game in those contests. The hopeless and hapless Seahawks offense somehow managed 22.6 against the same defenses. Consider that comparison includes Seattle playing the 49ers, Cardinals and Rams defense twice and the Saints playing the Falcons twice. 

There is no argument that the Seahawks offense has not put its best foot forward the last four weeks, but the Saints have had their recent struggles as well that include games of 13 points, 16 points and 7 versus this Seahawks defense. 

Both teams can point to recent successes running the football against formidable rush defenses as reasons for optimism. Both teams have quarterbacks that have shown they rise to the occasion in big games and big moments. 

Seahawks fans can wring their hands about the offense, and the world can perpetuate the myth that the Saints have a decided advantage there, but that is all it really is, a myth.

Seahawks Defense Clearly Better

Numbers can tell you anything you want. A Saints fan will comfort themselves knowing that even if the Seahawks ranked #1 in the NFL in points allowed (14.4 ppg) and yards allowed (273.6), the Saints ranked #4 and #3 in those categories. The rankings are similar. The quality of the defenses are not. Look at those numbers again. The two teams may be separated by just three spots in the scoring rankings, but the Saints allowed 4.9 ppg more than the Seahawks (19.3). That is the difference between the Saints and the 20th-ranked Buffalo Bills defense that allowed 24.2 ppg. A similar story could be told about total yards where the Seahawks hold a 29 yards per game advantage over the Saints.

None of this is to say the Saints defense is bad, or even average. They are a very tough defense that gets terrific pressure on the passer and plays the run very well. They just are not the Seahawks.

Take the same comparison of like opponents we did for the offenses. The Saints allowed 16.8 ppg versus the Seahawks 13.3. If you limit the comparison to the same circumstances (i.e., New Orleans only played St. Louis in St. Louis, so throw out the home game for Seattle vs. St. Louis), the Seahawks average drops to 11.7 ppg allowed. 

One number tells the story better than any other as far as the differences between these two defensive units. The Saints rank #1 in the NFL in time of possession. That has led to their defense being on the field less than any other in the NFL. Despite having significantly more plays run against them this season than the Saints defense, the Seahawks defense ranked #1 in the NFL in yards per play allowed at 4.4, while the Saints were 10th at 5.1. The 2005 Seahawks defense was similar to the 2013 Saints defense. Good enough to win if the offense is controlling the game and the ball, but not good enough to win on their own in most cases.

Seattle's defense is more like the 2002 Bucs or even the 2000 Ravens in terms of their performance relative to the rest of the league. Defenses like that can win games with, or without, their offense.

The X-Factors

Turnovers

One of the biggest advantages in this game for Seattle is one they have the least control over. New Orleans is 18th in the NFL in turnover margin while Seattle is #1. The major culprit here is a Saints defense that struggles to create takeaways. They ranked 29th in the NFL in creating turnovers while the Seahawks were the best in the league. The Saints have created more than one turnover in a game five times this season, and none in their past ten games. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the Saints offense to protect the ball, and Brees is much closer to Brett Favre in his gunslinger mentality than he is to Russell Wilson.

When the Saints do turn the ball over, it tends to be their undoing. This past weekend was a rare exception where they lost the turnover battle 2-0, but won the game. In their six regular season games when the offense turned the ball over 2 or more times, the Saints went 2-4, saw their ppg drop to 19.2 and their points allowed to jump to 22.3. A defense that is highly dependent on their offense to possess the ball has a very hard time mitigating the effects of a giveaway by their offense. The Saints only turned the ball over one time in the first match-up, but it turned into a touchdown, and the team never recovered. 

Seattle defenders have created more than two turnovers in 12 of their 16 games. Do that again on Saturday, and the outcome should be a positive one.

Percy Harvin

Nobody knows what to expect from Harvin. I'm not even sure Harvin knows what to expect from Harvin. He could be the nitrous oxide for the Seahawks offensive engine, or he could be standing on the sidelines. The Saints do not have a defender well suited to defend Harvin should he play. They are not going to take their best corner Keenan Lewis and put him in the slot against Harvin. Even if they did, it would leave Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin with vastly inferior corners opposite them. It could increase the amount of zone coverage the Saints play, but the thought of David Hawthorne or Will Herring trying to drop into a zone and trying to keep up with Harvin on a crossing route has to send shivers down the spine of Saints coaches and fans. Harvin is a massive wildcard in this game, the likes of which have rarely been seen in a game so late in the year.

Underdogs

New Orleans will grab hold of the underdog role in this game and use it as motivation. They have not, however, done well in games this season they were not favored to win. There have been four games, including the playoff game against the Eagles, where the Saints have entered as underdogs. Their record in those games is 1-3, and the winning team covered each time the Saints lost. 

Opponent scores 21+

The Saints defense is good, but when an opposing offense has even modest success against them, the Saints tend to lose. There were five games this season, including the Eagles games, when a Saints opponent scored more than 21 points. New Orleans is 1-4 in those games. All of them were on the road. 

68,000 + 53

Seahawks fans are known around the league almost more than their team. They have broken noise records when things are going well. The playoffs require a whole other level of dedication to disruption. A CenturyLink Field that grumbles or boos should the offense struggle to score won't cut it. Not if the fans want to be a positive factor in the outcome. Whole sections of fans sitting or clapping instead of yelling won't do it either. What kind of crowd shows up to this game will play a major role in determining the outcome.

Carroll vs Payton

Both teams will make adjustments after the first game. Who gets an early edge from those changes will set the tone for the game. Which coaching staff can make the best in-game adjustments will be a major factor in the outcome. The best test here will be the offensive mind of Payton versus the defensive mind of Carroll. 

Take It All In

The Seahawks offense may be equivalent to the Saints in many ways and the Seahawks defense may be appreciably better than their Saints counterpart, but they do not play one another. Seattle's defense wants to be included in the list of all-time greats. They earn that through playoff excellence. It starts Saturday with a Super Bowl Champion quarterback and his clever offensive-minded head coach. No team in the NFL has played close to the same level of defense as the Seahawks have heading into the post-season. Should that continue, the Seahawks have a very good chance of moving on to the next round. If they should falter, the pressure builds on the offense to win their match-up with the Saints defense. They did that in resounding fashion in the first game, but expect this one to take a different shape. 

Marshawn Lynch was a non-factor in that game. Russell Wilson beat the Saints on blitzes with big down-field throws. It would not be a shock to see a far better result from Lynch on the ground and less gaudy numbers for Wilson. The sweetest outcome for the doubted and belittled Seahawks offense would be a game they perform like champions. Those guys believe, rightfully so, that they are far better than most give them credit for. This is another chance to prove it.

New Orleans needs their offense to outfox the Seahawks defense and their defense to hold the Seahawks offense under 20 points. That has been done only once all year, with the Seahawks averaging 29 ppg at home. If Seattle can find their way into the mid-20s in this game, the Saints chances greatly diminish. 

These two teams both enter the game with realistic hopes of winning. The odds are Seattle's favor, but execution and coaching adjustments throughout the afternoon will determine who wins up on top.

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