Some games just mean more.
Stakes are high as the 9-2 New Orleans Saints ride into the hostile confines of CenturyLink Field to face the 10-1 Seattle Seahawks. The No. 1 seed in the NFC is on the line, as well as retribution for (or, in Seattle's case, a validation of) the Seahawks' shocking 41-36 defeat of the Saints in the 2010 playoffs.
With the Saints widely known as a finesse team, and Seattle often described as the toughest of the rugged, this will very well be a classic case of "styles making fights." In fact, it may come down to which team can vary its game plan the most.
If that's the case, my money is on the Saints...well at least two dollars of it.
The Seahawks are the poster children for innovation. When most teams were looking to develop a high-powered passing attack, the Seahawks were more interested in building from the inside out. Where most teams lock themselves into personnel decisions for financial reasons, competition is the primary determining factor in who takes the field in Seattle.
From the uniforms to the stadium design, the Seahawks are the most forward-thinking franchise in the NFL.
The ability to both run the ball and stop the run will make Seattle a prime contender for that Lombardi Trophy. But it's their ability to remain calm in the face of adversity that will keep them in contention as a franchise for years to come.
We are looking at the league's next juggernaut franchise.
But none of that will matter when the Saints take it to them on Monday Night Football.
When Seattle hired head coach Pete Carroll, and then subsequently hired general manager John Schneider, the organization made the two best decisions in the history of the franchise. At the helm were two of the most innovative personnel guys in the sport.
Schneider was fresh out of the Green Bay Packers organization, where he saw general manager Ted Thompson build a juggernaut of his own. Schneider has a keen sense of the salary cap and studied under one of the best personnel guys in the history of the business in Thompson.
Carroll is simply the truth. His ability to motivate players and keep an even keel about himself is unparalleled in the business. The fact that he ran one of the most successful college programs in recent memory at USC doesn't hurt either.
But the decision to draft—and start—quarterback Russell Wilson may trump every move in the history of the franchise.
Wilson's talent far outreaches his physical stature (5'11", 206 pounds), and his production is seemingly limitless even at this point in his career (second year). Wilson will have the same chip on his shoulder that Saints quarterback Drew Brees (6'0") carries for being overlooked for something as trivial as height.
His accuracy, arm strength and mobility is the stuff dreams are made of. And offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell does a wonderful getting the most out of all three. Seattle runs a West Coast offense with a zone-blocking scheme.
For those who've said the zone scheme can't generate power-running football, look no further than Seattle. Behind an athletic and powerful line and the running back combination of Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, Seattle executes it to near perfection.
Used in conjunction with Wilson, this combination is deadly.
Seattle is one of the rare teams that executes at a high level regardless of the personnel grouping. The primary reason is that defenses have to respect play-action fakes, because of how effective Seattle's run game is.
The Seahawks are currently the third-ranked rushing outfit in the NFL, averaging 4.5 yards per tote. And they are the most effective team in the league running the read-option. But it's more the commitment to the run that gives opposing defenses fits.
And Saints fans know all too much about the 'Hawks' run prowess, as witnessed by perhaps the greatest run in postseason history from that aforementioned playoff tilt.
It is widely known that if you slow down Seattle's run game, your chances of winning skyrocket. But these days you have to deal with the most explosive passing attack in the NFL (8.6 yards per attempt).
Receiver Golden Tate is one of the most underrated players in the league. Despite his size (5'10", 202 lbs), Tate is one of the hardest receivers in the NFL to bring down. He possesses a unique blend of power, dexterity, speed and balance.
And he may be one of the best 50-50-ball receivers in the game.
Tate has an innate ability to track the ball in flight. He has excellent body control and understands how to attack the ball at its highest point. This should be the player Saints corner Keenan Lewis shadows on Monday night.
These types of situations could spell trouble for New Orleans. The Saints do a great job of defending short-to-intermediate passes, but the further the ball goes downfield, the chances of them defending such throws drop dramatically.
Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin may be equally effective to Tate in certain aspects. Baldwin is an excellent route-runner with good speed and hands, and he is equally adept at playing inside or out. Jermaine Kearse is emerging as one of the premier deep-ball threats in the league (18.9 yards per catch).
But the X-factor will be jack-of-all-trades receiver/running back Percy Harvin, who played his first game in Seattle's last contest before its bye week. Harvin, who arrived in a trade last March from the Minnesota Vikings, has been one of the league's most electrifying players since he entered the NFL in 2009.
Harvin is extremely fast, shifty and versatile. And he's a lot like Tate with his ability to consistently break tackles. He operates out of the slot, which will undoubtedly cause trouble for the Saints.
The Saints may need to change personnel groupings to ensure safety Kenny Vaccaro sees zero snaps in coverage against this dynamo. In addition to his receiving skills, Harvin is a monster coming out of the backfield as a running back. Expect Seattle to line him up all over the place to cause confusion in coverage.
But it doesn't stop there. Harvin has also been a premier kick returner in the league for the duration of his career and can hurt the Saints by giving his team ideal field position.
There's no shortage of weapons for Seattle on offense. They have one of the league's best run games and best vertical passing games. But a silver lining for the Saints has to be the ineffectiveness of a dinged-up Seattle offensive line when it comes to pass protection.
The Saints will undoubtedly test said pass protection when Seattle does take shots downfield. This should make for a great battle schematically.
Seattle's defense is the bread and butter of the team. This may be one of the only teams to have impact players at each position. To put it simply, the Seahawks' defense is stacked!
For as much attention as the secondary gets, albeit much deserved, Seattle's defensive line may be worthy of similar merit. Coordinator Dan Quinn, as did Gus Bradley before him, does a great job of implementing 3-4 principles into a 4-3-based defense.
Seattle is a lot like Tampa in the fact that they are a 4-3 team with a true nose tackle. Brandon Mebane plays the 1-technique (tilted nose) with the best of them. His ability to gobble up backs is uncanny. And judging by the size of his belly, he might literally eat running backs.
Ends Chris Clemons (3.5 sacks) and Cliff Avril (6.5 sacks) are two of the better pass-rushers in the league. Fellow end and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Michael Bennett (6.5 sacks) may be better than both.
Quinn has done a great job at getting all three of these guys on the field at once. When you throw in linebacker Bruce Irvin—who led all rookies with eight sacks last season—you have one of the most ferocious pressure-based attacks studied on film.
Here's a look the Saints will see quite a bit on passing downs. Irvin makes this work as his athleticism is virtually unparalleled. At 6'3", 248 pounds, running a 4.50 40-yard dash (according to NFL.com), there's not much Irvin can't do.
He's capable of covering backs, tight ends and small horses (got your attention, huh?). His versatility allows for many schemes to be run out of similar personnel groupings. Make sure to take note of the 1-technique, who is two-gapping to occupy multiple blockers, allowing for the linebackers to roam free.
This is the look the Saints may see the most as they usually employ "11 personnel." Linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are two of the best in the business. Wagner is a run-and-chase linebacker, with Wright having more of a stack-and-shed style. The Seahawks can be run on as they allow 4.2 yards per attempt.
If Saints head coach Sean Payton doesn't go full-pass mode, the Saints ability to throw the ball will be heightened with just the threat of the run. But knowing Payton, the minute the offense doesn't gain eight yards per attempt he will throw it an excess of 70 times...in the snow.
But if the past few games are of any indication, the Saints will operate with balance and let the game come to them—as they should—because this might not be the secondary on which to throw excessively.
Any mention of Seattle's secondary should start first and foremost with safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Both possess every aspect you could want on the back-half of your defense.
Thomas is the very best at his position. He can cover like a corner, has range like a young Ken Griffey Jr. and will separate your soul from your carcass with his hitting ability. He's the type of player New Orleans wants its young safety Kenny Vaccaro to emulate.
Chancellor is the tallest safety in the NFL (6'4"), and could line up in man coverage with Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Carroll will undoubtedly have a plan to take Graham away, and it could involve the self-proclaimed best corner in the NFL.
Usually Richard Sherman plays the primary corner position. But if Graham is his usual dominant self, expect Sherman to get a shot.
Sherman is a complete corner who makes impactful plays. Throwing in his direction might not be a good idea.
On the opposite side, the usual starting corner, Brandon Browner, is currently appealing a year-long suspension, according to multiple outlets. To make matters even worse, backup Walter Thurmond is currently beginning a four-game suspension of his own.
Both are very good corners who round out the consensus best secondary in the league. Expect corners Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane to attempt to fill the voids...and Saints quarterback Drew Brees to exploit them.
If the Saints are able to establish a run game, victory may be more easily attained than people think. Seattle is unreal at home, but they are notoriously slow starters. The Saints are fast starters who can dictate the pace.
Expect the Saints to get out early and force the Seahawks to prove they can pass the ball proficiently. Once that happens, the Saints will unleash that ferocious pass rush. Then it will be up to the run game to bring it home.
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