Brees' ability to find open receivers will be key in Monday night's showdown.
The New Orleans Saints will collide with the Seattle Seahawks in a high-stakes showdown on Monday night, and quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints will be looking to shred the vaunted Seahawks secondary.
With five games remaining in the regular season, the Saints and the Seahawks are both vying for the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs, along with the home-field advantage that accompanies it. Seattle currently holds the No. 1 spot with a 10-1 record, with New Orleans (9-2) sitting at No. 2.
Both squads boast raucous home environments, and securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC could therefore be crucial to reaching the Super Bowl.
The Saints invade Seattle’s CenturyLink Field armed with one of the NFL’s most lethal passing attacks, while the Seahawks roll out one of the league’s best secondaries. This strength-on-strength matchup has already garnered the majority of attention surrounding the game from both media and fans, and rightfully so.
Brees and the Saints can win this all-important battle and find themselves in the NFC driver's seat if they can take full advantage of the following favorable matchups.
Attack Backup Cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane
Seattle prefers playing tight man-to-man coverage from sideline to sideline.
The Seahawks’ best cornerback is Pro Bowler Richard Sherman, who's one of the NFL's top cover-men. Unlike Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, Sherman doesn’t typically shadow a particular receiver. He plays the left side and does a fantastic job of it.
The other side is usually locked down by the ever-physical Brandon Browner. Unfortunately for Seattle, Browner won’t be available on Monday night as he's suffering from a severe groin injury and will likely be placed on injured reserve before the game.
Under the direction of Saints head coach Sean Payton, Brees would normally go right at backup corner Walter Thurmond at every opportunity. He won’t get the chance, however, as Thurmond has been suspended four games by the league for a substance abuse violation.
This calls for Seahawks No. 4 corner Byron Maxwell to step into a much larger role than he’s accustomed to, and he has to do it against the prolific Saints passing attack.
It doesn’t take rocket science to conclude that Brees will test Maxwell early and often. New Orleans wide receivers Lance Moore, Marques Colston, and Kenny Stills could all get face time against Maxwell, and each of these receivers brings a unique skill set to the table.
Maxwell has good size at 6’1” and 207 pounds, and he’s adept at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. A physical receiver like Colston would be a nice option in this situation, but the Saints could also opt to take advantage of Stills’ speed and big-play capability. If Stills can get off the line, which is easier said than done against Maxwell, he could break free for a deep ball.
Either way, Brees will find the going easier against Maxwell than he will against Sherman, and he’ll throw at Maxwell and No. 5 corner Jeremy Lane as often as possible.
If Brees is successful at exploiting the Seahawks' backups, the Saints could force Seattle to abandon its man-to-man press coverage.
Attack Seattle's Safeties and Linebackers
Another way to force the Seattle secondary out of its precious man coverage is to attack the Seahawks' safeties and linebackers.
The Saints can start by taking advantage of Seattle's linebackers in single coverage against tight ends. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has been known to shine brightly in these types of matchups.
Graham often lines up in the slot, where his size presents a mismatch for most nickel corners and safeties, and his quickness makes him a difficult challenge for linebackers.
Tight end Benjamin Watson is also a capable receiving threat, and he can be a handful for a linebacker in man coverage.
As a point of reference, observe Texans tight end Garrett Graham against the Seahawks in Week 4. Here, Graham, who's covered by Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, beats the single coverage downfield for a touchdown.
The Saints could elect to go with two tight ends, or they could spread the Seahawks out with four wide receivers, including Jimmy Graham, forcing Seattle to tap deep into its depleted defensive backfield.
To set up favorable one-on-one matchups, New Orleans could send receivers in motion as the Seahawks rarely require their corners to follow a particular receiver. Instead, everyone stays at home, which requires Seattle’s safeties to lock up man-to-man with receivers coming in motion from the opposite side of the field.
Lance Moore should thrive in these situations as his precise route-running could give Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor fits. Moore excels at running quick outs and slants and has great timing and chemistry with Brees.
In addition, speedy running back Darren Sproles could be called upon as an intermediate receiver out of the backfield. Again, the Seahawks safeties and linebackers won’t find him to be an easy matchup in coverage. Sproles’ route tree extends far beyond that of the typical running back, and he basically serves as an extra wide receiver.
If the Saints stay patient and attack the Seahawks safeties and linebackers with short-to-intermediate routes while mixing in the occasional deep pass, they can have success through the air. This death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy could eventually force the Seattle secondary out of its preferred man coverage.
Attack the Zone With Vertical Passing Game
When the Seattle secondary is forced to play zone coverage, it can be attacked with an aggressive, vertical passing game.
The Seahawks zone is usually a Cover 3, with three defensive backs playing deep. The ideal way for the Saints to attack this type of zone would normally be to run slants and curls just underneath the deep coverage.
Seattle, however, adds a wrinkle to the Cover 3 in that they drop their linebackers to prevent these curls and slants.
This could be a blessing in disguise for the New Orleans passing game. Deep zones are vulnerable to downfield double-moves and seam routes, which the Saints execute as well as any team in the league.
Here, we see Graham running an out-and-up off play-action against Atlanta last week, beating the Falcons' zone coverage for a 44-yard touchdown reception.
Seam routes also make for a viable option against a deep Cover 3. If New Orleans sends four receivers downfield on the same play, Seattle’s three-deep defensive backfield won't be able to account for all of them, and Brees will most likely find the open man.
The Seahawks aren’t entirely comfortable playing zone, and if the Saints can force them to do it, they can go for the jugular.
Of course, if Seahawks coach Pete Carroll stubbornly refuses to get out of man coverage, then Brees will be quite content to pick on Seattle's linebackers, safeties and backup corners with a slew of diverse receiving threats.
None of the aforementioned scenarios will be possible, however, if the Saints can’t protect Brees. New Orleans has been rather shaky in the pass-protection department for the better part of the season. If left tackle Charles Brown and company can buy him some time, Brees could have another huge day through the air.
Run the Football
In the midst of the Saints' fierce battle with Seattle's outstanding secondary, the use of Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram in the downhill running game can’t be wholly abandoned. Both New Orleans running backs have enjoyed success recently, and Payton would be making a huge mistake by reverting back to his old tendency to lean away from the ground game.
The Saints have been, and always will be, a pass-first offense under Payton. The New Orleans passing game is far deadlier, however, when supplemented with an effective ground game. The Saints must run the football with regularity, if for nothing else, to achieve balance and to keep the ultra-aggressive Seahawks defense off their toes.
Seattle's defense is unquestionably stout on the back end, but if Brees and the Saints can take advantage of the situations discussed above, they can tear apart the “Legion of Boom” and, thus, make a strong statement to the rest of the league.