5 New Orleans Saints Who Must Be in Top Form Against Seattle
The Saints-Seahawks showdown is perhaps the most important game of the season in the NFC, as both squads are in direct competition for the top seed in the playoffs.
That No. 1 seed is potentially more important this season than in most others, due to both squads' intimidatingly loud home stadiums.
If the 9-2 Saints can gain home-field advantage, keeping them out of the Super Bowl will be difficult, and the same can be said of the 10-1 Seahawks.
The biggest games often require large contributions from key players, and this contest is no different. Following are five New Orleans Saints who must be in top form on Monday night.
5. Running Back Pierre Thomas
Thomas is coming off one of his best games of the season. During last Thursday night’s New Orleans victory over Atlanta, Thomas rushed 10 times for 73 yards, while reeling in five passes for 57 yards. In his last three outings, he's accumulated 209 yards rushing, along with 116 receiving yards.
During this three-game surge, Thomas has run the football in authoritative fashion while displaying impressive vision. He's also deadly on the screen pass, as Saints fans know quite well.
In Seattle, the Saints face one of the elite secondaries in the league, and in order to get their passing game going, they will need to establish a ground game.
Thomas isn't known as one of the top running backs in the league, but he's certainly making his mark as of late. He'll be called on again on Monday night against the Seahawks, and with the stakes of the game so high, Thomas must raise his level of play to even greater heights.
4. Defensive End Cameron Jordan
The Seahawks boast an impressive collection of talent on both sides of the ball, but NFL MVP candidate Russell Wilson is the spark plug that ignites them. The Seattle signal-caller electrifies with both his arm and his legs, and the Saints will try and harass him with consistent pressure.
Enter Cameron Jordan, who is emerging as one of the league’s better defensive ends in 2013 with 9.5 sacks. Jordan’s presence as a pass-rusher must be established early and continued throughout the contest.
Pressuring a scrambling quarterback like Wilson can be like playing with fire for a defensive line. It’s highly important that once Wilson feels pressure, the New Orleans defensive line as a unit contains him and doesn’t allow him to escape the pocket. Otherwise, the fleet-footed quarterback will fly down the field for first-down conversions and possibly more.
Although dangerous when dealing with a mobile quarterback, pressure is still essential. New Orleans simply cannot allow Wilson to sit back in the pocket and get long looks down the field. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will certainly dial up some of his exotic blitzes, but Jordan must apply pressure with regularity and not allow Wilson to settle into a comfort zone.
3. Offensive Tackle Charles Brown
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has stated that his defense is a 4-3 scheme run by 3-4 personnel. Right defensive end Chris Clemons corroborates this statement, as his build and style of play resemble that of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Clemons has three sacks on the season, and he'll be coming after Saints quarterback Drew Brees at every opportunity.
Standing in his way will be Saints offensive tackle Charles Brown, who doesn't typically fare well against speedy defensive ends.
Unfortunately for Brown, Clemons won't be the only formidable pass-rusher he faces, as Cliff Avril will be rotated in early and often. Avril has 6.5 sacks in 2013, and his availability allows Seattle to rotate its right defensive ends in a way that keeps both players fresh.
Clemons and Avril combine to form a challenging assignment for Brown, as they both move extremely well off the snap. If New Orleans is to keep its quarterback standing upright, Brown must bring his A-game on Monday night.
2. Linebacker Curtis Lofton
Lofton is the heart and soul of the New Orleans defense, and on Monday night, he’ll be the unit’s single most important player.
For starters, Lofton, who has 86 tackles this season, will be required to play a huge role in slowing down the Seattle running game.
Russell Wilson may be Seattle’s most valuable player, but Pete Carroll will be looking to establish a ground game first and foremost. Not only will an effective running game eat clock and help the hard-hitting Seahawks defense stay fresh, but it will also keep the high-flying Saints offense off the field.
Running back Marshawn Lynch spearheads the Seattle ground attack. Lynch has 925 yards rushing and nine touchdowns this season, but it's his performance in a playoff game nearly three years ago that will long be etched into the minds of fans of both squads.
Lynch ripped off an epic 67-yard run against the Saints the last time these two teams met, which happened to be the NFC Wild Card Game in 2011. Seattle went on to win the contest 41-36, and Lynch's run has since become legendary.
For New Orleans coach Sean Payton, Lynch's run undoubtedly evokes bad memories, and Payton will call upon Lofton and his Saints defensive cohorts to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
In addition to his duties in run support, Lofton must serve as the Saints' defensive counterpart to Russell Wilson. Lofton is the primary signal-caller of Rob Ryan's defense, and he'll face off with Wilson on nearly every play.
Lofton will have to answer the bell in a big way on Monday night, as he’ll be going toe-to-toe with Wilson, while also attempting to corral Lynch.
1. Quarterback Drew Brees
As the starting quarterback, Brees could occupy the spot in this feature every week, but he’s especially important this week.
Seattle has possibly the NFL’s best secondary, but it will be without two key defensive backs in Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. Still, the Seahawks are still quite formidable on the back end. Cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas are two of the best defensive backs in football, and they routinely make the going tough on opposing quarterbacks and receivers.
In addition, the Seahawks will come after Brees with a steady pass rush. The aforementioned Clemons and Avril will come into play here, as will defensive end Michael Bennett and linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Brees must manage Seattle’s pass rush, while locating and hitting open receivers amid the Seahawks’ tight man-to-man coverage. This is undoubtedly a tall order, but if New Orleans is to escape with a victory, Brees needs to be at the top of his game.
Rarely does a regular-season nondivisional game carry as much weight as Monday night’s tilt in Seattle. With both teams sitting atop the NFC, however, and both possessing huge home-field advantages, the winner of this contest will claim the inside track to the Super Bowl.
If the Saints are to return to New Orleans holding the NFC lead, the five players mentioned above must seize the moment on Monday night and bring their best game to CenturyLink Field.