The NFC divisional round matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks is as hopeless of a mismatch as you'll see in the NFL playoffs. The No. 6-seeded Saints are traveling to CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where the No. 1-seeded Seahawks have lost only one game all season.
Certified by Guinness as the loudest crowd on Earth, the intimidating Seattle fans helped their team decimate the Saints 34-7 just five weeks beforehand. What chance do the Saints have against the mighty 'Hawks?
A perfectly good one, as it turns out.
The Saints might be a sixth seed, but they're no pushover. Not only did the Saints finish 11-5, but per Pro Football Reference, they finished with the 10th-best scoring offense and fourth-best scoring defense this regular season. They can play with anybody.
Until that Week 13 implosion in Seattle, the Saints were 9-2 and looking like serious title contenders. Splitting a December home-and-home with the No. 2-seeded Carolina Panthers (and an unusual two-interception game from Brees against the St. Louis Rams) dropped the Saints to just 11-5.
In the Wild Card Round, though, the Saints adapted their game to pull off an impressive road playoff win against the Philadelphia Eagles. Always a pass-first team, the Saints' three-back committee of Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson carried the rock 30 times for 171 yards and a touchdown.
Will this new Saints ground attack lead them to an upset victory in Seattle?
Run, Screen, Throw, Punt
As it turns out, the Saints tried to lead with their ground game the first time around, and it almost worked. Almost.
The Saints' first drive against the Seahawks in Week 13 was a microcosm of their offensive game plan, their execution and the results they got: a Pierre Thomas run that lost four yards, a screen pass that gained seven, and a downfield shot that was broken up by the Seahawks secondary.
The Saints lined up with two receivers, two tight ends and a tailback, in shotgun. The Seahawks were in a 3-3-5 nickel, with star cornerback Richard Sherman one-on-one against receiver Robert Meachem.
Brees seems to like this matchup from the get-go, looking for it all the way as he waits first for safety Kam Chancellor to bite down on tight end Jimmy Graham's slant, then for Meachem to get separation from Sherman, which he does:
Brees' throw is just a bit underthrown, though, allowing Sherman to close back down on Meachem and break up the play.
The second possession started off in a similar fashion: A little four-yard out to receiver Marques Colston, a dive into the line by Mark Ingram, and then another deep pass play with a slow-developing outside route. This time, the route took too long to develop and defensive end Cliff Avril stripped Brees of the ball. The fumble was caught on the fly by fellow defensive end Michael Bennett and returned 22 yards for a score.
Though the Seahawks would go on put together a long touchdown drive that pushed the score up to 17-0, the Saints stuck to the game plan. Using inside runs, stretch runs, bootlegs and play-action fakes, the Saints tried to stretch the defense horizontally and make plays in the margins.
It worked. Ingram and Thomas started finding occasional cracks in the Seahawks front seven, and the Saints finally started moving the chains (their first conversion came on the final play of the first quarter). They spent 13 plays and 8:10 chewing up 80 yards for a touchdown, drawing the score to a reasonable 17-7 halfway through the second quarter.
This was a particularly clever play call on a 2nd-and-3 during that drive, exemplary of the kind of wrinkles the Saints were throwing at the Seahawks:
The Saints are loaded up to show "run" here, with a tailback, fullback, two tight ends and a lone wide receiver. The Seahawks are in their base 4-3, with a single high safety and both corners tight to the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, every Saint blocks down to the left, including both tight ends. Only the wide receiver, Meachem, gives a clue this isn't a run, taking off on a post route to the inside:
Brees play-fakes to Thomas, then does a little half-boot to his left. Three more receiving options release downfield: Thomas, who flares out to the left and sits down near the line of scrimmage, tight end Ben Watson, who breaks down the seam into a corner route and fullback Jed Collins, who flares out to the right.
Brees sees Watson come as wide-open as wide-open gets in the NFL, yet he oddly throws all the way back to Thomas on the other side of the field—for one yard:
Though this conservative approach finally got the Saints in the end zone, the victory was short-lived.
After Brees and the Saints scored what would be their only touchdown, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson took back over. On a crucial 3rd-and-3, he found receiver Doug Baldwin for a 52-yard gain, one of several chunk plays the Seahawks would gash the Saints for on the day (and another of which I broke down in last week's Tactical Advantage column).
Though the Saints held the Seahawks to a field goal on that drive, they knew they needed to cut into Seattle's 20-7 lead by halftime. The Saints finally stepped on the gas, going into hurry-up and firing off two quick completions that set up a 3rd-and-2.
Once again, they went play-action, and this time, Brees pulled the trigger on the intermediate route to the tight end:
The play was there to be made—but the pass was just a little bit high, and tight end Josh Hill couldn't quite hang on. The Saints' last chance to get into the game became their third three-and-out in five possessions (not counting the third-down turnover).
That was the effective end of the game.
Wilson took over with 2:05 left in the half and marched the Seahawks downfield for a touchdown, making it 27-7. Both defenses stiffened after halftime, as both offenses became one-dimensional: The Saints tried to catch up by throwing, while the Seahawks ran the ball to kill the clock.
When the Saints Have the Ball
Saints head coach Sean Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and his game plan to attack the Seahawks defense was a sound one. By mixing clever, conservative short plays with occasional shots down the field, the risk of mistakes is minimized without completely turtling.
However, this relies on exceptional execution. If your strategy is to play mistake-free ball, you can't make mistakes. Not only was Brees sack-fumbled for a touchdown early on, but he also left a few plays on the field with missed reads and slightly less-than-perfect accuracy.
Brees, it must be said, threw two interceptions against the Eagles during their Wild Card Game, and he'll have to bounce back with a much better game for the Saints to pull off an upset in Seattle.
Payton should try an opposite approach from Week 13: pass to set up the run. Throw aggressively downfield early, establish the pass as a threat, and then use screens and draws underneath to move the chains.
Playing conservatively is not a great underdog strategy. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about "David" and "Goliath" strategies, how playing aggressively and taking great risk to press a small advantage can pay off big-time for big underdogs.
As Chris Brown of Grantland explained at his site SmartFootball.com, an underdog should play a high variance strategy, because it wants an unpredictable outcome. If David fought Goliath conventionally and conservatively (loading up on armor and squaring up toe-to-toe with the giant), he'd have minimized his chance of success.
The Saints aren't a "David" by any stretch of the imagination. Again, they've rightly been considered a Super Bowl contender for much of the season. Yet, if they again go into CenturyLink and try to ankle-bite the Seahawks to death, they'll again get blown out.
Payton and the Saints offense need to take a cue from Rob Ryan and the Saints defense.
When the Seahawks Have the Ball
A 34-7 blowout looks like a defensive failure, but consider the situation: They had to overcome not only the potent Seahawks offense, but the mistakes of their own: three three-and-outs and a fumble-six in their first five possessions.
It's no wonder that Ryan turned up the "gamble" factor, as he did on the Baldwin completion:
This is exactly what it looks like: Two cornerbacks and a safety playing man coverage on three Seahawks receivers, and everybody else rushing the passer. Not only was it a great play by Wilson to get the ball off and a poor one by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins to let Baldwin past, but Baldwin also made a tremendous adjustment to the ball to get himself in position for the over-the-shoulder catch.
Think about the situation, though: 3rd-and-3, on the possession immediately after the Saints made it 17-7, deep in the Seahawks' zone. Had the blitz worked, or Jenkins covered Baldwin just a little better, the Saints would get the ball back with over seven minutes left—and maybe gone into halftime down by three instead of by 20.
If there's ever a time to press a pass-rushing advantage, it's then.
The Seahawks, obviously, want as little variance as possible. They want an exact repeat of what happened last time. Playing their usual game—a mix of power running from Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, with great scrambling, decision-making and passing from Wilson—will be just fine.
The Seahawks used a few play fakes and zone-read runs to take advantage of the aggressive Saints defense; they'll want to do that again this time around, too. If anything, Ryan and the Saints will be even more aggressive this time around—especially if they fall behind.
That's why Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the Saints offense need to do what they do best: pass first, run second, score early and score often.