Harvin met with the media Thursday after practice and announced that he was "absolutely" going to play. This is a big shift in the trajectory of Harvin's recovery. A little over a week ago, Harvin appeared to be headed for injured reserve.
Harvin has played in just one game this season. He had surgery on his hip during training camp and rushed back to try to help the Seahawks down the stretch. Unfortunately, after playing against his old team in Week 11, Harvin hasn't been able to get back on the field again until now.
Prepared to do whatever the team asks of him, the all-purpose wide receiver said he's going to be returning kicks and lining up on offense without a limited snap count.
The return of Harvin means great things for the Seahawks, and it also creates some serious matchup problems for the Saints. Harvin is the type of receiver that cannot be single-covered. He demands the attention of multiple defenders on every play, so having him on the field will change the way in which the Saints defend the Seahawks.
It is easy to see the effect that Harvin can have on defenses by examining the tape from the Week 11 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Harvin appeared in just 20 offensive plays during that game, and the Vikings changed their defensive alignments and assignments whenever Harvin was on the field.
Perhaps the biggest impact Harvin will have for the Seahawks on Saturday will be his ability to pull coverage away from his teammates. Here is an obvious example from the game against the Vikings.
Harvin, the receiver at the bottom of the picture, draws the attention of three defenders. This leaves just two linebackers to try to cover three Seattle players in the middle of the field.
Harvin's influence on the opposing defense isn't always that extreme, but even subtle changes can make a big difference. On this next play, the Seahawks attack Minnesota's Cover 2 zone with four vertical routes.
The outside cornerbacks need to take away any short passes, and thus give up the position necessary to prevent the long pass to the corner. That deep pass near the sideline is the responsibility of the safety.
In this case, the highlighted safety freezes while watching Harvin attack the center of the field, even though quarterback Russell Wilson is rolling to the right. Wilson throws the ball to wide receiver Doug Baldwin in the corner of the end zone at the bottom of the screen, and the safety can't get over in time to avert the touchdown.
Wilson didn't target Harvin on either of these plays. Just by being on the field, Harvin was able to alter the defense in a manner that benefited Seattle's passing game.
More Running Lanes
Harvin's presence on the field can also change how defenses stack the box against running plays. The alignment and defensive movement to account for Harvin can open things up between the tackles for Marshawn Lynch and the running game.
Check out this example where the Vikings originally lined up with a single-high safety, with the strong safety down near the linebackers. After some exuberant hand-waving from the defender lined up over Harvin, the Vikings rotated out of this look.
The free safety rotated to the side of the field Harvin was lined up on, and the strong safety bailed out of the box to help on the far side of the field.
Additionally, the strong-side linebacker's initial movement was also to Harvin's side of the field, as if he was anticipating a slant route. This slowed the linebacker's pursuit of Lynch and ultimately afforded the running back time to get upfield and into the secondary.
While it might be easy to disregard Harvin's effect on that last play because the Seahawks were in the shotgun with three wide receivers, similar alignment issues were created on other plays throughout the game.
Here is an example of the Seahawks lining up in the I formation, which typically indicates a running play. Even with Seattle telegraphing run, Harvin still was the focal point of three defenders.
It is important to note that the Vikings only have seven players in the box against seven Seattle blockers, and two of the linebackers are preoccupied with trying to help in coverage. When this happened, the play was virtually guaranteed to be a success for the Seahawks.
Putting It All Together
Percy Harvin is a dynamic playmaker who's a threat to take any short pass the length of the field for a touchdown. He's a guy who demands the attention of multiple defenders on every play, and that is exactly why he is so valuable to Seattle's offense.
Even on the plays where Harvin doesn't touch the football, he dictates the flow of defensive schemes. Whether it is pulling players defending against the run out of the box or drawing double- or triple-coverage, Harvin's presence creates space for his teammates to work.
This presents the Saints with a dilemma. Do they game-plan for Seattle like teams have over the past few weeks and risk giving up big plays to Harvin? Or, do they shift their focus in Harvin's direction like the Vikings did in Week 11 and force Seattle's other weapons to beat them?
Either way, getting Percy Harvin back on the field only means the Seahawks' Super Bowl odds are that much greater.