Whenever quarterback Drew Brees takes the field for the New Orleans Saints, Brees has an opportunity to lead his team to victory. Over the course of his eight-year stint with the Saints, the All-Pro signal-caller has amassed 80 regular-season wins, five playoff wins and one Super Bowl championship.
Obviously, quarterback wins aren’t an appropriate measuring stick when you evaluate the individual success of a particular quarterback, yet it’s evident New Orleans wouldn’t be the team it is without Brees under center.
Under head coach Sean Payton’s tutelage, Brees has set multiple NFL records, secured 18 fourth-quarter comebacks and led 25 game-winning drives. Undoubtedly, the 13th-year player out of Purdue has played well enough to garner Hall of Fame consideration when he decides to hang up his cleats.
Yet, before he hangs up his cleats someday, there’s no question Brees would like to add another Super Bowl championship to his legacy. With one postseason win, over the Philadelphia Eagles in the bag, could this year be the year where the Saints hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the second time in franchise history?
Not if Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and his defense have anything to say about it. For the second time in as many meetings, the 'Hawks are looking to make Brees' life a living hell.
When these two teams met earlier in the season, Seattle’s defense held Brees to one touchdown pass and 147 yards passing on 23 completions. According to Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus, Brees’ 3.9 yards-per-attempt average, against the Seahawks, was his lowest rate since 2004.
Additionally, the Saints offense only averaged 3.4 yards per play in Week 13, which was their lowest output in the Payton era, via Damilatis.
Clearly, the Seahawks had the Saints' number at CenturyLink Field, yet that doesn’t mean Brees and Co. will turn in a similar performance this weekend. Just like any other team, they will make the necessary adjustments and put up more of a fight this time around.
Based on last week’s outing versus the Eagles, the Saints will look to keep their ground game going and get tight end Jimmy Graham more involved. Graham was targeted four measly times in Philadelphia and finished with three catches for 44 yards. As far as New Orleans’ aerial attack goes, that’s simply not good enough.
When these two teams met during the regular season, Seahawks outside linebacker K.J. Wright covered Graham all over the field and shut him down. The analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded Wright with a plus-3.4 coverage grade for his fine work on Monday Night Football.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Wright is still on the shelf with a broken bone in his foot. This, in turn, means Seattle will have to find a new way to make the Brees-Graham connection irrelevant. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, outside linebacker Malcolm Smith and safety Kam Chancellor could all get coverage opportunities versus the Pro Bowl tight end.
However, there is one sure-fire way to keep Graham at bay without worrying about who will cover him. All the Seahawks have to do is replicate their pass rush from Week 13. When Brees was under duress, he was 3-of-11 passing for 26 yards. Moreover, he was sacked once, and his quarterback rating (when pressured) was 39.6.
Yet, Seattle’s pass rush has to come from its front four. Why? Because Brees will eat up the blitz more often than not. Anytime the Seahawks blitzed (Week 13), the two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year made defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense pay. Against the blitz, he completed 60 percent of his passes on 10 dropbacks, per PFF.
Yes, the sample size from that game is low, but when one takes the time to examine the entirety of Brees’ regular-season numbers, you begin to understand that he is amazingly effective versus the blitz. On 180 dropbacks, he completed 68.8 percent of his passes, threw for 1,384 yards, scored 10 touchdowns and recorded a quarterback rating of 113.6, via PFF.
It’s apparent that the Seahawks coaching staff will have to drop seven into coverage and exploit mismatches upfront with defensive ends Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons. According to PFF’s pass-rush grades, Bennett, Avril and Clemons all had above-average ratings at the end of the season.
Nevertheless, exploiting mismatches upfront is easier said than done considering the talent level of the Saints offensive line. Right tackle Zach Strief, right guard Jahri Evans, center Brian De La Puente and left guard Ben Grubbs have all done a phenomenal job in pass protection this year.
The four offensive linemen mentioned above have only allowed 11 quarterback sacks and 16 quarterback hits in 4,369 snaps. The lone weak spot on the Saints line is rookie left tackle Terron Armstead. In 215 snaps (playoffs included), Armstead has surrendered four quarterback sacks and one quarterback hit.
With that being said, it’s safe to say Seattle will attack Armstead with Bennett and Clemons. That’s going to be the Seahawks' best shot at getting pressure with a four-man line. Avril is talented enough to work over any right tackle that is thrown his way, which is why you shouldn’t be surprised if he wins a few one-on-one matchups against Strief.
What is the most important key to shutting down the Saints offense?
When the media asked Brees about the things the Seahawks did well, the first thing he pointed out, per the team's website, was their ability to rush the passer. Brees knows. Seattle already has a competitive advantage based on the fact its vaunted pass rush has stayed with him since Week 13.
Outside of generating a pass rush with their front four, the Seahawks don’t have to do much else to keep Brees in check. Like so many other quarterbacks, he is at his worst when opposing defenses can drop seven defenders into coverage and throw him off his base in the pocket with four rushers.
In all, New Orleans will be better prepared, and the final score will be close. Yet, Seattle’s defense will prove to be the difference-maker, and the Seahawks will advance to their first conference championship game since the 2005 season.