NFL Playoff Predictions: Saints vs. Seahawks and 10 Players Who Need To Step Up

Drake OzSenior Writer IIJanuary 6, 2011

NFL Playoff Predictions: Saints vs. Seahawks and 10 Players Who Need To Step Up

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    NFL Playoff Predictions: The New Orleans Saints head to Seattle on Saturday to take on the Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs.

    It's a game that features a wild card team and the NFC West Champion.

    It's a battle between a banged-up, 11-5 Saints squad and the first 7-9 team in playoff history.

    As you might imagine, each team has to have several players step up with monster performances in this one.

    Or their seasons could be over.

    So who needs to have a big day for New Orleans? And what about Seattle?

    Well, let's take a look at five players from each team who must go off on Saturday.

5. Seahawks: Russell Okung

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    Rookie offensive lineman Russell Okung will start at left tackle for the Seahawks against the Saints.

    Translation: He'll be protecting either Matt Hasselbeck or Charlie Whitehurst's blindside.

    Okung will be matched up with Saints defensive end Will Smith, who he did a good job on in the first meeting between these two teams.

    Okung held Smith to just two total tackles and didn't give up a sack.

    As a whole, the Seahawks have given up 35 sacks on the season, which ranks 17th in the NFL.

    If the Seahawks are going to stay with the Saints in this one, Okung has to do a good of protecting the quarterback, whether that's the more mobile Whitehurst or the more experienced Hasselbeck.

5. Saints: Will Smith

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    Will Smith was held completely in-check by Russell Okung the first time around.

    But to be honest, he hasn't done much all season.

    Smith has less than five tackles in every game since Week 3, he's only gotten 39 tackles on the season, and he's provided very little in the way of a pass rush.

    His sole purpose as a defensive end is to sack the quarterback, or at least put pressure on him.

    But Smith has just 5.5 sacks this season, and he's been held sackless in 10 of the 15 games he's played.

    Smith has to effectively rush the quarterback against the Seahawks to both ease up some of the responsibilities of the cornerbacks and help create turnovers.

4. Seahawks: Mike Williams

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    The Seahawks aren't exactly stacked with weapons on the offensive side, but Mike Williams is definitely the team's best option in the passing game.

    He's a big, physical presence at wide receiver who the Saints will have a hard time matching up.

    Williams caught six passes for 109 yards the first time these two teams played, but he's been banged up since then and only has one touchdown catch since Week 7.

    Still, Williams is a huge threat in the passing game, and should be the primary target of Matt Hasselbeck of Charlie Whitehurst, especially on 3rd-down passing plays.

4. Saints: Jabari Greer

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    Jabari Greer's primarily responsibility in this game will be to guard the aforementioned Mike Williams.

    Here's the tale of the tape: Williams is 6'5", 235 pounds, and Greer is 5'11", 180 pounds.

    Though Greer is quicker, more agile and likely won't get beat deep by Williams, he'll still have a tough time guarding a guy who's seven inches taller than he is.

    Greer hasn't really made huge plays this season—he has two interceptions, with the last one coming in Week 9—but he also hasn't given up the big play all that often (except to Roddy White).

    It's not necessarily important that Greer has two or even one interception.

    What Greer needs to do is play lockdown defense and prevent Williams from catching six passes for more than 100 yards like Williams did the last time these teams met.

3. Seahawks: Earl Thomas

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    Seattle's defense has been atrocious against the pass this season.

    The Seahawks rank 27th in passing yards allowed (249.6 per game), give up 7.2 yards per passing attempt, and have allowed 31 touchdown passes (third most in the NFL).

    They also have just 12 interceptions, and opposing quarterbacks have a 89.7 passer rating against them.

    But the lone bright spot in that secondary has been rookie safety Earl Thomas.

    Much like he was at Texas, he's been a ball-hawk for Seattle.

    Thomas has 75 tackles and five interceptions on the season, and he had arguably his best game as a pro against the Saints back on Nov. 21 (eight tackles, one interception).

    With Drew Brees and his new-found interception habit—he has 23 on the season—Thomas will have to continue to fly to the ball and force turnovers by the Saints offense.

3. Saints: Jon Stinchcomb

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    The Saints have two Pro Bowl players on their offensive line: Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.

    But one lineman who hasn't delivered this season is Jon Stinchcomb.

    The right tackle has really struggled in both run and pass protection this season, and that could be a huge problem against Seattle.

    Stinchcomb will be matched up with Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons, who has 49 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and ranks 10th in the league with 11 sacks.

    The good thing about this matchup is that Stinchcomb is not protecting Drew Brees' blindside. 

    The bad thing is that he hasn't protected much of anything lately.

2. Seahawks: Matt Hasselbeck Or Charlie Whitehurst

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    The Seahawks have yet to announce whether Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Hasselbeck will start at quarterback, but it doesn't matter.

    Whoever plays has to bring his A-game.

    This season Hasselbeck has completed just 59.9 percent of his passes, has a quarterback rating of 73.2, and has thrown more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12).

    He threw for 366 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with New Orleans, but the Seahawks lost that game by 15.

    As for Whitehurst, he's only seen limited action and hasn't been impressive.

    He's completed 57.6 percent of his passes, has a quarterback rating of 65.5, and has tossed more picks (three) than touchdowns (two).

    Inexperience is also a factor against a Saints secondary which has surrendered just 13 touchdown passes, the best in the NFL.

2. Saints: Jimmy Graham

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    The Saints passing attack arguably has more weapons than any team in the league.

    Want evidence? Drew Brees has thrown touchdown passes to nine different players.

    And his newest favorite toy is Jimmy Graham.

    The rookie tight end has emerged as a premier target for Brees, especially in the red zone.

    Graham has 11 catches in the last three games, and has four touchdowns over that same span.

    He provides the Saints with another mismatch, and a big game from the 6'6", 260-pounder means a big day for New Orleans.

1. Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch

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    The Seahawks ground game has essentially been nonexistent this season, with Seattle ranking 31st in rushing yards at just 89 per game.

    A big part of that problem has been the struggles of Marshawn Lynch.

    On the season, he's never rushed for more than 89 yards in a game, he has just six touchdowns (three came in one game), and he's averaging a measly 3.6 yards per carry.

    Lynch doesn't have a wonderful matchup against the Saints run defense, but it's not a real tough one either.

    New Orleans ranks 16th in rushing yards allowed (112.3 per game), gives up 4.3 yards per carry, and has given up 13 rushing touchdowns.

    But the Saints do have the No. 4 total passing defense, so it will be important for Lynch to get things going on the ground.

1. Saints: Reggie Bush

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    Pierre Thomas is out. So is Chris Ivory.

    If any football player in America needs to step up, it's Reggie Bush.

    I know he missed a large chunk of the season, but he hasn't had more than nine carries or 14 total touches in a game this season.

    However, Bush is coming off his best performance of the season against Tampa Bay in Week 17, where he rushed nine times for 70 yards and caught five passes for 55 yards. 

    And with all due respect to guys like Julius Jones and DeShawn Wynn, they aren't gamebreakers.

    But Bush is.

    He'll have to run, block, catch, do whatever it takes to make up for the losses of Ivory and Thomas.

    Reggie, the world is on your shoulders.