The Seattle Seahawks have a formidable foe coming to town this week.
Quarterback Drew Brees leads the New Orleans Saints into Seattle with a chance to knock the Seahawks out of the top spot in the NFC. For Seattle, the key to this game will be finding a way to slow down the Saints' vaunted passing attack.
Statistically, the Saints have put up some rather impressive numbers. Brees already has 3,647 yards and 28 touchdowns. Those numbers are second in the league, just behind Denver's Peyton Manning. Those number are also a big part of why the Saints are currently 9-2.
It probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the key to beating the Saints is slowing down Brees and the passing game. Brees has only three games this season where he has had a passer rating of less than 80. Those games are the Saints' two losses and a close 16-14 win over Tampa Bay back in Week 2.
After examining the tape to see what those three teams did defensively, some common themes emerged.
Get Pressure Without Blitzing
As is the case with every NFL quarterback, Drew Brees becomes much more ordinary when under pressure. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), his passer rating drops by 45 points when he's under pressure versus when he's not.
The problem is that Brees is adept at punishing teams for blitzing. Bringing a linebacker as a pass-rusher leaves a hole in the secondary. Brees has been very good at using that to his advantage.
The teams that have been most successful at containing Brees have been able to get pressure without resorting to the blitz to do so.
|Blitz Profile vs. Drew Brees|
|New York Jets||53||11||20.7%||34%|
|Pro Football Focus|
Luckily for Seattle, the Seahawks have the pass-rushers to make this work.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril rank second, sixth and eighth, respectively, in the NFL in pass rush productivity by 4-3 defensive ends. Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald rank 10th and 13th among all NFL defensive tackles in that same metric.
This will allow the Seahawks to drop seven players into coverage, while the Saints will only have four or five players out running routes. As long as Brees doesn't end up with all day to throw the ball, the extra players in coverage should be a big advantage for the Seahawks.
Here is an example from the Saints' Week 9 loss to the Jets. New York rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. The pressure up the middle by defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, combined with the extra defenders in coverage in the secondary, led to an interception on the play.
Man Coverage, with Extra Defenders in the Middle
Another common theme by the defenses that were able to contain the Saints' passing offense is that they primarily used man coverage. This is a logical outcome given Brees's affinity for picking apart zones.
The combination of man coverage and the lack of blitzing linebackers provides a situation where Seattle will have more defenders in coverage than the Saints can have receivers out running routes. Traditionally this would mean having two safeties back deep, but that isn't a common scheme element for the Seahawks.
The Seahawks prefer to use free safety Earl Thomas as a single-high safety and to use strong safety Kam Chancellor in coverage against opposing tight ends or running backs. This alignment will allow one of Seattle's linebackers to be free to play zone in the middle of the defense.
Here is an example from the Saints' Week 6 loss to the Patriots. This particular play ended with an incomplete pass and resulted in the Patriots holding the Saints to a field goal.
The advantage of this scheme is that it takes away the crossing routes that are a staple of the New Orleans offense. It also allows the free linebacker to help double-cover Jimmy Graham, who leads all NFL tight ends in receptions.
Treat Jimmy Graham Like a Wide Receiver When He Lines up Outside
The best weapon that Drew Brees has in the passing game is his big tight end, Jimmy Graham. Graham already has 65 receptions, 946 yards and 11 touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Seattle's top receiver, Golden Tate, has just 42 receptions, 600 yards and four touchdowns.
In the middle of the great season that Graham is having, there is one anomaly. In Week 6 against the Patriots, Graham finished with zero receptions and zero yards.
New England was able to accomplish this by having Aqib Talib, their best cornerback, cover Graham whenever he lined up in the slot or outside as a wide receiver. This strategy clearly worked. Talib has the quickness that linebackers and safeties do not. By treating Graham as a WR and covering him with a physical CB, the Patriots were able to take away Brees's top target.
Here is an example that shows the matchup.
Graham initially lined up in the slot with Talib lined up directly over him. The Patriots then sent Graham in motion to the outside. Rather than the typical CB rotation that most teams employ when players go in motion, Talib followed him and set up in press coverage.
The play was a quick slant to Graham, but Talib had great coverage and broke up the pass.
The Seahawks would be wise to use cornerback Richard Sherman on Graham in the same way that the Patriots used Talib. Sherman has the size and coverage skills to take Graham completely out of the passing game.
Putting it All Together
The Seahawks match up well against the Saints from a personnel standpoint.
They have the pass-rushers to get after Brees without blitzing. They have Earl Thomas who has the speed to play as a single high safety and big physical corners that can harass the New Orleans receivers. If the Seahawks can minimize their mistakes, they should be able to limit the damage that the Saints will do through the air.
It is important to note that even if the Seahawks are able to execute this entire plan throughout the game, they are unlikely to completely shut down the Saints' passing attack. New Orleans has too many weapons, and Brees runs the offense too efficiently for it to get shut down completely.