Saints seek unlikely redemption in playoff rematch with Seahawks
RENTON, Wash. — Drew Brees’ last two games in Seattle have been a mixed bag, to say the least. In the wild-card round of the 2010 playoffs, he attempted a career-tying mark of 60 passes, completing 39 for 404 yards and two touchdowns. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, however, trucked the Saints defense on a 67-yard touchdown run that was one of the most amazing in postseason history and created a seismic event in the Emerald City. The defending Super Bowl champions were sent home in a 41-36 final.
And in Week 13 of the 2013 season, Brees had a nightmare of a return trip. Seattle’s league-best defense held him to 147 passing yards, his lowest total in a game with more than 20 completions. Brees finished the day 0-for-8 on passes of 15 yards or more, and the usually snappy New Orleans offense was completely muted. Now, the Saints have to come back to the scene of their most egregious statistical crime in years for Saturday’s divisional round playoff game, and Brees is more than aware of the pitfalls.
“They did a lot of things well,” Brees said Tuesday. “They rushed the passer well. They covered well. We didn’t feel like, at the end of the day we felt like we didn’t have much rhythm, we didn’t have many opportunities and so all of that is just obviously managing the circumstances, managing the crowd noise, managing all that stuff, finding ways to create rhythm within your gameplan, doing well on first down, getting yourself in a third and manageable position before they just pin their ears back and come back to you. The more balanced you can be is better. Hopefully you can make some big plays and take advantage of some opportunities. It’s one thing that man coverage and bump and run does give you is that if you can get the ball in your guy’s hands and make someone miss, you have potential opportunities there.”
In an article for TheMMQB.com last week, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman praised Brees’ ability to make adjustments on the fly, saying that, “He’ll struggle for a stretch and then go to the sidelines and look at pictures and then come back and attack the defense a new way. It’s almost like they installed a whole new gameplan.”
Of course, the ever-confident Sherman also added that, “He’s never done that to us.”
Brees respectfully disagreed.
“I actually did feel like we made adjustments. We were just down 34-7 in the third quarter, so on all of our drives after that we were going to for it on fourth down and not kicking field goals. We got down in the red zone two times in the fourth quarter and didn’t make it in fourth down. We had some errors on our part in regards to getting lined up and running the plays as we had game-planned for in practice. Some of that was on us. I feel like we’ve always been pretty good at that and hopefully we’ll continue.”
One of those red zone plays was particularly worrisome for the Saints. With 12:23 left in the third quarter. The Saints had 2nd-and-18 at their own 9-yard line, and they were down 27-7. Seattle put 10 in the box, begging Brees to throw against their aggression, and he couldn’t do it. New Orleans called a timeout, and there was no score.
“That we have trust. We have trust in our players,” Sherman told me after the game when I asked him what that play meant. “We have trust in our scheme, and trust in the ability of our guys. We know what we’re doing — our coaches have 100 percent trust in the players and the scheme. They run a good scheme, and we attack.
“We played attack ball all day.”
They did, and they were able to attack a more vulnerable quarterback on the road.
During their week of preparation for their wild-card win at Philadelphia last weekend, the Saints joked about changing everything from the Gatorade to the player sweatsuits to the team meals. Whatever happened worked to the tune of a 26-24 win, but Brees’ road stats are still a concern, and they will be until they aren’t. His passer rating drops from 126.3 to 84.8 away from the Superdome, he’s thrown three times more picks, and his yards per attempt average plummets from 9.12 to 6.86. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history — that’s not even open to debate — but trends are what they are.
One thing head coach Sean Payton did to try to reverse the curse was to paint a Seahawks logo on his team’s practice field — all the better to replicate those hostile environs, one assumes.
“We are just trying to create the exact environment, the crowd noise, the field, everything, as best as we can,” Payton said. “Their fans are educated. They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down. The way the stadium is structured the noise stays in. We’ve experienced it a handful of times now and you just try to simulate it as best as you can and turn these speakers up real loud and go about trying to communicate and making sure you are still getting off on the ball and all of those things.”
So … stadium noise aside, and worrisome trends aside, can the Saints turn this around and actually win this game? They do have an interesting statistical oddity on their side — No. 1 seeds are 2-5 when playing six seeds in the postseason since 2005. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has already warned his players to avoid expecting a similarly simple result in their rematch with the Saints.
“This is one of those answers that goes along with how you prepare every week,” Carroll said Tuesday. “The last game didn’t matter and who you played and how they played and all that doesn’t matter and this certainly applies to somebody that we’ve played before in the season. We know… it was like the first thing I had addressed in our team meeting when we came back together was, ‘What has happened in the past doesn’t tell the story of what’s going to happen in the future one way or the other.’
“If you’re not disciplined about that and understand that and appreciate that … then you could fall prey to that and think that ‘OK, something is going to be easier than otherwise’ or it could be so hard that we couldn’t be able to handle it. They [the Saints] could look at it the other way, ‘How can we beat those guys so handily after a defeat?’ But they’re not doing that and we’re not doing that and hopefully we’re really good at being focused on what’s up right now this week in this preparation.”
On the plus side, the Saints have been running better of late, and third-year man Mark Ingram has been the reason. Ingram provided a lot of the difference in the win over the Eagles, and giving opposing defenses something else to think about besides the pass is always a good thing where a quarterback of Brees’ caliber is concerned. On the debit side, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was able to pepper New Orleans backup defensive backs Corey White and Rod Sweeting after Keenan Lewis left the game with a concussion. Lewis is on track to play Saturday, but New Orleans is already without cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Kenny Vacarro, which limits the Saints’ options in pass coverage and in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s blitz packages. If Russell Wilson gets on a hot streak, New Orleans doesn’t appear to have answers for that downfield.
However, when I asked Carroll about Ryan’s defense and what the common threads might be, he surprised me by explaining that there are few common threads from appearance.
“Well, he’s using this personnel beautifully, they’re playing great defense right now. He’s always done a lot of stuff, and he continues to vary, which makes it difficult. Coming out of the Belichick program, you know [Ryan was Bill Belichick's linebackers coach from 2000 through '03]. Bill is a big guy in terms of varying week-to-week and defending the opponent, specifically not in just playing his defense. Rob has followed that to some extent. He’s always been noted for being very aggressive. They pressure a third of the time in all situations, so they’re coming after you. I’m sure that won’t change against us. We all grow and I think he’s at the best he’s ever been. This is the best group that he’s probably thrown out there, statistically.”
The Saints are as ready as they’re ever going to be, and they’re looking to reverse back to type against a team that forced them to play in ways that made little sense. The Seahawks are hyper-aware that the Saints they saw were as atypical as can be. If you’re looking for another earthquake, CenturyLink Field at 4:35 p.m. ET would be an ideal destination.