New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle, WA, Qwest Field
Saturday, January 8, 2011 4:30 PM ET ESPN
Laying the scene
While the Seahawks come into this game as the first 7-9 team to win the division, the Saints are coming into this game as a wild-card with most of the same roster that won the Super Bowl last year. However, that roster is missing two key players: running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. This means that Reggie Bush, who has never been consistently reliable, and Julius Jones, whose red-zone fumble proved costly against the Buccaneers last week, will be relied on to carry the load in the ground game. The Saints' roster is injury-plagued all over the place, so is game is all about whether a team that, when healthy, outmatches the Seahawks can still win depute the rash of injuries affecting them.
What New Orleans has to do to win
The key for the Saints will be creating schematic mismatches that help overcome the injuries on the offensive side of the ball. With tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Jimmy Graham both ailing, don't be surprised if the Saints spread the field often with 10-personnel and 20-personnel sets, meaning 1 receiver, no tight ends, and 4 wide receivers, or 2 running backs, no tight ends, and 3 wide receivers.
What Seattle has to do to win
On defense, the Seahawks absolutely must attack constantly. Their "elephant" defense, which is a hybrid 4-3 defensive look where one of the ends stands up and can either rush or drop back into coverage, needs to come back out and make an impact. This defensive package creates the same amount of confusion that a 3-4 does, but its gap responsibilities don't require the massive-bodied defensive linemen that it takes to run a 3-4. The Seahawks were having success with the Elephant in the beginning of the season, but when end Red Bryant suffered a season-ending injury against the Raiders in Week 8, the defensive line's play suffered. The defense must step up, and attack Drew Brees, because he has shown himself capable of being pressured, and now neither of his top two tight ends will be at full strength. If Brees gets time in the pocket, he'll pick Seattle's slow defensive backfield apart. If the front seven collapses the pocket and forces Brees into making rushed decisions, they can help keep the Seahawks in this game. On offense, Seattle will want to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch, because the Saints' ranking against the run was 12 spots worse than their rank in defending the pass. If Seattle gets the run game going, they can set up the play-action and try to get the ball to Mike Williams.
On defense, New Orleans is a lot less beat up than on offense. They physically outmatch the Seahawks' offense, especially on the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams just has to stick to the basics, and they'll be able to stuff the Seahawks' run game and harass quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The real question is whether New Orleans can sustain drives on offense, because if they go three-and-out on a lot of drives, the defense will get tired, which will give Seattle's offense a fighting chance. As long as New Orleans uses some of the suggestions I outlined in the video above, they will be able to sustain long drives and let their defense rest.
Warning to gamblers: I picked all four Wild Card games incorrectly last year and quit picking for the rest of the postseason, so don't bet your life savings on my predictions. With that being said, I'm going to go with the theme of picking teams with the least off-field distractions to win. The Saints are flying a little more under-the-radar than they were last year, when they won the Super Bowl after staggering to an 0-3 finish in a season where they started 13-0. They're experienced in the playoffs now, and they can just focus on playing the game. Meanwhile, Seattle benefited from playing in the NFL's worst division, and their AFC opponents were from the NFL's second-worst division. Despite that, they still only managed seven wins, and they now have the distraction of not only being new to the playoffs, but having an inordinate amount of pundits criticizing that a team with a losing record made the playoffs. In the end, the Saints will take care of business and advance to the next round. - Hank Koebler,IV
Hank Koebler, IV is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.
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