NFL Week 13 Monday Night Football Preview

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

Seattle hasn’t exactly faced “Murderer’s Row” in terms of their schedule lately. Since week 6, they’ve played the Titans, Cardinals, Rams, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Vikings. They’re coming off a bye week and going into a tough Monday Night Football matchup against the 9-2 New Orleans Saints. Seattle is at home and should be well rested for a game that will be extremely important in playoff seedings – and that could determine who goes to the Super Bowl in the NFC.

The Saints and Seahawks are currently the top 2 teams in the NFC. Both teams love playing at home and hate playing on the road. Home field advantage tonight could have a major impact on which of these teams gets home field advantage through the playoffs in the NFC. It’s safe to say there are major repercussions to this game.

Seattle Offense

Russell Wilson throws the ball less than any other starting quarterback in the league because the Seahawks rely so heavily on their run game. They will run out of multiple personnel packages and formations. They can run zone schemes or they can run downhill.

Just because the offense prefers to run doesn’t mean that they can’t throw the ball. Wilson is incredibly smart and accurate with the football, and even though he holds on to the ball too long at times, he can get away with it because of his feel for the pocket and mobility. He’s as good as any QB in the NFL when throwing on the run. The receivers aren’t exceptionally big but they all release off the line of scrimmage so smoothly and quickly. It’s hard to get a good jam on them and they can win versus zone or man schemes.

New Orleans Defense

New Orleans’ defense probably isn’t as blitz heavy as most anticipate. They do rely on the blitz in certain situations but coordinator Rob Ryan uses it as a tool to create pressure and matchup advantages, not as a base package. He’ll also use different pressure concepts that act as blitzes because they allow a free rusher without actually sending more than 4 rushers at the quarterback.

Up front, the Saints’ defensive line has played extremely well lately. Cameron Jordan is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL and Akiem Hicks deserves way more attention than he’s currently getting. The Saints are a little light in their secondary but Kenny Vaccaro is such a good player at safety and acts in a safety/linebacker hybrid type of role. He’ll move all over the formation and be in the box a ton tonight.

SEA Offense vs. NO Defense

The Seahawks will test the Saints early with a good mix of personnel and formations. What they’ll be looking for is if they’ll have more success out of 21 personnel and power run formations or 11 personnel and 3-wide receiver spread formations. The Seahawks like to run out of both and have proven they can be effective with either based on the opponent.

The Saints are a solid run defending team when they are able to load the box. If they aren’t able to load the box – say, like when Seattle goes to 3 wide receivers – then the Saints might have trouble holding Marshawn Lynch in check. If the Saints are to try to stay away from loading the box they’ll need consistent run discipline up front from their defensive line, with downhill attacking from the inside linebackers. In a previous game preview I mentioned that the Saints can be susceptible to the run on the edges but they’ve done a better job in that regard lately. However, it’s something I’ll keep an eye on tonight, just in case the Seahawks start having success with it.

The Saints rely on pressure to protect their cornerbacks and will need to get to Wilson with a good mix of power and deception. Cam Jordan will be critically important. If he has a great game tonight, it could really stifle the Seahawks’ offensively.

Expect the Saints to load the box until they get beat a few times. I think the Saints realize that a shootout actually favors them, in spite of Sean Payton’s “grind it out” comments.

New Orleans Offense

As I’ve said before, the Saints are the most multiple offense in the NFL. They will run plays out of multiple personnel and formations. It’s actually extremely tough to keep track of in real time. Essentially, the Sean Payton and the Saints don’t view their offensive players in terms of wide receiver or running back; they view them in terms of skill sets and moveable chess pieces. Every receiver or running back is capable of lining up anywhere along the line of scrimmage, on either side of the formation, or in the backfield.

The offensive line has struggled at times this season and is one of the keys to the game. Left Tackle Charles Brown has trouble with good pass rushers when he’s asked to handle them in one on one situations. The interior line gives up too much ground and if not for Brees’ incredible ability to maneuver and manipulate the pocket, we’d be discussing how bad the offensive line is. I’ve been saying for weeks that I’m surprised that the Saints should consider using more running backs in the backfield to “plug the leaks” of the offensive line but Sean Payton clearly believes that the best use of resources is to give Drew Brees as many options to throw to as possible.

Jimmy Graham is probably the toughest matchup in the NFL – even more so than Calvin Johnson because of his ability to lineup in line, and that gives him more directional variance on his routes. Plus, teams are hesitant to put a cornerback inside to guard Graham because it gives the Saints an advantage in the run game. The only reason the Patriots were able to use Aqib Talib inside is because he’s very strong against the run.

Seattle Defense

The one thing that sticks out on film about Seattle’s defense is speed to the football. Every player on the field locates the football and goes full speed towards it. The linebackers flow well and this defense is loaded with pass rushers.

Seattle is a team that really doesn’t do a lot of variance in terms of defense. They’re just smart and really well coached in the things that they do. Those characteristics plus the ability to tackle well is what makes them so good. They play a ton of coverages with a single high safety – cover 1 man and cover 3.

The Seahawks will be without 2 of their 3 best cornerbacks tonight. Jeremy Lane will likely be the 2nd cornerback with Byron Maxwell as the nickel cornerback. This may change as the Seahawks tinker with their personnel and as the game evolves. Either way, they’re protected well by Earl Thomas, who is a heat-seeking missile. Thomas is as fast to the football as any player in the league and plays sideline to sideline so well from centerfield. He attacks, he’s smart, instinctive, and he has incredible range.

NO Offense vs. SEA Defense

New Orleans will likely come out and mix it up early on offense. They likely won’t run the same formation with the same personnel in the entire 1st quarter, and possibly the 1st half. They’ll be looking to see how the Seahawks plan to matchup on Jimmy Graham and then dictate the gameplan from there.

I don’t anticipate Richard Sherman shadowing Jimmy Graham all night long. It’s possible but it’s not really Sherman’s best strong suit and he’s much better on the outside. Sherman is good enough against the run to play inside but based on Seattle’s past use of him, it’s not likely he’ll shadow Graham all game.

If Sherman does shadow Graham, the Saints will likely keep Graham in tight to the formation and keep him in the middle of the field to bait the safety into holding his position while Brees attacks outside the numbers with Meachem and Stills. If Sherman doesn’t shadow Graham, the Seahawks may choose to bracket him inside with a linebacker/safety combo.  If neither of those happens, Graham will have a huge night.

The real key to this matchup is the Saints ability to keep Brees clean in the pocket. Seattle can win in the pass rush on talent alone so they shouldn’t get too cute with the gameplan. Stick to what has worked while accounting for Jimmy Graham and they should be able to manage the game with their pass rush.

Brees’ ability to move in the pocket with subtlety and instincts may save the game. The noise will be an issue and the Saints are smart enough that they’ll rely on hand signals rather than vocal calls at the line of scrimmage tonight. Brees will still be able to make his checks and protection calls but even one miscue, burned timeout, or delay of game is a win for the 12th man tonight and could go a long way in dictating how this game plays out.

Verdict

If this game were in New Orleans, I’d pick New Orleans. Since this game is in Seattle, I can’t in good conscience pick the Saints. I do think because of the loss of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond that the Saints can come in and win this game by picking on the weak links in the secondary.

Some things to watch…

When the Saints are on offense, identify favorable matchups in the presnap phase. Brees will likely target those matchups excessively tonight – even more than normal.

When the Saints are on defense, watch where the Saints try to bring pressure from – frontside, backside, or middle? Rob Ryan will have identified which is best and may try to shoot specific gaps (likely the RG-RT areas of the line) to win.

When the Seahawks are on offense, watch if they are more or less effective running with 3 wide receivers on the field. Also watch to see if the Saints still load the box when the Seahawks go to their 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) packages.

When the Seahawks are on defense, watch to see if they sit in cover 3 or man coverage.  It’s easy to anticipate zone if they think their pass rush can get home. If not, they’ll have to man up and that will mean Brees will have opportunities deep down the field.

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