The Saints will travel to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in divisional playoff action Saturday afternoon, and it is a trip that has not worked in the Saints' favor in recent memory. Surely you remember the last time the Saints had to travel to Seattle for a playoff game following the 2010 season. Seattle had won the NFC West with a 7-9 regular season record, and the Saints traveled to Century Link Field for Wildcard Weekend. The Seahawks edged them out, 41-36, primarily because of this Marshawn Lynch run that will forever be one of the greatest things to ever happen on a football field.
The Saints shook off the stigma of their struggles on the road last week with a win over the Eagles in Philadelphia, and will head to Seattle with the sting of this season's 34-7 loss at Century Link Field fresh in their minds. What can the Seahawks do to ensure victory over the Saints, and keep Falcons fans from having to see the Saints advance in the playoffs in what has already been an abysmally sad season?
The first thing the Seahawks need to do is establish and maintain pressure on Brees. Century Link Field is a notoriously difficult place for visiting teams to succeed, anyway, and bringing pressure on Brees really disrupts his game.
Over the course of the regular season, Brees completed 446 of 650 passes for a completion percentage of 68.6%. His completion percentage under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, drops to just 47.9%. Brees averaged 7.9 yards per catch this season, an average that drops to 5.4 yards per catch when Brees is throwing under pressure. His quarterback rating of 104.7 falls to 69.7 when under pressure, and his Pro Football Focus grade for the regular season on plays under pressure was -7.4.
All quarterbacks struggle to an extent under pressure, but many of Brees' peers struggle less than he does statistically. Peyton Manning completed 58.1% of passes under pressure, and maintained a quarterback rating of 89.6, and a Pro Football Focus grade of +3. Even Matt Ryan, with inadequate pass protection and a lot of plays under pressure, fared better than Brees, with a completion percentage of 56.3% under pressure, an average of 6.2 yards per catch, and a quarterback rating under pressure of 72.0. His Pro Football Focus grade on plays under pressure was .3.
The Seahawks need to pressure Brees early and consistently. Getting pressure on Brees and shaking him up early and often gives the Seahawks their best chance to win.
The Seahawks need to adequately cover Jimmy Graham. The dynamic tight end is a key component of New Orleans' success, and when Graham is less of a factor, it hinders the Saints' ability to win games.
In each loss this season with the exception of the game against the New York Jets, Graham had fewer receiving yards than his per-game average for 2012. Graham has averaged 75.9 receiving yards per game this season. He had zero yards against New England, a game in which he suffered a partially torn plantar fascia. Against St. Louis, Graham had two catches for 25 yards and no touchdowns.
Graham had a decent game against Carolina, though it was under his season average, with five catches for 73 yards and one touchdown. Graham's longest reception in that game was a 46 yard catch, which skews the numbers a bit. The last time the Saints faced Seattle, their defense held Graham to three catches for 46 yards and one touchdown.
The Seahawks also need to run the ball effectively against the Saints. New Orleans' defense is dramatically improved this season. The Saints' pass defense has been excellent, and finished the regular season ranked second in the league for yards allowed. The Saints' defense finished 2013 ranked fourth in the league for points allowed. It's a far cry from that historically bad defense of 2012.
Their run defense is a weaker facet of their defense. The Saints finished the regular season ranked 19th in the league against the run. They also were prone to big rushing plays, giving up 19 plays of 20 or more yards. For some context, the Falcons allowed 20 such rushing plays this season. If the Seahawks can run the ball effectively against the Saints, it will soften up the front seven and keep the defense on their heels.
What advice would you, as fans of a NFC South rival to the Saints, give to the Seahawks as they prepare to take on New Orleans on Saturday?