New Orleans Saints: Richard Sherman

Count New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton among the admirers of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s work. Payton, whose Saints lost twice at Seattle this year, exchanged compliments with the Seahawks cornerback on Twitter:

For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.

The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.

If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.

The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.

The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:

Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?

Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.

I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?

Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.

The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?

Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.

Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?

Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.

Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?

Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.

Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?

Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”

The New Orleans Saints might be facing the best cornerback in the NFL when they go up against the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman on Monday night. But the Saints might have the league’s most underrated cornerback in Keenan Lewis.

They both deserve to be invited to the Pro Bowl -- though chances appear pretty strong that one of them will have to skip it to play in the Super Bowl instead.

Lewis, who has been a huge reason for the Saints’ revamped defense this year since signing as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, admitted last week that he’s eager to share the spotlight when the Seahawks (10-1) host the Saints (9-2) on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

[+] EnlargeKeenan Lewis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsWith three interceptions, the Saints' Keenan Lewis has been among the NFC's top cornerbacks this season.
“I’m excited anytime you have the opportunity to play 'Monday Night Football,' when the whole world gets the chance to see you. And also with the corners they have and just having the opportunity to show those guys, you know, I feel like I’m just as good as any one of them,” Lewis said last Thursday night -- before the news broke that Seahawks corners Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner would be suspended. “And you know, this team is great. It should be a great matchup.”

Lewis has measured up pretty well statistically to Sherman this year. Sherman has four interceptions and eight pass defenses. Lewis has three picks, one forced fumble and eight pass defenses.

More importantly, though, is the numbers that aren’t being posted.

Opposing offenses have pretty much stayed away from both guys this year. Lewis has allowed only one touchdown, a total of 312 yards and an opponents’ quarterback rating of 55.2, according to Pro Football Focus (which ranks fifth best among all regular cornerbacks).

That’s especially impressive, considering Lewis has spent almost every week shadowing the opponent’s top receiver. The Saints trust the 6-foot-1, 208-pounder in single coverage because of his long arms, his ability to play physical press coverage and his solid speed. Recent quiet performances by Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Atlanta’s Roddy White helped emphasize Lewis' importance.

“Keenan is doing a great job. Long arms. He’s physical at the line. He can make some plays,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said in a conference call with New Orleans media Wednesday. “I believe he has three picks this year. He has done a great job and made some big-time plays for the Saints when they needed him. You have a lot of respect for him.

“And that whole defense, really, to be honest with you. That defensive line has done a tremendous job of getting to the quarterback. We know it’s going to be a tough feat. We know it’s two top teams in the NFC, we believe. It’s going to be a great battle. It’s going to be a dogfight and we have to be ready for it.”

Last year, Lewis didn’t have any interceptions -- part of the reason he isn’t as well known as a guy like Sherman (eight interceptions in 2012). But they ranked first and second in the NFL last season in pass defenses (24 for Sherman, 23 for Lewis).

This year, Sherman has allowed two touchdowns, a total of 410 yards and an opposing passer rating of 67.0, according to Pro Football Focus.

There’s a good chance that the Seahawks will match up the physical 6-3, 195-pound Sherman on Saints tight end Jimmy Graham on Monday night -- an approach that a handful of teams have tried this year, to varying levels of success.

That would be an epic head-to-head duel between two guys who will probably wind up as first-team All-Pros this year.

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