NFC South: Russell Wilson


The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are reeling as they enter Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game at Bank of America Stadium.

The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have lost two straight games to fall to 3-3, two games behind Arizona in the NFC West. The defending NFC South champion Panthers have gone 1-2-1 over their past four games and fallen to 3-3-1. They still lead the division because the other three teams have defenses that are just as porous as Carolina's.

Seattle and Carolina are meeting for the third straight year in Charlotte, with the Seahawks winning the previous two by scores of 16-12 and 12-7.

ESPN Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down for you:

Newton: Terry, the folks in Seattle have to be a bit shocked the Seahawks are .500 and two games out in the division. Is there a sense of concern at this point?

Blount: Nobody is jumping off the Space Needle, but you'd better believe the fans are concerned and a bit bewildered. There is time for the Seahawks to recover, but can they? The team hasn't played well at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. They can't get much of a pass rush, and the offensive line has been whistled for 14 penalties in the past three games. Injuries to key starters have hurt them: tight end Zach Miller, center Max Unger, cornerback Byron Maxwell and especially middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who was playing the best football of his career until suffering a nasty turf toe injury two weeks ago.

You're probably getting this question a lot, but what in heaven's name is going on with the Carolina defense? The Panthers have gone from No. 2 in the NFL last season in points allowed (15.1) to a team that has given up at least 37 points in four games this season. What has been the biggest factor in the dramatic change?

Newton: Not sure the editors will give me the space to fully explain this one. You can start with the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. It's hard to replace everything he did. But it goes much deeper than that. You can also look to the secondary. There are three new starters: strong safety Roman Harper, free safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Antoine Cason. They're making every quarterback look like Peyton Manning the way receivers are running free. The lack of a pass rush has hurt. Teams are hitting Carolina with a lot of quick passes to negate the four-man rush, just as I suspect is happening in Seattle. But, as linebacker Thomas Davis said earlier in the week, the Carolina defense as a whole simply isn't playing smart and swarming to the ball as it did last season.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is playing at high level. Where has he shown the most improvement and how will his threat as a runner affect an undisciplined Carolina defense?

Blount: Dave, it's scary to think where the team would be without Wilson. He single-handedly won the Redskins game on Oct. 6, becoming the first quarterback in "Monday Night Football" history to pass for more than 200 yards and run for more than 100. His brilliant 80-yard drive in overtime defeated Denver last month, a game the defense tried to give away at the end of regulation. He's doing almost everything at a higher level now in his third NFL season, but most importantly, he understands where he needs to go with the football more quickly and when to tuck and run. That has been essential considering Wilson had been under duress more than any other QB. Believe it or not, he rarely looks to run. He has to run to avoid pressure. The key for any defense is trying to cut off the perimeter and keep him in the pocket -- easier said than done.

Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin looks as if he's everything the Panthers hoped he would be as a first-round pick. But do they miss Steve Smith, and do you think Benjamin can be as good as, or better than, Buffalo rookie receiver Sammy Watkins?

Newton: Benjamin hasn't disappointed. He's 13th in the NFL in receiving yards with 477, and his five touchdowns are one more than Smith has in Baltimore. I'm not sure Benjamin would have developed as quickly if Smith were in Carolina. As I've said before, overall the team is better at wide receiver than it was a year ago.

As for where Benjamin stacks up against Watkins, I'd say they're pretty much the same player except Watkins has more explosive speed. But Benjamin runs routes much better than anyone gave him credit for coming out of college. He's a player even Seattle's talented secondary will have to pay extra attention to. And you do that at the expense of leaving open Greg Olsen, who leads all tight ends with 493 receiving yards.

I found the comments by Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin on the Percy Harvin trade interesting. Has that been a distraction, and how will that affect the Seattle offense?

Blount: Baldwin admitted after the St. Louis loss this past weekend that the shock of the Harvin trade, which happened less than 48 hours earlier, had an impact on the way the Seahawks started the game in getting behind 21-3. However, I firmly believe the impact going forward will be a positive one. Harvin's anger issues -- fights with teammates and taking himself out of two games -- were more than anyone could tolerate any longer.

It also was a problem on the field because Seattle revamped its entire offense to revolve around Harvin. The Seahawks got away from what they do best: run the football to set up open receivers downfield. They looked like last year's offense in the second half against the Rams, scoring on three consecutive drives of 80 yards or longer. Wilson set another NFL record, becoming the first player in league history to pass for more than 300 yards and rush for more than 100 in a game. Baldwin had his best game of the season with seven catches for 123 yards and a score. Trading Harvin was addition by subtraction in so many ways.

I'm shocked to see that Cam Newton is Carolina's leading rusher with 190 yards. What has happened to the Panthers' running game?

Newton: You wouldn't be shocked if you looked at all the injuries, a new line and opponents putting eight in the box to stop the run. Panthers all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and has played less than six quarters this season. Jonathan Stewart has missed three starts. Mike Tolbert is on injured reserve. If you've heard the names Darrin Reaves, Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya, you're either related to them or desperate in a fantasy league.

Then there's the line, which took another blow last week when starting right guard Trai Turner suffered a knee and ankle sprain that will keep him out this week. At one point Sunday, undrafted rookie David Foucault, who should be on the practice squad developing, was playing left tackle. I could go on, but I won't.

Lovie SmithKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Lovie Smith and the Bucs expect to compete for championships starting this season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a very good reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

"We thought it would be unfair to ask the fans to be patient with us," general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL owners meetings.

Fire those cannons at Raymond James Stadium and start the parade down Dale Mabry Highway. So far, Licht and coach Lovie Smith, both hired in January, are doing and saying all of the right things. They have signed 11 free agents, highlighted by defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown.

"We wanted to go out and sign as many good players as we could this year to help our football team and make it competitive this year, and strive to win a championship this year," Licht said. "Not go with, 'Hey, give us a couple years.' We want to do it as soon as we can. The fans deserve it. I found out in a two-month period that these fans are so passionate in Tampa. So we want players that are just as passionate as the fans."

Those fans should be ecstatic to hear Licht's comments. This is a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, and hasn't won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory more than a decade ago. The franchise had good intentions in the interim, but the results weren't pretty.

Plans were put in place at various times from the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to win with veterans, to the time when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris decided to build through the draft, to the days when it looked like Greg Schiano didn't have a plan.

[+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLanding cornerback Alterraun Verner was part of an aggressive free-agent push by the Bucs this month.
But you can look at what Licht and Smith are doing and you see a firm plan that has a chance to work -- and work quickly.

"As you saw last year with Kansas City, sometimes a little change is healthy and successful," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Chiefs indeed are a good example of a team that turned around its fortunes rapidly. Kansas City was dreadful in 2012, but made the playoffs last season.

For any doubters who say McCown, a career backup, doesn't have what it takes to lead a team to the playoffs, let me remind you that Alex Smith was Kansas City's quarterback last season. I don't see a big difference between Smith and McCown.

Yeah, people can talk all they want about how this is a quarterback-driven league and you need a star at the position to be any good. There is some truth to that. But was Russell Wilson really the best quarterback in the NFL last season?

Of course not. Wilson did some very nice things, but there were bigger reasons why the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. The defense and the running game had a lot to do with their success.

It's pretty obvious Licht and Lovie Smith are following a plan similar to Seattle's. Smith comes with a defensive background, and he inherited some good talent on that side of the ball. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are in place, and you could make an argument that a pass-rusher was the only thing Tampa Bay needed to be a dominant defense. That is why the Bucs signed Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2012.

On offense, the Bucs have overhauled their line. They parted ways with Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, and replaced them with Anthony Collins, Oniel Cousins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. The running game should be in good shape, assuming Doug Martin is fully recovered from an injury that cut short last season.

I look at that and I see a team that might be ready to win now. I see a team with a plan that seems to make a lot of sense.

"Jason and Lovie have a plan, and that plan is that they want to win," Glazer said. "That's why we brought them in. We're all in the same boat. We want to win. They have a clear plan to get there, and that's why they were hired. We believe in the plan. We buy into the plan, and we're going to be supportive of the plan."

A few years back, the Glazers were often accused of not spending enough money to bring success. But recently, they have spent big money in free agency. This offseason, the Bucs went on another spending spree.

Licht and Smith frequently are being declared winners in free agency by the national media. They are also winning the news conferences by saying the right things.

Now, if they can go win some games in the fall, their plan could be a masterpiece.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season.

ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
When Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints to their first Super Bowl championship four years ago, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was cheering him on. Wilson has been an unabashed admirer of Brees for years. He even used to wear a Saints hat when he was in college.

Wilson
Brees
And now that Wilson has graduated on to the game's biggest stage himself, he turned to his idol for a little advice.

“We've been in communication over the past week, just about the experience,” Wilson said when asked about Brees on Sunday after arriving in New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII. “Like I said, he knows I look up to him. He's a great individual and he was just talking about the experience, and it's no different. The biggest thing is taking care of all tickets and taking care of all family early in the week last week, which I was able to do last Monday and just focus on the game.”

Wilson said his father first turned his attention toward Brees when Wilson was in middle school and Brees was at Purdue. Wilson naturally gravitated toward Brees at a young age because they share one obvious trait in common -- their height. Brees (6-foot) and Wilson (5-11) are currently the NFL's two shortest starting quarterbacks.

Wilson said in the past that he has studied just about every throw Brees has ever made in the NFL, trying to learn from him and pattern his game after him. But obviously it's the other traits they share in common that have brought them both to this level -- leadership, determination and work ethic, an uncanny ability to see the field and make quick decisions under fire.

That's why Brees has quickly become an admirer of his younger challenger, as well, after they first met at last year's Pro Bowl -- even though it was Wilson's Seahawks that kept the Saints from getting back to the Super Bowl this year.
There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints' defense in their 23-15 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They held Seattle to 277 yards, 103 passing yards and just 13 first downs. I was particularly impressed by defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Roman Harper (more on them later).

However, I have to start this season's final film study with what went wrong on Marshawn Lynch's two long touchdown runs -- which ultimately sealed the Saints' fate for the 2013 season:

Beast Quake, the Sequel: Lynch's 31-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game in the final minutes was awfully reminiscent of his legendary 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run against the Saints three years ago. The only differences were that this time Lynch cut back around the left end instead of cutting inside to the right, and this time he only made one defensive back (Keenan Lewis) look silly in the open field.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch, Keenan Lewis
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints weren't able to contain Marshawn Lynch when they had to in the fourth quarter.
In the Saints' defense, they couldn't afford to give up any more ground to Seattle in that situation (down by 8, 2:48 remaining, no timeouts left and the Seahawks entering field goal range). So they probably sold out more than they should have to try to stuff Lynch for a loss or no gain. The Seahawks were in a jumbo package, and the Saints had 10 men in the box. Jordan actually got great penetration up the middle, forcing Lynch to cut outside to the left. But Lynch's cutback was nasty, and it gave him tons of open space since linebacker David Hawthorne, safety Malcolm Jenkins and Lewis had all cheated toward the inside.

Seattle's blocking was huge, too. Tight end Zach Miller stood up outside linebacker Junior Galette at the line of scrimmage. And receiver Jermaine Kearse took out Jenkins with a perfectly executed crack-back block. Lewis eventually caught up with Lynch around the 14-yard line, but he didn't have a great angle, and Lynch didn't budge as he easily batted away Lewis with a stiff-arm.

More Lynch: The Saints did a nice job against Lynch at times, but he burned them often enough as he racked up 140 yards on 28 carries. Lynch's first big highlight was a 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. This time, the Seahawks were in more of a passing formation, and the Saints were in their nickel defense. But the result was the same when Lynch used another nasty cutback to the right side to make several Saints defenders over-pursue (including Hawthorne, cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush). Harper then missed a tackle from the side near the end of the run.

Lynch made just about every Saints defender look foolish at least once. He's known for his power, but his speed on those cutbacks was even more impressive in this game. Hawthorne, Jenkins, Galette and Akiem Hicks each whiffed on him once in the open field (Hicks and Galette on the same play in the fourth quarter).

Jump balls: The other play that stood out as an absolute killer for the Saints was receiver Doug Baldwin's 24-yard catch on third-and-3 on the play right before Lynch's last touchdown. The Saints' defense had been completely shutting down Seattle's offense throughout the entire second half. But on this play, Wilson essentially tossed one up for grabs, and Baldwin went up and got it over White. Baldwin then made a fantastic effort to hang on to the ball and stay in bounds as White tried to jar the ball loose.

White's coverage was decent, but he was a step behind after jamming Baldwin off the line of scrimmage. So Baldwin had the chance to turn and locate the ball, while White did not. Wilson completed an almost-identical jump-ball pass to receiver Percy Harvin against White for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first half, which led to a field goal.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Harry How/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin was shaken up after a collision with Rafael Bush. Harvin would eventually leave the game with a concussion after another rough hit.
Big shots: Another big passing play for the Seahawks came on their opening drive, when Saints safety Bush was flagged for unnecessary roughness against Harvin while breaking up a third-down pass. It was the right call, since their helmets collided at full speed. But it was a tough break since Bush was leading with his shoulder and Harvin appeared to crouch down into the hit as he braced for impact. That's the risk that safeties like Bush take in today's NFL, though, when they launch above the strike zone.

Harvin later had to leave the game after another brutal hit when his head struck the ground after an incomplete pass in the end zone. This time the Saints weren't penalized, though. Safety Jenkins came over and shoved Harvin as he was coming down, but Jenkins appeared to ease up a bit and led with his hands. Their helmets never made contact.

Wilson's best: Wilson didn't have a great game, but he showed off what makes him so dangerous on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On second-and-15, he scrambled away from pressure. And just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage, he tossed a pass to wide-open receiver Kearse for a 25-yard gain. It was exactly the kind of play that Saints defenders had warned about before both meetings with Seattle this year, but Lewis and Hawthorne both got burned by abandoning their coverage to run up toward Wilson.

It can be a no-win situation for a defense, though. Because on the next play Wilson appeared to be in even more trouble deep in the pocket, but he scrambled free and turned on the jets for a 7-yard gain.

Jordan sensational: Jordan had a lot of monster performances this year, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. But this one ranks up there with his best. He was outstanding all game long, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. At different points, he chased down both Wilson and Lynch in the open field (earning a 0-yard sack on the play against Wilson and stuffing Lynch for a 4-yard loss). He stood up tight end Miller to force no gain by running back Robert Turbin. He forced a holding penalty on another run play. And he pressured Wilson into at least two key incomplete passes, among other highlights.

Two of the plays mentioned above (a forced incompletion and the sack) came on back-to-back plays inside New Orleans' 10-yard line, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal.

Harper's best for last? Harper's future with the Saints is in doubt since the 31-year-old has become more of a part-time player, and he is due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses. But as I've written in the past, I wouldn't be shocked to see him come back at a reduced rate. And Saturday's performance against the Seahawks makes that possibility even more attractive. Harper had probably his best performance of the season, flying around as fast and aggressively as he did in his Pro Bowl prime.

Among his highlights: blowing up left tackle Russell Okung to disrupt Lynch and force a 2-yard loss on third-and-6 in the third quarter; chasing down Wilson in the open field and pulling him down by his shoulder (narrowly avoiding a horse-collar penalty) for an 8-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter; crashing down on Harvin after a quick out pass for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter; and sticking Baldwin in the open field for a 6-yard gain on third-and-9 in the first quarter.

Other highlights: That goal-line stand in the second quarter started with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But the entire Saints defense swallowed up Lynch for a 5-yard loss -- starting with safety Jenkins and followed by Hicks and Jordan. … Defensive tackle John Jenkins was credited with a sack when he snagged Wilson as he tried to scramble up the middle. … Lewis had a nice pass break-up against receiver Golden Tate on a third-and-2 stop in the fourth quarter. … Linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley also stood out on a handful of solid run stops and pressures.
METAIRIE, La. -- In their first meeting with the Seattle Seahawks last month, the New Orleans Saints essentially decided to take away Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch and force quarterback Russell Wilson to beat them.

And he did.
Wilson had one of the best games of his young NFL career in Seattle's 34-7 rout, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns and running for 47 yards. The Saints talked a lot before that matchup about how dangerous Wilson is outside of the pocket -- both running the ball and throwing the ball after he starts scrambling. But they've since admitted that he was even better than they expected at doing that against them.

This time around, containing Lynch and Wilson will be priorities 1A and 1B.

Here's what the Saints have been saying this week about Wilson:

S Malcolm Jenkins: “I would call him an elite quarterback. And the reason I say that is because he's not just -- him being mobile is not the only dimension. He actually goes through his reads. He changes protections. He can scramble. And then when he does scramble he's not just trying to run, he's trying to buy time to throw down the field. And that progression is unique. Most people who scramble usually read one or two receivers, then they're trying to get out of the pocket.

“He's reading, scrambling, and then going back to reading down the field. And that presents a huge problem for a secondary guy when you've got to cover him for four or five seconds. My grandmother can get open under that time. And I think that's what makes him elite. He's really the only person that has that whole package, I think, in the NFL. I think he does it better than anybody.”

OLB Junior Galette: “I think that was the first time we really played a quarterback like Russell. I personally didn't know that he was that small and really that elusive. ... You can get to him, but it's finishing the job. So right now, we're more concerned about just keeping him in that little pocket and making him play like he's 5-9 or however tall he is (actually 5-11).”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "He was exceptional. My previous experience against him was the second week he ever started (when Ryan was with Dallas in 2012). So obviously he's come a long way from there. I see him as a premier quarterback in this league. We all see it. And we have to be excellent and at the top of our game to slow this guy down.”

DE Cameron Jordan: “Of course, you have to be aware of Russell Wilson and his ability to make plays longer and really get out of the pocket and not even scramble for more yards, but make plays down the field. He's a great quarterback and we have to be aware of that. ... That's going to primarily be our job, not only keep pressure on him but keep him in the pocket.”

Ryan: “I think we have to get pressure on him. We've got to attack the pocket. And we have to do a better job of keeping him contained. A lot of that was on me, how we went through some three-man rush, and he definitely exploited that. And then when we came with all-out pressure, he made the throws, and we didn't quite execute the coverage. So it made for an awfully long evening out there. And we're looking to do better than that, and we will.”

Galette: “I feel like playing him the week before Carolina helped us, knowing that Cam (Newton) was just as explosive and elite (with his) running style, and we did a good job on him. So that boosts our confidence.”
 

SEATTLE -- Six weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints came to Seattle in a big Monday night showdown with the Seahawks to see which team would gain the upper hand in homefield advantage for the playoffs.

The Seahawks steamrolled past the Saints 34-7 that night. So here the Saints are again, back in Seattle with hopes of a different outcome in the playoffs.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a detailed look at how these two teams match up for Saturday's NFC divisional round game at CenturyLink Field:

Blount: Mike, the Saints took it on the chin at Seattle six weeks ago. How much of a motivational factor do you think that is this week for the team?

Triplett: I'd say this game is about as big as it gets in the motivation department. That was really one of the two or three most humbling defeats in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. I might rank it No. 1 considering how high the expectations were going into that game. But more important than those emotions is the fact that this is the second round of the playoffs -- which is pretty good motivation for any team. The Saints haven't advanced past this point since their 2009 Super Bowl season. And a big win here would instantly erase all the little regrets from earlier this season.

I'll also say this: The Saints are a very confident bunch. I think they expected to get back in this situation at some point, and they relish the opportunity. They certainly respect the Seahawks, but I think they're fully expecting a much more competitive game. As am I.

On the flip side, Terry, do you see a repeat performance coming from the Seahawks? They were pretty lights-out that night, especially Russell Wilson.

Blount: I certainly don't see a repeat performance if you mean a 27-point Seattle victory. It's hard to beat any team twice in the same season, much less two blowouts. But I do see Wilson having another strong performance. He's coming off a good game in the season finale against St. Louis and he typically plays at a much higher level at home. Obviously, having Percy Harvin on the field would help, but Wilson is battle-tested with two tough playoff games last year when he really showed a lot of people what he can do.

Mike, Wilson had one of his best games of the season against the Saints with three TD passes and 310 yards passing. He burned the Saints a couple times on their blitzes. Do you think they will have a different approach this time?

Triplett: They'll definitely tweak the approach. But I think the execution is even more important. That night, it was pretty obvious that the Saints' top priority was containing Marshawn Lynch -- which they did a good job of. But they got burned too often by play-action fakes (big pass plays and big runs by Wilson). I've never seen them have so many undisciplined breakdowns, before or since. They've been much better playing in similar-style games against the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles since. They were outstanding against both LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson last week.

The Saints defense is much better than what people saw that night -- though they did lose talented safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury since then, which hurts against both the pass and run.

A two-part question for you: When defenses have had success against Seattle's offense this year, what have they done to cause problems? And how much do you think the Saints will have to worry about Harvin in this game?

Blount: In the late-season losses to the 49ers and the Cardinals, both teams did a great job of keeping Wilson in the pocket. If Wilson was going to run, they wanted to make him run up the middle, and it worked. They didn't blitz a lot, but they made sure to cut off Wilson's outside angles. Both teams also stacked the box and did a good job of stopping Lynch and limited the running game.

If Harvin is on the field, that changes a lot of things. Seattle free safety Earl Thomas told me last week that if he had to play against Harvin, he would need to account for him on every play because of Harvin's exceptional speed. So if Harvin's out there, even if he isn't 100 percent healthy, he changes the way a defense plays. You have to pick your poison. Load the box to stop Lynch and you risk Harvin beating someone one-on-one. Pay more attention to Harvin and Lynch might break a big run. Either way, it makes things better for Wilson.

Mike, I thought a big factor in the victory at Philadelphia was New Orleans' success at running the ball with Mark Ingram. How confident are you they can repeat that performance against the Seahawks?

Triplett: The Saints are still a pass-first, pass-often team. But I think they've been even better this year than usual at staying patient and "taking what the defense gives them." Last week, the Eagles were practically begging the Saints to run the ball, so they did. They'll still take their shots down the field, but they're smart enough to attack the matchups they find most favorable in any given game. It's also a pick-your-poison offense with so many versatile weapons like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills and a deep group of running backs.

Graham, however, said Seattle's defense causes a lot of problems because the defensive backs and linebackers are all so fast (not to mention physical). Are there any weaknesses the Saints might be able to exploit?

Blount: Honestly Mike, I just don't see it. The front seven held the Rams to 13 yards rushing in the season finale. The secondary is the best I've seen in 30 years. However, one man who had a big impact in the Monday night game six weeks ago was linebacker K.J. Wright, who did a superb job covering Saints tight Graham.

Wright is out for this game after undergoing foot surgery. Malcolm Smith has played lights out in his place, but Smith is only 6 feet tall. I can't see him covering the 6-7 Graham the way Wright (a lanky 6-4) was able to do. Strong safety Kam Chancellor likely will get those duties, but Graham might make some big plays he didn't make in the first meeting.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
12:50
PM ET
Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' defense after reviewing the tape of their 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13:

Blown assignments: Basically, the Saints' struggles on Monday night boiled down to a horrible combination. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was sensational, throwing perfect strikes even when he was on the run or being blitzed (more on that below). The Saints' defense, meanwhile, was completely out of sorts at times.

It felt like the Saints blew more assignments in coverage and containment than we saw in the first 11 games combined. A lot of that had to do with the unique threat Seattle's offense poses. And Wilson took advantage of the fact that the Saints were focusing so heavily on stopping dangerous running back Marshawn Lynch.

Here are some of the lowlights:

  • [+] EnlargeZach Miller
    Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsTight end Zach Miller burned the Saints defense for a 60-yard gain in the first quarter.
    The first real sign that it was going to be a long night for the Saints' defense came when Seattle tight end Zach Miller broke wide open for a 60-yard catch on third-and-1 late in the first quarter. The Saints sent five rushers out of their five-linebacker formation, leaving only two defenders in coverage on Miller's side of the field -- cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker David Hawthorne. But both of them chased after running back Robert Turbin on a short passing route, leaving Miller uncovered (about 6 yards behind New Orleans' defense). My best guess is that Lewis should have followed him, but I don't know that for certain. … Wilson got the throw off just before being hit by outside linebacker Junior Galette.
  • In the second quarter, the Saints were again torched by a 52-yard pass from Wilson to receiver Doug Baldwin. This one wasn't as much of a blown assignment as it was a burned strategy. The Saints sent an all-out eight-man blitz, but no one got to Wilson immediately. And he had time to throw a gorgeous deep ball to Baldwin, who beat safety Malcolm Jenkins down the center of the field.
  • Later in the second quarter, Baldwin broke wide open for a 4-yard touchdown pass against another blown coverage while the Saints sent six pass-rushers. Baldwin and receiver Jermaine Kearse ran crisscrossing routes. But Lewis opted to follow Kearse, while cornerback Corey White opted to stay on his half of the field instead of following Baldwin. Again, it's unclear who blew the assignment -- but someone obviously did.
  • The Saints were just as flummoxed by several read-option plays. Wilson gained 10 yards on one keeper and 3 yards on another keeper on third-and-3. Both times, Galette crashed down too hard on Lynch, giving Wilson a wide open lane to run. Then later in the first half, Lynch gained 14 yards on a read-option run when Galette hesitated and spied on Wilson.
  • Even when the Saints tried to use a spy on Wilson in the second quarter, it didn't work. Late in the second quarter, Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks hovered back at the line of scrimmage instead of rushing the passer. But he couldn't catch Wilson when Wilson took off running to his right for a 15-yard gain.
Something new: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan rolled out another unique new package Monday night -- one with seven defensive backs -- to mixed results. It worked the first time the Saints used it, when Seattle had a third-and-12 inside the red zone. The Saints had only one player lined up at the line of scrimmage (Galette), while end Cameron Jordan was essentially lined up as a middle linebacker and Parys Haralson at outside linebacker. Wilson dumped off a short pass to Lynch -- who was immediately swarmed. And safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was the fifth player in on the tackle, forced a fumble with his helmet. The Seahawks recovered but had to settle for a field goal.

The package was less effective as the game went on, though. The Seahawks gained 17 yards on a wide receiver screen to Golden Tate on third-and-13 against that alignment. Lynch's 14-yard run also came against that defense, as did a 12-yard run by Turbin. In each case, the Seahawks were able to get their blockers out on the smaller defenders.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson has completed over 72 percent of his passes in each of his past four games, including Monday night's win over the Saints.
Wilson superb: This was one of the best performances I've seen from a quarterback since I began doing these film breakdowns last year. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has had a few similar days, and I believe Peyton Manning had a special day last year against the Saints if memory serves. But, man, Wilson was impressive.

It wasn't just the run plays, which were tough to stop. As a pure passer, Wilson was throwing darts, even while throwing on the run several times. As Saints defenders warned, he's terrific at scrambling to buy time and find a man open down the field.

Wilson's 52-yard pass to Baldwin was gorgeous -- even though he had to rush it against the heavy blitz and couldn't step fully into it. His 21-yard rollout pass to fullback Michael Robinson on the opening drive was a perfect strike. So was his deep comeback pass to Kearse for 19 yards on a third-and-9 play, a 14-yard rollout pass to Baldwin and a 33-yard deep ball to receiver Ricardo Lockette against Lewis that beat another blitz.

Wilson's first TD pass, a 2-yard TD to Miller, also came against a blitz. And he nearly pulled off his best play of the day in the second quarter when he scrambled away from a six-man rush and fired on the run into the end zone for Kearse. But Kearse couldn't hang on to make the diving catch.

Bad bounces: Maybe this game wouldn't have spiraled so far out of control if a few balls had bounced the Saints' way. First was the forced fumble by Vaccaro that was recovered by Seattle. Then on the first play of Seattle's second drive, White got both hands on an overthrown deep ball by Wilson, but he couldn't hang on for the interception.

Later in the second quarter, a replay showed that Wilson was sacked by defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley before he got off a shovel pass to Lynch (which lost 5 yards anyway). But the officials didn't see it, and the Saints didn't challenge. Perhaps those extra yards would have stopped Seattle from churning out a two-minute touchdown drive.

In the third quarter, Hicks pressured Wilson into an incomplete pass on third-and-2. But Hicks was flagged 10 yards for roughing the passer when his swinging arm came down on Wilson's helmet.

Then last but not least, the Seahawks scored a touchdown two plays later via a tipped ball on an 8-yard pass. Tight end Kellen Davis dropped the pass, popping it up into the air right over the head of Jenkins and into the arms of fullback Derrick Coleman.

Something good: The Saints did do a solid job against Lynch, which was their top priority heading into the day. He gained just 45 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for a total of 12 yards.

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton made a handful of nice stops on Lynch. Galette and Jenkins avoided blocks to help shut him down for a 2-yard loss on the opening drive, which helped force Seattle to settle for a field goal. Hawthorne and linebacker Ramon Humber each had a nice stop against Lynch, as well. And Jordan made a great tackle against Turbin for a 1-yard loss.

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.”

Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Russell Wilson, left, and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have their teams on different paths.
The last meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks was memorable.

In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.

How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.

ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:

McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?

Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.

The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?

McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.

Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?

Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.

Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?

McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.

I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?

Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.

The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?

McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.

 

W2W4: Buccaneers-Seahawks

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
8:00
AM ET
Three things to watch in Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks:

Mike Glennon against the "12th Man": Seattle is known as one of the toughest venues in the NFL, and it won’t be any easy place for a rookie quarterback making just his fifth career start. Coach Greg Schiano said he wants to cut down the number of pass attempts by Glennon, who has been averaging 45 per game. The Seahawks rank third in the league in pass defense, so it might be wise to not have Glennon throw very much.

Mike James and the running game: Doug Martin is likely to be out for the second straight game with a shoulder injury. That means an increased workload for rookie Mike James. In the previous game against Carolina, James never really got on track. Like the Panthers, the Seahawks are likely to try to stack the box. James needs more help from his offensive line than he received against Carolina.

The slumping defense: The Bucs have given up 31 points in each of their past three games. The secondary has been giving up some big plays, and the Bucs had a tough time containing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. Seattle’s Russell Wilson also is a very mobile quarterback, and he’s complemented by running back Marshawn Lynch. Tampa Bay’s run defense is ranked No. 7 in the league. But Seattle might be the best running team the Bucs have faced this season.
Lavonte David and Russell Wilson  USA Today SportsThe key for Lavonte David and the Bucs is to try to pressure Russell Wilson and to attack a line that gave up seven sacks on Monday.
Despite getting outplayed in almost every statistical category Monday night at St. Louis, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Rams 14-9 and reached the midpoint of the season at 7-1 after a rough stretch of four road games in five weeks.

Now Seattle returns to CenturyLink Field against the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hoping to win at home for the 12th consecutive time. It looks like a mismatch, but so did the Rams game.

The Seahawks still have backups starting at both offensive tackle spots and now are missing receiver Sidney Rice, who tore an ACL on Monday night. Rice is in the last year of his contract with the team and probably has played his last game with Seattle.

Receiver Percy Harvin should return soon after undergoing hip surgery three months ago, but it probably won't be this weekend. Nevertheless, the Seahawks should win this game.

Blount: Pat, a lot of people thought the Bucs would have a new head coach by the time the team got to Seattle, but Greg Schiano is hanging on. If Tampa Bay comes here and loses by a big margin, is that the end for him?

Yasinskas: Terry, I've been pointing to the Seattle game for several weeks as a possible end for Schiano. I think he's still employed in large part because the Bucs are putting forth an effort. But I could see that changing on a long road trip against a good team and in a hostile environment. The interim route rarely works out well. But if this team lies down in Seattle, I can see ownership pulling the plug on Schiano.

Aside from the loss to Indianapolis, Seattle seems to have been nearly perfect. But there's no such thing as perfect in the NFL. What are the Seahawks' biggest weaknesses?

Blount: Without question, it's the offensive line. It's not just weak right now. It's awful. Obviously, missing Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini is a big part of it, but having to go with backups at the tackle spots is not the only issue. Neither starting guard has played well, and center Max Unger, who had an arm injury earlier this season, hasn't played up to his Pro Bowl level of last year. It will improve when Okung and Giacomini get back in a few weeks, which will enable the Seahawks to move Paul McQuistan back to one of the guard spots instead of being out of position at left tackle. But it has to improve dramatically if Seattle hopes to live up to the Super Bowl expectations.

Pat, speaking of the Seattle line, it's obvious right now that the way to stop the Seattle offense is to load the box and blitz like crazy against the backup tackles, along with the rest of the offensive line that hasn't played well. Russell Wilson didn't have time to breathe at St. Louis. Do you see this as Tampa Bay's strategy on Sunday?

Yasinskas: I think the Bucs will try a similar approach, but I'm not sure they'll have as much success as St. Louis did. The defensive line hasn't been generating much of a pass rush. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster have been effective as blitzers, and I think you'll see the Bucs use them as pass-rushers.

Terry, how much does losing Rice hurt the receiving corps?

Blount: When Harvin gets on the field, assuming he's healthy, the Seahawks won't miss Rice. In fact, they'll be much better with Harvin's speed and versatility. Rice never has lived up to expectations here. He hasn't played nearly as well this season as receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin. But if Harvin still isn't ready to come back, it hurts Seattle's depth at the receiver spot and enables any defense to use more double coverage on Tate and/or Baldwin. But this also could be an opportunity for Jermaine Kearse to shine. He's been a big surprise this season in limited play.

Pat, obviously, the Bucs aren't going anywhere this season. They spent a ton of money to bring in some top players on defense like Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. What do you see as the team's goal for the rest of the season, and what do the Bucs hope to accomplish going forward in 2013?

Yasinskas: It's been a hugely disappointing year for a team with eight players on the roster who have been to the Pro Bowl. This team's struggles aren't entirely due to a lack of talent. Schiano prides himself on being a disciplinarian, but this team has struggled with mental mistakes and penalties. The thinking is that playing smarter will translate into some wins. But those might be coming too late to save Schiano's job. There is a segment of the fan base that wouldn't mind seeing the Bucs go winless so that they get the first overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Terry, the Seahawks are third in the league in pass defense, and we've heard a lot about their secondary. Is rookie quarterback Mike Glennon walking into the ultimate ambush?

Blount: That's what everyone thought Monday night for Rams backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, but he played pretty well most of the game. Clemens made two overthrows that became interceptions but came within one goal-line play of upsetting the Seahawks at the end of the game. The Seahawks do a great job of mixing things up and disguising coverages, but they do take chances to come up with turnovers. If Glennon doesn't recognize things quickly, they will make him pay.

TAMPA, Fla. -- When Russell Wilson was the starting quarterback at North Carolina State a few years back, he had a consistent message for backup Mike Glennon.

Glennon
Wilson
“He used to say, ‘I want you to push me, because that makes me a better player’," Glennon said. “I think we both felt that way. When he was out there, it was making me a better player because I saw what he could do, and then I was right on his feet right there, trying to get that job from him. I think, ultimately, it made us both better players."

Both ended up in the NFL. Glennon is a rookie playing for Tampa Bay and Wilson is a second-year player with Seattle. Their teams will meet on Sunday.

Glennon said he and Wilson stay in touch. Although Glennon had to bide his time at NC State, he wound up starting for two seasons. Wilson left NC State for Wisconsin with one year of eligibility remaining, which allowed Glennon to move into the starting role.

“He went on to [the University of] Wisconsin, had a great senior year, led them to the Rose Bowl," Glennon said. “Last year, [he] had a remarkable rookie year and is playing extremely well now. Then, for me, it gave me the chance to start for two years and give myself an opportunity to get drafted. So, it worked out for both of us."
TAMPA, Fla. – According to defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the NFL’s top two quarterbacks when it comes to escape ability in back-to-back weeks.

They already faced Carolina’s Cam Newton and lost. They’ll face Seattle’s Russell Wilson on Sunday. McCoy had high praise (and a lighthearted low blow) for Wilson.

“I think he’s second to Cam Newton as an escape artist,’’ McCoy said. “Cam is just because of his size and athletic ability. But Russell, he has this move where he gets you two steps to the right, spins back and go back to his left. It’s ridiculous. That pump fake. He’s a great escape artist. We lost contain this last game with Cam. We can’t do it with this guy. Cam, at least you can see him. Russell is 4-foot-10.’’

For the record, Wilson is listed at 5-11. But I get McCoy’s picture. I stood next to Wilson at the IMG Academy when he was preparing for the 2012 scouting combine, and I think 5-11 might be a little generous.

Newton No. 5 among apples and oranges

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
3:46
PM ET
It's hard for me to argue with the coaches, scouts and front-office personnel who ranked Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers last among the young quarterbacks in Wednesday's Hot Read on ESPN.com.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not an expert evaluator of talent, even though former Carolina general manager Marty Hurney began his career as a sports writer.

However -- Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick are surrounded by a better supporting cast than Newton has had in his first two-plus seasons.

Even our experts admitted that, ranking Newton fifth in that category.

Who knows what Newton would have done with a decent second wide receiver to Steve Smith. Or had his offensive line and defenses been better.

Wilson and Kaepernick, in particular, had better supporting casts. According to our evaluation, the Seahawks and 49ers both had defenses and rushing attacks that ranked in the top five in the NFL last season.

Carolina ranked 10th in defense and ninth in rushing.

The ranking also has Newton fourth in durability, ahead of only Griffin. I'd argue Newton should have been first in durability, based on how many plays he missed versus how many times he carried the ball and was hit.

Among these five young QBs, Newton ranks second behind Griffin with 5.8 yards per carry since 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In most yards per drop-back, he ranks third behind Kaepernick and Griffin with a 7.0 average.

The experts ranked Newton fifth in accuracy even though he had a better completion percentage -- 57.7 to 54.1 -- than Luck did last season. Even though Luck threw 18 interceptions to Newton's 12.

The survey also should take into consideration that Newton had 741 yards rushing, second only to Griffin with 833, and that his eight rushing touchdowns were the most among the five.

Where Newton loses big is in wins and losses. He is 13-20 and hasn't made the playoffs. The other four have.

But nobody knows what Newton would have done in another system any more than we know what the four he's being compared to would have done in Carolina's.

Apples and oranges, I say.

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