NFL Nation: NOR-SEA Week 13 W2W4

W2W4: Protect the football

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
4:00
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints' biggest game of the year to date deserves the biggest What 2 Watch 4. This is Part 4 of 4 as we count down toward the Saints’ “Monday Night Football” showdown at the Seattle Seahawks.

There has been a lot of talk this past week about what kind of team the Saints are on the road, outdoors, in certain types of weather, against certain types of teams. The comparables that stand out to me most when you consider all those factors are the Saints’ past matchups against the Chicago Bears (from 2006-2008), the San Francisco 49ers (from 2011-2013) and the Baltimore Ravens (in 2006 and 2010).

In most of the Saints’ losses to those teams, turnovers did them in. And that once again looms as the greatest threat against a Seahawks team that entered the week leading the league in takeaways (26) and tied for the league lead in interceptions (16).

This year, however, the Saints have been winning these types of games with smart, patient game plans. They’ve turned the ball over only 13 times this year, which was tied for fifth in the NFL heading into the week (and only 10 of the turnovers have been committed by the offense). The Saints also entered the week ranked first in the league in time of possession -- 33:04 per game, the most in coach Sean Payton’s tenure.

I expect the Saints to take an approach similar to what worked for them in their turnover-free 26-18 victory at Chicago in Week 5 of this season -- though I do think they’ll be aggressive at times, as always.

“I think we’ve done a really good job this season to date. And this is gonna be one of those games that requires the same,” Saints receiver Marques Colston said. “I think you’ve got to pick your spots [being aggressive]. You’ve got to know your opponent. This is a [Seattle] group that has been off the charts turning the ball over. So you’ve just got to balance getting those extra yards versus being protective of the ball.”

W2W4: Closing the screen door?

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
2:00
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints' biggest game of the year to date deserves the biggest What 2 Watch 4. This is Part 3 of 4 as we count down toward the Saints’ “Monday Night Football” showdown at the Seattle Seahawks.

Thomas
Sproles
With the weather conditions a likely factor tonight, and the Seahawks’ outstanding pass defense even more of a factor, it would stand to reason that the Saints might rely on the short passing attack with running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles that has served them so well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Thomas and Sproles have ranked first and second in the NFL in receiving yards on screen passes since the start of the 2011 season

However, that’s yet another area where Seattle’s defense has excelled. During that same span, the Seahawks have allowed the fewest passing yards, yards per play and lowest Total Quarterback Rating on screen passes, without allowing a single touchdown.

“They play a lot of down safety defense and not as much shell, if you will,” Saints coach Sean Payton explained -- meaning, the Seahawks often line up safeties close to the line of scrimmage, crowding that area of the field. “There’s an additional player in the alley that can make it problematic. So when we put on the reel -- we put on the screen reel each week, the naked reel, the play-action reel -- you can see without looking at the statistics that those are tough plays against this defense.”

So something’s got to give in one of many fascinating chess matches that will play out between the NFC’s top two teams.

W2W4: Tackling the problems

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
12:00
PM ET
The New Orleans Saints’ biggest game of the year to date deserves the biggest What 2 Watch 4. This is Part 2 of 4 as we count down toward the Saints’ “Monday Night Football” showdown at the Seattle Seahawks.

The Saints can probably appreciate better than any team in the NFL how difficult it is to tackle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. (Click here for ESPN.com’s collection of memories from both teams of Lynch’s classic 67-yard playoff run against the Saints three years ago).

Lynch
Lynch hasn’t slowed down much since then. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the punishing 5-foot-11, 215-pounder has the most 100-yard games in the NFL since the start of the 2011 season (19). And he is 75 yards shy of becoming the only player in the league with 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in each of the past three seasons.

“They’ve got a hired killer back there running the ball,” Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.

“He’s the head of the train. He’s the engine. You’ve got to have a plan for him,” said Saints linebacker David Hawthorne -- a former teammate of Lynch in Seattle.

“Outside of Adrian Peterson, I think he’s probably the best back in the league as far as yards after contact,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “He’s a tough tackle. You definitely gotta get population to the football. ... He’s definitely somebody we’ve got to control and keep under wraps and not get into the secondary, because he’s a big threat.”

“You’re not going to arm-tackle him,” Saints linebacker Parys Haralson said. “It’s going to be one of those games where you’re going to come out and you’re going to have a little red bruise above your nose.”

But that’s not just the case with Lynch. Ryan, Saints players and former Saints safety Darren Sharper all brought up how good the entire Seahawks offense is at breaking and eluding tackles.

“They’ve got great stiff-arms when they run the ball, [Lynch] and [quarterback] Russell Wilson. [Receiver] Golden Tate does some really good things after he catches the ball. So they’ve got some weapons, and we understand that,” Saints safety Roman Harper said.

So far, the Saints have been excellent in that department this year -- one of the biggest reasons for their remarkable defensive turnaround. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints came into this week with the fewest missed tackles in the NFL this year -- 57, including special teams. Last year, the Saints ranked 31st in the NFL with 128 missed tackles on defense (not including special teams).

W2W4: Sherman vs. Graham?

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
10:00
AM ET
The New Orleans Saints' biggest game of the season to date deserves the season’s biggest What 2 Watch 4. This is Part 1 of 4 as we count down toward the Saints’ “Monday Night Football” showdown at the Seattle Seahawks.

Two of the NFL’s elite players may duel head to head tonight. Or maybe not. It depends on whether the Seahawks decide to use their best cover cornerback, Richard Sherman, on the Saints’ most dangerous weapon, tight end Jimmy Graham.

Graham
Sherman
Defenses have tried that approach a few times this season, to varying degrees of success. New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did a great job against Graham in Week 6, which was a big reason Graham finished with zero catches in that game. And Sherman (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) is a big, physical cornerback who might have the skill set to pull off the assignment.

But the Seahawks’ loaded defense also has plenty of talent at the safety and linebacker positions. So they may experiment with a few different options against Graham.

Either way, Graham said he knows teams will always have someone “all over me.”

“More or less, I just look at it across the board and learn everyone’s tendencies, everyone’s weaknesses, everyone’s strengths,” said Graham, who said he has been studying defenses more than ever this year because of the diversity he’s seen in teams’ approaches from week to week. “There’s many times in a game when I’ll have any one of the corners or safeties or linebackers on me split out in the slot or at the tight end position. For me, it’s all around getting a feel for what everyone does best and try to use that to my advantage.”

Graham said he can glean some tips from the way defenses cover receiving tight ends, like Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski. But Graham said he also spends a lot of time watching the way teams defend some of the league’s top big receivers -- like Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson. And he has “most definitely” seen defenses approach him the same way.

“You get hints on how they guard Gonzalez or Gronk. But Gronk, he’s at the true tight end position a lot, and me, I’m lined up at the receiver position a lot,” Graham said. “So across the board I watch a lot of big-play receivers as well, the Lions and the Texans, trying to see how guys are playing those guys.

“I feel like [in the past] I could be split out and run my sluggos or my seam routes, and there was no help behind them. But you’ll see now even looks where we have Cover 1 where a safety will cheat over my way,” Graham said. “Safeties used to not pay attention to me, but now it looks like they’re instantly sprinting back to cover the seam route.”

Saints coach Sean Payton obviously pays attention to all of those wrinkles as well.

“A lot,” said Payton, who has always been a master at lining up in a variety of formations early in the game to learn a defense’s tendencies.

That tactic is probably even more useful when it comes to a unique weapon like Graham. And if a defense goes overboard in trying to defend Graham, then Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have always shown a great willingness to exploit the other options being left open.

“There’s usually a mix of personnel to try and see [if] we are getting nickel or are we getting base and what are the matchups,” Payton said. “I think that’s pretty significant as to what we can gather early in the game and pay attention to how they’re treating Darren Sproles or how they’re treating certain personnel groupings.

“There are a lot of ways to cover certain people and hopefully we have enough variation and flexibility where we are able to adjust and see how they’re playing the matchups.”

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