- Mike Triplett, ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter
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However, both Shanle and former Saints safety Darren Sharper said they feel like New Orleans (9-2) is better equipped now than ever before to handle a difficult road challenge like tonight’s “Monday Night Football” game at the Seattle Seahawks (10-1).
“They’re the underdogs, but they have a chance,” said Sharper, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. “Primarily because of how their defense is playing. They have a top defense. They have never had that going into a game like this.”
I caught up with both former Saints defenders last week as part of ESPN.com’s look back on Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch’s legendary 67-yard playoff run against New Orleans three years ago. I also asked them for their thoughts on tonight’s rematch.
Shanle agreed with Sharper that the Saints are capable of overcoming all of tonight’s challenging elements -- a great opponent, an overwhelming Seattle crowd and possible nasty weather. But Shanle admitted that he would like their chances better if the game was being played in New Orleans.
“If I was still playing, I’d answer it differently than now,” Shanle said of the home versus road question. “But being a fan and being able to sit back, there is no doubt that the Saints are a different team at home than on the road. And I think more than anything, it speaks to just what the Superdome does to the players when we step inside the Superdome. They almost play superhuman. I mean, just flawless execution. And to me, we’ve had so much success inside that place, that as soon as you step on that field, your confidence is already sky high. And on the road there’s always doubt in your mind when you haven’t had the same success on the road.
“You can just tell, I’ve watched the games this year. I mean, if the Jets come into New Orleans they get spanked by 35 points in my mind [instead of New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at New York]. And then at Tampa was a close one [a 16-14 Saints win]. And even against a bad Atlanta team. I mean, I know it was Atlanta, but to only win 17-13 surprised me because I thought they would blow them out. But I think it speaks more volume about what the home field does to the confidence of the team.”
It’s not that the Saints lack confidence on the road. They actually have the best regular-season road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-13). They just don’t dominate those road games in the same fashion -- especially when weather or sloppy field conditions come into play.
The Saints are 2-6 in games when the temperature was below 40 degrees since 2006 and the starters played (2-2 since 2009).
And they are 0-3 on the road in the playoffs in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era -- including that infamous 41-36 loss at Seattle after the 2010 regular season, when the Seahawks snuck into the playoffs at 7-9. The Saints also lost the NFC Championship Game in frigid weather at Chicago after the 2006 season, 39-14. And they lost a divisional-round playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season (which evolved into a 36-32 shootout after five early turnovers by the Saints’ offense and special teams).
Sharper doesn’t think there was any common theme in those losses, though, that exposed any fatal flaw in the Saints.
“I think it’s just been three games, at Chicago, in San Francisco, in Seattle, I don’t think that’s really a trend. I think that’s just you played some tough teams,” Sharper said. “The San Francisco game, they should have won that one. If [former defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams makes some different calls [on the final drive], plays more conservative. ... In Seattle, ‘Beast Mode’ [Lynch] just got us. They’ve done well enough on the road.
“Chicago [where the Saints lost three straight games in cold weather from 2006-2008], that was before they kind of got used to playing outdoors. Now they’re built better for that and they understand how to win -- especially the way the defensive line is playing. I don’t think they’ve ever had a defensive line play that well. That’s the biggest difference, why they have a chance of beating Seattle. They have to stop Russell Wilson, they have to tackle Marshawn, Golden Tate. These guys do their best work after contact, so they have to tackle well.”
Shanle agreed with Sharper’s assessment of the Saints’ defense. He said watching the way new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has energized his players and maximized their talent through versatile schemes reminds him of the way things were under Williams from 2009-2011.
“I think it’s a defensive philosophy that fits well with talented players,” Shanle said. “When you have a coordinator that’s aggressive on offense and a coordinator that’s aggressive on defense, and those types of personalities just mesh, there’s just confidence on the whole team. And that’s what we had for three years, and that’s what they have going this year.
“What I’m interested to see tonight is that defense, playing in it for three years, thrived in games where you could get a lead. You can blitz, you can give all sorts of different looks. And that defense becomes dynamic then. What really gave us trouble, and at certain times this year has given the Saints' defense trouble, is when you get into close ballgames where an offense can stay balanced. Can you stop the run equally as well as putting all those great blitz packages and pass defenses together? Because I don’t know if you’re gonna go up to Seattle and get a 14- or 21-point lead.”
Believe it or not, only one current Saints defensive player remains on the active roster from that playoff game at Seattle less than three years ago -- safety Roman Harper, who could hardly believe that fact himself the other day. “Really?!” he said.
That’s because current safety Malcolm Jenkins was out with an injury three years ago. And three other players from that defense (cornerback Jabari Greer, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith) are currently on injured reserve.
Still, Harper said he thinks this current team can benefit from the lessons the Saints learned in that game -- which was filled with defensive breakdowns against both the run and the pass.
Harper said the Seahawks deserved that game because “they outplayed us, they outhit us.” But he said Seattle also came into that game with nothing to lose and caused confusion early by doing some things offensively that the Saints hadn’t seen before.
“This is a different situation,” Harper said. “I think coaching-wise and player-wise, the ones that were there, I think we’re better from it, and we’ve learned some things from it. How we’ve gotta really try and hunker down. We understand how effective this crowd really is. So we’re not going in here blind.”
Former New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said now that he’s just “a fan,” it’s easier for him to admit that there is no doubt the Saints are a different team at home than on the road.