4th and Geaux: Saints at Seahawks Playoff edition

The New Orleans Saints have had a strangely dramatic week for a team going into what should be one of the easiest playoff games in NFL history. The Saints’ running backs are falling left and right, and Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis are left trolling for backups. In fact, I think the Saints just signed a Lucky Dog vendor to play special teams (hopefully not Ignatius J. Reilly); is there any doubt that the homeless radio voice guy is next?

It’s time for 4th and Geaux.

Well, this is getting interesting, isn’t it? The Saints head to Seattle to this week for what will likely be a fairly easy game (as playoff games go), but there’s an air of anxiety around Who Dat Nation. Regardless of whether or not you believe in momentum (I don’t), the Saints aren’t headed into the playoffs in peak form.

Even if you ignore their disinterested loss to Tampa, the Saints are a battered team: the injured list includes the Saints’ 2 best running backs are hurt (Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory), their best receiving tight end (Jimmy Graham), a critical member of the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins), and those are just the people who could miss the game. If you count the nicked up, things get even worse.

That’s not a great start to the postseason. But, you’ve gotta play the players you got (how poetic!), so there are really two important questions at this point: (1) How will the Saints do this weekend?, and (2) How does the playoff field line up for the Saints next weekend?

I’ll try to tackle both of those in this week’s column.

Can the Saints Lose to Seattle?

There is no doubt that the Saints are a better team than the Seahawks. However, of course the Saints can lose to Seattle. After all, the Saints have already lost to Arizona, which is a worse team than even the lowly Seahawks. Football’s playoffs are different from those of most team sports in that each round is a single game, not a series. As a result, there’s a better chance in football that the worse team will advance based on a fluky outcome. That’s life.

Instead of asking whether or not the Saints can lose to Seattle, it’s more interesting to think about how the Saints might lose to Seattle, and what they can do to prevent those scenarios from occurring. Before I get to that, though, let’s look at how the two teams stack up in our Statpoints.

Saints Statpoints

Saints offense vs. Seattle defense

This is where the Saints need to win the game. The Saints’ offense is in the top third of the league and Seattle’s defense is in the bottom three. If the Saints’ offense doesn’t put up points against this defense, then they won’t deserve to advance in the playoffs.

Going into more detail, Seattle’s defense is okay against the run (around 17th in the league, per Football Outsiders) but horrible against the pass. The Seahawks particularly struggle against teams with receiving depth, giving up over 100 yards per game to 2nd, 3rd, & 4th wide receivers (total, not 100 yards to each receiver!). Even if Marques Colston is still struggling to recover from his random knee surgery, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem all should have a chance to make some plays. Seattle is also one of the worst teams at covering running backs on pass routes, giving up around 50 receiving yards per game to RBs. If you believe that Reginald is healthy, and that he’ll step up like he promises to, then he could have a big day, as well.

The Saints’ passing game has been frustrated all year long, as teams have dropped into coverage to take away the deep passing game. I don’t think the Seahawks have the players to do that. The deep passes will be there, assuming that the Saints’ receivers can catch them.

Of course, the Saints’ offensive line has let defenses off the hook this year, as Drew can't spread the ball around if he doesn’t have time to throw. Fortunately, this matchup favors the Saints, too. The Seahawks are one of the worst 3 teams in the leagues when it comes to creating sacks, so even the Saints’ struggling line should be able to contain them.

Now: the running back question. Chris Ivory had blossomed into a top-10 running back (especially since he’d stopped fumbling the ball), and Pierre Thomas was one of the best receiving running backs in the league. The Saints are left with Reggie Bush, who has never shown the ability to be the main back, Julius Jones, who shouldn’t be in the NFL, DeShawn Wynn, who wasn’t in the NFL until a couple of days ago, and Joique Bell, who went to Wayne State University and has yet to actually log any NFL stats. This isn’t just a bad running back group, it’s a terrible running back group. Does it matter?

Yes and no. The Saints’ offense doesn’t rely on running. In fact, there are times when it seems like Sean Payton hates running the ball. Instead, the Saints’ offense tends to use short passes as "extended handoffs", getting short-to-medium yards with high percentage pass plays.

Of course, who do those plays go to? Generally the running backs and receivers. While it’d be nice to have Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, chances are that Reginald, Lance Moore, and the rest of the offense can make up for the lack of running backs in the passing game.

However, unless one of the new guys shows us something, the Saints don’t have any running backs who can actually run the ball all that effectively. This could pose a problem, especially in the second half if the Saints are trying to keep the clock running. Additionally, if there isn’t even a threat of a running game, then the Seahawks might be able to adjust their defense to be more effective against the Saints’ passing game.

Ideally, I’d like to see Reginald or one of the other running backs get a few solid carries (up the middle, Reggie! Not sideways!) early in the game to keep the Seahawks honest. I won’t hold my breath.

The lack of running game probably won't be an issue against Seattle, but the Saints will be in trouble later if they can't find a way to get a tough yard in a critical situation.

Saints defense vs. Seattle offense

Seattle’s offense is bad. They can’t pass the ball, the can’t run the ball, and they don’t score very many points. Advanced Football Stats has them rated as the 28th-ranked offense in the league. They literally have 0 starting skill position players rated above average by Football Outsiders. That’s not so good.

The one area where Seattle is okay on offense is preventing sacks, where they’re about league average. This is an important stat, because the Saints need to try to generate a pass rush without resorting to big blitzes. Why? Matt Hasselbeck.

It turns out that Matt Hasselbeck is one of the best quarterbacks in the league against big blitzes: the Seahawks averaged almost 10 yards per play when opposing teams rushed 5, 6, or 7 guys, which is the best in the league, and far better than the ~5 yards Seahawks averaged in other plays. If the Saints have to rely on the big blitz (one of Gregg Williams’ favorite moves, incidentally) to generate pass rush, Hasselbeck could make them pay.

Which brings us back to our original question: How might the Seahawks beat the Saints?

If you buy into my premise that the Saints are a significantly better team than the Seahawks, then you’d probably agree with me that the Seahawks aren’t going to beat the Saints by lining up and outplaying them, man-by-man, possession-by-possession.*

*Of course, they could beat the Saints that way -much stranger things have happened- , it’s just not very likely.

Instead, the Seahawks would likely beat the Saints through a series of flukes, serendipitous bounces, and the like.

The first place I’d look for these lucky breaks is on special teams. The Seahawks have one of the best special teams squads in the league, whereas the Saints’ squad is a bit below average. If the Saints struggle against kick returner Leon Washington, that could spell trouble. The Saints aren’t a good enough team to give up points on special teams or to give their opponents consistently good field position. They need to cover kicks and punts well, and might want to consider  kicking away from Leon Washington when appropriate.

The next thing I’d worry about is the Seahawks’ pass rush. Yes, I mentioned earlier that the Seahawks’ pass rush stunk, but so did Tampa’s, and Tampa consistently hurried Drew Brees last week. If Drew Brees doesn’t have time to throw the ball, and the receivers don’t have time to get open, then we might see the interceptions rear their ugly head. Interceptions are huge, game-changing plays, and Seattle will need a few of them to win. The pass rush (especially against a short quarterback) is one way to make that happen.

The final thing I’d worry about is the unpredictable nature of playing an opponent with nothing to lose. The Seahawks know they aren’t as good as the Saints. As a result, they’ll likely try a few goofy things (fake kicks, trick plays, etc.). The Saints have been vulnerable to trickeration all year, and if the Seahawks can hit a few goofy plays for big yardage, it could turn the game around.

So, while I don’t think the Seahawks will win, I can see a few different "shorelines" that might allow them to win. None of these shorelines is all that far-fetched. Part of the Saints’ job is to prevent them from happening.

How far will the Saints go this year?

The good news is that the NFC is a lot more wide open than the AFC, which is dominated by two teams (the Patriots and Steelers). The bad news is that the Saints are the 5th seed, which means they’ll be playing a lot of road games.

In order to make it to the Super Bowl, the Saints will have to beat the Seahawks and then 2 of the following 4 teams*: Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Chicago. Of those, only the hypothetical Packers game would be in the ‘Dome.

*Exactly which team depends on which team wins which games.

Of those teams, I’m comfortable saying that the Saints will beat the Seahawks, even on the road. The Saints have played two extremely close games with the Falcons, so I can see us beating them, but it’d be hard to do in a rocking Georgia Dome. Even if the Saints beat the Falcons, they’d still need to beat Chicago on the road, Philadelphia on the road, or Green Bay at home. The Saints wouldn’t be favored in any of those games (except maybe Green Bay, which would probably be close), and they wouldn’t deserve to be favored in any of those games, if you believe my earlier research*.

*While the numbers have changed a bit, the gist of that piece is the same: the Saints are about the 4th best team in the NFC, behind Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago, and about equal with Atlanta.

So, to make the playoffs, the Saints will have to win 3 games: this weekend’s game against the Seahawks, followed by two games (quite possibly road games) against teams that are better than they are. Can it happen? Of course. None of the NFC teams is perfect, and the Saints are better than most at taking advantage of opponent weaknesses. Beating two better teams in a row is a tall order, though.

Beer of the week: because sober analysis requires good beer

Since there aren’t any Washington beers available at the Beer Store, I’ll head over to Oregon for this week’s beer selection. This week’s beer is Rogue Chocolate Stout, from Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon.

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(photo by Flickr user @joefoodie)

Rogue Chocolate Stout is a relatively light 6% ABV, which is a nice change from the current trend of highly alcoholic stouts. It pours oil-black with a nice, thick brown head. The smell is chocolatey, but not as much as you’d think. I also get a lot of coffee and a bit of milk, too, which is kind of a turnoff for me, because I don’t like milk stouts all that much.

Tastewise, the chocolate is definitely there, but there’s a definite bitterness as well, likely from both the hops and the chocolate. This is a big beer, but not all that heavy. Rogue Chocolate Stout is one of the more sessionable craft stouts I’ve had, I could definitely have a few of these in a sitting. Nice beer. Not my favorite, but nice.

That was too long...could you offer me a 1-paragraph summary and prediction?

Sure. The Saints running back situation might spell trouble down the line, but probably not against Seattle, which just doesn't have the defensive or offensive firepower to keep up with the Saints barring turnovers, special teams insanity, or other fluky things. The Saints should win this game despite being on the road, but might not be favored again in the playoffs, which will make it tough (but not impossible) to get to Dallas. But, we'll hopefully be dissecting that next week.

You can listen to Stuart each week on the Who Dat Report or follow him on Twitter.

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