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Shocking the Corpse: Saints vs. Seahawks Preview

The Saints' season may, indeed, be dead, but that doesn't mean that we can't pull out the old defibrillator paddles and see what life we can shock out of it. With that in mind, I traded a few Saints-Seahawks questions with Doug Farrar, who runs Seahawks.NET and writes for the Football Outsiders. Be sure to click over to his site in the next few days. Many thanks to Doug for participating in the back-and-forth.

Also, be sure to visit SBN's Seahawks site Field Gulls. John Morgan and Shrug have created a pretty awesome community of fans over there.

Before the jump are his answers to my questions; after the jump are my answers to his questions.

  • Let’s talk game-planning. How do the Seahawks plan on stopping the New Orleans offense? Who will they focus on? The Seahawks are ceding plenty of yardage but stopping teams before the end zone. Is this sustainable over the course of a full season? If not, which trend will break – will they clamp down on yardage or begin allowing more points?

"Bend-but-don’t-break" is a dangerous game. In Pro Football Prospectus 2007, Ned Macey and Jim Armstrong of Football Outsiders wrote an article about teams whose yards allowed far outstripped their points allowed. Their research found that not only are "B-B-D-B" defenses generally unsustainable over long periods of time, but that a positive defensive DVOA swing going toward the red zone (remember, defensive DVOA is better when it’s negative) indicates a longer-term trend in the direction of more points per yard allowed.  

Through five games in 2007, the Seahawks rank 17th in passing yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards allowed, and 7th in points per game allowed. This would indicate a winning trend, but Seattle’s defensive DVOA gets worse the closer you get to the red zone, and the dropoff from midfield is drastic:

Deep (own 1-19): 3.9% (rank: 16)
Back (own 20-39): 16.0% (rank: 25)
Mid (own 40-opponent's 40): -57.9% (rank: 2)
Front (opponent's 39-21): 18.4% (rank: 24)
Red (opponent's 20-1): 30.7% (rank: 28)
Goal-To-Go (does not include plays on the 11-yard line or beyond): 18.5% (rank: 25)

Source: Football Outsiders Premium Database

The question is, will correlation equal causation in this case? We don’t know exactly, but we do have an inkling that with such a DVOA hole in key situations, hell will come a-poppin’. It’s a matter of time unless some adjustments are made.  As far as how they stop the New Orleans offense – unless there’s a big shakeup in the lineup (and Sean Payton has made some noises about roster changes), it’ll be about playing solid base defense and not allowing a slumping team to break out as a result of inconsistent play.

  • My colleague John Morgan, who runs the Field Gulls blog, recently compared the Seattle offense to Bigfoot, claiming that it was "Lumbering, one dimensional and ultimately a hoax." He continued to say, "The book is out on how to play the Seahawks, play pass every time." Do you agree with his assessment of the Seattle offense? Is it really that easily defensible? Surely they self-scout; will they use the same attack-plan against the Saints’ defense? What changes could/should they implement?

The book is indeed out, and Steelers coaches Mike Tomlin and Dick Lebeau read it to perfection. They had as many as eight defenders in coverage, boxing Seattle’s receivers in and daring Shaun Alexander to beat them on the ground. With 25 yards on 11 carries, it’s safe to say that Shaun Alexander wasn’t going to make that happen. And it’s not a recent problem – Alexander averaged less than four yards per carry over a full season for the first time in 2006, and the only time he averaged over four per carry this year was against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has trouble putting three healthy linebackers on the field.  

  • Barring a truly magnificent effort against New Orleans, Shaun Alexander’s last 16 games will show a precipitous statistical decline from the previous 16. To wit, in 15 games during 2006-07, Alexander’s numbers look fairly pedestrian: 1,274 yards, 3.6 yards per carry and 9 touchdowns. These are his 2005 numbers (over 16 games): 1,880 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns. Is Alexander finally showing the effects of age? How have injuries factored into his statistical decline?

You asked earlier about "self-scouting" and changing things, but the answer isn’t with Alexander or the team’s offensive line – Mike Holmgren has said that backup running back Maurice Morris will get more reps through the season. Morris is a quicker scatback, and his "one-cut-and-go" style might better fit a team that a.) can’t get sustained blocking for its running backs; and b.) no longer has a starting running back with elite speed and cutting ability.  

Watching Alexander this season has been painful, because you can see him struggle to hit the hole and make plays he would have made two years ago. I think it’s less about injuries, because the wrist injury doesn’t affect his ability to plant, cut, and accelerate. This is a guy who’s 30 years old, and he may be bumping up against an expiration date.

Opposing defenses will now defy Seattle’s rushing attack to beat them until it actually happens – that’s the way it works.

  • On a similar note, over the past two seasons, the Seahawks have averaged about 3.8 Adjusted Line Yards per carry. Between 2000-2005 they were consistently above 4.00, often around 4.3. How much of this decline can be attributed to the loss of Steve Hutchinson? Can Shaun Alexander’s decline be attributed to the struggles of his line or is Alexander dragging a good line down?  

People in Seattle (including people in Seattle’s front office) don’t want to admit it, but the line has never recovered from the loss of Hutchinson to the Vikings before the 2006 season. Second-year guard Rob Sims puts forth a decent effort and he’s going to be a good one, but the combination of Hutchinson and Walter Jones was dominant and unstoppable through 2005. It’s worth mentioning that before 2006, Alexander’s worst statistical season was 2002, when Hutchinson missed 12 games with a broken leg and was replaced by the immortal Floyd Wedderburn.  

There have been other adjustments, as well – veteran center Robbie Tobeck put together a Pro Bowl season in 2005 with spit, baling wire and holding penalties, but he missed the final eight games of 2006 with a hip injury and subsequently retired. Chris Spencer, his replacement, is an immensely strong and talented player who still needs to get up to speed on the more advanced line calls. Basically, Spencer was asked to put a decade of NFL experience in his head overnight, and that’s too much to ask of anyone. Left Tackle Walter Jones, who really should have been the NFL MVP in 2005, isn’t the same player at 33. He’s still very, very good, but not quite where he was. This is a line very much in transition, and the loss of Hutchinson was a major hit.  

The answer to your question, "Is it Alexander, or the line?" is, "Yes".  

  • The Seahawks are the first NFC West opponent that the Saints will face. In the preseason, prognosticators frequently selected the 49ers, Rams or Cardinals to win the division; the Seahawks were often ignored in those predictions. Yet the Seahawks seem to be the healthiest team after five games. Is the NFC West ripe for Seattle’s plucking? Why are the Seahawks going to win the division? What could prevent them from doing so?

The Seahawks weren’t ignored, really – I think people assumed that there was still enough talent to make a run in a very weak division, and as a result their status was sort of taken for granted. Certainly the 49ers were regarded as the team to beat, but we had no idea how much their offense would regress after Norv Turner moved on. Funny, isn’t it, that Turner’s ruined two offenses – San Francisco’s with his absence, and San Diego’s with his presence. Some guys should just stick to being coordinators!

Obviously, the Rams are out of the race with their catastrophic injury situation. The team that may finally be ready to make a move after years of wrong-headed hype is the Arizona Cardinals, who now have the coaching to match their talent. If the Seahawks don’t win the NFC West again, it will be because Arizona took it away from them, but you have to wonder about an offense that’s in the hands of the now fragile and inconsistent Kurt Warner. They’ll have to have one of those seasons in which everything breaks right from here on out to overtake Seattle. It’s not out of the question, though.

  • The Seahawks are clearly a team that is built to win now. With time working against some of their most important players, should the Seahawks fail to advance deep into the playoffs, will Mike Holmgren’s job be in jeopardy? If this core is unable to win the Super Bowl, does ownership owe it to the players to give them a shot with fresh leadership?

I don’t know that Mike Holmgren’s job would ever be in jeopardy … but then again, a coach that led his team to a 14-2 record last season got fired this year in favor of a man with a 60-85-1career record, and I never thought THAT would happen, so what the heck do I know? (Okay … enough with the Norv-bashing. Sorry!) Seriously, I think it will be Holmgren’s choice to walk away. After a rough start to his time in Seattle, he led this franchise to a Super Bowl and several division titles. He’s prone to the occasional lapse in judgment – I wouldn’t wish his clock management skills on a high school coach – but overall, he’s still one of the most respected coaches in the league, and it’s still very much his team on the field.  

Off the field, team president Tim Ruskell rules the roost, and I’m quite sure Ruskell wants to bring in his own guy when the time is right. I can’t see Holmgren getting bumped aside for that, but it’s important to note that former Falcons head coach Jim Mora, who Ruskell got to know when he was Atlanta’s assistant GM in 2005, is biding his time as Seattle’s secondary coach.  

As far as being unable to win a Super Bowl, I don’t think that’s a fair barometer for any coach. So much can happen when you get to the postseason – so much can go right or wrong. The Seahawks certainly experienced one of the strangest Super Bowls ever, so we observers speak from experience.

Again, these are my answers to Doug's questions.

  • After a 2006 season in which he led the Saints to one of the all-time great Cinderella stories, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has gotten off to a horrific start in 2007, and it's really been emblematic of the team's troubles. Brees threw 11 interceptions in the entire regular season last year, and he already has NINE this year. What on earth has happened to him?

There are several forces coming into play. For the first few games, the line did a poor job of protecting Brees. This didn’t necessarily show up on the stats sheet, since Brees threw the ball away or threw interceptions (come to think of it, I guess it did show up on the stat sheet). Brees wasn’t taking the sacks but the pressure manifested itself in other forms.

The Saints have also been trailing in most of their games. Trailing breeds one-dimensionality, defenses know what’s coming, yadda … yadda … yadda, nine picks in four games.

But Brees was well-protected against Carolina and he still had happy feet. His first interception, the one by Richard Marshalll, looked like a throw that just didn’t have enough oomph. The most disconcerting part of Brees’ season is his inability to make accurate throws on deep routes. Last year, Brees was phenomenally accurate with his deep passes. This year, he’s phenomenally inaccurate. Of course, this leads armchair executives, myself included, to question whether his shoulder is healthy.

  • Rookie running back Reggie Bush seemed to find his niche last season as a receiving option and change-of-pace back on the ground. With Deuce McAllister out for the season, have the Saints been trying to fit Bush into a square-peg/round-hole scenario? And is Aaron Stecker the sort of decent replacement for McAllister that could right the ship? What about Pierre Thomas?

On my site, I recently ran a comparison between Reggie, Tiki Barber, Eric Metcalf and Brian Westbrook. Reggie, Tiki and Metcalf all had similar numbers through 180 career carries. It took him another season, but Tiki finally put on weight and became an every down back. I don’t know Metcalf’s full story, but he either never had the opportunity or never committed himself to becoming a featured player. He became a glorified receiver/returner.

Regardless, I think there is some credence to the square-peg, round-hole analogy for Reggie. And that’s not something that can be answered in the regular season. If he wants to follow the Tiki Barber path, Reggie must add weight to his frame and become comfortable running up the middle. That’s going to take time.

In the meantime, Aaron Stecker isn’t a great player, but he can be effective as a change-of-pace. Pierre Thomas had an intriguing preseason, which included his usurpation of fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman’s roster spot. Neither Stecker nor Thomas can replace McAllister, but combine them both with Bush and they can form a functional unit.

  • The Saints' offensive line seems to have regressed in their run-blocking when compared to last season, and you have to wonder how much of Brees' awful start has to do with protection. Why isn't this line as effective as last year's?

Some of the guys played over their heads in 2006. I suppose their floundering could be termed regression to the mean. In particular, Jon Stinchcomb seems to be experiencing this. Jammal Brown hasn’t been great either. I wonder (again, unspeculated) if Brown’s preseason injury isn’t affecting him. The tackles have been the most glaring problems.

There is also the situational element to their struggles. When the team is trailing by 21 points, the defense can "pin their ears back," to steal a Madden-ism, making it more difficult for the line to protect.

  • Speaking of lines, the stats tell a scary story here - New Orleans' defense has put up exactly one quarterback sack in four games, and that's worst in the NFL. How can a unit that had 38 sacks in 2006 fall apart so quickly?

Will Smith, Charles Grant and Brian Young combined for 22 sacks last season. This season they have combined for one. I hate to be vague, but it’s been pretty puzzling, actually. They created pressured against Carolina, so hopefully they’ve worked themselves out of their funk. The Saints weren’t heavily into blitzing last season and they aren’t doing much of it this year (against Carolina, they blitzed 5 times). It might not be a bad idea for them to become more aggressive on defense.

  • To stay on the pass defense subject - the New Orleans secondary that looked so vulnerable in the playoffs last year continues to be a problem. The Saints are allowing opposing quarterbacks to put up a 114.7 passer rating through four games, and while they have faced Peyton Manning and Jeff Garcia, they've also made Vince Young and David Carr look better than they have a right to. How can the Seahawks exploit this defense?

According to Football Prospectus 2007, the Saints were third in coverage sacks last season. They were also boosted by 36 dropped passes. This year, the line isn’t getting the coverage sacks and the opposing receivers are catching the ball.

Vince Young’s a monster; I’m on the bandwagon. Carr’s numbers were average. I’d like to see them blitz more, if they can’t get pressure with their front four.

To exploit this, the Seahawks must shut Smith and Grant down and keep them from getting second chances at the quarterback. I know this: the Saints won’t be blitzing. If the Seattle line can give their receivers time to get open against the Saints’ secondary, they will be able to consistently move the ball through the air. Assuming they catch it.

  • What's your take on Sean Payton as a coach? He had everything break his way last season, as weird as it sounds to say that about a coach in New Orleans with all that was going on off the field, but this 0-4 start is a real challenge. Can Payton pull his team out of these early troubles?

The Saints are being called a colossal disappointment, the biggest bust in the NFL. Obviously, this will reflect poorly on the coach. I guess there are a few aspects:

Psychologically, these guys still play to win the game. There really isn’t much public infighting among the players, perhaps because everybody has been equally sucky, but I’m sure Payton has something to do with keeping the locker room peaceful. They are still motivated to win games. Contrast this with a team like the Rams, whose players are already talking about going 0-16, and Payton’s work looks pretty good.

On the field, it looks like the rest of the league has caught up with the Saints. Surprise was a huge element of their success last season. This year, teams seem to have better preparation. For example, I can’t recall one trick play working this season. Other things … like only blitzing David Carr five times. As an observer, these things make you say "huh?"

Finally, Payton must be knocked for his man-management. Last year, the story was about how he turned over half of the roster and played guys like Colston and Jahri Evans over veterans. At the root of these decisions was the fact that Payton really didn’t have any experience with most of the players on the roster. He was forming his allegiances as he went through the season.

This year, he’s clearly been too loyal to guys who aren’t getting it done. Jason David wasn’t the only person who was struggling, but his struggles may have been the most obvious. Despite his seeming incompetence, injury was the only reason that David was removed from the lineup. And in his place: Fred Thomas and Jacon Craft, two of Payton’s guys, over rookie Usama Young.

He didn’t take over a particularly good team, one that had been drafting poorly. Before he arrived, the Saints had precisely zero homegrown Pro Bowlers on the roster. He channeled a spectacular draft, some shrewd free agent signings and momentum – from the storm and from a coaching change – into a fine season. The momentum wasn’t sustainable, the 2007 Draft was a bit of a downer and the free agents are busts. Because he’s operating without these advantages, I think that the rest of this season will tell us more about Sean Payton’s abilities – coaching, management and leadership – than 2006 did.