Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

The Seattle Seahawks (10-1) host the New Orleans Saints (9-2) Monday night in a battle of the top two teams in the NFC. The winner hops into the driver’s seat in the race for home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, an edge each of the two teams could very well ride all the way to the Super Bowl, as there may not be better home-field advantages than CenturyLink Field and The Superdome.

The Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, star tight end Jimmy Graham and a pile of capable backs and wide receivers, present some concerns for the Seahawks. The Saints defense is improved under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but do have some holes Seattle can exploit. While the home field leverage favors the Seahawks, the injury situation is on the side of the Saints.

Out are Seahawks cornerbacks Walter Thurmond (suspension) and Brandon Browner (groin), and it appears wide receiver Percy Harvin, listed as doubtful for the game, may not be available. The Saints are not reporting any starters as worse than probable.

While the Seahawks are coming off a bye week, the Saints last played two Thursdays ago, giving them a mini-bye to rest and get healthy, all but eliminating any advantage Seattle may have had there.

Here are six things the Seahawks can do to beat the Saints. If they check off each of these things during the game, the chances they lose are virtually zero.

Establish Marshawn Lynch
This is a no-brainer, and one that can be listed for every game, but Brees and the Saints’ offense is so dangerous that the more the Seahawks can keep the ball away from the former MVP the better. Running the ball is also the best way to get to the Saints, who allow 4.8 yards per carry, fourth-worst in the NFL, which also neutralizes Cameron Jordan, one of the better pass-rushing defensive ends in the league.

The Saints play a 3-4 defense and all three of their starting linemen are above-average versus the run, but the linebackers are merely average and three of the four starters in their secondary grade out below average in run support. The Seahawks guards, Paul McQuistan, James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy, will have to play well and get to their second-level blocks.

Win the turnover battle
Winning the turnover battle doesn’t simply mean turn it over fewer times than the opponent, it means have fewer impact turnovers. An interception on a deep pass on 3rd and long that results in the Saints starting inside their own 20-yard line is far less damaging than a fumble inside the Hawks’ own 10, for example.

Brees doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but five of his eight interceptions have come on the road and the New Orleans defense has the vast majority of its takeaway damage — 12 of 17 — at home.

Continue to dominate on special teams
The Seahawks have one of the very best special teams units in the league, in terms of coverage, kicking and returns. The Saints, however, also are solid, but lack big threats in the return game. Having Jermaine Kearse back may be huge on kick returns, particularly considering the weather may prevent touchbacks from being the story, and Harvin possibly missing the game.

Golden Tate is an underrated punt returner, Jon Ryan may be the game’s best punter and the team’s punt coverage unit has allowed just 15 yards all season, which, let’s be honest, is absurd. The Saints have a few weapons in the return game, too, so slowing them down and rendering them complete zeroes would be an impact result.

Make the Saints linebackers cover
Not that the Saints linebackers are terrible in pass coverage — they are slightly above-average — but forcing them to worry about Zach Miller and Luke Willson rather than allowing them to focus on Lynch and company is optimal.

The Hawks are a play-action offense — they run more PA than any other team in the NFL — but being able to take advantage of it through the air is the indispensable piece of the play-action puzzle, particularly versus a 3-4 defense that relies on its linebackers to be effective near the line of scrimmage versus the running game.

Don’t forget about the Saints’ backs
The Saints don’t run the ball a lot — they have attempted 251 runs and dropped back 465 times to throw — they throw 65 percent of the time they run an offensive play from scrimmage, but they do not ignore their running backs. When Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles aren’t running it, they often are catching it. The two have combined for 104 receptions, nearly 35 percent of Brees’ completions.

This responsibility general lies on the shoulders of the Seahawks linebackers. When Mark Ingram is in the backfield, the Saints generally run the ball or throw it to a receiver — not Ingram — but with Thomas and Sproles, it’s a different story.

I have to wonder if Malcolm Smith will be a little bit bigger part of things in this game since he brings strong pass coverage skills to the table.

Get off the field on third down
The Saints rank No. 4 in the league in third-down conversion percentage at 45.3 and the Seahawks have had some struggles in that department this season, ranking No. 14 in the NFL at just under 38 percent. They’ll be short-handed in the secondary, too, making this a scary venture in a close game.

One advantage the Seahawks may have is their starting safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, are good matchups for Graham, the Saints top weapon on third and long.

Key Statistics
Statistics never win or lose games, but there are several noteworthy numbers that suggest advantages for both teams.

  • Brees’ QB rating on the road is 89.7, down from 122.2 at home, and he’s thrown just nine touchdown passes away from the friendly confines of the Superdome. His completion percentage drops from 73.5 at home to 62.2 on the road, and his yards per pass attempt sinks from 9.0 to 7.5.
  • The Saints’ overall offensive performance on the road versus home is a dramatic difference of nearly 12 points per contest.
  • The Seahawks have allowed 29 sacks in 2013, but just nine have come at home in five games.
  • While Russell Wilson has been great on the road, too, he’s an absolute superstar at home, posting a QB efficiency rating of 110.6 at CenturyLink, thanks to a 67.5 percent completion rate and a remarkable 9.4 yards per pass attempt.
  • Seattle has not lost at home since December 24, 2011, and only three of their 13 straight victories in front of the home fans have come by less than a touchdown. Their average margin of victory at home under Russell Wilson is 17.9, including two blowout wins over the division-rival San Francisco 49ers and a 1-point win over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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