Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
16 Oct 2007
by Ned Macey
Two former NFC powerhouses met in Seattle on Sunday. A game that was nearly the NFC Championship a season ago featured two less-than-imposing squads this season. The Saints, winless the year after their Cinderella season, finally adapted to a simple defensive scheme that had limited them all season. Seattle, meanwhile, remains too wedded to an approach that nearly won them a Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Sunday's game is being spun as a return to form for the Saints. Everyone played a part. Reggie Bush busted loose on the ground. Drew Brees threw no interceptions. The defensive line picked up five sacks. Their own offensive line allowed none.
If the Saints are truly a competitive team, however, it will be because they diversified beyond their 2006 model, particularly in the passing game. The Saints were always in search of their next big play a season ago. This created an odd combination of deep throws and tricky formations hoping to create an exploitable mismatch. The seven-yard checkdown was definitely not a part of the offense unless it was an attempt to get the dynamic Reggie Bush an opportunity to make someone miss.
On Sunday, Drew Brees did an outstanding job of just taking what the defense gave him. Brees averaged less than 10 yards a completion and had only one completion longer than 20 yards. Still, he completed more than two-thirds of his passes, did not get sacked, and helped keep the chains moving. Out of the game plan were Marques Colston and the explosive Devery Henderson, replaced instead by tight ends and veteran third receiver David Patten.
The Seahawks defense has been an improved unit this season. On Sunday, they executed their game plan appropriately. They eliminated Colston from the game and contained Bush in the passing game. That strategy has been successful for the Saints' other opponents this season. It is a credit to New Orleans that they found other ways to create offense.
Brees and head coach Sean Payton were forced into this offense by opponents' keeping their safeties deep. They did not want to get here, and it took four inept offensive performances to change the focus. The big plays were already gone, but Brees still forced passes down the field, leading to nine interceptions in his first four games. He had only 11 all last season.
On Sunday, the Saints benched the ineffective Henderson for Lance Moore, who is more adept at the intermediate routes. Teams have taken away Colston with double coverage, and the Saints need a viable alternative to develop as a reliable threat. Moore caught three of the four passes intended for him. The first was a crucial 20-yard catch that led to a touchdown. The second two catches were more indicative of what a receiver other than Henderson can provide: a nine-yard catch on first down that helped start a successful drive, and a six-yard reception on third-and-5 when the Saints were playing keepaway.
Moore will probably most remember this game for a touchdown on an end-around, but that play is emblematic of what is holding the Saints back. Sean Payton appears to come from the Mad Scientist line of offensive play-calling that concocts overly-complicated plays at every opportunity (see "Saunders, Al"). Seemingly every play has some sort of misdirection. A hand-off up the middle requires either a fake end around or at best a delayed draw. Brees has a designed pump fake on a number of routes, and the Saints seem incapable of just having their tight end go five yards downfield and make a catch in front of the linebackers.
Gadget plays are a useful part of any offense (just ask Pittsburgh). At the end of the day, however, execution, not trickery, will win far more games. With the Saints offense struggling, the problem is not a lack of creativity but a lack of patience. A few drives marching the ball methodically down the field is more important than drawing up the next big play. Teams are no longer fooled by the misdirection, and since opponents play constant zone, the option for the big play is reduced.
The lack of an interior run offense is particularly galling. Reggie Bush had his best game of the season, but almost all of his damage was in the first half. He gained 73 yards on eight first half carries. Bush likes to dance a bit behind the line, but this dancing has led to few big plays. His two carries over 20 yards on Sunday were the first of his career. Payton seems afraid to just run Bush up the middle. With Deuce McAllister injured, however, some basic lead plays should be in the game plan. Bush has the ability to run up the middle if the coach can remind him that four yards is a successful play.
Seattle longs to play conventional, smashmouth football, but they no longer have the personnel in place. Shaun Alexander averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 1,049 carries between 2003 and 2005. In 368 carries since, Alexander has averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Last year, injuries were a convenient excuse for Alexander, but he is no better one year later.
The decline of the Seahawks' running game has innumerable sources: the departure of Steve Hutchinson; the decline and now retirement of Mack Strong; the aging of Alexander and Walter Jones; inconsistency on the right side of the line. To go from one of the league's best rushing attacks to the worst is rarely the result of one factor. The decline, however, is very real and must change what the Seahawks do going forward.
The obvious solution is to spread out teams and mimic the Green Bay Packers offense. When healthy, the Seahawks have as deep a receiving corps as any team in football. On Sunday, however, they were down Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett, the Week 1 starters. The Seahawks still got good production from Bobby Engram and Ben Obomanu, but much of Engram's production came well after the game was out of reach. Furthermore, the unfamiliarity with receivers forced Hasselbeck to hold the ball too long.
The problem with this proposed change to the offense is that it will lead to less and less Alexander on the field. Average as a pass blocker and never a threat as a receiver, Alexander's usefulness was tied strongly to his superior running skills. With an above-average run blocking line, Alexander likely could still be productive, if no longer dominant. Without said line, Alexander is a liability and should be used only sparingly. He has averaged over 4.0 yards per carry only once all season, against the porous Cincinnati defense.
The Seahawks' struggles on the ground were extremely predictable against New Orleans, which has excelled in run defense. The happier development for the Saints was that their pass defense held up in the period where the game was competitive. By the time New Orleans had built a 21-0 lead, Hasselbeck was only six-of-13 for 52 yards. An injury to Jason David has "forced" Jason Craft into the starting line-up. "Forced" is in quotes only because Craft has been the Saints' second best cornerback for the past two seasons but was held back, first behind Fred Thomas and then David.
Craft is no Pro Bowler, and the Saints have other problems in pass defense: The safeties and linebackers both can get lost in coverage. Still, since Craft's insertion last week, the Saints have held two opponents under 20 points. Their first three opponents all topped 30 points.
This game is being hailed as the potential turnaround by the Saints, but the rest of the season should show us that it was merely a blip in the road for a mediocre team against a poor team. The Saints scored one touchdown on a fumbled punt snap and another after they gained 15 yards on their own fumble when multiple Seahawks had an opportunity to cover it. Meanwhile, Seattle should welcome back Branch and Hackett in the coming weeks to form an explosive passing offense.
The escape from my dire prediction could occur if the Saints offense can overlook the razzle-dazzle and develop a workmanlike approach. If an opposing team plays zone, the offense has to take what the defense gives it. Underneath throws and runs up the middle are the key. Long passes and outside runs should be shelved until they force opponents to shift their strategy. The Saints should have a chance to show patience in developing this offense the next few weeks. They get the offensively inept 49ers and Falcons before a real test against Jacksonville. Win the next two, and the Saints will at least have salvaged relevancy.
For Seattle, the news is much better. The NFC West is horrible, with the one real contender in Arizona facing injuries at the quarterback position. Only one of Seattle's remaining games comes against a team that currently has a winning record: Baltimore in Week 16. A trip to Philadelphia could also prove difficult, but the Seahawks in all their mediocrity should win more than half their remaining games. That should be enough for another NFC West title. When the playoffs, come, however, the Seahawks will likely be overwhelmed unless they shelve their running game and focus on developing a dominant spread offensive attack.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
22 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2007, 7:01am by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers