The one that got away: Believe it or not, the Saints’ pass protection was not a big problem on Monday night. Quarterback Drew Brees was rarely under duress as Seattle stuck with a four-man pass rush most of the night. And on the few occasions when the Seahawks did blitz, Brees usually got rid of the ball in time. The bigger problem for the Saints’ passing game was that the Seahawks’ secondary and linebackers were outstanding in coverage and physical in the open field (see below).
However, the biggest play of the night came on the one play where the Seahawks did get to Brees in the first half -- the sack/forced fumble by end Cliff Avril that was returned 22 yards for a touchdown by fellow end Michael Bennett. Avril used his speed to get around right tackle Zach Strief and hit Brees from behind. Strief did manage to get one hand on Avril, which delayed Avril’s progress just a bit. But Strief wasn’t able to lock him up.
Brees, meanwhile, clearly didn’t sense the pressure coming and took time scanning his options before being hit as he started to throw. Bennett caught the ball out of the air and followed his blockers into the end zone (including a great block by cornerback Jeremy Lane against Saints receiver Robert Meachem).
There were two other occasions in the third quarter where Brees’ protection faltered. The first was when left tackle Charles Brown was flagged for illegal hands to the face against speed rusher Chris Clemons, negating a 6-yard completion to Marques Colston. The second was when Brees got hit as he threw by defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who beat guard Ben Grubbs at the line of scrimmage.
I didn’t break down the final 20 minutes since this was a short week for the media too! (And because the last 20 minutes didn’t matter after Seattle was already up 34-7).
Stifling coverage: I can’t say enough good things about Seattle’s pass coverage. It was reminiscent of the way the New England Patriots shut down New Orleans’ passing attack with physical coverage in Week 6 -- only better. And while the Patriots used more man-to-man coverage, the Seahawks primarily used a three-deep zone.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman was as good as advertised. He held up well in bump-and-run coverage when the Saints tried to throw deep against him twice (first to Meachem, then to Colston). Sherman also blanketed Colston on an incomplete short throw in the third quarter -- in addition to all the times when Brees didn’t throw Sherman’s way because his man was so well-covered.
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden also pointed out how well Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas was doing in the back end a few times -- not biting on play-action fakes and shadowing Brees’ desired targets down the field. As ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Brees was 0-for-8 on throws of 15 yards or more.
Cornerback Byron Maxwell also showed great instincts down the field in the third quarter, leaving Meachem to assist on coverage against tight end Jimmy Graham and knocking the ball loose while Graham tried to come down with it.
Earlier in the first quarter, Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin also delivered a shot to Graham to jar the ball loose for an incomplete pass after Graham had appeared to find an opening in the Seahawks’ zone coverage. Then on the very next play, fellow outside linebacker K.J. Wright made a great open-field tackle on elusive Saints running back Darren Sproles to stop him short of a first down.
Brees had to settle for check-down passes throughout the night. It worked well on the Saints’ lone touchdown drive -- a 13-play, 80-yard drive in the first and second quarters. But for the most part, the Saints were never able to string enough of those short completions together to mount a drive.
Missed throw: One of the most underrated miscues on Monday night came when Brees threw an incomplete deep ball to tight end Josh Hill in the second quarter on third-and-2. Hill had broken wide open behind linebacker Bobby Wagner after a play-action fake. But Brees’ throw went inside while Hill was running outside. (It’s unclear whether it was an off-target throw or a miscommunication.) Hill twisted his body as he turned to try to make the catch, but he couldn’t hang onto it. That would have put the Saints into Seattle territory, trailing just 20-7 late in the first half. Instead, they punted, and Seattle wound up scoring another touchdown before halftime.
Run down: The Saints’ run game was completely ineffective for most of the first half. Running back Pierre Thomas was stopped for a 4-yard loss on the Saints’ first play from scrimmage, and the Saints followed with gains of 1, 1, 0, 12 and 0 on their next five attempts into the second quarter.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the first run was an example of some players not hearing the audible call at the line of scrimmage because of the crowd noise. As a result defensive tackle Brandon Mebane ran free into the backfield between center Brian de la Puente and Grubbs.
The Saints had a few decent runs after the slow start -- including fullback Jed Collins' 12-yard gain behind great blocks by Brown and Grubbs on a third-and-1 at the end of the first quarter. But there wasn’t much to like in the ground game.
Noise issues: The Saints insisted that the crowd noise didn’t affect them too much in the loss. But there were certainly some instances where it did. The first play was a glaring example. The Saints also got flagged for one delay of game penalty in the first half (and should have been flagged for two, but the officials missed the other one). They also had to burn a timeout with the clock running down in the third quarter.
Something good: Graham was clutch on the Saints’ touchdown drive, catching a 20-yard pass on third-and-6 and a 2-yard touchdown pass. Brees hit Graham in stride on the first play while Graham ran a slant pattern from the wide receiver position. Maxwell gave Graham too much of a cushion on the play. On the touchdown, Graham had no cushion. But he ran a quick curl route and Brees fired a strike into a tight window before safeties Kam Chancellor and Thomas and linebacker Bobby Wagner converged on him.