RENTON, Wash. -- A lot of the talk going into Monday night's Saints-Seahawks game centers around how the backups in the Seattle secondary will play against quarterback Drew Brees and the potent New Orleans passing game.
But the Saints have an unusual passing attack where their top three pass-catchers are not wide receivers. It starts with the best tight end in the NFL -- Jimmy Graham, who has 65 catches and a league-best 11 touchdowns.
At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Graham sometimes lines up as a giant wide receiver, often matched up against a much smaller cornerback. It’s likely Seattle Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman (6-3, 195) will go head-to-head with Graham on quite a few plays Monday night, then get help behind him from strong safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 230) and free safety Earl Thomas (5-10, 200).
The Seahawks have struggled at times this year against tight ends, but one game where they played well was at Atlanta when they held down one of the all-time greats, Tony Gonzalez, who had three receptions for 29 yards.
“The way they use Tony Gonzalez is similar to the way the Saints use Jimmy Graham,” Sherman said. “Obviously, Graham may be a step faster or a little bit more athletic at this point in his career, but they use him similarly. They try to get him the ball and create mismatches. That’s what makes him effective. When [Brees] doesn’t see it, he checks down and has some explosive runners.”
The Saints love to sneak the backs out of the backfield on screens, swing passes and short throws over the middle. New Orleans also will line up Sproles as a wide receiver.
“You have to be aware of him,” Sherman said of Sproles “You have to be aware of where he is and what he’s doing. Is he in the backfield? Is he out wide? It’s just another weapon that they have that you have to account for. You have to look for him and know where he is at all times. It’s an interesting dynamic for a defense.”
Thomas will have a lot of responsibility for monitoring the backs on pass plays. Outside linebackers Bruce Irvin and K.J. Wright also will need to be aware of both backs running outside the hash marks, looking for passes.
And this is a big test for defensive back Jeremy Lane, who will play in the slot on Seattle’s nickel defensive packages. He likely will line up at times against one of the running backs.
Thomas and Sproles rank first and second in the NFL in receiving yards on screen passes since Sproles signed with the Saints in 2011.
However, stopping screens is an area where the Seattle defense excels. During that same span, the Seahawks have allowed the fewest yards per play on screen passes in the NFL. Over the past three seasons, Seattle has not allowed a touchdown on a screen pass.