Matchups to watch: Saints vs. Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks hope we’ve seen this weekend’s NFC divisional playoff game before.

Seattle scored a decisive 34-7 home victory in Week 13 over the New Orleans Saints, who had one of the worst offensive games of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. The 27-point loss was the second largest under Payton-Brees, and their points, yards and first-down totals were all the fewest in a game in at least five years.

They get a chance for redemption Saturday but will have to deal with CenturyLink Field again. Here are four matchups that will help decide the game:

Drew Brees’ deep ball vs. Seahawks secondary

Brees had his worst game of the season in Week 13. He completed multiple passes at least 15 yards downfield in every game this season except that one (0-for-8). Though he didn’t throw an interception, Seattle defenders broke up five of Brees’ eight deep attempts in that game.

Brees Passing 15+ Yds Downfield
By Opponent, 2013 season

The Seahawks held Brees without a deep completion in a game for the second time in the past eight seasons. Brees targeted six different Saints on those eight throws, highlighting the skill and depth of Seattle’s pass defense.

Brees rebounded well, completing 57 percent of his deep throws over the final four weeks of the regular season (second in the league). But his next deep completion against Seattle will be his first this year, and the Saints will need better production from their passing game to advance.

Rob Ryan vs. Marshawn Lynch/Russell Wilson

Brees wasn’t the only star player who underperformed in that Week 13 matchup. Lynch had 16 rushes for 45 yards, a 2.8 yards per rush average (his second lowest of the season).

Russell Wilson Passing
Week 13 vs. Saints

Lynch was limited because New Orleans keyed in on stopping Seattle’s ground game. The Saints loaded the box (more defenders than blockers) on 23 plays, the fifth-highest total of the season. The only quarterbacks they loaded a box against more this season were Geno Smith, EJ Manuel, Mike Glennon and Tom Brady early in the season (without Rob Gronkowski and with inexperienced receivers).

The problem for Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was 5-foot-11 Wilson had no trouble against the loaded box. Wilson finished 8-of-9 for 119 yards and two touchdowns when the Saints loaded the box. Ryan’s strategy slowed Lynch but enabled Wilson to shred the Saints’ secondary.

Seattle’s pass rush vs. Saints offensive line

The Seahawks secondary isn’t the only strength of the defense. Their pass rush ranks first in controlling the line of scrimmage overall and when sending a four-man rush. No team in the league has pressured opposing quarterbacks more often than Seattle (203 times).

The Saints did a good job this season of protecting Brees, who was under pressure or sacked on the fourth-lowest percentage of dropbacks in the league. They are strengths of their respective teams, but the Seahawks did enough to disrupt Brees in Week 13.

Brees was under pressure or sacked on 11 of 39 dropbacks (28 percent), his third-highest percentage this season. Brees was sacked only once, but it was a first-quarter Cliff Avril strip-sack that Michael Bennett returned 22 yards for a touchdown.

Percy Harvin vs. Keenan Lewis?

The Seahawks offense has been effective this season without Harvin, who returned to practice this week and is a possibility for Saturday’s game. Harvin’s league-best 8.5 yards after catch per reception average in 2012 might have been even better if he played with a better deep-ball quarterback.

Christian Ponder missed on 55 percent of throws deeper than 20 yards downfield in 2012 with Harvin and connected only once in his career on a deep throw with Harvin. Wilson connected on 26 deep throws this season, third most in the league, and would likely use Harvin better than Ponder if Harvin is healthy.

It appears that Lewis will play Saturday. He held DeSean Jackson without a catch before he left with a concussion last weekend and may draw Harvin if he’s healthy.