Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks/Saints, Pt. 1

In Part 1 of this week's two-part Seahawks.NET game preview, Doug Farrar trades questions and answers with Sunil Joshi of the Canal Street Chronicles blog. Among Doug's questions to Sunil: Why has the Saints' season fallen apart, what's been the cause of Drew Brees' alarming interception rate, and how can the New Orleans defense be defeated by a Seahawks offense looking for consistency?

Editor's Note: Since doesn't have a Saints publisher, we had to go "off the reservation" for this week's Behind Enemy Lines. Fortunately, Sunil Joshi, who runs an excellent Saints blog called Canal Street Chronicles, was willing (and very able) to do the back-and-forth. Since the articles will run on our site and his, they're going to run free on both as opposed to our normal premium content. Many thanks to Sunil for his time and excellent input!

Doug Farrar, Seahawks.NET: After a 2006 season in which he led the Saints to one of the all-time great Cinderella stories, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has gotten off to a horrific start in 2007, and it's really been emblematic of the team's troubles. Brees threw 11 interceptions in the entire regular season last year, and he already has NINE this year. What on earth has happened to him?

Sunil Joshi, Canal Street Chonicles: There are several forces coming into play. For the first few games, the line did a poor job of protecting Brees. This didn't necessarily show up on the stats sheet, since Brees threw the ball away or threw interceptions (come to think of it, I guess it did show up on the stat sheet). Brees wasn't taking the sacks but the pressure manifested itself in other forms.

The Saints have also been trailing in most of their games. Trailing breeds one-dimensionality, defenses know what's coming, yaddayaddayadda, nine picks in four games.

But Brees was well-protected against Carolina and he still had happy feet. His first interception, the one by Richard Marshall, looked like a throw that just didn't have enough oomph. The most disconcerting part of Brees' season is his inability to make accurate throws on deep routes. Last year, Brees was phenomenally accurate with his deep passes. This year, he's phenomenally inaccurate. Of course, this leads armchair executives, myself included, to question whether his shoulder is healthy.

Doug Farrar: Rookie running back Reggie Bush seemed to find his niche last season as a receiving option and change-of-pace back on the ground. With Deuce McAllister out for the season, have the Saints been trying to fit Bush into a square-peg/round-hole scenario? And is Aaron Stecker the sort of decent replacement for McAllister that could right the ship? What about Pierre Thomas?

Sunil Joshi: On my site, I recently ran a comparison between Reggie, Tiki Barber, Eric Metcalf and Brian Westbrook. Reggie, Tiki and Metcalf all had similar numbers through 180 career carries. It took him another season, but Tiki finally put on weight and became an every down back. I don't know Metcalf's full story, but he either never had the opportunity or never committed himself to becoming a featured player. He became a glorified receiver/returner.

Regardless, I think there is some credence to the square-peg, round-hole analogy for Reggie. And that's not something that can be answered in the regular season. If he wants to follow the Tiki Barber path, Reggie must add weight to his frame and become comfortable running up the middle. That's going to take time.

In the meantime, Aaron Stecker isn't a great player, but he can be effective as a change-of-pace. Pierre Thomas had an intriguing preseason, which included his usurpation of fourth-round pick Antonio Pittman's roster spot. Neither Stecker nor Thomas can replace McAllister, but combine them both with Bush and they can form a functional unit.

In the preseason, Thomas showed some quickness and the ability to make guys miss. From what I've seen, he probably doesn't have the straight-line speed to succeed at his size (5'11", 210). He did show the ability to catch passes out of the backfield and return kicks. Thomas split time with Pittman in the preseason and was clearly the superior back, hence he got the job while Pittman was released.

Thomas has a few solid juke moves to use if/when he gets to the second level; Sean Taylor has already lined Pittman up for a de-cleater in 2009. If he was running behind the right line, I think Thomas could have a nice season. From what I've seen, this isn't the right line.

Thomas reminds me of Stecker, and I bet he could carve out a similar career as a situational back/special teamer/perennial league leader in Scrappiness Quotient (SQ). But I wouldn't want him serving as my primary runner. All things considered, I'd rather have (Illinois running back) Rashard Mendenhall.

Doug Farrar: The Saints' offensive line seems to have regressed in their run-blocking when compared to last season, and you have to wonder how much of Brees' awful start has to do with protection. Why isn't this line as effective as last year's?

Sunil Joshi: Some of the guys played over their heads in 2006. I suppose their floundering could be termed regression to the mean. In particular, Jon Stinchcomb seems to be experiencing this. Jammal Brown hasn't been great either. I wonder (again, speculating) if Brown's preseason injury isn't affecting him. The tackles have been the most glaring problems.

There is also the situational element to their struggles. When the team is trailing by 21 points, the defense can "pin their ears back," to steal a Madden-ism, making it more difficult for the line to protect.

Doug Farrar: Speaking of lines, the stats tell a scary story here - New Orleans' defense has put up exactly one quarterback sack in four games, and that's worst in the NFL. How can a unit that had 38 sacks in 2006 fall apart so quickly?

Sunil Joshi: Will Smith, Charles Grant and Brian Young combined for 22 sacks last season. This season they have combined for one. I hate to be vague, but it's been pretty puzzling, actually. They created pressured against Carolina, so hopefully they've worked themselves out of their funk. The Saints weren't heavily into blitzing last season and they aren't doing much of it this year (against Carolina, they blitzed five times). It might not be a bad idea for them to become more aggressive on defense.

Doug Farrar: To stay on the pass defense subject - the New Orleans secondary that looked so vulnerable in the playoffs last year continues to be a problem. The Saints are allowing opposing quarterbacks to put up a 114.7 passer rating through four games, and while they have faced Peyton Manning and Jeff Garcia, they've also made Vince Young and David Carr look better than they have a right to. How can the Seahawks exploit this defense?

Sunil Joshi: According to Pro Football Prospectus 2007, the Saints were third in coverage sacks last season. They were also boosted by 36 dropped passes. This year, the line isn't getting the coverage sacks and the opposing receivers are catching the ball.

Vince Young's a monster; I'm on the bandwagon. Carr's numbers were average. I'd like to see them blitz more, if they can't get pressure with their front four.

To exploit this, the Seahawks must shut Smith and Grant down and keep them from getting second chances at the quarterback. I know this: the Saints won't be blitzing. If the Seattle line can give their receivers time to get open against the Saints' secondary, they will be able to consistently move the ball through the air. Assuming they catch it.

Doug Farrar: What's your take on Sean Payton as a coach? He had everything break his way last season from a football perspective, as weird as it sounds to say that about a coach in New Orleans with all that was going on off the field, but this 0-4 start is a real challenge. Can Payton pull his team out of these early troubles?

Sunil Joshi: The Saints are being called a colossal disappointment; the biggest bust in the NFL. Obviously, this will reflect poorly on the coach. I guess there are a few aspects:

Psychologically, these guys still play to win the game. There really isn't much public infighting among the players, perhaps because everybody has been equally sucky, but I'm sure Payton has something to do with keeping the locker room peaceful. They are still motivated to win games. Contrast this with a team like the Rams, whose players are already talking about going 0-16, and Payton's work looks pretty good.

On the field, it looks like the rest of the league has caught up with the Saints. Surprise was a huge element of their success last season. This year, teams seem to have better preparation. For example, I can't recall one trick play working this season. Other things … like only blitzing David Carr five times. As an observer, these things make you say "huh?"

Finally, Payton must be knocked for his man-management. Last year, the story was about how he turned over half of the roster and played guys like Colston and Jahri Evans over veterans. At the root of these decisions was the fact that Payton really didn't have any experience with most of the players on the roster. He was forming his allegiances as he went through the season.

This year, he's clearly been too loyal to guys who aren't getting it done. Jason David wasn't the only person who was struggling, but his struggles may have been the most obvious. Despite his seeming incompetence, injury was the only reason that David was removed from the lineup. And in his place: Fred Thomas and Jason Craft, two of Payton's guys, over rookie Usama Young.

He didn't take over a particularly good team, one that had been drafting poorly. Before he arrived, the Saints had precisely zero homegrown Pro Bowlers on the roster. He channeled a spectacular draft, some shrewd free agent signings and momentum – from the storm and from a coaching change – into a fine season. The momentum wasn't sustainable, the 2007 Draft was a bit of a downer and the free agents are busts. Because he's operating without these advantages, I think that the rest of this season will tell us more about Sean Payton's abilities – coaching, management and leadership – than 2006 did. Top Stories