The Seahawks look to improve upon a 2-0 start on Sunday when they host the New Orleans Saints (1-1) at CenturyLink Field, a game that is in some ways noteworthy for who won't be on the field as much as for who will. Drew Brees, the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and completions, will miss just his second game due to injury in 14 seasons as the Saints' quarterback. Yet while the Saints will miss having the future Hall of Famer leading their offense, this game will still be a challenging one for the Seahawks thanks to New Orleans' overall level of talent in all three phases of the game, as well as the influence of longtime head coach Sean Payton.
"Over the years, they've been winners and all of that and champions and all that," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Sean's got a team that they're good on offense, they're good at defense, they run the football, they protect the quarterback. They attack the heck out of it, they lead the league in sacks. They've got a really good kicking game, probably the best we've seen to date. Speed and toughness and all of that and scheme. It's a game that calls for us to play really solid across the board. Everybody's got to show up. Everybody's got to do well because these guys can get you a lot of ways. We have a lot of respect for this opponent."
In addition to trying to make life difficult on whoever starts in Brees' place, most likely former Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Sunday's game:
1. Saints running back Alvin Kamara vs. Seattle's run (and pass) defense.
The Seahawks have been strong against the run the past two weeks, in part due to the frequency with which they've kept all three linebackers on the field, but they'll face their biggest test yet in that phase of the game when it comes to third-year back Alvin Kamara. Kamara, the league's offensive rookie of the year in 2017, has posted more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and double-digit touchdown totals each of the past two years, earning Pro Bowl honors twice. And with Brees out, it stands to reason that the Saints will do all they can to get Kamara and the running game going.
And stopping Kamara isn't up to just Seattle's front seven; his pass-catching ability and route-running make him a legitimate threat in the passing game, meaning it's all 11 defensive players to deal with him.
"The number one thing is his balance," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "When you see guys go at him and tackle him, he always keeps his feet moving. He always seems to be well-balanced. He's kind of like a receiver, he can do it all. He runs hard and they motion him out and he lines up and runs receiver routes. That makes a guy special because he can do it all. He can run screens. He can run between the tackles. I've seen him run a corner (route) from the back field. You can do a lot with a guy like that. We just have to make sure that we pay attention to him and know where he's at at all times."
Kamara is one of two Pro-Bowl skill position players who figure to be the biggest threats on Sunday along with receiver Michael Thomas. Slow those two down and the Seahawks should be able to have a good day on defense.
"Man, I was watching (Kamara) on film, that guy is probably the most balanced running back," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "He reminds me of Marshawn (Lynch) in the way he runs and just how skilled he is. He gets a lot of touches again, at least 20 touches a game. He's a full-time guy now, so he's going to be the guy we've got to stop; the offense is going to run through him… They're going to give it to their main guys, (Thomas) got at least 10 targets in each game, and (Kamara) whether it's in the running game or the passing game. Those guys make the offense work, and if we can keep those guys in check, we've got a really good chance."
2. Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny & the Seahawks' run game vs. New Orleans' front seven.
The Seahawks want to run the ball every week, it's part of their DNA, but this week against a very dangerous New Orleans pass rush (more on that in a moment), it will be crucial that the Seahawks can find their running game. Last week was an encouraging step in the right direction after some Week 1 struggles, with Rashaad Penny rushing for 62 yards on 10 carries, including a 37-yard score, and Chris Carson contributing 61 yards on 15 carries, part a 152 rushing yards for Seattle as a team.
One area in particular that the Seahawks will try to improve upon is their first-down success. Through two games, too many first-down runs have gone for little or no gain, leading to unfavorable down-and-distance situations on second and third down.
"We've looked at the runs, we've looked at the problems we've had," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Cincinnati, they did surprise us with some stuff. It's just our combinations, staying in our combinations better, getting our movement. We did pop some runs, Chris had a nice run, we were backed up to the right, he had an 18-yard run or something like that, but it's just a consistency. Having those (offensive line) guys back playing together, that certainly helps. We got some good work in (Thursday), working on pad level, and strain, and finish. But it takes time, it takes time. People that think you can just come out and run the ball against teams that know you want to run it, that's a challenge that we welcome and look forward to."
Running the ball won't be easy against New Orleans' defense, which not only can get after the quarterback, but can also stop the run with the best of them. Last season, New Orleans ranked second in the NFL both in rushing defense (80.2 yards per game) and opponent yards-per-carry average (3.6).
3. Cameron Jordan and a dangerous New Orleans pass rush vs. Seattle's offensive line.
As mentioned earlier, the Saints can get after the quarterback with the best of them, and they currently lead the NFL with nine sacks in two games. Leading the charge is Cameron Jordan, a four-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro who has four double-digit sack seasons in the past six years, including 12 sacks last year and 13 in 2017. Yet through two games, Jordan's two sacks don't even lead the team thanks to third-year end Trey Hendrickson, who has three.
"He's a monster," Carroll said of Jordan. "Hendrickson is off to a great start too, (Marcus) Davenport. That's why they've got numbers already and they've had numbers for a couple years. I'm telling you, you can ask anybody you might bring up, they can do stuff."
While the Seahawks' line, tight ends and running backs will need to do their part to block New Orleans' pass-rushers, another way the Seahawks can keep Russell Wilson upright would be to replicate some of the quick passing game success they had against Pittsburgh last week.
"We've got to capture the tempo that we threw the ball with the second half of that game, and some of the first half," Carroll said. "That's what we really want, the tempo with the ball out. Russell can do it, and we've just got to continue to make that happen with every aspect of the throwing game. As well as using it to bomb you, he's so good at it, he's just good at it."