The league's two shortest quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, facing off. Two unorthodox, excitable coaches in Sean Payton and Pete Carroll. The underdog six-seed who lost by 27 at the favorite 1-seed's building not too long ago. And yet the intrigue and undeniable feeling that the rematch will be a much closer affair.
But there's a nice little battle that will be going on between the coordinators, too. The bombastic Rob Ryan, who has completely turned the Saints' defense around, will be matching wits with the Seahawks' measured, erudite offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. It's a battle of two men who either should (and could) be NFL head coaches.
When you break down what each unit has, talent-wise, neither the Seahawks' offense nor the Saints' defense likely would be among the top units. Oh, sure, the Seahawks have a gifted quarterback, a punishing running back and a quality left tackle, among other things. And the Saints have a wrecking ball in Cameron Jordan, rising forces in Junior Gallette and Akiem Hicks and a surprisingly effective corner (if healthy) in Keenan Lewis.
But both units have been plagued by injury this season, and they have had to change identities with the ebbs and flows of the lineup. That's why this head-to-head battle could be just as important as Brees and the Saints' offense squaring off with that terrific Saints defense.
Credit Bevell and Ryan for the work they've done.
Bevell's Seahawks aren't scoring at the same pace they were earlier in the season — 17, 23, 10 and 27 points the past four games after averaging 28.3 the first 12 games — but Bevell is quietly dangerous as a play caller, and more open to risk taking, especially as other NFL teams inquire about his head-coaching availability.
This is his second dance now after having spoken to the Arizona Cardinals a year ago, and Bevell has already talked with two teams (he won't say which) about their head-coaching vacancy. But he's also focused on finishing the task at hand with the Seahawks, and that starts with beating a good three- and four-man rush of the Saints that showed last week against the Philadelphia Eagles it didn't have to blitz to be successful in getting pressure.
Although Ryan's defense blitzes far less than any team, Bevell said he wasn't sure what exactly to expect out of his unit.
"I don't think you do know," Bevell said, via ESPN. "What we focus on is what we do and how we're going to do it. Obviously, there are going to be tendencies with who their players are and what they like to play.
"But they can change it up at any moment. We have to be ready for the specific looks that they like to do. We'll see if we hit that play versus that coverage and we'll be ready to go."
How will Bevell get Wilson into space? Will there be more chances downfield? Will Ryan man up against the Seahawks' receivers and dare them to beat his defense? They are all tantalizing questions in this flip-side battle.
Ryan is a polarizing figure, and he's not for everyone. But he has been embraced fully by the Saints, whose defense has done a full-circle turn from last season and showed enough last week in beating the Eagles to think that this unit heads into Seattle in strong shape — even with injuries since then — compared to where the team was in the Week 13 loss up there.
For this work, Ryan should get head-coaching looks. He was interviewed for the Carolina Panthers job a few years back that went to Ron Rivera, but otherwise Ryan hasn't received much attention. Still, Saints head coach Sean Payton told PFT he thinks Ryan has the makeup of an NFL head coach.
“I think he’s going to be a head coach,” Payton said of Ryan. “I think he’s got a personality that starts with being passionate about the game. He’s also exceptional within the framework of the staff and I think as owners and general managers look closely at candidates, there’s a handful of things that would be important and compatibility ranks right there at the top.
“So he’s someone that is very well liked within the building from the business side to the football side. I think he’s got a great way about getting the players to play hard, making it exciting and putting them in the best positions possible and again communicating that message with his staff. It’s been a team effort on that side of the ball and I think that here’s a guy that grew up around football and those experiences are invaluable.”
This battle against Bevell won't be a good one. It doesn't have the glitz of the matchup of the Saints' offense against the Seahawks' defense, but there's no question it will play a major role in the outcome of Saturday's game. And it could affect the futures of both Bevell and Ryan and how they are viewed, league-wide.
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