Sports Out West

Saints vs. Seahawks, NFC Divisional Playoffs: Key personnel changes since Week 13

Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) pushes off New Orleans Saints' Rafael Bush, left, in the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

After a week off, the Seattle Seahawks found out who their Divisional Round opponent was going to be Saturday night. As the New Orleans Saints were able to knock off the Philadelphia Eagles, they will be making the trip to CenturyLink Field next Saturday for the second time this year. The two teams met on “Monday Night Football” in Week 13, a game Seattle won 34-7 in its best all-around performance of the year.

Since then, both teams went 2-2 to close out the regular season and the Saints added a Wild Card win on the road. Even though it’s been just over a month, the two squads have had some significant personnel changes since the first meeting.

Most of the major pieces are still in place, but here’s a look at three changes for each team since December 2 that could make in impact on Saturday.

New Orleans Saints

Safety Kenny Vaccaro: Vaccaro was having an outstanding rookie season before being placed on injured reserve in Week 16 with a broken ankle. He was solid in pass coverage all year and clearly had an impact on the first meeting with the Seahawks, racking up 10 tackles and forcing a fumble.

In Vaccaro’s absence, the Saints have turned to veteran Roman Harper. Harper was a longtime starter for New Orleans before this season, but has to be considered a bit of a downgrade in pass coverage at this point and was burned on a couple of occasions against the Eagles. He will also need to forget his nightmarish performance in the Seahawks’ improbable Wild Card win over the Saints back in 2010.   

Cornerback Keenan Lewis: When Lewis left the game last weekend late in the third quarter with an apparent concussion, things changed rapidly. DeSean Jackson had his first two catches of the game on the two plays immediately following Lewis’s departure. The Saints surrounded 17 points in the quarter without Lewis, after holding the Eagles to 7 before that.

Sean Payton has made no indication yet if Lewis will play Saturday. If he can’t go, it could mean a big day for Golden Tate against a New Orleans’ secondary already missing Vaccaro.

Running back Pierre Thomas: Thomas missed the Wild Card round with a chest injury, and it is unclear if he will play against the Seahawks. Although he only had 4 carries in Week 13, Thomas typically gets the majority of rushes among the Saints’ deep rotation of running backs.

Even if Thomas does play, the Saints might split his carries more than usual. Mark Ingram and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson both had nice games against the Eagles, and Darren Sproles is always a receiving threat. The Seahawks know they will be facing multiple running backs, but the question right now is if Thomas will be among them.

Seattle Seahawks

Linebacker K.J. Wright: While he didn’t light up the stat sheet the first time against New Orleans, Wright was one of the keys to Seattle’s victory. Wright had the assignment of shadowing Jimmy Graham and held the star tight end to 3 catches for 42 yards and a touchdown.

Wright fractured his foot the next game and will only return this season if the Seahawks make a deep playoff run. Since then, Seattle’s defense hasn’t missed a beat as replacement Malcolm Smith has been playing extremely well. Smith gives up some size but has blazing speed, so it will be interesting to see if the Seahawks change their strategy against Graham.  

Wide Receiver Percy Harvin: The situation with Harvin’s hip injury seems to change every week. Prior to the playoffs it looked like Harvin might go on injured reserve, but he returned to practice this week for the first time since Nov. 17, when he played his only game in a Seattle uniform.

Everyone knows what Harvin can bring to the struggling Seahawks’ offense. Even if he can only play 10 snaps, Harvin can be a difference maker.

Cornerback Walter Thurmond: Thurmond was serving his four-game suspension when the two teams played in December. The Seahawks didn’t have much trouble adjusting to life without him, as Byron Maxwell played very well against the Saints and in every game since then.

With the way Maxwell is playing, he will probably get the start and the majority of snaps this weekend. But Thurmond provides tremendous talent as a backup to match up against New Orleans’ deep group of receivers. 

Photo Credit: John Froschauer / Associated Press

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Nathaniel Reeves

Nathaniel Reeves is a journalism student at the University of Washington, currently covering sports for The UW Daily in addition to Sports Out West. He has been closely following Seattle sports his entire life.