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Seahawks and Saints will look different in rematch

By Danny O’Neil

Seattle’s opponent may be the same as it was Dec. 2. The matchup will be different when New Orleans comes to CenturyLink Field on Saturday, though.

That’s not because football games are like snowflakes or whatever other cornball analogy you want to summon to speak to the fact that they’re never exactly alike. It’s because of some very significant personnel differences on both teams with two defenders who will be missing and one game-changing downfield threat who may be available this time around.

One of the Seahawks’ defensive standouts in their Week-13 win over New Orleans, linebacker K.J. Wright won’t be available for the rematch because of a broken foot. (AP)

1. K.J. Wright will be out.

Wright’s recovery from a broken bone in his foot is progressing as fast as could be reasonably expected, and while he may be back by the NFC Championship Game, he’s out this week.

That’s a significant change not just because he was the starting weakside linebacker, but because of what he did the last time Seattle played the Saints as he matched up frequently against tight end Jimmy Graham.

“His best game,” coach Pete Carroll said. “And it gave him his best opportunity to be challenged too with the backs and the tight ends and he did a great job.”

Wright, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and their position coach, Ken Norton, Jr., made the case the Seahawks didn’t need any special plans on defense to cover Graham and running back Darren Sproles, and Seattle’s linebackers were capable of doing just that.

Graham caught three passes for 42 yards that game game, and while Sproles had seven receptions, none went for more than 10 yards. Will Seattle trust Malcolm Smith to provide the same downfield coverage as Wright did against Graham? Or will the Seahawks be forced to consider alternatives like safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor or even a cornerback like Richard Sherman?

Those are just a couple of the questions the Seahawks will have to consider because their answer to Graham last time around is out.

2. Secondary care concerns.

The last time the teams met, Kenny Vaccaro was the best player on the field for New Orleans. A rookie, he was a very physical, hard-nosed safety, and he’s now on injured reserve, which is par for the course in the Saints’ secondary. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson were also lost for the year.

That’s left New Orleans’ secondary increasingly fragile, which can pose a problem given defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s propensity for blitzing. When Ryan dialed up the pressure against Seattle back on Dec. 2, quarterback Russell Wilson made the Saints pay for it.

But the other option is letting Wilson hunt and peck for weaknesses in the Saints’ secondary. Look no further than Saturday night for the dangers of that, because when cornerback Keenan Lewis left Saturday’s playoff game in Philadelphia because of a head injury, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles began to have a field day.

A look back at the Seahawks’ Week-13 win over New Orleans at CenturyLink Field.

Recap | Stats | Photos | ‘The Pete Carroll Show’
O’Neil: What We Learned
O’Neil: Seahawks make a major statement
Huard: How Seahawks beat Saints’ blitz
Henderson: Carroll says K.J. Wright stood out
Henderson: Avril, Bennett team up for TD
Stecker: Saints’ vaunted offense sputters

3. Seattle’s X factor.

Seattle was just starting to warm up to the idea that Percy Harvin was back when he was out again. That Dec. 2 game against New Orleans was the first game the receiver missed following his Seahawks debut.

Six weeks later and the Seahawks just may be getting him back, and the one asset Harvin brings beside his incredible explosiveness is uncertainty. Just how will the Seahawks use him, how often? The flicker of doubt that will inspire in the defense could translate to opportunities not just for Harvin but for the rest of Seattle’s offense.

The possibility of Harvin’s return could constitute a set of jumper cables for an offense that regressed over the final four weeks of the season. Just one more reason that while this may be the same two teams playing in the same stadium that they did last month, this won’t be the same matchup.