By Danny O’Neil
The two shortest quarterbacks in the league are starting in what might be the biggest regular-season game of 2013.
Expect to hear about that fact Monday night. Repeatedly. Seattle’s Russell Wilson is 5 feet 11, Drew Brees is 6 feet tall and their shared (lack of) stature will be a focal point when Seattle hosts New Orleans on “Monday Night Football”.
Drew Brees, the quarterback of the league’s second-ranked passing offense, has been sacked just 23 times this season. (AP)
One basic difference between the two quarterbacks, however, may provide the key to Monday’s game.
“Russell is more mobile,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Drew Brees kind of stands in there. He stands in there and gets on his tippy toes and tries to see over the top of the offensive line.
“He’s more of a pocket presence.”
The Seahawks know where to find Brees, but can they get there? That’s a whole different question, and the answer will play a greater factor in Monday’s game than either the suspension of cornerback Walter Thurmond or the expected absence of receiver Percy Harvin.
The Saints have given up 23 sacks, fourth-fewest in the league entering Week 13, and Seattle’s ability to pressure the passer – or its lack thereof – will be the difference between Brees picking Seattle apart and the Seahawks picking Brees off.
“We have to get this guy off a spot and be able to move him,” said Dan Quinn, Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
New Orleans – like Seattle – has thrived in large part because of its quarterback, but for a very different reason. Wilson has shown the ability to do whatever is needed for the victory, whether it is throwing from the pocket like he did in Week 1 at Carolina or taking the game over as a runner in the Week 4 comeback at Houston. And in those times when Seattle didn’t have the best pass protection – for instance, most of Seattle’s first eight games – Wilson’s mobility is like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It’s not Brees’ improvisation that is the key to the Saints’ success, but his expertise in Sean Payton’s offense.
“The biggest thing is the chemistry between the head coach and the quarterback,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I think it is extraordinary.”
The Saints average the most passing yards in the conference and they’ve thrown for the second-most touchdowns in the league, a fact that has only added to the handwringing over the four-game suspension handed down to Thurmond. Throw in the absence of Brandon Browner because of a groin injury and looming suspension of his own, and Seattle heads into this game without two of its top three cornerbacks on the depth chart.
That will put a premium on applying pressure to Brees, which makes this exactly the kind of game Seattle was thinking of when it upgraded its pass rush last March. It was the top priority of the Seahawks this offseason, the reason they signed first Cliff Avril and then Michael Bennett.
Through 11 games, Seattle has 33 sacks, which is tied for 12th most in the league and four more than the team had through 11 games last season.
This game will be a more accurate progress report, though. After weeks of playing also-rans and afterthoughts, the Seahawks are playing a bona fide Super Bowl contender led by one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
And while Brees is not someone who’s a threat to run down the field, that doesn’t mean he’s stationary. Far from it. While the pocket can look like a crowded mess of bodies, Brees has a knack for taking a step or two to buy himself some time.
“He’s more slip and slide inside and find a spot,” Quinn said, “and then he can get the ball out of his hand fast. I think one of the things that set some of the really good quarterbacks apart is the mental quickness that they have.”
That’s one reason facing one of the league’s shortest quarterbacks will be one of the biggest challenges the Seahawks’ defense faces this year, and it’s how quickly Seattle’s pass rush can get to Brees that will determine the trajectory of Monday’s game.