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NFL Preview - Seattle (5-4) at New Orleans (6-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The last time Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll were on the same field together, Vince Young and the Texans Longhorns shattered the University of Southern California's dreams of a national championship in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
Bush had won the Heisman Trophy a few weeks prior to his last game as a Trojan and captured two national titles under then-head coach Carroll, who departed the school for the Seattle Seahawks this past spring. Carroll and the Seahawks will invade the Louisiana Superdome this Sunday to take on Bush's New Orleans Saints in a battle between two teams fighting for positioning in a crowded NFC playoff chase.
The lingering question is whether Bush will play, since he hasn't suited up after breaking his right fibula in a Week 2 win at San Francisco. The dynamic running back is a valuable piece to the Saints' offense when healthy, and said after limited practice this week that his leg was stiff at first but felt good. He also added that Sunday is the right time to get back on the field and that a decision on his playing status won't be made until the end of the week.
Saints head coach Sean Payton noted that this is the best Bush has looked since the injury.
"Each week he has gotten better and better progressively, so yes," Payton said when asked if Bush is close to ready to return. "There haven't been any setbacks, so naturally he's better [this week] than he was a week ago or two weeks ago."
New Orleans has won two straight and three of four games and is tied with Tampa Bay for second in the NFC South standings, just one game behind Atlanta. It is coming off a bye week and headed into the break with a 34-3 thumping of division-foe Carolina.
Since running backs Bush and Pierre Thomas were both out of action, Saints Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees passed for 252 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers, and the defending champions used a three-man rotation at running back as Julius Jones, Chris Ivory and Ladell Betts shared the load.
Thomas, meanwhile, is questionable with an ankle injury and hasn't played since a Week 3 loss to the Falcons. He recorded a team-high 793 yards rushing last season for the Saints, who are only 25th in rushing in 2010 (93.7 ypg).
Seattle has already matched its win total from all of last season and leads the NFC West by one game over St. Louis. It ended a two-game losing streak and rebounded from an awful loss at home to the New York Giants in Week 9 by dismantling the Arizona Cardinals, 36-18, last Sunday in the desert.
Seahawks veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck did not play in the previous week's loss to the Giants due to a concussion, but returned this past Sunday to throw for a season-best 333 yards and a touchdown. The injury bug continued to bite the former Boston College signal-caller, though, as Hasselbeck suffered two small cracks in his left wrist on a quarterback sneak. He is expected to play Sunday, however.
"He'll be able to play this week," Carroll said. "He'll have a difficult week, uncomfortable and all that. But we'll get him through it and hopefully be able to get him prepared for a good game."
Hasselbeck left the Arizona game before returning midway through the third quarter with a cast on his wrist. According to Carroll, no surgery is needed and the injury will not get worse regardless if Hasselbeck plays.
The quarterback isn't the only Seattle player dealing with health issues. Wide receiver Mike Williams had a personal-best 145 yards on a career high-tying 11 receptions last week despite playing with a broken pinky finger. He helped Seattle amass 490 total yards.
Also, rookie left tackle Russell Okung has missed six games this year due to a high ankle sprain, but is expected to play this Sunday. Carroll said the team will evaluate Okung through the week and see how he reacts to movement.
These teams have split 10 all-time meetings, with the Saints drawing even in the series by virtue of a 28-17 road victory in 2007. Seattle had won three straight against New Orleans, including a 21-7 triumph in the 2004 season opener during its last visit to the Superdome, prior to that setback. The Seahawks are 2-2 lifetime in New Orleans.
Carroll lost his only career meeting with the Saints, which took place in 1998 while with the New England Patriots. Payton is 1-0 lifetime against Seattle and has never previously faced Carroll head-to-head.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
It appears Hasselbeck (1,744 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) will shrug off his sore wrist and play this Sunday at the Superdome with his team clinging to a slim lead in the NFC West. He completed an exciting 63-yard touchdown pass to Deon Butler against the Cardinals and finished with a quarterback rating of 106.6. It was the second time this season Hasselbeck has hit the 100 mark, and the Seahawks have won his last 10 starts when he records a rating of 93.5 or better. That's exactly what his career rating is against the Saints, as Hasselbeck has thrown for 745 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in three career starts in this series. He has just one interception in his last four games as well. Williams (46 receptions, 1 TD) leads Seattle in catches and receiving yards (545) and is showing no signs of his broken pinky finger. He has caught 10 or more passes three times this season, becoming the first player in team history to do that. That's surprising, considering the franchise produced Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent. Butler (23 receptions, 3 TD) is tops on the team in touchdown catches, while rookie Golden Tate (151 yards) has a chance at playing this week after missing two straight games with an ankle issue. When they run the ball, the Seahawks will employ a two-back approach consisting of Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch. Forsett (397 rushing yards, 2 TD) had a team-high 64 yards and a score on nine carries last week, while Lynch (217 rushing yards, 2 TD) posted 29 yards and a touchdown on 13 touches.
New Orleans will dare the Seahawks to challenge its top-ranked pass defense, which is holding opposing aerial shows to 166.3 yards per game. The Saints are nicked up a bit in the secondary, as safeties Malcolm Jenkins (45 tackles, sack) and Darren Sharper (4 tackles) are both listed as questionable. Jenkins is nursing a neck injury and Sharper has been bothered by a balky hamstring. Sharper has played in the past three games after missing the first six recovering from offseason knee surgery. The Saints are also third in total yards allowed (277.0 ypg) and fourth in points against (16.8 ppg), but sit just 17th against the run (110.7 ypg). According to safety Roman Harper (49 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), the bye week arrived at a good time, and he hopes the extra time preparing for Seattle will pay off. Harper is second on the team in tackles behind linebacker Jonathan Vilma (58 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT). The Seahawks' best offensive strength is their passing, so it's important for New Orleans to knock around Hasselbeck as much as possible, especially since the defenders know he is battling an injured wrist. Former USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (23 tackles, 4 sacks), who played under Carroll before getting drafted in 2008, is the team's top pass-rushing candidate and knocked Panthers quarterback Matt Moore out of their Week 9 game with a shoulder injury. End Will Smith (21 tackles, 3 sacks) is second on the team in sacks.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (2,587 passing yards, 18 TD, 12 INT) said he visited some family in San Diego during the bye week, but also spent time working at the team's facility. He watched film, worked out and even threw some passes with Bush and Thomas to get them acclimated with the game again. Although it's unclear whether either running back will play Sunday, Brees will certainly be prepared to air it out against Seattle's low-rated pass defense. He has recorded 578 passing yards, five touchdown passes and one pick in two career games against Seattle. It's hard to imagine the Seahawks stopping Brees and the Saints' fifth-ranked pass attack that also features big target Marques Colston (54 receptions, 592 yards, 2 TD). The wideout is having a quiet year, but still leads the team in catches and receiving yards. Fellow receiver Lance Moore (35 receptions, 5 TD) leads New Orleans in touchdown receptions, while tight end Jeremy Shockey (31 receptions, 3 TD) is right behind with three. Shockey suffered injured ribs in the win over Carolina and is questionable for this weekend, however. Before getting hurt, he became the eighth tight end in league history with 500 career catches. New Orleans is averaging 369.9 yards of offense -- good enough for seventh in the league -- but ranks 25th in rushing. Jones (122 rushing yards) started the 2010 season with Seattle.
Seattle's defense is coming off a strong performance against Arizona in which it recorded five sacks and two takeaways. The Seahawks were coming off consecutive blowout losses, but were able to shut down Arizona's ground attack to the tune of 41 yards. With New Orleans unsure on whether Bush or Thomas will play, the Seahawks should focus their attention on stopping Brees and the air attack. Seattle is 28th against the pass, allowing 272.2 yards per game. Rookie safety Earl Thomas (47 tackles, 4 INT) leads all first-year players in interceptions and needs one more to tie Michael Boulware (5) for most by a rookie in team history. Defensive end Chris Clemons (33 tackles, 8 sacks) seems re-born in the Pacific Northwest, as the offseason pickup owns 7 1/2 sacks in his last seven games. He and stud linebacker Aaron Curry (36 tackles, 3 sacks) each had two in Arizona. Curry and Earl Thomas both had seven total tackles last week, while the linebacker also forced a fumble. Safety Lawyer Milloy (47 tackles, 4 sacks) had the Seahawks' other sack last week, while cornerback Marcus Trufant (50 tackles, 1 INT) is also a key member of a Seattle team rated 27th in total yards allowed (376.9 ypg). Tackle Brandon Mebane (9 tackles, sack) returned last Sunday after missing four games with an injured calf, while linebacker Lofa Tatupu (48 tackles) missed some practice this week due to a knee injury, but should play Sunday.
Brees hasn't been lighting up scoreboards like in years past, but is one of the top fantasy quarterbacks again this season. That being said, Colston and Moore are obvious choices to have in the starting lineup. Using a banged-up Shockey this week may not be a good idea, but New Orleans' defense is a must- start. With the jury still out on whether Bush or Pierre Thomas will play, it's best not to use any Saints running backs on Sunday unless news breaks over the weekend.
Hasselbeck should only be used in emergency situations, because seven touchdowns and seven interceptions are not cutting it even in deeper leagues. On the other hand, Williams has been a solid player this season and is the quarterback's top target. Forsett and Lynch are respectable choices who will sharing the backfield carries. Don't be fooled by Butler's long touchdown last week.
The Saints are anxious to get back to work after their bye week and still face an uphill battle for NFC South supremacy. Any loss from here on out will only hamper New Orleans' chances of repeating as division champions. Look for Brees to air it out against the Seahawks, who will take a step back Sunday in their quest for NFC West bragging rights. Carroll's reunion with some former Southern California players will be sweet at first, but it will be a sour trip back to the Emerald City following a crushing defeat.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 34, Seahawks 17
11/18 18:42:08 ET