BY Doug Farrar 02:35PM 11/19/2010

Big-boy ball in the Big Easy

Saints getting their championship stuff together, including Reggie Bush, just in time for Seahawks’ visit

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck calls out signals during practice / Rod Mar, Seahawks

After malodorous seasons in 2008 and 2009, the Seahawks at 5-4 have exceeded expectations. But in  New Orleans this weekend, they will taste the next level.

The defending Super Bowl champion Saints have persisted through injuries on offense and defense, not to mention the pressure of having the bull’s-eye on their backs that comes as a side with the Lombardi Trophy. They are peaking at the right time. Their bye week allowed running back Reggie Bush to come back from a fractured fibula that had forced him out since Week 2. The week off was a respite after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers convincingly in consecutive weeks.

While the Seahawks are a team that pulled out a few rabbits out to amass a winning record, the 6-3 Saints are a couple of “yeah, but…” defeats away from a place among the league’s elite. They lost in overtime to Atlanta. They blew up in an unusual, turnover-filled loss to the same Cardinals team the Seahawks just got done sweeping. They lost to the Cleveland Browns based in part on the enemy intel gleaned from former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who showed his new teammates how to sit in zones and await the more complicated route combinations designed by head coach Sean Payton and implemented by quarterback Drew Brees.

Having Bush back in the lineup makes the Saints a much more formidable offense, expanding their options and busting zones with multi-tiered schemes off the snap. Carroll, who has gained and lost based on his experiences with Bush, knows from the game film that this is never a team to be taken lightly.

“They’re an incredibly gifted club throwing the football,” Carroll said after the team’s indoor practice Friday. “They do all the right stuff with a quarterback who can just do everything. They’ll have all their receiver corps, and they’ll probably have Reggie (Bush), and they’ll have all the tricks they like to do with him. This is a great challenge, and whenever you play a quarterback this gifted, it takes so many elements to make it work. It isn’t just the guys on the back end – it’s the pass rush, and everyone who is involved in the coordination of the disguises and the pressures.”

A good week of practice was just the first step, including the return of left tackle Russell Okung, who has missed the better part of the regular season with ankle injuries.

“We needed great preparation to have a chance against this team, and I’m pleased with what happened (this week),” Carroll said. “Russell practiced very well today and went with the first group the whole time, and he’s prepared to start.”

The Seahawks will also have quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who looked very sharp in Friday practice after limited involvement through the week. The team has tried to limit the risk to the two broken bones in Hasselbeck’s left (non-throwing) wrist, suffered against the Cardinals last week in one of the veteran’s best games in recent years.

“He had a great week; he really did,” Carroll said of Hasselbeck. “He’s strong – even when you go back to the week that he missed (against the New York Giants), that helped him physically. You could see that, because he was throwing the heck out of the football today after a few more limited throws during the week. He seems to be adding to his juice as we get to the end of the week. It was a good job managing (the injury) by the coaches, and we’ll see if that continues to help us.”

The Saints present an equivalent set of problems on defense; coordinator Gregg Williams’ multi-faceted blitz packages lead to quarterback confusion and limited opportunities. New Orleans has the NFL’s best pass defense based on yards allowed with 166.3 yards per game. Williams shares Carroll’s preference for mixing up defensive concepts that implement three- and four-man fronts.

“They’re really consistent, and they have an unusual scheme that suits them very well,” Carroll said. “They’re in positions where they can be really aggressive with the line, and play base stuff. They have a really nice thing going right now, and they’re a little bit ahead – people haven’t really figured them out yet. Gregg always finds ways to make it difficult for (opposing offenses), and he’s done it again. They’re riding it through this point in the season, and nobody’s playing better than them. This is a veteran, experienced group, and they know what they’re doing.”

Carroll and general manager John Schneider are also getting a better handle on things. After 251 roster transactions since the two took over the team in January, Carroll said that it’s now about going with the guys they’ve got. “There are things we’re talking about every day. We’re at a point where we’re really depending on the roster we have, unless we have issues that we have to solve. We’re pretty settled in.”

*The Saints will be without safety Darren Sharper (hamstring), running back Pierre Thomas (ankle), and tight end Jeremy Shockey (rib). The loss of Sharper may present advantages for Deon Butler in the Seahawks’ deep passing game. Reggie Bush was listed as questionable on the team’s Friday injury report (along with safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Patrick Robinson), but he’s expected to play.

*The Seahawks have listed nose tackle Colin Cole (ankle), guard Mike Gibson (ankle) and tight Anthony McCoy (knee) as out. Safety Earl Thomas was not at Friday practice, but he will play on Sunday – he had to depart early for a memorial service. He was listed as probable along with Hasselbeck, Okung (ankle), and linebacker Lofa Tatupu (knee).

*Fullback Michael Robinson (hamstring), receiver Brandon Stokley (calf), and receiver Golden Tate (ankle) are listed as doubtful, though Stokley looked good with his in individual drills on Friday.


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