Countdown to kickoff

NEW ORLEANS – Greetings from the Louisiana Superdome, where the NFC West-leading Seahawks are already preparing for today’s game against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. It’s another gorgeous November day outside, but we’re inside the structure that meant so much to this community before and especially during and after it was hit by hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The 5-4 Seahawks, who have won twice on the road this season, need this game to insure they retain sole possession of their division lead. The 6-3 Saints need a win to keep pace with the division-leading Atlanta Falcons (7-2) in the NFC South. In an interesting twist, the St. Louis Rams, who are second to the Seahawks in the West at 4-5, host the Falcons today. So there also will be some scoreboard watching going on.

Another storyline in today’s multilayered matchup: How much difference can one player make?

The Seahawks are hoping to have first-round draft choice Russell Okung back in the lineup at left tackle after he missed most of the past four games with a sprained left ankle. The rookie from Oklahoma State also missed the first three games with a sprained right ankle.

But in the seven quarters Okung has played, the Seahawks have averaged 4.4 yards per rushing play, compared to 3.3 yards when Okung has been out.

That’s significant enough, but the difference would be even impactful today because it would mark the first time the Seahawks have had their preferred left side of the line together – Okung at tackle and Chester Pitts at guard. Pitts played for the first since having microfracture surgery last season in the Week 8 game against the Raiders in Oakland.

Coach Pete Carroll said during the week that the offense is just better with Okung in the lineup, while quarterback Matt Hasselbeck added that the rookie’s presence in the running game would enhance the QB’s ability to use play-action fakes in the passing game. That’s also significant, because Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to blitz – against the run as well as the pass. So even the slightest hesitation by one of the Saints defenders could open up the kind of big plays Hasselbeck was able to generate in last week’s win over the Cardinals in Arizona.

The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to have the versatile Reggie Bush back for the first time since he broke the fibula in his right leg in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers. A lot has been made this week – and will be made during the Fox telecast – of the Carroll-Bush connection from their days together at the University of Southern California.

But that was then, and today’s this-is-now angle plays more into Bush being a dangerous runner/receiver/returner in a game the Saints cannot afford to lose. As teams have focused on taking the deep pass away from QB Drew Brees, he has gone to a shorter passing game. Bush is at his improvisational best getting the ball in space on screens and other passes out of the back field, and also has shown during his career that he can alter the course of a game – or at least the momentum – with a big punt return.

As Brees put it this week, “I think he’s obviously a guy that, in space, can really do some special things with the football.  I think as a defense game-planning for a guy like him you’ve just got to have a plan, you’ve got to have an answer.  With as much as we do with him in the backfield and then running routes – free-release out of the backfield, we motion him out of the backfield, we can split him out to a single receiver or whatever it might be – he’s a threat.  He’s one of those guys that you always have to have a plan for.”

Not that Brees needs any more help. He leads the NFL in completions (261), completion percentage (.698), third-down passer rating (112.1) and TD passes on third down (10 of his 18). Tight end Jeremy Shockey will not play today, but Brees still has an array of capable hands: Marcus Colston (54 catches), Lance Moore (35 catches, five TDs), tight end David Thomas (27 catches) and the duo of Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson (who have combined for 46 receptions).

That’s why it’s imperative that the Seahawks defense play not only fast and aggressive, but smart. And for the Seattle offense to try to keep pace with a Saints offense that ranks fifth in the league in passing and seventh overall – and do it against a Saints defense that ranks No. 1 against the pass.

That brings us back to the importance of getting Okung back into the lineup.

The answers to those will-be-play-today questions concerning Okung and Bush will be provided shortly, when the teams announce their inactive lists.

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