Saints still wary of reworked Seattle secondary

Seattle Seahawks players (from left) Clinton McDonald (69), Brandon Browner (39), Chris Clemons (91), Earl Thomas (29), and Michael Bennett (72) stand on the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Show caption
Seattle Seahawks players (from left) Clinton McDonald (69), Brandon Browner (39), Chris Clemons (91), Earl Thomas (29), and Michael Bennett (72) stand on the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“They’re a stingy defense. We’re going to have to be extremely disciplined in our route-running, disciplined in just making sure we know what we’re doing.” LANCE MOORE, Saints wide receiver, on the Seahawks

When word circulated that two members of the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary would be unable to face the Saints on Monday night, New Orleans coach Sean Payton gathered his men and issued an admonition.

The players stepping in for cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond aren’t exactly rubes, Payton warned. And New Orleans (9-2) must still cope with three defensive backs who have accounted for 10 of Seattle’s 16 interceptions this year, tied for the most in the NFL: cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor.

“I told our players this: They’re going to come in and play the same type of technique, so you don’t see something change differently in regards to how they play a certain coverage or how they play a technique,” Payton said Thursday when asked about Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane, the players immediately below Browner and Thurmond on the Seahawks’ depth chart. “Those are confident players that come right in and have experience.”

At first glance, it may seem Payton is being kind in his assessment of Maxwell and Lane. The Seahawks (10-1) would rather have Browner and Thurmond as they try to contain Saints quarterback Drew Brees — No. 2 in the NFL with 3,647 yards and 28 touchdowns — and tight end Jimmy Graham, whose 11 receiving TDs are second in the league.

The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner, a 2011 Pro Bowler, has 10 picks in just 36 starts for Seattle, and he has the fifth-most pass break-ups since joining the NFL two years ago (40, 10 of which have come this season). But he was expected to miss four to six weeks after severely injuring his groin against Atlanta on Nov. 10. He’s also facing a one-year suspension under the league’s substance-abuse policy and on Thursday was awaiting a ruling on whether the punishment would stand.

Thurmond this season had amassed one pick (which he returned for a touchdown), a forced fumble that he also recovered and six pass break-ups. But the NFL imposed a four-game suspension on him this week for violation of its substance abuse policy.

The numbers for the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Maxwell and the 6-foot, 190-pound Lane pale in comparison. Maxwell has a pair of pass break-ups and a forced fumble while rotating in at corner sparingly, and Lane has mostly lined up on special teams and has no stats on defense. The Seahawks’ other option at the position, DeShawn Shead, was just brought up from the practice squad.

Nonetheless, Maxwell and Lane have been through this before. They saw more action than usual last year when Browner served a four-game suspension after testing positive for Adderall, and the Seahawks fared quite well. Seattle outscored its opponents 170-43 and emerged from the stretch undefeated.

“Whoever is playing corner for us, they’re in the system and they’re called on to be on that island, to be out there by themselves, to hold up,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.

Brees, who has thrown eight interceptions this year, said Lane and Maxwell “fit the mold of what Seattle seems like they’ve tried to go for with their corners — big, long physical guys.”

“They all play very, very well within the system,” he added.

Aside from that, they’ll be getting loads of help from Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor, the top three members of Seattle’s second-ranked passing defense.

The 6-3, 232-pound Chancellor — a 2011 Pro Bowler who’s built more like a linebacker than a safety — is the least accomplished of the three despite having two interceptions and a forced fumble. Sherman and Thomas were first-team All-Pros last year. They both have four picks, and they’re tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions.

The 6-3 Sherman stands apart. He played receiver in college, and he has used that to his advantage in studying up on and shutting down opposing wide receivers.

He has 16 interceptions in his first 43 career games. Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, now with the Jets, is the only active player who had more picks in his first 43 games as a pro; he had 18. Sherman openly talks about how difficult it is for him to remember all the QBs he has intercepted.

Sherman returned one of his picks this year 58 yards for a touchdown in a Week 4 win at Houston. He also has 52 pass break-ups since 2011, a sum unmatched in the league.

“They’ve still got a group that’s extremely experienced,” Saints receiver Lance Moore said. “They’re a stingy defense. We’re going to have to be extremely disciplined in our route-running, disciplined in just making sure we know what we’re doing.”