By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots venture to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at 4:05 p.m. This will be an interesting matchup of the league’s #1 offense of New England versus the league’s #1 defense in Seattle.
Pete Carroll has the defense playing outstanding this season, something they finished last year doing and have an impressive unit across the board, limiting Dallas and Green Bay to just 19 points combined.
Bill Belichick’s Patriots come in having rushed for 247 and 251 yards against Buffalo and Denver and having scored 83 points the past two weeks. Besides the running of backs Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden, Tom Brady has been hitting his stride with Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski in the passing game.
Something has got to give in this one, so let’s look at the matchups.
Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots have been running the ball extremely well the past two games, rolling up nearly 500 yards rushing (247 against Buffalo, 251 vs Denver) while the Seahawks have been outstanding defending the run, averaging only 67 yards per game and 3.2 yards per attempt with only two touchdowns.
It all starts with Red Bryant at DE who is Seattle’s best run stuffer. He’s joined by Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch at DT and Chris Clemons at the opposite DE. Bryant has been adept at breaking down plays in the backfield, leaving no room for running backs to move.
The Patriots have been excellent lately with taking advantage of opponents sub-packages brought in to slow down their passing attack. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead have been excellent as slashing through the smaller fronts teams use in nickel and dime looks. On a 3rd and 17 against Denver, Woodhead ran for 25 yards to pick up the first down.
The Patriots won’t be able to run much on Seattle’s base defense, but look for them to try to run on their sub-packages much like they’ve done the past few weeks. Being on the road, the no-huddle attack probably won’t be used as much this week.
Seahawks Running Game-
In an effort to protect QB Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have relied on the power running of Marshawn Lynch to control the tempo and the line of scrimmage, keeping the down and distance manageable for the offense. Lynch is leading the league in yards after contact, wrapping him up and bringing him down, has to be the key for the defense this week.
The Panthers loaded the box trying to stop the run last week and as a result Wilson had perhaps his best game as a pro. Lynch got off to a slow start, but still ended up with 85 yards on 21 carries.
The Patriots have been excellent against the run as well averaging only 82 yds per game and 3.4 per rush. The battle in the trenches will go a long way in deciding this matchup. Stopping Lynch and placing the game in Wilson’s hands will be the game plan this week again.
The Patriots have the advantage here as other than C Max Unger, the Seahawks offensive line is pretty much ordinary though tough. Vince Wilfork will be battling Unger and J.R. Sweezy inside. The key is to stop the offensive line from getting the push and allowing LBs Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower to come in and make the plays.
Patriots Passing Game-
The Patriots possess a formidable passing attack with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez who should return this week. But the guy who makes it all go remains QB Tom Brady.
Seattle has a secondary filled with guys no one has heard of, but not for long. This secondary is very solid and starts with huge corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. They boast two safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. They play a lot of press, man coverage. Chancellor has the size to play linebacker and his hitting style reminds one of such but has the speed and range to be cover extremely well. Expect him to draw a lot of coverage with Gronkowski this week.
The key matchup here is again in the trenches as tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will have to keep Brady upright against Chris Clemons and rookie DE Bruce Irvin who bring the pressure from the edge against the pass. Clemons has 5.5 sacks and Irvin has 4.5, they have been the guys who give opposing quarterbacks fits.
One key and one which Seattle has to be aware of is the Patriots habit of slowing the pass rush of opponents by running right at it. In this case it would be Irvin, who’s a much better pass rusher than a run stuffer at this point in his young career. How that little subplot works out will have an impact on the game as a whole.
But one area that the Patriots will try to exploit is the Seahawks linebackers, on a defense filled with playmakers, the linebackers are the weakest link for Seattle. The Patriots will try to pass the ball down low against the linebackers, especially WLB Leroy Hill and take an occasional shot deep to keep the defense honest.
Seahawks Passing Game-
The Seahawks have handed the reins to rookie QB Russell Wilson and have had to suffer with the inevitable growing pains of having a rookie running the offense. They haven’t asked him to do too much yet, allowing him to get comfortable running the offense. He has the mobility to hurt teams with his feet and had his best game yet last week against Carolina completing 75 percent of his passes.
Third downs have been an issue with Seattle until last week; Wilson was 9-10 for 74 yards including a 13 yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate on third down. Overall the Seahawks converted seven of 14 third-down opportunities after converting just twice in nine attempts against St. Louis.
Wilson has the dangerous Sidney Rice who when healthy is a threat to go deep. He’ll be matched up with Devin McCourty outside. Golden Tate, Braylon Edwards, Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu are a group of solid if unspectacular receivers.
The Patriots have been giving up a lot of yardage through the air but have been quite adept at creating turnovers. Two significant events happened last week as rookie Tavon Wilson started at safety for injured Steve Gregory and in the second quarter fellow rookie CB Alfonzo Denard replaced Sterling Moore in the sub-packages.
Wilson got caught out of position a few times but for a first start and against Peyton Manning to boot, it wasn’t all bad either. Denard was targeted immediately but played very well and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a lot of playing time this week.
The Patriots biggest weakness is the coverage of the linebackers, while Spikes, Mayo and Hightower are thumpers in the running game, they are weak in coverage. Expect Wilson to target TE Zach Miller a lot in the middle of the field and RBs Leon Washington and Robert Turbin out of the backfield.
The Patriots pass rush has been inconsistent this year and even with the deep drops that Wilson takes to compensate for his 5’11” frame, they will have to step it up to force him into making mistakes. Chandler Jones will be going against Russell Okung this week. But the bigger matchup may be Rob Ninkovich against Breno Giacomini who’s been inconsistent and flagged a lot so far.
This is an area where the Seahawks have a big advantage, Seattle boast punter John Ryan who is excellent at pinning opponents deep inside their 20 yard line. He’s averaging 48.9 yards per punt with eight inside the 20. At kicker they have Steven Hauschka who has missed a field goal just once, and from outside 50 yards.
The Patriots are solid with Zoltan Mesko who, despite his low average this season is excellent at pinning opponents deep. Mesko has 11 punts inside the 20 yard line thus far. Stephen Gostkowski is looking to rebound from an inconsistent start to 2012. Where he’ll be needed however is his ability to kick the ball out of the end zone because in the return game is where Seattle has a big advantage.
Leon Washington is dangerous to go the distance on both punts and kicks and will have to be kept in check. He has an 83 kick-off and 52 yard punt return already this season. The Patriots return game? Can you remember any big returns this season? Me neither.
Everyone around the NFL knows about the crowd noise in Seattle at Century Link Field. Seattle’s famous “12th Man” has caused too many false starts to count but despite that, under Pete Carroll the Seahawks are just 11-7 at home. The key for the Patriots is to start quickly and keep the pedal to the metal. With the crowd always a factor, the best way to defeat it is to score early.
The Seahawks have had good success against stopping Arizona, Carolina, Dallas, St. Louis and Green Bay. This is another big benchmark for their defense. Seattle will enter the game against the New England as one of only two teams that has not allowed an opponent to score 20 points or more this season.
The All-22 Tape?- Since 2007, the Patriots are 8-13 when scoring 21 points or less in a game, including a 20-18 loss to the Cardinals this season. However, when they score more than 21 points New England is a very impressive 59-5 when scoring 22 points or more since 2007.
Things don’t get any easier for the Patriots offense this week, after exposing both Buffalo and Denver’s defense they now face the #1 defense in the NFL and one which held Green Bay to just 12 points.
Seattle plays fast and they are an athletic bunch and will present similar problems for New England as Arizona did. The Patriots will have to play much better on offense than they did in Week 2. One thing that will help should be the return of Aaron Hernandez.
One thing that Brady is great at with teams that are good at rushing the QB is to spread them out and find spots on the field. Expect that a lot especially early in the game. Protection is the key for New England, if Brady has time to throw, then the Patriots have too many weapons for Seattle to cover. If they put him under duress all game, we’ll see similar results that Aaron Rodgers had in Seattle a few weeks ago.
The big equalizer is the running game, something the Packers didn’t have to counter with. Expect the Patriots to pass against the defense more when Bryant is on the field and run more when Irvin is. They’ll try to mix in the no huddle to keep Carroll from substituting.
On defense, the key is to stop “Beast Mode” and force the game into Wilson’s hands. The Patriots front seven is good enough to stop Lynch without having to sell out. The Patriots game plan will be to force Wilson into working his way down the field and forcing him into mistakes by rolling and disguising coverages.
Expect Wilson to work the TEs and RBs heavily in this one, it’s the Patriots biggest weakness in the passing game. Zach Miller is the guy to watch in this one, when facing big third downs against Carolina, Wilson found Miller for a couple of big gains down the seams. Those will be open against the Patriots.
This one will be close, I expect Wilson to play well, he’s gaining confidence every week and had a very good game against Carolina. But in this one where both teams will have trouble running the ball consistently, Brady gives the Patriots an advantage that can’t be discounted. The Patriots balance will be the difference ultimately. New England 27-17.