It will be a battle of the irresistible force versus the immovable object when the New England Patriots square off against the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Seattle. The Patriots boast the top offense in the league in both yards per game and points, while the Seahawks offer up the league’s best defense in yards per game and second in points allowed per game.
The game will also feature the Patriots future Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Belichick against the Patriots’ once upon a time coach of three seasons in the years that bridged the departure of Bill Parcells and the return of Belichick. Pete Carroll’s “rah rah” approach to coaching was a relative failure in New England, but Carroll seems to have honed his approach in the intervening years at USC and is inspiring a confident group of players in the 2012 Seahawks.
The Patriots rely on an opportunistic defense that surrenders yards but also forces turnovers, and the Patriots are tied for the league lead with a +10 turnover differential. The Seahawks use an active and energetic defense that also prides itself in forcing turnovers, but their offense is more charitable in giving the ball up, and the Seahawks are 17th in the league with a -1 turnover differential through the first five games.
On offense the Patriots are the class of the NFL, and this year are executing on the ground (3rd in NFL) as well as through the air (9th). The running back tandem of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead (and occasionally Shane Vereen) have gashed opposing defenses for big yards over the past two weeks, and I would expect the Patriots to adopt a slower paced game this Sunday in order to try to take the air out of an aggressive Seattle defense, as well as to take the air out of the 12th Man, the rowdy Seattle crowd that offers the Seahawks a discernable home field advantage eight times a year. Expect the Patriots to look to run off the right side, taking advantage of Seattle’s weaker defensive players. Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner patrol the middle and defensive right side for the Seahawks, and are the bulk of the unit’s production in sacks and forced fumbles. As always, the Patriots will complement the runs with short passes to Gronkowski, Welker, and Hernandez (who is looking ready to play this week), and they have the capability to stretch the field with Brandon Lloyd.
The Patriots will seek to keep the Seattle defensive unit off balance, but will likely do it through play selection, rather than with the hurry-up offense that we have seen over the past two games. Seattle only runs three basic defensive sets; this negates the advantage that the Patriots get from defensive mis-matches, but gives Brady the opportunity to pick apart those packages over the course of four quarters. The two starting corners for the Seahawks are dangerous (Browner and Sherman) but the safeties can be exploited by the Patriots’ offense and their play-action mechanics. Marcus Trufant will be given the tall order of defending against Welker. Kam Chancellor has the frame (6’3″, 232) to try and cover Gronkowski, but Gronk appears to have a decided advantage in both size and athleticism. As long as the Patriots hold on to the ball, they should be able to affect long scoring drives and wear the Seattle defense down. The Patriots are fourth in the league in converting third down opportunities, while the Seahawks rank 19th in giving up third down conversions. I expect the Patriots to look to create third and short opportunities all day to exploit with their cast of running backs.
On the other side, the offense centers around Marshawn Lynch, who has rushed for 508 yards (4.5 ypc) and two touchdowns, and the Seahawks are 7th in the league in rushing. That leaves rookie quarterback Russell Wilson the role of being an effective game manager, a role he has so far excelled in despite his 5 TD/6 INT ratio and overall lackluster 75.2 quarterback rating. The Seahawks will try to pound Lynch early and often on the Patriots, who rank eighth against the run. The Patriots know how to take away the strength of the opponent, and I would expect Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to work hard to contain the edge in order to force Lynch back into the arms of Wilfork, Love, Mayo, and Spikes. Where the Seahawks would normally like to utilize the run to set up opportunities to go downfield to Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Zach Miller, they may need to do just the opposite against the Patriots to free up running room for Lynch. And it is Bill Belichick’s goal to put the game into the hands of Russell Wilson, knowing that he will be able to bring pressure to bear on the rookie quarterback and be able to confuse his reads and force key turnovers.
Three Keys for the Patriots:
1. Control the ball
Even though Russell Wilson does not strike fear into the Patriots’ faithful, it’s still best to keep the opposing quarterback (and more importantly Marshawn Lynch) off of the field whenever possible. The Patriots will seek to duplicate the success they have had in directed 10+ play drives that consume five or six minutes off of the clock; the key is to duplicate this success in one of the more hostile road environments in the NFL. Balance is the new keyword in the Patriots’ offense, and I expect the Patriots to utilize situational runs, mostly to the right, to create short yardage situations as well as to keep the Seahawks honest.
2. Protect Brady
Hey, at least it dropped to #2 this week… But it remains true. The Seahawks can get after the passer. Chris Clemons is a beast, and Mebane and Wright are no slouches. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins will need to be on their game, and might even need running back or tight end help to keep Brady standing in the pocket. The Patriots are generally effective at protecting their franchise player, but suffered a lapse in the second half against the Broncos, with Sebastian Vollmer getting beat soundly on a couple of occasions. The Seahawks made target practice out of Aaron Rodgers a couple of weeks ago, but the Packers made good adjustments in the second half. Look for the Patriots to come up with some creative protection options out of the gate.
3. Make Russell Wilson win the game
The Patriots’ defense will be primarily focused on slowing down or shutting down Marshawn Lynch. Forcing Wilson to pass is inviting him to make mistakes against a defense that will be disguising its coverages in an attempt to create confusion. Devin McCourty is still struggling with technique, but his coverage skills are sufficient, and Kyle Arrington is a physical corner who can make big plays. The introduction of Alfonzo Dennard into the mix last week against the Broncos could be a sign of things to come, as Dennard was very effective in limited play. he could soon become a regular part of the rotation. More importantly, the Patriots have improved dramatically in bringing pressure to bear on the quarterback. While the Saints have generally been stubborn about giving up sacks (10 so far), it’s more about affecting the throw, forcing bad decisions, and providing opportunities for deflections and other big plays. Wilson is an effective scrambler, but doesn’t make his living running the ball downfield.
Three Keys for the Seahawks:
1. Run the ball
This is always Seattle’s key to offensive success, but it will be even more important against a team that has excelled in stopping the run. Lynch must be successful (more than 100 yards) for the Seahawks to have a realistic chance to win the game. Creating holes against a solid front seven is a tough challenge awaiting the Seahawks.
2. Stop Gronk, Hernandez, and Welker
Hernandez may or may not be ready to play on Sunday, but Gronk will be, despite the fact that is playing through heavy pain. Gronk looked healthy enough against the Broncos, but it was Welker who stole the show with 13 receptions. Pass rush really isn’t the answer to this particular riddle, as Brady doesn’t need much time in order to connect on short routes. Instead, the pressure is on the Seahawks’ secondary to step up and press the Patriots’ receiver, trying to alter them from their routes and otherwise give them little room to work in. The Seahawks are 5th against the pass at 192 yards per game, so it is entirely conceivable that they could make the Patriots work for every catch that they get. The trouble is, 192 passing yards is more than enough for Brady if the Patriots are also rushing effectively. Match-ups are key, and you can expect the Patriots to create mismatches all days against a talented but inexperienced group of linebackers. The Seahawks’ defense will have its hands full on Sunday.
3. Create big plays
The Seahawks are at home, where they historically thrive; they are clearly a better home team than road team. If statistics are not to decide this game, it will be because their opportunistic defense forces the Patriots to turn the ball over three or more times, while their offense cannot return the favor. If this happens, the Seahawks will get to control the tempo of the game, force the Patriots to deviate from their game plan, and make a Seahawks upset much more likely. On offense, occasional shots down the field to Rice or Tate may net big yards and/or penalties, as McCourty is having difficulty getting beat deep. One or two of those plays could have a dramatic impact on the outcome.
Because this game is in Seattle, I will expect that the Patriots’ offense may be thrown off its rhythm from time to time, and will even expect one big turnover the will lead to Seattle points. But it is simply hard for me to imagine the Seahawks being able to be able to run for big yards against the Patriots, and they don’t seem to have the weapons to compete through the air, where the Seahawks rank 31st in the league. Conversely, the Seahawks defense may be able to slow the Patriots’ attack, but not stop it. The Patriots have too many weapons to contend with, know how to effectively attack an opponent’s weakness, and have players they can exploit on the defensive side.
The game will likely unfold slowly, with both teams seeking to gain the advantage on field position, but I don’t think it will be long before the Patriots are able to establish some momentum and take the lead by halftime. I envision the third quarter being more of what we saw against the Broncos last week, with the Patriots sustaining long drives for scores, forcing the Seahawks to spend the fourth quarter trying to come back through the air. But Russell Wilson isn’t Peyton Manning, and the Patriots’ offense is far deadlier than anything the Seahawks have seen to date this season. Patriots 27 Seahawks 17.