W2W4: New England Patriots (7-1) vs Seattle Seahawks (5-2-1)
The New England Patriots return from their bye week to play probably the most anticipated game of the entire NFL regular season: the Super Bowl 49 rematch with the Seattle Seahawks. In what was one of the most exciting and dramatic Super Bowls to be played, these two teams are both at the top of their divisions at mid-season and favorites to return to the Super Bowl.
Last year Seattle fell short in the NFC Championship game after falling behind 31-0 to Carolina and swarming back in a ferocious comeback that was an onside kick recovery away from overtime.
The Patriots fell short in the AFC Championship game last year as they overcame 18 players on injured reserve to make another postseason run. The Patriots were a two-point conversion away from forcing overtime against Denver in a gritty comeback by quarterback Tom Brady.
These two teams should have been facing-off in the Super Bowl last year and have been two of the most consistent winners the past five seasons (along with the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers). The 2010 season was the last time there was a Conference Championship game without either the Seahawks or Patriots.
MusketFire.com’s W2W4 (What to Watch for) weekly feature examines all the key matchups in the upcoming game to give you the reader the best analysis of the upcoming New England Patriots game. It is your one stop each week to give you the reader everything you need to know to be ready for the next game.
So without further delay, let’s get to the match-ups for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense against the Legion of Boom and the Seattle defense along with the Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense against Malcolm Butler and the New England defense.
New England Patriots Passing Offense vs Seattle Seahawks Passing Defense
Tom Brady has been otherworldly in his return to the New England Patriots after his ridiculous “Deflategate” suspension. While the rest of the NFL failed to take advantage of the Patriots as they played the first four weeks without Brady and with tight end Rob Gronkowski hobbled, the Patriots are now 7-1 and at the top of the AFC.
Brady has completed a ridiculous 73.1% of his passes in his first four games throwing for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). The team is 4-0 with Brady under center and the team has scored 33, 35, 27, and 41 points over those games.
RECEIVERS READY TO HIT THEIR STRIDE
The return to health of Gronkowski has also been a major factor over those four games as he has 21 receptions for 473 yards and three touchdowns since Brady returned to the offense in week five. What is scary to consider is that fellow tight end Martellus Bennett has been hobbled with an ankle/leg injury since Gronkowski returned and New England has not had their lethal two-tight end offense able to operate at full strength yet.
Now New England should have both tight ends on the field and Bennett nearing full strength. If not, they still have their three-wide receiver attack which has put pressure on opposing defenses. Julian Edelman is still not at full strength and has struggled to get on track with his lingering foot injury and has 41 receptions for just 358 yards and one touchdown in the first half of the season.
The Patriots still have outside threat Chris Hogan who is starting to make an impact as his comfort level with Tom Brady grows. After just eight receptions for 122 yards in the first four weeks of the season Hogan has 11 catches for 259 yards including establishing himself as a deep threat for Brady outside the numbers.
Danny Amendola has had limited snaps in the offense but maximized his time in the offense and been an effective weapon on third down and in the red zone. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell has struggled to stay healthy in his first season in New England but the bye week may have been a perfect opportunity for the rookie to integrate himself into the offense.
The Patriots have weapons galore on offense, but the Seattle secondary is not going to just let them run rampant.
SEATTLE PASS DEFENSE STILL ELITE
The Seahawks have made their way to the top of the NFL on the backbone of their defense–specifically their defensive backfield. Under the guise of the “Legion of Boom”, cornerback Richard Sherman, strong safety Kam Chancellor, and free safety Earl Thomas (and whoever else cycles in at cornerback) have been leading the defense by shutting down opposing defenses.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll built strong defenses everywhere he went building from the back end of the defense. With the Vikings in the late eighties, the Jets and Patriots in the nineties, at USC heading down to the college level for a while, and then this current group in Seattle. Simple in design, dangerous and attacking, Carroll’s aggressive defenses start with a strong secondary.
From his time in New England prior to Belichick, it was clear to see Carroll was trying to build a secondary along the same lines. With Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy already in place, Carroll drafted Chris Canty, Chris Carter, Tebucky Jones, and Tony George trying to find a Richard Sherman (Jones?) and Thomas.
While the plan did not work in New England for Carroll, his success in Seattle speaks for itself. This season the Seattle defense has “struggled” and is “only” tenth in the league against the pass this season allowing 1,871 yards in eight games. However, they are third best in the NFL having allowed only six passing touchdowns.
Teams have had success passing this season recently as Atlanta put up over 300 yards in the air in week six and both New Orleans and Buffalo passed for over 250 yards and a score against the Seahawks. In reality, that is not terrible–but for the standards of excellence set by the secondary in Seattle it is terrible.
In Super Bowl 49 Tom Brady shredded Seattle’s secondary in a way they had not experienced before. He had over 300 yards passing, completed over 70% of his passes, and despite throwing two interceptions he had a quarterback passer rating over 100.
Seattle uses a cover-3 (or occasionally a cover-1) while switching to man coverage often on third down. They have complex coverage assignments but focus on taking away deep passses and forcing teams to dump-off short passes over and over again.
For the Patriots, that is playing into their hands. If forced to dump off short passes of four or five yards Brady will take that until he is four yards from the end zone. He did it then–he will do it again Sunday night just like he has all season since coming back.
For as good as Earl Thomas is in the middle of the field or linebacker Bobby Wagner and strong safety Kam Chancellor in man-coverage, they do not go against precise route runners with insane athleticism and size like Rob Gronkowski. Add in Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, James White, and maybe even Dion Lewis and there are too many weapons to cover all game.
Seattle’s secondary had a rough game Monday night as Tyrod Taylor ripped apart the Seattle secondary all game using wide receiver Robert Woods to work open against man coverage and find the spaces underneath the zone defense in order to get him the ball.
However, there is so much talent with Chancellor, Thomas, Sherman, and cornerbacks DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane. They have the talent to shut down any offense at any time. Brady, Gronkowski and the rest of the offense has to be clicking on all cylinders to move the ball consistently.
Not just the skill position players but also the offensive line.
OFFENSIVE LINE IN FOR A TEST
One huge difference between the Patriots’ offense this year and the end of last season is the play of the offensive line. A healthy Nate Solder at left tackle and improved play from right tackle Marcus Cannon has made a huge difference. Cannon has stepped in and not missed a beat for Sebastian Vollmer who is on the PUP list and unlikely to play this season.
New England catches a break with Seattle’s defensive lineman Michael Bennett (and brother of tight end Martellus Bennett) out after knee surgery. Without Bennett the Seahawks will lean on defensive ends Frank Clark (6.5 sacks) and Cliff Avril (9.0 sacks) to slow the New England passing attack by applying pressure from the edges.
In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks used Bennett inside and wreaked havoc by collapsing the pocket the entire first half as Avril and Bruce Irvin forced him to step into the pressure. On Sunday night it will be Clark taking over for Irvin (who left Seattle in free agency) but without Bennett inside Ahtyba Rubin, Tony McDaniel, and Jarran Reed (combined one sack in the first eight games of 2016) are not going to duplicate his performance.
New England right tackle Marcus Cannon will be tasked with slowing Clark and left tackle Nate Solder facing off with Avril. Avril is the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Month of October with 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last month. Solder had his worst game of the season against Buffalo and needs to bounce back with a strong game.
Seattle’s defense is at it’s most dangerous when pressure is creating hurried throws that the secondary can feast upon. Against Buffalo last week Seattle blitzed linebackers Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Brock Coyle (a player to watch Sunday night as the former backup middle linebacker has played extremely well since switching to strongside linebacker) blitzing up the middle.
As the Patriots have shown, blitzing Brady is a recipe for disaster as it opens passing lanes for Gronkowski, Bennett, and Edelman. Seattle is going to have to throw a few blitzes at Brady just to mix things up. If the Seahawks cannot get pressure without blitzing, they will have a long night trying to cover all the weapons in New England’s passing game.
ADVANTAGE: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England Patriots Rushing Offense vs Seattle Seahawks Rushing Defense
Halfway through the 2016 season and the New England Patriots have a top-ten rushing offense. While the team had to run the ball with Brady suspended for the first four games, the Patriots still have been effective running at times–particularly at the goal line.
LeGarrette Blount leads the way with the New England running game with 609 yards through eight games and nine touchdowns. Since Brady’s return in week five Blount has just one 100-yard game (week seven against Pittsburgh) but he has five touchdowns in his last four games.
A lot of credit goes to the offensive line: Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are very good run blockers on the edge and having both healthy have been a boon for the Patriots’ running game. The interior of the offensive line has been another huge upgrade for New England.
Last year in the AFC Championship game the Patriots had Bryan Stork at center with Josh Kline at left guard and Shaq Mason. Mason had split snaps with fellow fourth-round draft pick Tre Jackson until Jackson injured his knee in the second half of the season. That offensive line (with Sebastian Vollmer out of position at left tackle and Marcus Cannon playing right tackle with a broken toe) was overmatched, overpowered and beaten time and time again.
This year, the Patriots turned their second round draft pick for Chandler Jones into two picks and used one on left guard Joe Thuney. Thuney stepped into the left guard spot on the first day of training camp and has not surrendered the position since. He has had some rookie growing pains and mistakes, but overall he has been a huge upgrade over Kline.
At center, the Patriots upgraded again by releasing the oft-injured and concussed Stork and re-inserting 2015 undrafted free agent David Andrews. Not as big and strong as Stork, Andrews is a technician who is smart and understands leverage and rarely gets beat. Last week he put on a clinic against Buffalo keeping the dangerous Marcell Dareus out of the backfield.
SEATTLE FRONT SEVEN
In Super Bowl 49 the Seattle Seahawks had a defensive front with Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril. Irvin is gone via free agency to Oakland, Bennett is out of the game this week with a knee injury, Williams retired after the 2015 season, McDaniel is back after a detour to Tampa Bay last year, and key backup in that game O’Brien Schofield is in Atlanta.
Go back to Seattle’s statement making regular season win in 2012 against the Patriots and that front seven was anchored by big bodies Red Bryant, Alan Branch, Brandon Mebane, and Chris Clemons. That defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage and was a key factor in creating room for Wright and Wagner to make plays in the running game.
In order to pay their defensive core of Wagner, Wright, Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor the Seahawks had to take away from another area. On defense, that position was the defensive line.
Beyond Bennett, there is little impact coming from the defensive line outside of Avril and Clark on the outside. Seattle has allowed 790 yards over eight games which is not bad for a defense. For Seattle, against whom running the ball was near impossible, it is terrible. Other than giving up 135 yards to the 49ers in a blowout win, no one was able to run on Seattle in the first quarter of the season.
In the last four games the Seahawks were pounded by David Johnson and Arizona, the Saints, and last week Buffalo ran the ball at will becoming the third straight team to pile up at least 120 yards rushing against Seattle.
Tony McDaniel is not the same player he was just two or three years ago as he has struggled at the point of attack this season at age 31. Ahtyba Rubin was signed to be the big body at nose tackle and was serviceable last year but like McDaniel he has been regressing as the season progresses.
The rest of the defensive line is retreads and washouts. Damontre Moore and Casssius Marsh stepped in for Bennett last week. Moore played for the first time this season and showed that he has some pass rush moves but appeared undisciplined in the run game. Marsh is basically a special teams player and is not ready for regular snaps.
Sealver Siliga was cut by the Patriots losing out on a roster spot to undrafted rookie free agent Woodrow Hamilton this summer. He is probably the best interior run stuffer on the Seattle roster right now. Jarran Reed is a second round draft pick who is still acclimating as a rookie but has been getting a lot of snaps inside. He is big and strong and dominate on one play and is blown away the next play. He will have a bright future but Seattle need more from him right now.
The Seahawks prefer to have depth up front and rotate players in and out but this year their depth has been tested. Just this week they were reduced to signing cast-offs from New Orleans (hardly a mecca for great defensive tackle depth). The Seahawks picked up John Jenkins for depth after he played his way out of New Orleans and went unclaimed via waivers.
Seattle will still have big plays in stopping the running game with K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner flying to the ball. Kam Chancellor acts like another linebacker in the run game with his size and power, but if the defensive line keeps allowing opposing offensive linemen and tight ends and fullbacks to the second level to pick them off.
The Patriots may not be planning to run the ball much, but when they do, they should have the advantage against Seattle’s weakened defensive line.
ADVANTAGE: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England Patriots Passing Defense vs Seattle Seahawks Passing Offense
The Seattle Seahawks have missed Marshawn Lynch more than anyone could have predicted. With expected starting running back Thomas Rawls out injured much of 2016 and having to lean more heavily on Russell Wilson and the passing game.
Unfortunately, Wilson has been banged up much of the season and is just starting to get healthy. Despite injuries slowing him, Wilson has put the offense on his back and thrown for over 2,000 yards. He has completed two-thirds of his pass attempts and has seven touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Wilson’s top target has been wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Jermaine Kearse remains opposite Baldwin and Tyler Lockett is the deep threat, but the emergence of Jimmy Graham has done more to help the offense. Graham looked lost last year but is back as a top target and a threat in the red zone for the Seattle passing attack.
A BIG TEST FOR PATRIOTS SECONDARY
Doug Baldwin leads the Seahawks with 44 receptions for 570 yards in 2016 and also leads the team with the highest catch percentage on the team at 77.2%. He had six catches for 89 yards against the Bills last week and it is important to remember he was the focus of the New England secondary back in Super Bowl 49. Baldwin was held to just one catch for three yards in that game.
The coverage of Baldwin will fall to Malcolm Butler on Sunday night. Butler has established himself as the top cornerback on the team and one of the best in the NFL. New England head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia like to focus on removing an offense’s top target and that will be Baldwin
Both Eric Rowe and Logan Ryan should be busy presumably covering Jermaine Kearse and Tyler Lockett. Rowe or Ryan could also be used to cover Jimmy Graham like Patricia and Belichick schemed against New Orleans in 2013 blanketing Graham with their then top cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Patriots no longer have linebacker Jamie Collins after trading him to Cleveland and if a cornerback is not aligned with Graham then the job would fall to either Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty. Chung may not have the size to matchup with Graham, but he is one of the toughest safeties in the game and his compete level is unmatched.
Rowe has struggled and Ryan is likely to return to the starting lineup after being benched for Rowe much of the past two games. Whether Justin Coleman or rookie Cyrus Jones is active as the fourth cornerback is anyone’s guess. Whoever plays will likely get plenty of time on defense with the Seahawks likely to run a number of three wide receiver sets.
If Butler can neutralize Baldwin it will go a long way towards slowing the Seattle offense.
PATRIOTS PASS RUSH NEEDS TO GET IN GEAR
Against Seattle in Super Bowl 49 the Patriots respected quarterback Russell Wilson’s scrambling ability so much that they assigned a spy to him on most plays and played more zone defense than they probably wanted to in order to prevent their defense from turning around and having their backs to Wilson while he runs unencumbered.
This season Wilson has hardly been able to hurt teams with his legs with his lack of mobility due to injuries. Wilson has just 54 yards rushing in eight games. To put that in perspective, Tom Brady has 44 yards rushing in four games this season!
With Wilson spending more time in the pocket, this is the week the Patriots need to bring the pass rush. Last week, Buffalo brought consistent outside pressure collapsing the pocket around Wilson and sacking him four times. The lack of a running game (33 yards rushing total) made the Seahawks one-dimensional and let the Bills tee off on the Seattle quarterback.
Another reason for the pressure was the poor play of the Seattle offensive line. Much like on defense, the Seahawks have made sacrifices to pay Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, and Wilson top dollar. The offensive line last week was rookie left tackle George Fant, right tackle Garry Gilliam, guards Mark Glowinski and Germain Ifedi, and center Justin Britt.
The Seahawks went bargain basement on the offensive line, allocating just $8.7 million of salary cap space for the position and by far the lowest of the season. Center Justin Britt is by the far the best of the bunch and rookie Germain Ifedi shows a lot of promise. Bradley Sowell may return after missing three games but he has hardly performed much better than Fant or Gilliam at tackle when he was healthy.
If there was a game for Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long to bring pressure from the edge this is the game to do it. Wilson is not scrambling like he did and the offensive line in Seattle is not up to par. Bringing some pressure and playing tight man coverage should help slow down the Seahawk’s passing attack.
Russell Wilson does not get the attention he deserves as one of the top passing quarterbacks in the NFL because he does so much with his legs. Wilson has been hobbled and still put the Seahawks offense on his back and has them in first place and a favorite to return to the Super Bowl from the NFC.
ADVANTAGE: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
New England Patriots Rushing Defense vs Seattle Seahawks Rushing Offense
The Seattle Seahawks had one of the most impressive rushing attacks the past few seasons with Marshawn Lynch. This season an inexperienced offensive line and injuries at running back and to quarterback Russell Wilson have slowed their momentum. Last week the Seahawks managed just 33 yards on the ground against the Bills.
The Seahawks have not rushed for over 100 yards since week three against San Francisco. Their only other game this season topping 100 yards (as a team) was week one against Miami.
Christine Michael has led the rushing attack with 447 yards on 112 carries and a 4.0 yards per rush average. However, last week against Buffalo he managed just one yard on five carries and is questionable to even play on Sunday. The Seahawks already have Rawls listed as out with a shin injury and may have to use untested rookie C.J. Prosise.
Prosise–a third round draft pick–has played just four games and has 30 yards on nine carries for his career. At this time, it looks likely he will get the starting nod. Prosise was expected to be the third down/receiving back but the only other healthy running back is fellow rookie Alex Collins. Prosise is not a “pound it between the tackles” back like Lynch was but he is quick, a very good receiver, and has big play potential.
As noted earlier, the Seahawks have not run with a hobbled Russell Wilson and he has just 54 yards rushing on 28 carries over eight games. The Seahawks have made their bread-and-butter on offense by running the ball but right now they are ranked 30th in league with just 603 yards in eight games.
Without Wilson able to run the read option and punish teams that overcommit to the pass rush, Seattle has hardly looked like the same offense.
PATRIOTS RUN BLOCKERS NEED TO BE STRONG
As the Seahawks try to run the ball against New England, the Patriots will have some significant turnover in the middle of the defense. As noted, linebacker Jamie Collins was traded to Cleveland and rookie sixth round draft pick Elandon Roberts, newcomer Kyle Van Noy, and perhaps even Barkevious Mingo and Shea McClellin will now get a chance to step in and pick up the slack.
Roberts is not a great coverage linebacker coming out of Houston as a rookie, but he has the quickness to eventually fill that role. Despite his lack of size, Roberts’ strength is plugging the middle against the run. Roberts was on the field in place of Collins against Buffalo prior to the bye week and will be counted upon to help keep Seattle from getting on track in the running game.
To let Roberts and Dont’a Hightower take advantage of their athleticism and shut down the Seattle rushing game they need the big guys up front to win their one-on-one battles with the Seahawks’ offensive linemen. Second year defensive tackle Malcom Brown and veteran Alan Branch have done most of the unheralded work inside tying up the linemen.
The Patriots will need Long, Sheard, and Ninkovich setting the edge on the outside and funnelling the running back to the linebackers. If the Patriots can keep Seattle one-dimensional it should help New England slow down the Seahawks offense.
ADVANTAGE: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
SUMMARY AND SCORE PREDICTION
The Seahawks and Patriots are two of the premier franchises in the NFL and the league is banking on this Sunday Night matchup bringing in high television ratings. It is a marquee matchup for sure and should be one of the rare “must-see” NFL games of 2016.
The Patriots on offense are almost impossible to stop and the Seahawks’ defense is going to be tested by quarterback Tom Brady and his short passing attack. On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson has been his usual fantastic performer in 2016 and may have brought his level of play even higher.
Neither team has run the ball well over the past month both teams are passing offenses first. Both are strong on defense and have disciplined special teams play and explosive returners who can swing field position. New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski has had his struggles kicking this season.
The Seahawks are 1-2-1 on the road (and 4-0 at home) and have to travel to New England after playing at home on Monday night. The short week, the lack of a running game, and having to deal with Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady may be too much for the Seahawks on Sunday night.