NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots have traveled to the west coast, where they will attempt to improve to 4-2 against a creative Seattle Seahawks team which boasts the NFL’s top-ranked defense. Read on for ten keys to this difficult week six matchup.
1. How will traveling west to CenturyLink Field affect New England’s performance?
The Seattle Seahawks retired the number twelve in 1984 in honor of their raucous home crowd, which they refer to as their “12th Man”; the level of crowd noise will limit New England’s on-field communication during the game and could additionally lead to an increased number of false-start penalties. The Patriots may still opt to run some of their no-huddle offense using alternative communication methods such as hand signals, but the frantic pace of last week’s performance is unlikely to be replicated. New England has played well on the road in recent years but must travel across the country after playing an exhausting game against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos last week, so fatigue could be a factor as well. This afternoon’s matchup against Seattle will be the Patriots’ fourth road game of the season; they have previously played at Tennessee, at Baltimore, and at Buffalo, winning all but their contest with the Ravens, a 31-30 loss.
2. Will Tom Brady be able to challenge Seattle’s secondary deep down the field?
Seattle’s safety tandem is arguably the best in the NFL; free safety Earl Thomas excels at breaking on the ball in deep zone coverage, while strong safety Kam Chancellor is an aggressive, punishing hitter. Unsurprisingly, teams have been unable to move the ball deep downfield against the Seahawks; they have allowed just 11 passes of 20 or more yards on the season, and ran second in yards per attempt allowed (6.0).Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is averaging 7.8 yards per attempt on the season, but may have to rely on New England’s repertoire of short and intermediate passes; taking chances against either Thomas or Chancellor down the field may prove disastrous. Patriots fans should expect a war of attrition when the offense is on the field. New England must move the ball downfield on shorter, high-percentage throws and by running the ball effectively over sustained drives in order to reach the end zone. Unfortunately, Thomas’ zone coverage instincts will allow the Seahawks to focus on utilizing Chancellor as an eighth in-the-box defender.
3. Can New England’s wide receivers separate from Seattle’s physical cornerbacks?
Patriots fans will recall New England’s prior difficulties in separating from powerful cornerbacks adept in press coverage, the most notable example being during New England’s playoff loss to the New York Jets in the 2010 season. Seattle’s two boundary cornerbacks, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, could provide the Patriots with similar troubles at the line of scrimmage. They will be tasked with disrupting New England’s short timing routes in order to buy time for the Seahawks’ pass rush to break through protections and swarm Brady. The 6’3”, 220-pound Browner has not allowed a touchdown pass since week two, while Sherman, also 6’3”, has intercepted two passes while surrendering no touchdowns. Both cornerbacks lack elite deep speed, but that deficiency is masked by Seattle’s pass rush and by Thomas’ deep coverage instincts (as mentioned earlier.) Patriots split end Brandon Lloyd has caught just two of nine deep pass attempts on the season and may struggle to add a third in this week’s game.
4. How effective will Aaron Hernandez be in his return from a week two ankle injury?
“F” tight end Aaron Hernandez was close to playing last week against the Denver Broncos, and the Boston Globe’s Greg A. Bedard is reporting that Aaron Hernandez will likely be active for this afternoon’s game after making a relatively quick recovery from a sprained ankle. His presence will be especially welcome considering that New England may struggle to develop an outside passing game, although he may be employed primarily as a red herring if he has not regained his typical quickness. Seattle’s linebacker corps – Leroy Hill on the weak side, Bobby Wagner in the middle, and K.J. Wright on the strong side – is youthful and athletic, well suited to playing in space and defending targets such as Hernandez. Consequently, Hernandez’s production may be modest or even minimal tomorrow afternoon, but he will force the Seahawks’ defense to account for another possibility if he shows that he is comfortable running. Between New England’s top tight ends, Rob Gronkowski is more likely than Hernandez to have a big game.
5. What type of production can New England expect from their stable of running backs?
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been rewarded for his offensive balance in consecutive weeks: the Patriots rushed 40 times for 247 yards and four touchdowns against the Bills and topped that performance last week vs. the Broncos, carrying the ball on 54 occasions for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley has accounted for 257 yards on the ground over the two contests and will be counted on for another strong performance against Seattle. The Seahawks’ run defense is considered one of the stingiest in the league, however, and should prove more difficult to run upon than either Buffalo’s or Denver’s. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley employs a motley crew of linemen; defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch are both stout run defenders, and left end Red Bryant – who the Patriots attempted to sign this past offseason – stands 6’5”, weighs 330 pounds, and functions as more of a five-technique end than a traditional 4-3 left end. Slightly undersized tackle/end ‘tweener Jason should also see some action along the line; the Patriots are not expected to see either Jaye Howard or Clinton McDonald on Seattle’s defensive line.
6. Can New England’s offensive line protect Tom Brady from Seattle’s diverse pass rush?
Last week, Tom Brady was sacked four tackles, resulting in a loss of 30 yards and a fumbled ball; the offensive line should have another difficult time this week against a defense which has already recorded 16 sacks on the season and forced eight fumbles. Right end Chris Clemons already has 5.5 sacks on the season, and Seattle will also rotate in first-round pick Bruce Irvin on passing downs; Irvin has collected 4.5 sacks this far. The Seahawks’ defensive tackle rotation, detailed above, should prove difficult for the Patriots’ relatively undersized interior offensive line, and Seattle varies their coverages by blitzing linebackers and defensive backs with surprising frequency. The pressure will be on New England center Ryan Wendell in particular; Wendell allowed two of New England’s four sacks last week and may struggle against the overwhelming size and power of tackles Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch. Seattle’s propensity for rushing addition players may force Wendell to execute difficult one-on-one assignments.
7. Will quarterback Russell Wilson be able to damage the Patriots through the air?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for tailoring his gameplans around extensive film analysis; Seattle will be forced to weave new wrinkles into their offensive gameplan in order to counter Belichick’s schemes. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Wilson has a diverse skillset: his arm is strong enough to push the ball downfield and challenge New England’s deep secondary, and Wilson is a capable scrambler as well who can buy himself extra time or pick up a few yards on the ground in key situations. The Patriots have historically struggled to defend against quarterbacks who can break contain, which may allow Wilson to diagnose soft spots in New England’s zone-heavy coverages. Wilson will be helped by a deep group of wide receivers – Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Ben Obumanu, and Braylon Edwards – as well as two big tight ends in Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy; the Patriots have struggled to defend against taller receiving options and especially against tight ends this season and will be without linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Tracy White as well as safety Steve Gregory.
8. No rest for New England’s run defense in matchup against Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch is in the middle of his seventh NFL season, but the 26-year old back is averaging the most yards per carry of his entire career (4.5); he will provide a formidable test for New England’s stingy run defense, which is averaging just 3.4 yards per attempt on the ground. The Patriots were fairly effective in limiting Willis McGahee to 102 total yards last week; a similar performance against Lynch would be desirable. The Seahawks currently rank seventh in rushing yards per game in order to compensate for their 31st-ranked passing game; they will rely heavily on Lynch in order to move the ball. Bill Belichick typically attempts to remove an opponent’s top option from the game and force opposing offenses to score with their auxiliary options; Lynch will almost certainly be the focus of New England’s defensive gameplan. The Patriots defend the run from the inside out; they cannot break inside contain and allow Lynch to pick up chunks of yards running into the heart of New England’s defense. Instead, they must force Lynch to run horizontally, where his speed will be tested. Safeties Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson should see more snaps as in-the-box defenders against Lynch.
9. How will the snaps at cornerback be distributed following Alfonzo Dennard’s emergence?
Rookie Alfonzo Dennard was heavily utilized in his debut performance last week; the seventh-round pick played 31 snaps, was targeted on five passes, and prevented all five from being completed, with two passes defended. He has earned an increased role in the upcoming game, but competition for snaps will be fierce; Devin McCourty is a staple of New England’s defense at left cornerback, while Kyle Arrington also played 66 snaps last week. Sterling Moore forced and recovered a Demariyus Thomas fumble against the Broncos but allowed all six of his targets to be completed for 100 yards. Ras-I Dowling figures to get some work in New England’s sub packages as well; he played ten snaps and may present a favorable matchup against Seattle’s tall receiving options. Both Arrington and Moore have been exposed in coverage this season, and it appears time for the Patriots to gain some insight into what they have in Dennard and Dowling; their performances over the course of the 2012 season will largely dictate whether or not Bill Belichick needs to invest another high pick in a cornerback this offseason.
10. Seattle’s young offensive line could provide opportunities for New England’s defensive front
The Seahawks have heavily invested in their offensive line in recent years with mixed results. Former first-round draft pick Russell Okung has played fairly well at left tackle aside from committing a high volume of penalties, and Max Unger is one of the best centers in the league. Left guard James Carpenter is a big, physical player who could match up well against New England’s big defensive tackles. However, the right side of Seattle’s line appears vulnerable; Paul McQuistan is currently replacing the injured John Moffitt at right guard, while right tackle Breno Giacomini has committed seven penalties and struggled to protect Russell Wilson from opposing rushers. The Patriots tried moving Chandler Jones to the left side a few times during last week’s contest; they may attempt to take advantage of Giacomini’s questionable pass protection via Jones. Jerod Mayo was an effective blitzer in last week’s game; he may factor into New England’s pass rush this week as well, whether as an interior or edge rusher.