W2W4: New England Patriots (7-1) vs Seattle Seahawks (5-2-1)
By Hal Bent
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.