When the Patriots run
Let’s not let one late-game fumble tarnish the tremendous strides Stevan Ridley has made this season. The emergence of the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder (and there were flashes last season) has transformed New England’s offense into one of the league’s most balanced. Ridley has become one of the NFL’s most productive players thanks to a nifty mix of instincts and youthful exuberance. A decisive, one-cut runner who explodes onto the second level, Ridley runs with balance and power. He rarely goes down on first contact and will dip his shoulder and deliver a blow before he hits the deck. After early comparisons to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, it now appears rookie Brandon Bolden is a Ridley clone. Another 5-11, 220-pounder, Bolden has good vision and instincts, runs hard, and will break tackles. He gets on defenders quickly and will drive smaller bodies back. For all of Ridley and Bolden’s exploits, Danny Woodhead’s 19-yard run on third and 17 against the Broncos was New England’s most impressive play of the season. The versatility of the line to swap between pass protection and smashmouth has been impressive. Seattle has an above-average set of tackles in Alan Branch (6-6, 325) and Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311), who can clog lanes and punish runners. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (rookie is strong and athletic) and wingmen Leroy Hill (he’s mobile and hostile) and K.J. Wright (ditto) are big hitters.
New England offense: 165.4 (third)
When the Patriots pass
It’s never been easy to defend a Tom Brady-led offense, but now that he’s running said offense at warp speed along with the addition of a solid running game, the Patriots are downright scary. Brady’s preparation and ability to process information quickly make him a most dangerous player. There’s a never a guarantee that the play called will be the one executed, once Brady finds a mismatch. And he has built-in mismatches up and down his lineup in tight ends Rob Gronkowski (he’s just so big) and Aaron Hernandez (he’s just so athletic) and slot receiver Wes Welker (he’s just so smart and slippery). Throw in wily veterans Brandon Lloyd (tremendous body control) and Deion Branch (only Brady knows this offense better), plus shifty Danny Woodhead out of the backfield and Brady has more delicious options than a Cheesecake Factory menu. Brady has received excellent protection lately, with tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer improving every week. The Seahawks have a pair of ends who can really get after the quarterback. Bruce Irvin (6 feet 3 inches, 248 pounds) has a wicked first step and tremendous closing speed. He is stronger than he looks, and the rookie never takes a play off. Chris Clemons (6-3, 245) is quick off the snap and keeps churning until the whistle; his hits cause black-and-blues. Seattle’s secondary, led by large corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, is loaded with ball hawks.
When the Seahawks run
Marshawn Lynch just keeps getting better. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound tailback left his dancing shoes in Buffalo and has morphed into one of the league’s best power runners. Lynch, who was too often an indecisive runner early in his career, now picks creases quickly and blasts his way to the second level with speed and strength. Lynch runs with great balance, agility, and fire. He seems to thrive on contact, and arm tacklers will be left in his wake. Because of his hard-charging, physical style, Lynch is always banged up; he is currently dealing with a cranky back. Rookie Robert Turbin (5-10, 222) is a thick, muscular back who runs low and can absorb hits and fight through them. He lacks quickness and speed, however, and rarely breaks off long gains. Leon Washington is a great change-of-pace runner. He has tremendous quickness and balance, and runs tougher than you’d expect from a 5-8, 203-pounder. Fullback Michael Robinson is a plodder with average blocking skills. Center Max Unger (6-5, 305) is a good athlete with quick hands and a good initial pop, but he lacks strength and will struggle against powerful players (i.e. Vince Wilfork). Guards Paul McQuistan (6-6, 315) is smart and solid. New England’s instinctive and aggressive linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes continue to be demons against the run.
When the Seahawks pass
Russell Wilson is running his third team in three years (the rookie starred at North Carolina State and Wisconsin the last two seasons), so intelligence and versatility are not in question. Wilson (generously listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 206 pounds) is a gifted athlete who is at his best when improvising outside the pocket. His lack of height limits his productivity in the pocket and he will abandon it prematurely and either tuck the ball and run or try to make throws on the run. When he does stay between the tackles, he has a tendency to lock on to his primary receivers and will too often force throws. Wilson presents a big challenge for Patriot pass rushers Chandler Jones (are we sure he’s a rookie?) and Rob Ninkovich (he’s dogged in pursuit). Sidney Rice is Seattle’s top receiver. A big target, the 6-4, 202-pounder has speed, strength, and smarts. He lacks bulk, however, and he isn’t the most aggressive guy when it comes to going across the middle. Golden Tate is a superb route-runner with excellent hands. The 5-10, 202-pounder has adequate quickness and speed and will fight for the ball. Tight end Zach Miller (6-5, 255) is a good athlete with soft hands and surprising speed. New England’s secondary has been making slow and steady progress.
Seahawks’ key player: Russell Wilson
An exciting and poised rookie, Wilson beat out high-priced free agent Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job out of training camp. After an up-and-down start to the season, it remains to be seen whether he can keep it. One thing is for sure: He faces his toughest test against New England.
How he beats you: With athleticism and intelligence. Wilson has quick feet and a strong arm. He’ll never be the prototypical, drop-back NFL passer, but that’s OK — he has proven he can make plays and win games.
How to shut him down: By making him beat you with his arm. Wilson is quick and slippery. He is likely to see schemes he’s not used to Sunday, so he’ll abandon the pocket quickly and try to make plays with his feet. The Patriots have to punish him in open spaces.
SEAHAWKS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Pound away: Feed Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin early and often — even if they get stuffed early. This will force the Patriots to stack the box and loosen things up for Russell Wilson.
2. Golden boy: Receiver Golden Tate is a playmaker. Problem is, he loses interest easily. Keeping him in the flow from the get-go will keep his competitive juices flowing for the full 60 minutes.
3. Stack and shed: Seattle must close off the running lanes and prevent the Patriots from maintaining the balance they love. Seattle’s secondary is talented and it has the ability (along with the noisy crowd) to disrupt the receivers and Tom Brady.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Stand tall: The run defense has been stout. It needs to continue to be that way (Seattle loves to run the ball) to force coach Pete Carroll to rely on Russell Wilson to essentially win this on his own.
2. Special attention: Leon Washington is one of the league’s elite return men. New England’s gunners have been great so far, and they’ll need to be again in order to keep the ultra-slick Washington in check.
3. Bruce almighty: Seattle defensive end Bruce Irvin is a rare talent. He uses explosiveness and power to blast off the edge and rattle quarterbacks. The Patriots have to pay special attention (hello, Rob Gronkowski) to this monster.