The story lines should be obvious for Sunday night’s Patriots-Seahawks game. A Super Bowl XLIX rematch. The Seahawks' goal-line play calls. Pete Carroll vs. his old team. Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson.
But when NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth was studying film of both teams this past week in preparation of calling the game, he was blown away by another facet of this matchup.
“Usually all I want to talk about when I go into the game is the high-flying offense and two great quarterbacks,” Collinsworth said by telephone. “The thing that has me excited about this game more than anything was the play of the defenses. Both of these teams were unbelievable a week ago, and for two very different reasons.”
The Patriots and Seahawks are led by two of the NFL’s best coaches in Bill Belichick and Carroll, and both have a defensive background. So perhaps it should be no surprise that in a bizarre 2020 season with no preseason or offseason practices, Belichick and Carroll had terrific defensive game plans and came out ready to play in Week 1.
Collinsworth said he couldn’t believe the variety the Patriots showed on defense in last week’s 21-11 win over the Dolphins.
“The Patriots probably did more on defense than any team I’d ever seen in Week 1 — period. Forget the pandemic and no [offseason workouts] and limited training camps and all that,” Collinsworth said. “The number of different looks, personnel groupings, different coverages — they had to have played nine different guys in the secondary.”
He’s right on the money. The Patriots had nine defensive backs last week who played at least 44 percent of the snaps.
“As long as they don’t have 13 guys on the field, we have to figure it out, you know?” Carroll said. “They’ve got enough DBs to flood you.”
Collinsworth said he sympathized with Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw three interceptions and had a tough time figuring out the Patriots' diversity of defensive looks.
“It took me two to three looks to figure out what they’re doing, and I’m watching the film back and forth, so it was no surprise to me that he threw those interceptions,” Collinsworth said. “I probably spent an extra hour watching that tape over what I would typically do, just because there were so many details involved in what they were doing.”
What impressed Collinsworth so much about the Patriots was that they didn’t look any different from last year. This after the Patriots lost five starters and replaced them with backups and budget free agents, and had a fraction of the practice time this summer that they usually do.
“I was really looking at, ‘OK, how are they going to cover up the holes of the personnel they lost?’ And they didn’t do anything differently, they just ran their defense,” Collinsworth said. “Kudos to those guys mentally, getting to where they could do that many different looks on opening day of this season and execute them the way that they did. It was amazing, it really was.”
The Seahawks were equally amazing in their 38-25 Week 1 road win over the Falcons. The Falcons may have gained 506 yards, but 200 of them came after they trailed, 31-12, in the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks defense was impressive on two fronts. One, they seem to have rebuilt the next generation of the Legion of Boom, led by safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs.
“The secondary play of the Seahawks was as violent as I can ever remember,” Collinsworth said. “There were just violent collisions happening with that defense all day long, and I just kept writing it down on a piece of paper, ‘This is unbelievable,’ the violence of this team, in particular the secondary and what they were bringing.”
The Seahawks not just pushed the Falcons around all day, but Carroll gave the Patriots something to chew on this past week as they prepared for the game. The Seahawks have been playing the same Cover 3 defensive system since Carroll arrived in 2010, yet threw a new wrinkle at the Falcons with constant blitzes from Adams and Diggs. Matt Ryan faced 17 blitzes, the fourth most faced by any quarterback in Week 1.
“I’d say they ran certainly more safety blitzes than — maybe more in that game than I’d seen in the previous year,” Belichick said Thursday. “That hasn’t really been a big part of Coach Carroll’s defense, but he did it in a way that it was consistent with the philosophy of what they do defensively.”
Adams filled up the stat sheet in his first game with the Seahawks: 12 tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits.
“That’s what I kept writing down — ‘This is not the Seattle Seahawks,’ ” Collinsworth said. “It just seemed like more blitzing, more pressure, more Jamal Adams and different guys coming off the edge of that defense. It was just so much more aggressive than I remember seeing in a long time.”
The majority of Sunday night’s broadcast will probably focus on Wilson vs. Newton, Carroll vs. Belichick, and Malcolm Butler’s interception. But get ready for two defenses coming to play.
NOTHING LIKE IT
Empty stadiums full of odd sounds
We have used a lot of ink writing about the new protocols and challenges facing NFL players and coaches as they try to play the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But what’s it like for the broadcasters to call a game with no energy in the stadium?
Cris Collinsworth and NBC partner Al Michaels called two games last week — the Thursday night game in Kansas City had almost 16,000 fans, while the Sunday night game in Los Angeles was in an empty SoFi Stadium.
The TV broadcast doesn’t sound all too different from a normal year because the networks are using artificial crowd noise. But the stadiums have been mostly silent, even with the NFL pumping in a steady stream of white noise. The Patriots posted a video to their website of audio from the game — and without fans — and with just the PA system and background noise, it sounded like a rec league game in the park.
Collinsworth said that the Cowboys-Rams game with no fans felt like the end of the movie “Rocky III.”
“The two of them get in the ring at the end of the movie, and it’s just those two and nobody’s around, and they’re going to go settle it,” he said. “It was almost like two teams went out and wanted to have a game for pride.”
Collinsworth said that the empty stadium threw him off a bit, but otherwise it didn’t affect the broadcasters.
“You couldn’t help but look around, and as you’re looking at your monitors in the booth, when you see empty stands it’s startling, so that’s when it would get me a little bit,” he said. “But I didn’t do anything different. We just did it.
"Al and I were sitting a little farther away from each other than we usually are, but it really felt pretty normal to me. Every once in a while Al and I would just sit back and go, ‘It’s amazing we’re here.’ ”
Collinsworth said his travel schedule has remained the same, and he and Michaels have still been able to attend practices on the Fridays before games. But the two are getting tested frequently — not every day, but a lot.
“We’ve been doing it at the beginning of the week, we’ve got to do it at the end of the week. It’s no different than the players, I suppose,” he said.
Seahawks have had successful formula
A few Patriots-related notes:
▪ The three Patriots-Seahawks games during the Pete Carroll era (2010-present) have all been epic. The 2012 matchup, known as the “U Mad Bro” game for Richard Sherman’s famous postgame trash talk of Tom Brady, was a 24-23 Seahawks win thanks to a 46-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Sidney Rice in the final two minutes. You know all about Super Bowl XLIX, of course. And the 2016 matchup at Gillette Stadium was a 31-24 Seahawks win that featured seven lead changes. The Patriots had first and goal at the 2-yard line in the final minute but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, with Brady failing to connect with Rob Gronkowski on a corner fade pass on fourth down.
▪ Cam Newton only threw 19 passes in last week’s win over the Dolphins, his fourth fewest in 133 games (including playoffs). Limiting Newton’s pass attempts certainly seems like a winning formula. He’s 4-0 career when throwing fewer than 20 passes, and 16-3 when throwing fewer than 25 passes (two of the three losses came to . . . wait for it . . . Seattle).
▪ Of course, when Newton’s passes were limited, it was often because the Panthers were jumping out to leads and were able to run the ball in the second half. But the problem with run-based offenses is that if the team has to play from behind, it might not have the firepower to make a comeback.
“Let’s face it, it was the same thing with the Ravens last year,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. “They got out to leads in almost every game, and come playoff time they had to play from behind and that wasn’t as good.”
▪ Stephon Gilmore’s restructured contract wasn’t really what it was initially made out to be. It was reported as a pay raise, but in reality it was a pay advance. The Patriots increased Gilmore’s salary from $10.5 million to $13 million, added $2 million in per-game roster bonuses, and added a $2 million incentive if Gilmore wins Defensive Player of the Year again (which is nearly impossible).
But the Patriots also took equivalent money out of Gilmore’s 2021 pay, dropping his salary from $11.5 million to $7 million. While it sounds like no big deal, it is highly unusual for the Patriots to do this. Usually they give a player a straight pay raise without touching future years (like with Patrick Chung), or they give the player some reachable incentives (like with Brady and Gronk). Rarely do they dip into next year to pay a player this year.
What does it mean? The Patriots like Gilmore enough to make him happy this year and pay him somewhat in line with the top cornerbacks. But there is no way that an elite corner such as Gilmore is playing for $7 million next year. So something big is going to happen next year — a new contract, a holdout, or a trade.
▪ Even after getting rid of Brady and Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots still have the NFL’s fifth-oldest team, averaging 26.57 years of age. Only the Saints, Bears, Titans, and 49ers have older rosters.
Wind working against kickers
Not having fans in the stands isn’t just hitting the NFL in the wallet. Empty stadiums may also be wreaking havoc with kickers.
League-wide, kickers connected on 48 of 67 field goals in Week 1, for a 71.6 percent success rate that was the lowest for a Week 1 since 1998. Kickers had an especially tough time from 50-plus yards, connecting on just 5 of 12 attempts, the lowest Week 1 success rate (41.7 percent) since 2007.
It may just be a statistical blip. But most of the poor kicking was done in games that were played outside. The six teams that played indoors last Sunday made 11 of 13 field goals, with the only misses coming from 54 and 55 yards. But outdoor kickers connected on only 37 of 54 kicks (68.5 percent).
“I think this year stadiums will definitely be different from a wind perspective because the fans usually in most stadiums will knock down the wind,” 49ers kicker Robbie Gould said.
Aces on important tests
The NFL continues to handle the COVID-19 pandemic with remarkable results, probably even better than the league expected. From the start of non-padded practices Aug. 12 until Sept. 12, the NFL saw just 31 positive tests out of more than 8,700 personnel, including just seven players. And not one player went on the COVID-IR list in the days following the first full Sunday of play.
“It really is a great tribute to the players that they’ve had the discipline to stay true to it,” Collinsworth said. “Now comes the real test: Can they go 17 straight weeks with that sort of discipline?”
One trend that fans didn’t seem to mind was that penalty flags were significantly down in Week 1 compared with previous years. Officials only called 181 penalties last week, the fewest in 13 years and down from 249 last year in Week 1 and a record 255 in 2018. The 2019 season had an average of about 258 penalties per week. There was a massive discrepancy in offensive holding penalties, with just 15 called this year compared with 64 last year and 53 the year before. However, there was a spike in defensive pass interference calls with 28 this year compared with 16 last year . . . The Jaguars (14,100 fans) and Chiefs (15,898) were the only teams last week to allow fans into their stadiums. This weekend the Dolphins (13,000), Browns (6,000), Colts (2,500), and Cowboys (about 25 percent) are the only teams allowing fans . . . The Titans showed a unique punt formation last Monday night in which one of their gunners lined up 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, enabling him to reach full speed before his blocker picked him up. It’s a clever wrinkle, but the NFL has been trying to eliminate full-speed situations on punts and kickoffs in recent years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the competition committee considers eliminating this type of formation next offseason . . . Five quarterbacks led their team in rushing last weekend: Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson. All five teams won . . . This year has the potential to have a stacked ballot for Comeback Player of the Year. You’ve got Newton, running the Patriots after being discarded by the Panthers following a foot injury. There’s Aldon Smith, back on the field after five years of suspensions and arrests, leading the Cowboys with 11 tackles and a sack. And 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon, who missed all of 2018 and 2019 with a torn ACL, catching a touchdown in his first game back last Sunday. And, of course, there’s Alex Smith, who nearly lost his leg and his life three years ago and could win the award even if he doesn’t play a snap this year. At some point, previously suspended Cowboys pass rusher Randy Gregory and Seahawks receiver Josh Gordon will be back on the field, too.