The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots have faced off against each other twice in the Pete Carroll era (the Seattle Carroll era, not the New England one that ended in 2000 so that the Bill Belichick one could begin) and both games have been unbelievably exciting. The Seahawks got the better of them in 2012, while the Patriots had the last laugh in some game I can’t even remember.
To get to know the Pats better, I sent five Qs to Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit and in return, he sent me five corresponding As. Here is some stuff to know about New England as we prepare to watch Seahawks-Patriots Part III on Sunday Night.
Q: I've heard good things about Malcolm Butler. I've heard bad things about the Patriots pass defense. I've heard nightmares in my dreams about Butler too. Yes, I even hear them. I taste them. I can smell the final play sometimes when I'm walking down the street trying to mind my own business. How good is Malcolm Butler really? Is he a shutdown corner and who do you expect him to spend most of his time covering on Sunday?
Malcolm Butler has been an absolute stud for most of this year, improving from his Pro Bowl-level play in 2015 and becoming more impressive at breaking up passes at the target point. He's also a handful when defending against the run. In the six games since week 3 (he struggled against the Cardinals and Dolphins in the first two weeks), he's allowed 12 receptions on 36 targets (33.3%) for 145 yards, and 10 passes defended (1 interception, 9 break-ups). He's allowed just one touchdown over that span and 94 of those 145 yards were by Steelers WR Antonio Brown.
I would expect Butler to match-up against Doug Baldwin and for that to be one of the best battles of the week. The problem with the Patriots secondary has been the player opposite of Butler, and likely the player that will cover Jermaine Kearse.
Since that same week 3 point of reference, the Patriots #2 cornerback has allowed 25 receptions on 41 targets (61.0%) for 293 yards, an additional 58 yards via defensive pass interference, and a touchdown. They have broken up just two passes. And the reason I go all NFL2K by saying "Patriots #2 Cornerback" is that Logan Ryan was benched for Eric Rowe after week 6, and Rowe was benched for Ryan late in week 8.
So look for Kearse to have a good day on Sunday.
Q: The Seahawks are going to have their hands full with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett and it might be a very long day there. How does the scheme in 2016 compare to what they were running with Gronk and Aaron Hernandez? Is Bennett a better tight end than Hernandez?
Bennett is definitely a better tight end than Hernandez and I don't think it's close. A lot of Patriots players joke that Hernandez would do anything to avoid having to block, while Bennett is probably a top 5 blocking tight end in the NFL.
As a result, the scheme is different. Hernandez was an entirely different athlete and the Patriots had fun using him as an offensive jackknife. He played out of the slot, he served as a receiving fullback, and they even allowed him to play running back at times if opposing defenses played dime against the Patriots spread offense.
Bennett is a more traditional tight end. They use him inline to block and to mirror whatever Gronkowski is doing on the other side. Since he and Gronk can both block and catch, the Patriots will option one to run and one to block based upon match-ups. If the defense defends them with a defensive back, then the Patriots might audible to a run play. If they cover one with a linebacker and one with a defensive back, the one covered by the linebacker will run a route, while the other will stay in to block, wasting the defensive back's time.
Bennett also lines up in the slot and he's better than Gronkowski at picking up yards after the catch on passes shorter than 10 yards down the field.
Unfortunately, Bennett's been limited the past three games with an ankle injury. Hopefully he's close to healthy because he's fun to watch.
Q: It seems like Tom Brady has been sacked a lot in the last year and a half and last year New England really seemed to struggle down the stretch, just as Brady was going down three or four times a game. Is this because of the offensive line, Brady's style, coverage sacks, or something else? I guess the main question being: Do you expect a ton of opportunities for Seattle's pass rushers this weekend?
For most of 2014-2015, the pressure has definitely been the fault of the offensive line. They were atrocious in every way. They lost starting LT Nate Solder for the season in week 4, they were starting three rookies on the interior line, and they had so many injuries at tackle they asked their center to play right tackle for a game and a half. The team used a ridiculous 41 different offensive line combinations. The only reason the Patriots were successful was Brady's quick release and he was still pressured at a high rate.
It was ugly and offensive line Dave DeGuglielmo wasn't creative enough to come up with a solution in pass protection. For example, the Broncos figured out the Patriots snap count in the AFC Championship game and DeGuglielmo...did nothing. Von Miller just abused Tom Brady all day because the line never adjusted.
DeGuglielmo was fired this offseason after coaching from 2014-15, coincidentally (sarcasm). The Patriots hired former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement and the line has been much better in 2016.
Solder is back at left tackle, Marcus Cannon is finally healthy at right tackle, and the Patriots drafted starting LG Joe Thuney in the 3rd round to improve the interior. Sophomores C David Andrews and RG Shaq Mason have benefit from their experience in the league and are player better than they were in 2015, although Andrews still struggles against bigger nose tackles and Mason is still liable in pass protection.
If the Seahawks are going to get pressure on the Patriots, they'll need to use speed rushers around the offensive tackles, a bull-rushing defensive tackle against the left guard and center, or a player with a variety of pass rushes against the right guard. It's possible to get after Brady, but the line is playing at a higher level now than in years past.
Q: The Patriots are 7.5-point favorites and the Seahawks haven't been underdogs to that degree since 2012. I guess I'm wondering if you think there's a lot of confidence among fans with regards to this game. Because it's true that New England is coming off a bye, while Seattle is coming off a Monday night. The Seahawks have played three very long games in a row. They're traveling to the east coast. They're down Michael Bennett and Thomas Rawls. They're struggling getting off the field on third down, something that Tom Brady is a million times better at converting than any other QB. I know that Belichick has praised the Seattle organization all week, and that's well and good, but what do you think the atmosphere is like in New England in regards to this showdown? Expectations?
Patriots fans realize that this is probably the toughest game on the schedule so they're not taking it lightly. I think there's just a level of confidence after following Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for 15 years. Belichick gave an interesting response on Sunday about preparing for the Seahawks game and the head coach seemed pretty calm.
"We’re pretty far ahead on Seattle," Belichick said. "We’ve had a chance to work on them all week. We’ve done all their games up through the Saints game, so there’s no more to do, and there won’t be any more to do until Monday night."
I feel like this answer was a little out of character for him, but the Patriots know what they have to do. The Seahawks defense is a top three unit in the NFL and the best over the past five years. They know that. Russell Wilson is a big threat at quarterback who can run the ball. They know that. It might be naive to think, but I get the feeling that they aren't expecting any real surprises from the Seahawks.
Q: When I look at the 2007 or 2010 teams, I just see more complete rosters than what the Pats have right now. Even if NE is the best team in the AFC, or even the whole NFL, I don't see them as being as good as those teams. Even if they win the Super Bowl, and those teams didn't, I feel like those versions were better. Better players on defense, more complete offense. It seems like right now it's a great offense and a lot of Brady. Am I crazy? I'm looking at the defense and with some players -- Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, Dont'a Hightower -- I'm not sure what to think. I would have thought Jamie Collins was the best player on the defense by a good margin. Before that, I thought it was Chandler Jones. Have they dismantled too much? Which players on D are really playing the best right now?
I think the quality of football is down around the league, so I won't argue with you there, but I also disagree with your evaluation of this year's Patriots team. While the offensive scheme has changed on almost an annual basis, I don't think there's a real difference from the overall quality standpoint of the team since 2012. You have a team with one of the top three offenses in the league and an above-average defense, which is the same way I'd describe the Patriots teams of the preceding seasons.
I wouldn't argue that this year's team is better than the 2007 Patriots; they had the best offense in the history of the NFL that averaged 3.5 points PER DRIVE. The 2010 Patriots lost a game to the Browns, so I think they're disqualified from any consideration of "best teams". But I think it's important to note the two years you highlighted are the Patriots two best offensive seasons from an efficiency standpoint. Good offenses make it easier on the defense because they can set the tone for the game, build up a lead, eliminate the opposing team's run game, and let the defense just sit back in coverage. That's what the Patriots have tried to do every year since 2007.
But I think this 2016 Patriots team is way better than the 2010 version. In 2010, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the only player to exceed 1,000 yards on the year (1,093). Wes Welker was returning from a torn ACL. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were rookies. Randy Moss was traded midseason for 31-year-old Deion Branch. Danny Woodhead was second on the team in yards from scrimmage.
I'd take LeGarrette Blount over Green-Ellis. I'd take veteran Gronkowski and Bennett over rookies Gronkowski and Hernandez. I'd take Julian Edelman on a bad foot over Welker with a bad ACL. Even 2015 Brady is better than 2010 Brady (yes, I know he was the only unanimous All Pro in NFL history in 2010. Brady is more mobile, has a better deep ball, and more command of the offense now). The only part of the 2010 offense that is better is the interior line, and that's including the half-season holdout by LG Logan Mankins.
The concerns about the current Patriots defense is understandable because I feel like Seattle's defensive approach is the complete opposite of New England's. The Seahawks have retained their entire core and will dictate the pace of the game with their defensive strategy. The Patriots want to have a multiple defense that can play every style of defense in the book, and they want the roles to be replaceable so back-ups can perform if there are injuries.
There are only two (maybe three) players on this defense that I would say are truly irreplaceable. CB Malcolm Butler, LB Dont'a Hightower, and FS Devin McCourty. Butler for all the aforementioned reasons, Hightower because he is the team's entire source of pass rush and passion, and McCourty because he's been asked to step up until the #2 cornerback position has settled down. But the Patriots rank #2 in points allowed, so they're doing something right.