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Seahawks-Patriots preview: Seattle must defend Cam Newton’s strengths

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Seattle Seahawks v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

For the first time since Russell Wilson’s rookie season, the New England Patriots will head west to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. A lot has changed since Sidney Rice hauled in Wilson’s touchdown pass on that fateful October afternoon; perhaps even more has changed since March, when Tom Brady left the only franchise he had ever known.

Now, they’re Cam Newton’s Patriots and they will help Seattle open their home schedule in primetime at an empty CenturyLink Field. It’s an endlessly fascinating matchup: two of the greatest defensive-minded head coaches of all-time, one of two quarterbacks in the 30k-4k club against another who is at the front of the line to get in, a pair of game-changing secondaries, and two teams all too happy to hit their opponent in the mouth.

Here’s what to know about New England ahead of Sunday night’s must-watch showdown.

What the Patriots do well

It should come as no surprise, but Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the Patriots have completely revamped their offense to highlight Newton’s strengths and ease him in. In his first game as New England’s signal-caller, Newton had a career-high 15 carries, rumbling through the line of scrimmage on QB draws, zone-reads, and sweeps. Only one of his 19 pass attempts was for 15+ air yards, while just 10.5% of throws were made into tight coverage (separation of one yard or less), way down from his last full season as a starter in 2018 (17.2%).

In a return from back-to-back serious injuries and in a shortened offseason in new surroundings, the Patriots are completely insulating Newton and playing into his strengths. As a result, on Sunday night, New England is going to be attacking a Seahawks defensive front that entered the season with question marks and did not disprove those questions in Week 1.

Expect the Patriots to again lean heavily on Newton’s ability to make the correct read and gain easy yardage between the tackles, throw off of play-action into big windows, and play relatively risk-free football. New England’s defense remains their lifeblood, with Newton and the offense playing a complementary role. Against Seattle, that will mean running at the Seahawks and attempting to exploit a questionable front.

Where the Patriots can be exploited

Pete Carroll and Seattle’s defense are going to need to take a page from Belichick’s handbook and force them to go away from their strengths. In Week 1, Newton peppered the middle of the field off play-action and hit his running backs in the flat.

Not only was it a result of making things easy on Newton and playing into a major strength of his game as a passer but it was a reflection of the utter lack of talent New England has on the outside. N’Keal Harry was a disaster as a rookie, while Damiere Byrd offers very little. Julian Edelman is the only thing resembling a threat among Newton’s wide receiver corps and, as Newton’s passing chart reflects, he does the majority of his work over the middle.

The Seahawks can force the Patriots to play short-handed by taking away the middle of the field and the flats, allowing Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar to play a major part in coverage against Harry and Byrd. For as much as Seattle’s cornerbacks struggled in Atlanta, that is a very favorable matchup. Quandre Diggs’ ability to read and react from the deep middle will be an asset against Edelman’s intermediate targets, as will Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright’s ability to impact the game from the hook/curl zones. Wagner was especially electric last week, with Carroll calling it Wagner’s best game in coverage.

The Seahawks’ secondary was expected to be a strength of the team after the acquisition of Jamal Adams. Should the defense take away the middle of the field and force Byrd and Harry to make plays, they can prove just that on Sunday.

Who to know on the Patriots

As a rookie, Chase Winovich was absolutely electric in his first preseason before putting together a relatively quiet rookie season. The third-round pick was outstanding to begin his sophomore season, wreaking havoc in the backfield against the Dolphins’ running game and passing game. Winovich possesses an effective inside move and will test Seattle’s offensive line communication with his ability to rush through different gaps from where he aligns.

In Week 1, stunts, loops, and miscommunication caused a handful of negative plays for an otherwise effective Seahawks offense. Against a Patriots defense made to capitalize on mistakes, Seattle will need to be better prepared to handle confusion and slow down Winovich and a rebuilt front seven’s hot start.

When Newton reads, the defense must play it correctly

Before the season began, Belichick went into that encyclopedic mind of his and came out with option football. Of New England’s 64 plays on offense last week, 11 were read-options (five Newton keepers and six handoffs). The Patriots are going to isolate the Seahawks’ edge defenders and force them to play disciplined and make the correct play; to do otherwise will be to risk giving up massive chunks of yardage as an already outmatched defensive front.

Whether it’s keeping a QB spy off the line of scrimmage as an additional defender against quarterback keepers or implementing specific option rules to mitigate the possibility of big plays, New England’s option game will have been a major focus in practice leading up to Sunday and will need to remain a focus during the game.

Why the Seahawks will win

Seattle has the golden ticket in this game: an elite quarterback at the height of his powers and an offense willing and able to let him be the driving force. Should the Seahawks force Newton to look to his outside wide receivers while limiting the effectiveness of their complex rushing attack, the Patriots will simply be outpaced by Seattle’s offense.

It’s a quarterback-driven league and while New England is wisely building around the strengths of their centerpiece, the firepower they have simply doesn’t stack up against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense at its best.