Tale of the Tape: Hawks Offense vs Patriots D

While so much of the pre-Super Bowl hype focused on the matchup between the Patriots explosive offense against the Seahawks top-ranked defense, equally important will be the battles on the other side. Bill Belichick is a master of scheming away an opponent's primary weapon. Can Russell Wilson and Seattle's "pedestrian" pass-catchers beat Darrell Revis, Brandon Browner and Co?

Tale of the Tape: 'Hawks Offense vs. Patriots' Defense

In past weeks, SeahawkFootball.com has been joined by others among the Scout.com community in a feature called "Speaking with the Enemy." This week, Chris Simoneau, the publisher of PatriotsInsider.com and I preview Sunday's big game. Today's feature matchup - the Seahawks plain but productive offense against the Patriots' underrated defense.

Seahawks' Offense Plain but Productive

When discussing Seattle's strengths, most point initially to the Seahawks' defense. Some even mention the unit in historical terms, comparing Seattle's squad to legendary defenses like the 1985 Chicago Bears or the Minnesota Vikings' Purple People Eaters of the 60's and 70s. Seattle's run game rarely gets this kind of praise and yet, from a statistical standpoint, Marshawn Lynch and Co. have been every bit as impressive this season for the Seahawks.

Seattle not only led the NFL in rushing yards per game this season (172.6), they obliterated the competition. The Seahawks ran for 25.5 yards more per game than the second-placed Dallas Cowboys. Take this number away from Dallas' total (147.1) and they'd slip to 10th on the NFL's list. Further, Seattle led the NFL in big runs (six of 40+ yards), the percentage of their first downs gained by runs (27.4) and rushing touchdowns (20).

Lynch, of course, deserves much of the credit. It remains to be seen if he'll play long enough to earn Hall of Fame consideration, but since the Seahawks stole him from Buffalo (for a fourth round pick in 2011 and a fifth round pick in 2012), he's played at a Canton-worthy level. Lynch consistently generates yardage after contact, helping him develop his well-earned "Beast Mode" reputation for brute power and determination. Rarely, however, does he get enough credit for his balance, lateral agility and acceleration.

Much of Lynch's production comes out of one back set, though when Seattle does use a fullback, former defensive end Will Tukuafu (6-2, 280 pounds), has demonstrated impressive awareness, surprisingly quick feet, and, of course, pure power, to pave lanes for Lynch to exploit. He's one of many savvy pick-ups this season by general manager John Schneider and his staff, as the Seahawks' returning starter from a year ago - Derrick Coleman - was lost to a broken foot.

Much of Seattle's success in the running game is a direct result of Russell Wilson's athleticism and awareness. Wilson - who rushed for a career-high 849 yards and six touchdowns over the regular season - is a constant threat to scramble when the play breaks down and is one of the league's best at the read-option. Wilson possesses extraordinary spatial awareness, protecting the football and himself from big hits, frequently extending the ball to get an extra yardage as he runs out of bounds or sliding just before defenders launch. Wilson hasn't loss a single fumble in a combined 599 pass/run attempts this season.

The Seahawks endured more than their share of injuries along the offensive line this season, losing Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger to multiple games each. Rookie right tackle Justin Britt missed the NFC Championship game with a knee sprain. Guards James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy have also battled injuries. The preferred starting five is expected to be ready for Sunday's matchup, though. Like the rest of their passing attack, Seattle's offensive line is better on tape than on the stat-sheet. According to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks rank 17th in Pass Blocking. Some of this, however, is a reflection of the frenetic style with which Wilson plays. Rather than firing passes out of a quick and controlled three-step drop, Wilson often takes extra time to survey the field, leading to an exorbitant number of pressures and sometimes sacks.

In an era of wide-open passing attacks that have assaulted NFL defenses as well as its record books, the Seahawks would appear to be lagging behind. Wilson "only" threw for 20 touchdowns over the regular season - that's half of what fellow 2012 product Andrew Luck tossed this season for the Indianapolis Colts and one less than what rookie Derek Carr completed for the Oakland Raiders or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - owners of the No. 1 overall pick (and widely assumed to be considering taking a quarterback) - finished the year with. Only six teams in the league threw for fewer touchdowns over the regular season than Seattle. None of them made the playoffs.

Rather than an indictment on Wilson, the receivers or Seattle's offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, however, Seattle's relatively pedestrian passing numbers are a reflection of Pete Carroll's defensive-minded philosophies. The Seahawks may have ranked 27th in Passing Offense (203.1 yards per game) but a closer look shows that Wilson's QB Rating of 95.0 was eighth among NFL starters and only recently crowned MVP Aaron Rodgers (five) and Alex Smith (six) had less interceptions than Seattle's quarterback. In the few situations this season in which Wilson has been allowed to pick up the tempo and aggressively pass the ball, he's proven quite effective. He's very accurate from inside the pocket, demonstrating terrific ball placement to guide his receivers away from contact and routinely makes Pro Bowl-caliber throws requiring velocity or touch. He is just as accurate on the move, making Wilson (along with Rodgers and Dallas' Tony Romo) a nightmare for defenses to handle on so-called scramble drills.

Like their quarterback, Seattle's receiving corps lack ideal measureables. The starters - Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse - do not possess explosive speed or great size. Each is a reliable route-runner, however, and possess soft hands. Baldwin is Wilson's favorite target on "money" downs, consistently generating separation with subtle fakes and terrific burst out of his breaks. Kearse is Seattle's most gifted pass-catcher, often contorting in space to make dramatic catches look easy. He accelerates smoothly, lulling defenders asleep and surprising them by sneaking over the top.

The loss of rookie Paul Richardson (torn ACL vs. Carolina) is a significant one for Seattle. Though he "only" caught 29 passes for 271 yards and a single score over the regular season, his 4.4 speed kept free safeties deep, opening up room for Seattle's much preferred underneath routes and running game. Ricardo Lockette possesses similar straight-line speed but isn't as polished as a route-runner and too often allows the ball into his pads, resulting in some drops. Fellow rookie Kevin Norwood could see more action this week. He has very good hands but isn't a breakaway threat.

Given New England's pass rush, tight end Luke Willson could play a critical role in this game. The 6-5, 252 pounder possesses 4.5 speed as well as the lateral agility to elude defenders. He's been split out wide with increasing regularity, breaking free for a pair of 25+ yard receptions in the divisional playoff win against Carolina, including a touchdown.

Patriots Defense- Smart and Productive

When your team is facing the best defense since the 2000 Ravens, there is a good chance that if you play defense on the OTHER team, you’re not going to get a lot of publicity leading up to the game. The media has been so busy talking about deflated footballs, Richard Sherman, Tom Brady and Roger Goodell that the Patriots defense has become the forgotten storyline of Super Bowl XLIX. I’m willing to bet that Pete Carroll hasn’t forgotten about them because his offense is going to have their hands full with this smart, talented and flexible unit.

If you just look at the raw overall stats, one would think that the Patriots defense is just good, but the truth is, they’re considerably better than that. New England allowed 19.6 points per game, good for 8th in the NFL. The pass defense allowed 239.8 yards per game, ranking them 17th in the league. That stat can be a bit deceiving though because the Patriots allow the underneath stuff but refuse to get beat over the top; using that method forces your defense to concede SOME yardage. The run defense, which looked like a weakness in the first month of the season, got it together and finished 9th in the NFL with 104.3 yards per game allowed.

Over the last ten years, the Patriots defense has left the offense out to dry. They couldn’t make stops after the offense would do great things, and the biggest issue was in the secondary. If you look back at the last six Patriot playoff losses, every single one of them will show a secondary getting scorched in the biggest moments. Enter Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and the attitude of the defensive backs has changed completely.

Revis, a 2014 All-Pro, is playing the way he did before his 2012 ACL injury, and Browner, who lost his job in Seattle last season, has also returned to the form. Browner has had some issues with penalties this year, but the Patriots will take the flags over touchdowns. With these two on board, it allows Devin McCourty to flourish at the safety position because he doesn’t have to constantly help the cornerbacks. Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan round out the cornerback position and they’ve both had strong years.

Patrick Chung is a bit of a liability defending the pass, but he is one of the best run-stuffing safeties in football and he’ll be a big part of the plan to stop Marshawn Lynch. Revis will most likely be matched up with Doug Baldwin throughout the game, leaving Logan Ryan or Kyle Arrington to deal with Jermaine Kearse, and Brandon Browner is going to have the job of slowing down underrated Seahawks tight end Luke Willson. One of the reasons New England signed Browner was to deal with tall, physical tight ends, so this is a perfect matchup for the former “Legion of Boom” member.

The New England linebacking core is extremely talented too, led by third year starter Dont’a Hightower and second year stud Jamie Collins. Hightower did miss four games in 2014, but he still finished with six sacks and 100 tackles, 58 of them being solo. Collins rang up four sacks, two interceptions, six passes defended, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 130 tackles, 85 of them being solo. Needless to say, Collins is coming into his own as an NFL linebacker, as is Hightower, and the result is a linebacking core with speed, smarts and versatility.

The loss of Jerod Mayo did hurt, but New England traded for versatile backer Akeem Ayers, and he has been very good for the Patriots in his nine games. When Chandler Jones was hurt, Ayers was used more as an outside pass rusher and he picked up four sacks, and when Chandler returned, Ayers was moved back to inside linebacker, a position he played throughout his career. Although I do expect to see Browner covering Willson, don’t be surprised to see Collins deployed on him at times too. The Patriots mix up coverages and tomorrow will be no different.

New England has a big job to do up front, and that group is led by veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork is not the player he used to be, but he still demands double teams and has flashes of brilliance. The Patriots haven’t had a lot of success with the middle pass rush, but their ends get the job done. Rob Ninkovich finished 2014 with eight sacks and 71 tackles, 50 being solo. Chandler Jones dealt with a hip issue for most of the season, but was still able to pick up six sacks and 34 tackles in ten games.

Alan Branch, the former Seahawk defensive tackle, has provided a spark since being signed at the season’s midpoint. Branch has played in eight games and started two, providing 11 tackles, five being solo. Branch has played angry since joining New England and stands out every time he is on the field. Chris Jones has started 11 games and appeared in 15, and the young defensive tackle was able to pick up three sacks and 16 tackles.

Sealver Siliga has been strong since returning from the PUP list, appearing in seven games while providing 2.5 sacks and 40 total tackles. This group may be a bit unknown, but they were a big part of the eighth ranked rush defense and also did a great job of defending the outside runs, the bread and butter of the Seattle rushing game. Overall, the Patriots match up very well with the Seattle offense and that could decide the game Sunday night.

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