Admit it. When the Seahawks schedule was announced this year, you did not think there was any chance the team could go 3-0 versus the Cowboys, Packers and Patriots. Yet, that is exactly what is possible this coming Sunday. As exciting as that would be, the fan base and players would have about an hour to savor it before starting the 49ers in the eye a few days later. You can only beat one team at a time, though, so let's put on our thinking caps and examine what this Sunday might bring.
The Best Bobby Since Boucher
Bobby Wagner is the "other" rookie on this Seahawks squad. Apparently, there is some guy starting at quarterback as a rookie that is getting some attention. After him, there is another rookie on pace to tie the NFL record for sacks by a first-year player. Then, there is Wagner. All he has been asked to do is step in for the team's leading tackler over the last few seasons, and be the quarterback of a defense where he would be the only new starter. The coaches hedged on whether Wagner would take play-calling duties and man the middle linebacker position coming into training camp, knowing they could rely on 2nd year player, K.J. Wright. Wagner made it a moot point by showing Russell Wilson is not the only hard-working book worm in the bunch. Wagner has been setting the bar higher each and every week. His best game has been his last five weeks running.
What really matters for this Patriots match-up is that the coaching staff has allowed Wagner to start playing in their nickel package. Why does that matter? First, Wagner may be better in coverage than in run support, and he's damn good against the run. His most notable impact plays during camp came when he read passes to runners coming out of the back-field and used his remarkable speed to step in front of passes for interceptions. Second, the Patriots no-huddle will make it harder to sub personnel in and out on defense. The more players can operate in multiple situations, the better. Wagner allows Gus Bradley to stay in base defensive personnel, but do some more flexible calls.
Bruce Irvin has become the impact player the team hoped for when they drafted him. He, however, will have the opposite situation of Wagner come Sunday. Irvin plays less than half the defensive snaps so far, and is generally subbed in for specific situations that indicate a more likely pass down. The no-huddle will make it harder to swap Red Bryant and Irvin. That could mean Bradley needs to leave one player, or the other, in for a series instead of specific situations. The Patriots rushing offense makes it hard to lean on Irvin. Their passing offense makes it hard to lean on Bryant. That's why Bradley gets paid the big bucks. Finding a way to get Irvin enough snaps without opening up the Patriots running game will be a key.
Patriots No Better Than Carolina Defending The Pass
There has been some hand-wringing that Russell Wilson's career-high passing yardage and strong 3rd-down performance was fool's gold, inflated by a terrible Panthers defense. Assume that is true for a second. Now, explain why he should have any tougher treading against the Patriots pass defense that is equal, or worse, than the Panthers in many categories. New England allows 44% of 3rd downs to be converted (25th in the NFL), compared to 46% for the Panthers. They allow 291.6 yards passing per game (30th in the NFL), a full 40 yards more than the Panthers. They have a cumulative opponent passer rating of 96.5 (22nd), where Carolina is at 92.2. No team in football has allowed more explosive pass plays of 20+ yards than the Pats. They have given up 27 such plays, averaging more than 5 per game! The Panthers allowed 11 fewer. No other team has allowed more than 23 explosive passing plays. Seattle has allowed 11, in case you were wondering. Oh, and remember those nice fat pockets Wilson was throwing from on Sunday? The Panthers had sacked Matt Ryan 7 times the week before, and rank 9th in the NFL in sacks. The Patriots check in at 19th, with only 9 sacks, for less than 2 per game. The Patriots are Juggernaut, that will be tough for anyone to beat, but there should be opportunities for this passing offense to make plays.
Seattle will enter the game against the Patriots as one of only two teams that has not allowed an opponent to score 20 points or more. They can breathe easy because history indicates they can allow 21 and still have a good chance to win. Since the record-setting season in 2007, the Patriots have gone 8-13 when scoring 21 points or less in a game. That includes a 20-18 loss to the Cardinals this season. The trouble is, the offense rarely finds itself below that mark, and things get ugly when they score more than 21 points. New England is a stunning 59-5 when they score 22 points or more since 2007. One of those losses came this year, when they fell to the Ravens 31-30. Given this Seahawks offense remains in its formative stages, the team would be wise to find a way to hold the Pats at 21 points or fewer.
Turnovers always matter. In this case, they help explain how the Patriots can look so dominant while giving up so many yards on defense. New England ranks 3rd in the NFL in takeaways, and 5th in giveaways, good for the 2nd-best turnover margin in the league. Tom Brady is a major part of this equation. For a team that has the 10th-most pass attempts in the league, the Pats have only thrown one interception. They throw a pick on 0.54% of their attempts. Yikes. The reality is the Seahawks have zero chance of winning this game if they turn the ball over. The plus side is if the Seahawks can take the ball away from the Pats, it will be an unfamiliar situation for them.
12th Man Prep
Get ready, folks. This weekend will not only be about how well the Seahawks defense handles the no-huddle offense, it will be about how well the fans handle it. The noise level against the Packers was fantastic and constant. It will need to match that because there will not be many opportunities for down time. The waves of sound must come crashing down without interruption. Opposing teams are managing to escape the CLink without any false starts. Seattle is close to losing the lead for false starts since 2005. It is time for fans to pick up their game.