BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots trek into unfamiliar territory on Sunday afternoon as they make a rare trip across the country to Seattle to play the Seahawks.
The two teams last met in 2008, when Matt Cassel’s team barely eked out a win over Deion Branch’s Seahawks. The only other meeting in the Bill Belichick era came in 2004, when the Patriots beat the Seahawks to win their 20th consecutive game.
This time around, obviously, things look a little bit different, so here are four keys to watch for in Sunday’s meeting.
1. Look Out, Brady
All anyone can seem to talk about whenever a team makes a trip to Seattle is that the Seahawks’ home crowd is arguably the loudest in the entire NFL. That might be the case, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Seahawks are not exactly unbeatable at home (11-7 since Pete Carroll took over in ’10).
Regardless of how the crowd noise may be getting too much of the focus heading into the game, it will nevertheless play some factor on Sunday, particularly if the Seahawks jump out to an early lead. And if the Seattle pass rushers, who rank fifth in the league with 16 sacks through five games, including eight in one home game against Green Bay, start feeding on that energy and getting a jump on the Pats’ offensive line, then it could be a dangerous day from Tom Brady in the backfield.
Working against the Patriots could be Aaron Hernandez’s rust, if he does indeed play (he was listed as questionable on Friday’s practice report). It’s hard enough to get re-acclimated to the Patriots’ fast-pace offense after missing nearly an entire month, and adding in the chaos that can be the noisy atmosphere in Seattle will only make it more difficult.
2. To Huddle, Or Not To Huddle? That Is The Question.
The Patriots made a few jaws drop last week with their no-huddle offense that took the idea of “hurry-up” to the extreme. The Patriots ran 89 plays, picked up 35 first downs and converted 11 of 17 third downs against Denver last Sunday while running an offense so fast-paced that CBS was unable to show replays of most plays, because the Brady and the offense were already lined up, ready to run the next play.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the Patriots try to copy that strategy again, for a few reasons. For one, the team may have been fatigued by fourth quarter, when they allowed three sacks and when Stevan Ridley fumbled his 28th carry of the game.
Another factor, of course, is the crowd noise, which can be neutralized if the offense can make plays and take a lead.
But perhaps the biggest reason why the Patriots will change their strategy is because they’ve all been answering dozens of questions about the no-huddle offense since about 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Bill Belichick usually doesn’t just roll out the same game plan in back-to-back weeks.
Whatever this week’s game plan is, Brady will still need to be able to run the no-huddle with some form of success for the offense to have its best chance against the NFL’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed per game.
3. Tall Guys
A part of that defense that makes it so unique is the size of its defensive backs. The Seahawks have five cornerbacks on their roster listed as 6 feet or taller and a pair of safeties who check in at 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3. It’s much more size than you generally see in defensive backfields, and it adds a different degree of difficult for Brady and the receivers.
Those passes Brady likes to throw over linebackers to Rob Gronkowski will be no sure thing, and any passes to the outside that aren’t perfect could end up getting knocked away or intercepted.
” These guys are long, they’re big,” Belichick said of the Seattle defensive backs. “They’re extremely long, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 corners. You just don’t see those very often. To see them on one team, they’re just hard to get away from. They’re big, they’re physical, they take up a lot of space. A lot of guys just aren’t used to working against that size player, 220-pound corners. There just aren’t a lot of them out there. I think that’s a challenge because it’s a little bit unique. They’re also good tacklers, good run-force players.
“For the quarterback, it’s harder because it’s no different than playing against a taller middle linebacker, a guy like [Brian] Urlacher or somebody like that in there that’s 6-4, 6-5 in the middle of the field. Their range and their height just make those throws in the middle a little tougher. Throwing the ball outside on a 6-2, 6-4 corner, it’s a little different deal getting it over them or trying to run some high-low combinations out there. It’s just a much bigger guy. They do a good job.”
Despite the size in the defensive backfield, Seattle has just three interceptions this season. Still, they allow just 5.8 yards per attempt (second in NFL) and 192 passing yards per game (fourth), so they present a big challenge for Brady — horrible pun intended.
4. Stevie G, For Three
Since taking over for Adam Vinatieri in 2006, Stephen Gostkowski has been rock solid for the Patriots. This year, though, he’s introduced a level of uneasiness when it comes time for a field goal. He’s missed three of his 14 kicks on the season, well off his career 84 percent mark.
This weekend, in what will likely be a close game, Gostkowski will face the challenge of kicking outside in what could be less-than-ideal conditions. The early forecast for Sunday calls for a 70 percent chance of rain and 16 mph winds.
This game could come down to the right foot of Gostkowski, and any miss could be a killer.