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Patriots' offensive tempo is a challenge
When Gus Bradley stepped to the podium after practice last Thursday, the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator laughed before saying, “It seems like every week it a new challenge, a different challenge.”
It doesn’t just seem that way; it has been that way that for Bradley and his defensive players. In their first five games, the Seahawks already have faced – and in most cases stared down – Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton. The Seahawks are 3-1 against this well-armed quartet.
But now comes the closest thing the NFL has to royalty at the QB position, because of everything he presents and represents: Tom Brady, who will lead the New England Patriots and the league’s No. 1-ranked offense into CenturyLink Field on Sunday.
Just the latest challenge for Bradley and the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense.
“You can’t get better than Tom,” coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday. “He’s just a great come-through guy and an incredible athlete to be so consistent for so long. These are legendary type of numbers and seasons he’s put back-to-back-to-back.”
With Romo, the primary concern was the ability of the Cowboys’ QB to extend plays while on the move, without taking off and running with the ball. The Seahawks started where they always have to start – by shutting down the running game – and then harassed Romo into a 23-of-40 passing performance where his longest completion was a 26-yarder in a 27-7 victory.
With Rodgers, it was a similar challenge, but the Packers’ QB is even better at buying time and then throwing over the top of defenders who have come up to help because it appears Rodgers is about to scramble. The Seahawks sacked Rodgers eight times in the first half of a 14-12 victory and his longest completion was a 31-yarder.
With Bradford, the primary problem was the knack the Rams’ QB has for turning what appears to be nothing into something, especially on third downs. Bradford converted five third-and-10-plus situations – all on scoring drives – in the Rams’ 19-13 victory with those completions accounting for 91 of his 221 passing yards.
Last week, against Newton, the concern was the read-option wrinkle that had allowed the Panthers to produce so many explosive plays. The Seahawks shut it down by using cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman to take away Newton’s pitch option to the outside, allowing the linemen and linebackers to clog the lanes he had been able to exploit. Of the Panthers’ 190 yards, 156 came on two possessions as the Seahawks grabbed a 16-12 victory.
With Brady it’s, well, where to start. The tempo of the offense is a good place after the Patriots ran 89 plays in Sunday’s victory over the Denver Broncos.
“Everything that happened out there we had seen on film, it was just the speed of the game,” Broncos linebacker Joe Mays told reporters after the game. “We weren’t ready for that. We were prepared for it, but when we came out on the field, it surprised us a little bit.”
The Seahawks are expecting the Patriots to use 10-15 seconds between the end of one play and the snap on the next play.
“If they have their way, they’re just going to come screaming down the field at us,” Carroll said. “They’re going to go as fast as you can go. But they don’t have any advantage over us in that. We’re going to go as fast as you can go. And we’re well-equipped to do it.
“This is really the team that really does take you to the extent where you have to be full speed in transition between plays. The point is, we can’t let their tempo dictate our play. That’s the challenge.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick says there are two keys to using the hurry-up/no-huddle approach: Conditioning and thinking quickly.
“It just accelerates everything – the communication, the recognition, the assignments when the ball is snapped,” Belichick said Wednesday during a conference-call interview. “And obviously physically, you’re running more plays in a shorter amount of time, so there’s a little bit more affect it can have there.”
Leading receiver Wes Welker embraces the tempo, which can defuse some of the defensive aggressiveness.
“Personally, I like going at that pace,” Welker said Wednesday, also during a conference-call interview. “I feel that it’s something that I train for and get ready for and go out there and try and wear my opponent down.”
And it is working. The Patriots are averaging 30.2 first downs, and have 101 in their past three games. And in 60 offensive possessions, they have just four three-and-outs.
Then there’s the unnerving fact that the usually pass-first Patriots are running the ball more than Brady is throwing it, and doing it from spread formations that suggest they are indeed going to throw the ball.
“We’ve been getting a lot of nickel defense, so when they put little guys out there we’ve got to take advantage of it,” Brady explained after the game against the Broncos. “I think we’re playing, definitely, a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football.”
And it’s not just Brady.
“They have terrific weapons and they really utilize the strengths of their guys in great fashion,” Carroll said. “You can’t have more problems than they present.”
So, how do the Seahawks attack this latest challenge – their greatest challenge so far?
Last week, the Seahawks leaned on some of their younger defenders – specifically rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and second-year strongside ’backer K.J. Wright – who had faced the read-option in college. This week, they’ll have to rely on one of their oldest players, because only nickel back Marcus Trufant has faced Brady as a member of the Seahawks. It was in 2004, when the Seahawks lost to the Patriots in New England 30-20, as Brady was 19 of 30 for 231 yards.
“It’s one of those things where he’s going to make his plays,” Trufant said. “So you’ve got to know that, and you’ve got to weather the storm. You’ve got to know that he’s going to make his throws, but you’ve got to try to not give up the big plays.
“Once the guys do catch the ball, you’ve got to tackle them and limit the run after the catch.”
Another thing Trufant is doing as he prepares for his 130th game as a Seahawk is not to make this game any bigger than it already is.
“Every game is a big game,” he said. “That’s how I always try to approach it. I don’t really look at records and rankings and who’s on the other team. Because every team is good; every team brings something to the table. So you’ve always got to be on your A-game.”
Defensive lineman Jason Jones faced Brady in 2009, while playing for the Tennessee Titans, and saw the Patriots’ QB at his best – 29 of 35 for 380 yards and six touchdowns in a 59-0 romp.
“With Tom, like with any other quarterback, you’ve got to get him off his spot,” Jones said. “He’s going to make his passes. You just have to get some pressure in his face. So as a defense, we’ve just got to make sure we keep the pressure on him all day.
“We can’t make it too easy for him. So we’ve just got to make sure we’re very aggressive at the start of the game and make sure we’re in his face.”
As many things as the Patriots’ offense can throw at a defense – or run at them – the key to everything remains Brady.
“He’s such a perfectionist, and so on top of everything, and he’s such a competitor and wants everybody to be on the same page,” Welker said. “He’s going to let you know if you’re screwing up and try and get you in the right mindset to go out there and do what you need to do on the football field.
“It’s good to have him there to keep guys accountable.”
But Brady never has had to deal with the environment at CenturyLink Field, because he was injured when the Patriots played in Seattle in 2008.
“Tom has played in some pretty big games in the past,” Welker said. “So I’m not too worried about him.”
He’ll leave the worrying to the Seahawks’ defense.