Players To Watch In Super Bowl XLIX

You know who the big dogs are on the Seattle Seahawks.  The top ten, in some order, looks like this:

  • Russell Wilson
  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Bobby Wagner
  • Earl Thomas
  • Richard Sherman
  • Kam Chancellor
  • Michael Bennett
  • Doug Baldwin
  • Cliff Avril
  • Max Unger

So, I’m not going to sit here and tell you why all these guys are important.  You KNOW why.

This one’s dedicated to the specific Patriots we should probably be concerned with heading into the game next week.  These are the guys everyone will be talking about until this low simmer we’re all on ratchets up to a huge boil.

Let’s start with Tom Brady, because why not?  He’s the only sure-thing Hall of Famer on that team (though, there are some other possibilities, that we’ll get to).  Tom Brady has been one of the best quarterbacks in football pretty much since he took over the starting job with New England in 2001.  His career passer rating is 95.9 – which is outstanding – and he hasn’t even really missed a beat.  In 2014, he had his usual gaudy numbers, adding up to a passer rating of 97.4.  And, with the exception of a few peak years with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Brady has done all of this with a largely anonymous group of receivers (sound familiar?).

Tom Brady is a quarterback who clearly makes the people around him better.  He has an unquestioned dedication to the game of football and that’s why his teams have always gone to the playoffs and why they’ve had so much success once they’ve gotten there.  Also, it doesn’t hurt that the rest of the AFC East has largely been one big shitshow the entire time, but that’s neither here nor there.

Unlike Manning, Brady doesn’t run his own offense.  He’s not his own offensive coordinator.  If it’s going to help the team win, Brady is more than willing to defer to the running game, if that’s what it takes.  I guess that’s the difference between being a 6th rounder vs. a #1 overall draft pick.  I guess that’s the difference between being led by one of the most successful and talented head coaches in NFL history (even if he is a big, lousy cheater sometimes) vs. a random smattering of guys who are more than willing to let their star quarterback just do his own thing.

Brady is dangerous in the same way that Russell Wilson is dangerous, in the fact that all they care about is winning, at any cost.  It just so happens that Brady has never REALLY had a dominating running game to defer to.  He’s never had a Marshawn Lynch to lean on.  Early in his career, though, Brady DID have an outstanding defense backing him, which was the real driving force in their three Super Bowl titles.  As Brady emerged from that early period in his career, the talent on defense diminished, so he was required to do more.  And, to his credit, he succeeded in almost every way.  That 2007 squad will go down historically as one of the very best teams of all time.  But, when shit got real, they were nipped by the Giants, and that’s that.

Nowadays, Brady doesn’t have the cannon he once did.  You’re not going to see the jump balls he threw to Randy Moss.  Part of that is the talent around him (Brandon LaFell isn’t anywhere near Randy Moss’s UNIVERSE), but part of that is just Brady getting older.  37 years old.  Over 50,000 yards on that arm.  In that respect, he is like Manning, or a latter-day Marino.  He’s going to hang around in that pocket (when he’s not sneaking for that first down on 3rd- & 4th-&-inches), he’s going to rely on rhythm passing from 0-10 yards in front of him, and he’s going to try to dictate tempo by going hurry-up to keep the defense on its heels and tired.

We saw this last year!  None of this is new!  We were worried about the same damn thing with the Broncos and it ended up being a non-issue!  Tom Brady CAN be affected if you get in his face.  You don’t necessarily want to send wave after wave of blitzers after him, but then again, maybe you do.  I mean, the Jets seem to have the Patriots pretty well figured out, and they’ve been running out a Junior Varsity quarterback out there for the last couple decades!  All Rex Ryan DOES is blitz!  I’m not saying that’s what the Seahawks will do – we tend to be among the least-blitzing teams in the NFL, in spite of our mascot’s name – but in theory, if things start getting hairy, it’s not a bad idea.  Let our corners press, and start throwing five and six guys after him on the reg.

If you let Tom Brady stand there all day, he’s going to pick you apart.  Unlike Manning – who’s so afraid of taking a hit that his internal clock is running on fast-forward at all times – Brady will hang in the pocket as long as necessary.  It’s not what he wants, I’m sure, but if the defense is going to press and bump receivers off of their routes, then we’re going to have to punish Brady accordingly for having the gall to wait it out until they get open.

I don’t necessarily see this as a game where the Patriots are going to try to slug it out with us on the ground.  We’re not the Colts, who are a wet paper bag when it comes to stopping the run.  Of course, we’re not necessarily the Ravens either – who make it a point to go all out in stopping the run.  We are who we are.  We’re going to stop your run the same way we stop everyone else’s run.  So, in that sense, I wouldn’t expect the Pats to completely abandon it the way they did in the second half of that Ravens game, but at the same time, we’re probably going to get a heavy dose of passing regardless.  On the year, Brady threw the ball 36 times per game.  That’s about what I’d expect out of this one as long as it remains close.  If it gets out of hand one way or another, figure to add or subtract about 15 to that total.

Pressure Brady, and everything else should fall into place.  A great way to do that?  Put the lockdown on Gronk.

The Pats have four primary receiving threats.  Here’s what they looked like in the regular season:

  • Rob Gronkowski:  82 catches, 1,124 yards, 12 TDs
  • Julian Edelman:  92 catches, 972 yards, 4 TDs
  • Brandon LaFell:  74 catches, 953 yards, 7 TDs
  • Shane Vereen:  52 catches, 447 yards, 3 TDs

Gronk’s just a beast.  He broke out in his rookie year of 2010 with 10 TDs, then turned into a total monster in 2011 with over 1,300 yards and 17 TDs.  The two subsequent years were marred by injuries and he lost large swaths of playing time.  You had to wonder if he would even be able to return to the game.  At the beginning of this year, it seemed like the team was a little too overly-tentative with him.  He’d be off the field for huge chunks of games and the offense struggled accordingly.  In the first four weeks, he had 13 catches for 147 yards and 3 TDs, while mostly playing around the red zone.

After the Pats got crushed by the Chiefs and fell to 2-2, they had no choice but to let Gronk do his thing.  The Patriots won 7 in a row and 10 of 11 overall to close out the regular season, with Gronk putting up the following numbers in that span:  69 catches, 977 yards, and 9 TDs (with an average of approximately 6 catches, 89 yards, and just under a TD per game).  Absolutely unreal.

As you can tell, Gronk IS the red zone offense for this team.  If I were a gambling man, I’d put a very large chunk of money on Gronk scoring a TD in this game, with a good portion of that on him scoring the FIRST touchdown in the game.  I’m sure you’d hardly win a damn thing on that wager, but what are you gonna do?

Seahawks fans are going to sit here and say, “Well, we’ve dismantled guys like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas; I’m not worried about Gronk!”  That would be a mistake.  Guys like Graham and Thomas are glorified, slow-footed wide receivers.  They’re soft.  Breathe on ’em wrong and they’ll go home crying to mama.  Gronk is built more in the Tony Gonzalez & Antonio Gates mold.  Remember those guys?  Remember how they were able to pick apart our defense for huge catches and scores?  Those guys thrive on contact, as does Gronk.

People are going to talk about the Gronk & Chancellor matchup, and believe you me, I’ll be looking forward to it as much as anyone else.  There’s nothing I’d like to see more than for Bam Bam to knock Gronk on his ass.  But, the underlying theme will be people talking about Kam shadowing Gronk all day, and that’s just not the case.  That’s not how the Seahawks operate.  We’re going to stick a linebacker on him just like most teams.  Since our linebackers – especially K.J. Wright – are better in coverage than most teams, we should be able to prevent Gronk from racking up a ton of yards.

But, it’s in that red zone where I’m worried.  When they opt to run Gronk out wide, with someone like Simon or Maxwell on him.  Good cover guys, sure, but I could see our corners draped all over him like a Snuggie and see him STILL come down with the ball at the goalline.

Don’t dismiss this guy just because he’s annoyingly awesome and you’d LOVE him if he was on the Seahawks.  To keep the Pats in check, we’ve got to keep Gronk in check, and that’s all there is to it.

Edelman is their possession guy.  Their Doug Baldwin, if you will.  On third down, Brady has two targets:  if Gronk is double teamed, or otherwise covered, he’s looking for Edelman in a crossing route or out in the flat.  We HAVE to control this guy.  If the Pats start converting a ton of third downs, it’s likely going to be because Edelman is getting open and squirming his way to the first down marker.

What I expect the Seahawks to do is put Jeremy Lane on him all day.  This more or less worked out okay last week, with Lane doing the heavy lifting on Randall Cobb.  Aside from the touchdown, Cobb was held to 6 catches for 49 yards.  Throw that TD into the mix, and Cobb still only had 7 catches for 62 yards, so it’s not like he was this unstoppable force (I think, too, Lane either fell down or ran into someone on that TD; but, that’s going off of memory and I’m too lazy to go back and watch it again).

Here’s the deal:  Edelman is no Cobb.  Cobb is probably the best slot receiver in the game.  Edelman is good, but he’s really just a poor man’s Welker.  I don’t think the Seahawks are sunk if we leave Lane on him.

What I’d LIKE the Seahawks to do is put Maxwell on him all day.  Maxwell is taller, with longer arms, but he’s still a strong presence as our nickel corner.  If the Seahawks are able to shut down Edelman, and roll coverage to Gronk to minimize his impact, I just don’t see any way the Patriots are able to move the ball consistently.

Brandon LaFell is a real wild card.  His overall numbers this year are MUCH better than I was expecting.  He’s their deep threat, if the Patriots even have a deep threat.  LaFell – while playing for the Panthers the last few years – was never really much of a problem for us.  The types of catches he makes – on fade routes and other types of throws into the corner – are the types of balls we defend the best.  I can’t imagine LaFell gets even a LOOK if he’s lined up on Sherman’s side.  I could, however, see him getting a good chunk of targets if he’s opposite Sherman, and he’s being guarded by the likes of Tharold Simon.

See, there’s a risky game to play if the Seahawks shadow Edelman with Maxwell, and that’s Simon on LaFell.  I like Simon, I think he would win most matchups against someone like LaFell, but I think if he’s out there, he’s GOING to get picked on, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a huge penalty or otherwise a big catch going New England’s way.

So, maybe stick with Maxwell on the outside.  Either way, if we’re assignment-sound, I wouldn’t expect to have too much trouble with their passing game.  It’s just:  can we get off the field?  That’s going to require winning on first & second down, and that’s going to require tight coverage on third down.

As for Shane Vereen, I’m not too concerned.  He’s a poor man’s Darren Sproles, and we’ve been able to handle Sproles pretty well in our matchups with him.  I’d expect someone like Bruce Irvin to be big in this one, especially on early downs.

***

On defense, it starts with Darrelle Revis.  He’s not at his peak like he was with the Jets, but he’s still probably a Top 5 cornerback in this league.  It sounds like last week, they stuck Reggie Wayne on Revis Island and Wayne didn’t have an impact whatsoever.  Sounds pretty scary, until you remember the week before where the Ravens threw for nearly 300 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Don’t forget that Ravens game, because I think it’s really important.  The Ravens were VERY balanced, with 129 yards out of Forsett on the ground, topped off by a pretty good day out of Flacco.  Flacco didn’t shy away from Revis, just like Russell Wilson won’t.  The Ravens got beat because their defense – especially their secondary – can’t hold a flame to ours.  If we can get after the quarterback the way they did (the Ravens didn’t have a ton of sacks, but they hit Brady pretty good), I wouldn’t expect anywhere near the type of offensive success the Pats had in that game.

I expect Revis will follow Doug Baldwin all around the field.  So, look for Baldwin to have a pretty ineffective day.  That’s going to put more pressure on Kearse and the rest of our pass-catchers to pick their games up.  New England isn’t impossible to move the ball on, even with some of their relatively big names on defense.

Brandon Browner obviously comes to mind, but we know what to expect out of him.  He’s likely going to stick to a side – maybe even shadow Kearse all day – and put a hurtin’ on whoever comes near him.  Also, I wouldn’t be entirely shocked to see Browner slide inside and take on one of our tight ends.  A matchup I like even less than the Revis/Baldwin one is a Browner/Willson matchup.  I think Browner would eat our #1 tight end for lunch.  Hopefully, we get the Willson/Random Linebacker matchup I’ve been looking forward to all week.

Kyle Arrington is another guy to keep an eye on.  He’s another cornerback, and apparently is their speed guy (as he took on T.Y. Hilton last week).  I’d look for Arrington to spend his time looking after Lockette, which has the potential to be a nice little mismatch in our favor, as Lockette is 6’2 and Arrington is only 5’10.

Another big one to watch out for is Chandler Jones.  #95 in your programs, he’s a 6’5 monster of a defensive end.  While he only netted six sacks this year, he did miss some time with injury and has been a terrifying beast in the games I’ve seen.  I don’t recall offhand where he generally lines up, but I seem to have him squaring off against Britt in my mind’s eye.  I wish I knew more about his tendencies.  If he’s as aggressive as I think he is, I think we can take advantage of him in the read-option game.  I’d watch for him to crash hard on the fake to Lynch, with Wilson running right around him for big gains.

If only Percy Harvin wasn’t such a massive jack-hole, I could see the jet-sweep being a HUGE play for us, like it was in last year’s Super Bowl.  Why couldn’t we have just kept him inactive each and every week – and away from the team facility entirely – then busted him out for one game a year?

Next up, watch out for a pair of outside linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.  Collins especially, #91.  That guy is a FREAK.  He’ll line up on Okung’s side, and could rush the passer or go out into coverage.  He led the team in tackles and really filled up the stat sheet.  I wouldn’t mind seeing us run right at him, to have him swallowed up in our zone blocking scheme, but I gotta wonder if that’s wise.  If he’s able to shed blocks, we might be looking at a long day running the ball.

That’s because the key to the whole defense is Vince Wilfork.  The mammoth nose tackle whose listed weight is 325, but is probably pushing 360.  The Ravens were successful rushing because they managed to run outside the tackles.  But, that’s not really the Seahawks’ game, as we like taking it right at you.  Max Unger and either James Carpenter or J.R. Sweezy will have their work cut out for them.  Considering Carpenter is the only guy on our line who could POSSIBLY move Wilfork’s wide body out of the way, I would expect Wilfork to shade toward Sweezy’s side of Unger.  If Wilfork’s taking up two blockers, that’s going to hurt our running game, because we depend so much upon Sweezy and other guys getting to the second level.

That’s why, again, I like our chances with the zone read.  If we can break off a 100-yard rushing day out of Russell Wilson, that’s going to start opening up things down the field.

If the Seahawks win this game, Russell Wilson will need to have a game for the ages.  Let’s hope he’s got one more left in him.

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