Here are the 10 premiere matchups in Sunday’s Patriots-Seahawks game in Seattle:
Linebacker Brandon Spikes against running back Marshawn Lynch. While trying to slow down Lynch will be a team effort, the Patriots’ primary run stopper against one of the biggest, toughest backs in the league should be a great matchup. The Patriots’ defense has always been about trying to take away the No. 1 offensive option, and in this case, that’s Lynch. (Vince Wilfork was only half-joking when he said there are times where Lynch doesn’t need blockers.) The Cal product has 508 rushing yards on the season, third-best among all running backs, and he has at least 85 yards in 13 of his last 14 games. Look for New England to try and sell out against the run, and make slowing down Lynch the primary objective. Expect Spikes to lead the charge -- the linebacker has graded out as the Patriots’ best run defender over the first five games by Pro Football Focus at +6.0.
Running back Stevan Ridley against defensive lineman Brandon Mebane. Ridley and the rest of New England’s running game benefited from the Patriots’ uptempo approach last week, as New England spread out the Broncos and kept its foot on the gas. Ridley finished last week’s game with 151 rushing yards and a touchdown -- overall, he’s fifth in the league with 490 yards. The Seahawks are the toughest run defense the Patriots have faced this season -- Seattle is third in the league against the run, yielding just 66.6 rushing yards per game. Only one running back has topped 50 rushing yards in a game against Seattle -- Stephen Jackson of the Rams had 18 carries for 55 yards against the Seahawks.) Per PFF, Mebane is the Seahawks’ best run defender with a +12.5 grade against the run this season. One thing worth keeping an eye on is when the Patriots run, who they run at -- like many edge rushers, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin struggle against the run. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots try and target those two in the run game.
Wide receiver Wes Welker against slot corner Marcus Trufant. As long as Aaron Hernandez remains sidelined, Welker will be the focus of the New England passing game. He’ll be matched up most of the afternoon against Trufant, who has worked as Seattle’s slot corner over the course of the first five games of the season. The veteran Trufant -- who yielded his starting spots to Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman -- has done very well while working in the slot this season, having allowed a reception only once every 16.8 snaps from that position, the second-best mark in the NFL (according to Pro Football Focus). At the same time, Welker is in the midst of one of the finest stretches he’s had over the last few seasons, catching 30 of the last 36 balls that have been thrown in his direction.
The Patriots offense against the Seattle crowd noise. New England isn’t likely to run as much no-huddle as it did last week for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Patriots don’t run as much no-huddle on the road as they do at home. In addition, the crowd noise in Seattle -- called by many the loudest facility in the league -- probably won’t help matters when it comes to communication. It’s paramount that New England takes control of the game early as does as much as possible to take the crowd out of the contest. If the Seahawks hang around, they will be able to feed off the crowd energy.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez against cornerback Brandon Browner. In this week’s edition of “Scout’s Take,” our insider told us that if Hernandez is able to play, when he’s flexed out, look for the Seahawks to try and use Browner against him. Browner is the Seahawks second-best defender when it comes to pass coverage (PFF has him graded out as 4.4 over the course of the first five games), and the 6-foot-3, 221-pounde certainly has the size to keep up with the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hernandez.
Safety Pat Chung against tight end Zach Miller. The Patriots secondary has struggled at times in coverage throughout the season, including their coverage of tight ends. After a stretch where he was being used as a glorified tackle, Miller has returned to work more as a pass catcher, and has hauled in 12 passes for 150 yards on the year and is second on the team in receiving. He’ll provide a challenge for Chung and the rest of the New England safeties, who will be without Steve Gregory, who is sidelined with a hip injury. Like last week when he played 66 of a possible 67 defensive snaps with Gregory out, expect an uptick in playing time for rookie Tavon Wilson.
Patriots’ tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder against edge rushers Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. The 6-foot-3, 254-pound Clemons and 6-foot-3, 248-pound Irvin bring great pressure off the edge -- Clemons leads Seattle with 5.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries, while Irvin is second with 4.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in his first five games as a pro. After a rocky preseason, both Vollmer and Solder have held up well throughout the regular season -- each have allowed just one quarterback sack and zero quarterback hits over the first five games.
Defensive end Chandler Jones against quarterback Russell Wilson. Jones has done a good job getting to the quarterback over the course of his first five games as a professional, but he faces an interesting challenge this week in Wilson. The undersized quarterback will be looking to avoid the clutches of the long, lean pass rusher, who will almost certainly be coming after the 5-foot-11 Wilson with his hands in the air trying to bat down some of his passes.
Cornerback Devin McCourty against wide receiver Sidney Rice. The best outside matchup of the afternoon, McCourty -- who has had an up-and-down season -- will be looking to put another check in the positive column when he goes up against the Seahawks best receiver in Rice (17 catches, 199 yards, one touchdown). McCourty has played brilliantly at times. He was a sizable part of the reason that Larry Fitzgerald was held to one catch in Week Two. But there have also been problems. Four of the five balls that were thrown at McCourty when he was in coverage last week against the Broncos were completed, a season-low for the corner. It also didn’t help matters that he was flagged for a pass interference call that set up Denver’s first touchdown of the game at the start of the second quarter and yielded a touchdown pass on a nifty catch by Eric Decker in the third quarter. Comparatively, the Seahawks don’t pass all that much, but when Wilson drops back to pass, he’s looking for the 6-foot-4, 202-pound Rice, who leads the team in targets with 26.
The Patriots kick/punt coverage units against returner Leon Washington. As our pal Nuggetpalooza reminds us, Washington and Seattle leads the league in kickoff returns averaging 31.2 yards per return and has three returns of 40 or more yards. (Also working as a punt returner, Washington has an 83-yard return on a kickoff and a 52-yard return on a punt already.) Washington is at the center of a very good special teams unit -- Seattle punter John Ryan led the league in punts downed inside the 20 in 2011, and winning the battle for field position will be a key struggle Sunday for a Seattle team that relies so heavily on defense. (For what it’s worth, the Patriots average 20 yards per kickoff return, 29th in the league, and have yet to return one more than 28 yards this season. As Nuggetpalooza said a couple of weeks ago, the last Patriots kickoff return of 40 or more yards was 97 kickoffs ago when Dan Connolly went 71 yards against the Packers on Dec. 19, 2010.)