October 16, 2004
Patriots Dealing With Great Unfamiliarity
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
The last time the Patriots played the Seattle Seahawks, the owner was James Orthwein and the starting Patriot quarterback was (gulp) Scott Secules.
The Seahawks have gone the longest between meetings with the Patriots, and the second most distant opponent, San Francisco, plays the Patriots the final week of the season. Oddly, the Patriots are also the most distant opponent of the Seahawks, and their second longest, the Jets, are also on the docket for the ‘Hawks this year. The teams did meet 12 times between 1980 and 1993. After the Patriots won six of the first eight games of the series (including a 31-0 whitewash in the initial meeting in 1977), the Seahawks have won the last five meetings. Including this weekend, seven of the last eight meetings between these teams will take place in Foxborough.
None of this means a darn this weekend, right?
Sadly, only the part about five straight wins. Seattle has won that many in a row against the Patriots. The Patriots have won 19 straight games against everything in sight. One of those streaks will come to an end. But which one?
All those folks who aren’t diehard Eagle fans like Seattle as the team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. They made it to the Wild Card round of the playoffs last year, went to Lambeau Field, took the Packers to overtime, and promptly lost it after quarterback Matt Hasselbeck brazenly guaranteed a win at the coin flip. Seattle got a playoff drink last year, but this year they want a bigger gulp. Odds are that they will get a decent swig in 2004.
The Seahawks were riding high and mighty last week, sporting a 3-0 record and building a 24-7 fourth quarter lead against the St. Louis Rams at home at Qwest Field (formerly Seahawk Stadium). Just when it looked like a titanic struggle of unbeatens this week at Gillette Stadium, the Rams shocked the home team with a furious rally to tie the game, then Seattle fell in overtime as Marc Bulger hit Shaun McDonald for a 52-yard bomb and a 33-27 win. Seattle now sits at 3-1, and one has to wonder how the aftereffects of this jarring loss will play out this Sunday in Foxborough.
It will be a critical issue. Seattle represents the best chance an opponent has to defeat the Patriots since Denver in that Monday night battle last November. It took a genius call by Bill Belichick to take an intentional safety which helped the Patriots pull out a 30-26 win on a late rally. The game being in Denver, a near impossible city for the Patriots to win in, was what made the game very losable. This is the first eminently losable game since that Denver contest. Seattle, on paper, has plenty of talent to win the game. New England will be New England, and nobody can rule out a Patriot win. It’s just that you cannot also rule out a Seattle win.
The Patriots go into this game heavily wounded on offense, though injuries did nothing to derail the championship express in 2003. Expect Deion Branch, Brown and Bethel Johnson (disciplined, not injured) to not play at all. Then there’s Corey Dillon, who is making with the party line on his foot injury (which means no comment and other vague remarks) and is listed as questionable. Kevin Faulk thinks Dillon will play, but if he can’t answer the bell, the Patriots could be in for it on Sunday.
One thing that was apparent from the Rams game last weekend is that the Seahawks can be run on, especially off right tackle. Rookie running back Steven Jackson ripped off a 48-yard first quarter run off right tackle, a play similar to the 25-yard gain Faulk had in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against Carolina, right in the exact same hole. If Stephen Neal and Tom Ashworth can do that, with perhaps some help from Daniel Graham (if he isn’t needed to help Matt Light), the Patriots might be able to make some hay. The Rams averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 24 carries. It would be better for the Patriots if Dillon were hitting that hole instead of Faulk, though Faulk has shown that he can do it if needed.
The great former Steeler linebacker, Chad Brown, is out for this game. The Seahawks like to blitz a lot, and the Patriots will see a semi-familiar foe in right end Grant Wistrom (Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams). Former 49er Chike Okeafor will rush from the right side. Okeafor and Wistrom have six sacks combined thus far this year. Down lineman Rocky Bernard comes in on passing situations and is second on the team behind Okeafor with three sacks.
One reason the Patriots might want to run off tackle is because of the interior linemen. Cedric Woodard and Rashad Moore have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, and that includes rushers like Deuce McAllister, Charlie Garner and Marshall Faulk. Orlando Huff and Niko Koutouvides split time at middle linebacker.
Marcus Trufant was the team’s top draft pick in 2003, and he along with Ken Lucas make a fine corner tandem. Lucas leads the league with three interceptions. Trufant is tied for the team lead in tackles with 23 (tied with linebacker Anthony Simmons). Right behind them in tackles are safeties Ken Hamlin and Terreal Bierria. This quartet is largely unheralded but does a fine job in pass defense, except in the late moments of last week’s Rams game.
The key to a Patriot victory is stopping the Seattle offense. The defense is healthier than the offense, and that’s a break for the Patriots.
Hasselbeck, the son of former Patriot tight end Don Hasselbeck, was born and raised in Westwood and attended Boston College. He gained notoriety in the playoffs last year when, after winning the overtime coin flip, said “We’ll take the ball and we’re going to win!” That went over like a ton of lead in Green Bay, and Al Harris made the quarterback eat his words with an interception return for 52 yards and a game-winning score. Hasselbeck wound up with egg on his face, but receiver Alex Bannister ran the wrong route which resulted in the pick.
Hasselbeck has a trio of lethal wide receivers which could make lots of trouble. Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram have the capability to do to the Patriots what Charlie Weis likes to do with his wideouts to opponents. They will spread the field and run lots of multiple wideout sets. Look for players like Asante Samuel and perhaps also Randall Gay to be tested often. They could be huge in the winning formula for the Patriots.
And don’t forget Shaun Alexander, the marquee back for the Seahawks. Alexander, who was on the losing end of the 2000 Orange Bowl for Alabama, won by Tom Brady’s Michigan squad, 35-34 in overtime, has 382 yards rushing and a 4.4 average in 2004. He is a breakaway threat, and leads the league in total touchdowns with seven. Hasselbeck will try to use Alexander as playfake bait, so the Patriots will need to play tough in the middle. Look for Vince Wilfork to be a key in this area, as the Patriots try and limit the Seahawk offense to passing only.
The Patriots can win this game if it remains a defensive struggle. They cannot engage Seattle in a shootout, given the depletion of their offense. But Seattle will give the Patriots an incredibly tough game on Sunday. The win streak can likely be in a bit of jeopardy, especially if the Patriots play mistake-ridden football like they have in their previous three wins against vastly inferior opponents.
It may turn out that Patriot Nation wishes that the Seahawks stay away for another eleven years. Won’t happen, but you might wish it to.
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