SEATTLE -- The New England Patriots are expected to field a typically explosive offense when they travel across the country to meet up with the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. But there is a new kind of contender that awaits Bill Belichick's team in the Emerald City.
Under the radar until recently, the Seahawks have assembled one of the NFL's best defenses during the three-year tenure of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. The ultimate test for that young defense stands to be an equivalent exam for an offense that is blowing opponents off the ball in some interesting ways.
By the traditional NFL metric of yards per game, which is how these things are measured in a conventional sense, the Patriots have the league's No. 1 offense, and the Seahawks have the league's top defensive unit. More advanced numbers support the hypothesis that this is a battle between two highly charged units. Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics has New England first in offense and Seattle third in defense, behind the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans. No matter which stats you care to use, every occurrence of New England's offense against Seattle's defense looks to be a proverbial clash of the titans.
One thing that makes New England's no-huddle attack so specifically devastating is the team's ability to effectively change formation concepts -- sometimes drastically -- with a minimum of time between downs. The Patriots will open up running lanes by spreading defenses past where most NFL offenses would by locating receivers as you might see in the offenses run by Oregon's Chip Kelly, Baylor's Art Briles, or Washington State's Mike Leach. New England's version of the hurry-up offense doesn't just take defenses away from their preferred scheme changes and substitutions -- it also forces those defenses to play in schematic cookie cutters, away from a team's specific strengths.
Welker, who played for Leach at Texas Tech, talked about the similarities between the college concepts we've seen for years, and New England's version.
"Spreading the ball around and doing different things," Welker said of the overall game plan. "I think [we] run the ball a little more than Mike would like to, but for the most part, I think spreading it out and doing some of those things in various situations — that kind of offense is moving a little more to the NFL."
Carroll, who coached USC from 2001 through 2009, saw enough of those offenses at the NCAA level to know that the pace of the NFL's offenses was going to have to change. As a result, when he returned to the pros, he knew that his defense must be built on two simple concepts -- big and fast. He and Schneider have done that with a personnel crazy quilt that features stars from all corners of the football globe. For every first-round pick like end Bruce Irvin and safety Earl Thomas, there's a former NFL reject in cornerback Brandon Browner (who spent five years in the CFL) or a bunch of mid-round former question marks (cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker K.J. Wright, safety Kam Chancellor).
Belichick, who is as astute about defense as anyone, came away impressed after watching Seattle's tape.
"Impressions are really good," he said on Wednesday. "They're a top defense in the league for a good reason. First of all, they're very well coached. Pete does a great job, we all know that. They're strong against the run, taking the ball away a lot, causing a lot of fumbles. They have a real good pass rush, good pass defenders, a lot of good players. I'm really impressed with the front; Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane do a great job in the running game. Alan Branch is solid in there too as well as Jason Jones, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, and Greg Scruggs. Those guys can all rush the passer. The linebackers are fast, Leroy Hill, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright those guys get to a lot of balls, they don't get blocked very often, and they close space in a hurry.
"They probably have the biggest corners in the league. Marcus Trufant is an outstanding player who comes in for them on the nickel. Kam Chancellor is a big physical force in there at safety, and Earl Thomas is probably as good a safety as we played against. He has great instinct, vision, speed, and ball skills. He's a real playmaker for them back in the secondary. Good, well coached with a lot of good players, good depth at every position, and they're a real good defensive team. There's no doubt about it."
The Seahawks are generally very stout against the run, especially when the 340-pound Bryant plays right defensive end, but it seems that for every check the Seahawks throw at an offense, the Pats have a checkmate. They're the best team in the league running to left tackle, which puts primary running back Stevan Ridley (the NFL's best back this season, per FO's play-by-play metrics) right in Bryant's kitchen. Opponents point just 4 percent of their running plays in Bryant's direction. Ridley leads the NFL in first downs with 39 total -- 37 on the ground and two more in the air.
And that's the real surprise about this version of New England's offense. They've been using aspects and variants of the spread offense since 2007, but they haven't had a running game like this since Corey Dillon gained 1,635 yards in the 2004 season -- not coincidentally, the last season in which the Patriots ended their campaign with a Super Bowl championship.
It's a huge improvement for a team that averaged just 110.3 yards per game -- this year, they've pushed that number up to 165.4.
"We had a lot of turnover at the running back position in the last three or four years," Belichick said of the change. "We basically had the oldest running back in the league when we had Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and Sammy Morris. That position has turned over with Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead. A lot of the plays are week-to-week game plan things on what we feel like, how we can attack the opponent, what happens in the game whether they adjust or if we can stay with what we'd thought we'd be able to do or do we have to change it. A lot of those plays are really planned on how we match up with that particular team."
The success in the run game does go back to formation diversity and the speed of the offense -- when teams are forced into wide base defenses half the time, and they're winded by halftime, it's a lot easier to run whatever you want. It's given Carroll a feeling he's not quite used to.
"I feel a little like Felix Baumgartner kind of hanging on the edge of the capsule," he said on Wednesday, comparing the art of defending New England's offense to the feats of the world-renowned skydiver and BASE jumper, who will attempt a skydive from the edge of space on the same day the Seahawks try to corral the Patriots. "They have terrific weapons and they really utilize the strength of their guys in great fashion. I love the way they do that, from Wes Welker to Brandon Lloyd and the things that they're doing with him now. The tight ends are terrific. We expect to see Aaron Hernandez back. He's a wide receiver, he's a tight end, he's a running back, and they know how to use him which is really cool about their attack and their whole philosophy. You can't have more problems than what they present, and the fact that they're running the ball for 165 yards a game really makes it difficult."
If Carroll has a leg up on some of his contemporaries when facing an offense like this, it's that he's at least faced a lot of spread offenses during a long coaching career. Many of his younger defenders have done the same -- I joked with Trufant that his younger brother Desmond, a cornerback at the University of Washington, has faced more of these offenses in a far shorter football career.
Sherman saw a lot of it at Stanford, which put him in a good position to talk about how things might set up. "I think it's similar, but it's different than Oregon, because Oregon runs a lot of guys moving here, motioning there," he said. "These guys line up quick and run power. Oregon wasn't just running power -- they'd run two and three reads, and you're trying to figure out where the ball is. You know where the ball is with these guys, but they run it pretty fast. They did a great job of executing it against Denver. It's been successful for them, so they're going to try and keep going."
But as Belichick said, the no-huddle isn't a free pass to offensive excellence -- it taxes the players involved on his side, as well. "Offensively, the two big things are one, conditioning because you're running plays quicker so your cardiovascular system has to work harder because you're going faster and there is less rest in between plays. Two, you have to think quicker. You don't have much time to think about the play coming out of the huddle and getting to the line, getting set up and all that. You hear the play, you get there, you have to see the defense and make whatever communication you have, blocking calls, play adjustments or whatever it is, and then be ready to go. It just accelerates everything. The communication, the recognition, the assignments when the ball is snapped, and obviously physically -- you are running more plays in a short amount of time, so there is a little bit more effect it can have there."
An offense that is schooling the NFL, against a defense learning to shut everything down. If you're looking for one marquee matchup this Sunday, it's a pretty good place to start.