|How Tom Brady would relish a rematch with the Seattle Seahawks|
The Houston Texans came to Foxboro on Monday Night with one of the most celebrated defenses in the NFL. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense reduced the Texans to a team that resembled a Division II college team opposed to a leading NFL team. On offense the Texans mustered a measly 14 points, but it was the demise of their defense that really was shocking. The Texans surrendered 42 points without any real resistance to speak of. Yes. That's right. Forty-two points against the Houston Texans.
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Now, even though that number sounds incredible, it's not the first startling stat line the Texans have surrendered this season. Against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, they gave up a colossal 42 points in their only other loss on the season. The Jacksonville Jaguars scored 37 points just a few weeks ago and the Detroit Lions followed that with 31 points. Still, not one of those teams dominated the Texans the way the Patriots offense did, nor did they make it look so simple and routine.
Since that outing, the Patriots have become Super Bowl favorites for almost all of those outlets establishing such rankings. It's no surprise considering their improved play on the defensive side of the ball combined with their dominant offense's displays, but at this time of the year it's worthless being the favorites for the Super Bowl. The real priority for the Patriots right now is identifying what teams could potentially stall their progress to New Orleans and any team who hope to do that will need a dominant defense to match their dominant offense.
It takes a special kind of defense to stop the Patriots' attack. Everyone knows about the prowess of Tom Brady and the passing attack, but the Patriots have run more than most teams this year and done so effectively. Running such a balanced attack will mean that the only teams who can stop the Patriots will be teams who have talent across the board. Not only will those teams need to have excellent individual players, but also individuals who fit perfectly within their defense to complement their teammates.
There are a number of teams set for the playoffs who will be taking defenses that fit that mold with them. One of the more prominent defenses in the league are included in that group and also are a part of the Patriots' opposition this weekend, the San Francisco 49ers. We won't learn too much from this weekend's matchup, because if the two teams meet again after this matchup it will be in the Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots won't be coming off a physical encounter on a short week, in fact, both teams will have more time to gameplan for the other. With a great defensive mind and great offensive mind on each staff, the impact of preparation has to be considered.
However, if the 49ers' defense is to stop the Patriots' offense, it will primarily require it's front seven to take over the game. Brady, even on his best days, struggles with pressure up the middle. It was obvious on specific plays against the Texans, as he failed to adjust to pressure up the middle and threw multiple incomplete passes as a result. The Patriots gameplanned around JJ Watt to negate his impact in that game, and would presumably do the same for the 49ers' Justin Smith. Smith is on the same level as Watt, if not a higher one because of his longevity, but has a much better supporting cast.
The 49ers play a 3-4 base defense, but also mix in a lot of 4-3 fronts when trying to rush the passer. In those formations the offensive line has to handle Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, two of the best outside linebackers in the NFL, as well as Justin Smith and the disruptive Ray McDonald inside. Typically when a team sets up to stop the pass, Brady will repeatedly check to the running game for easy yards up the middle. There is no such thing as easy yards up the middle against the 49ers' defense as Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis make up for any extra defensive back.
While the 49ers will rely on their front seven if they meet the Patriots in the Super Bowl, another potential NFC opponent in the playoffs will rely on their secondary to stop Brady and company. In fact, they have already done so once this year when they snuck by Bill Belichick's side for a one-point home victory. The Seattle Seahawks beat the Patriots back in Week 6 when the Seahawks forced the Patriots to become one dimensional.
The Seahawks rarely set their defense up to stop the pass, instead trusting their overwhelmingly talented starters in the secondary to contain Brady and his weapons. That led to Brady throwing a season-high 58 passes. Despite throwing two games worth of footballs, he only finished up with 395 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. That is because the Seahawks' secondary is overwhelmingly good, to the point that they don't fear matching up in single coverage against players like Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. Typically, when other teams do that, Brady is able to do whatever he wants.
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Presuming that both Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are on the field when the Patriots play the Seahawks in this hypothetical Super Bowl, the Seahawks would have every opportunity to repeat their feat from the regular season.
Moving to a more likely(AFC) matchup, the Denver Broncos are another team who played the Patriots earlier this season and could meet them again in the post-season. If the Patriots and Broncos face off against each other all of the talk will be about the dueling quarterbacks, but it is the flurry of pass rushers on the Broncos who would decide the game. When the two teams faced off earlier this year the Patriots won 31-21, but that was at a point in the season when Peyton Manning was still returning and the whole franchise was adjusting.
Holding the Patriots to 31 points is an acceptable total if you've got Manning playing on the other side of the ball, but the Broncos would expect to do even better next time. Von Miller had two sacks against the Patriots last time out. For Miller that is just a typical day at the office as he has forced his way into the conversation for defensive player of the year and even the MVP race with his displays this season. The beautiful thing about Miller is his ability to move around the defense and be effective no matter what.
The Broncos would be able to get pressure on Brady through him, Derek Wolfe and Elvis Dumervil. Couple that pressure with the athletic back seven in Denver and the Broncos won't be able to shut down the Patriots like maybe the Seahawks or 49ers could, but they should be able to hold them down long enough to emerge victorious from any matchup.
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A defense that does have the ability to shut down the Patriots' defense is a somewhat bipolar group out in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Steelers are not having a good season by their standards, but they are in the thick of the playoff hunt and do know how to handle this offense. They contained Brady last year when they comfortably won out in their only regular season meeting of the season, and they did so with multiple injuries. This year there are some injury issues still, but more crucial ones.
If the Patriots meet the Steelers in the playoffs, the Steelers must pray that Ike Taylor is fully healthy. Taylor was missing against the San Diego Chargers last week and the Steelers proved incapable of containing Philip Rivers. With Taylor and Keenan Lewis on the outside, the Steelers have had two dominant players in coverage outside the numbers this season. That is, without a healthy Troy Polamalu. Having Polamalu on the field gives the Steelers two incredibly gifted physical specimens to cover the Patriots tight ends, the safety and linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Along with their ability to matchup to the Patriots' receiving options, a defensive line consisting of Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward and Brett Keisel, with regular starters Casey Hampton and Ziggy Hood working in the rotation, should allow the team to anchor the running game while not sacrificing the pass rush. Of course, that pass rush primarily comes off the edges where James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have consistently shown up in the playoffs over the years. Of course, the Steelers have been so inconsistent this year it's hard to argue a case for them, but typically under Mike Tomlin, their problems have come against weaker teams opposed to in the big games. Playing the Patriots is always a big game.
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To beat the Patriots you need to have consistent pressure and excellent coverage without sacrificing quality run stopping. In essence, you need to have an elite defense. To be the best you have to beat the best. So while the Patriots are the favorites right now, it means nothing until they prove that they can get past every obstacle that emerges between now and February.