We spoke with Kenneth Arthur of FieldGulls.com to get the inside scoop on Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.
1. The Seahawks offensive line has been a sieve, but OT Bradley Sowell is expected to return. Will that change the strength of the line, or could the Patriots weak pass rush still have a good day? Where are the weak points?
I don't know if Sowell will play or not, Pete Carroll was a little quiet on that front despite him being a full participant. That's probably somewhat due to the fact that Sowell isn't very good and his replacement George Fant has a ton more upside, if not being an upgrade already.
I honestly think the offensive line does okay when they aren't having to face great pass rushers; the Bills have great pass rushers, the Rams have great ones, the Dolphins have great ones. It happens pretty often these days. But if New England doesn't have any great players that will just abuse the interior of the line all day, then it's not going to be one of my biggest concerns for this game.
More concerning lately is that they aren't winning many battles in run blocking anymore, so I think that means they could turn to a more pass-heavy offense featuring rookie CJ Prosise (3rd round pick, former WR at Notre Dame turned RB) on first and second down, as Christine Michael is struggling and losing snaps.
On Monday we saw Russell Wilson hang tough on some plays where the Bills popped through the line immediately and make some excellent throws, so I think he's starting to develop that trust with his tight ends and receivers again and just taking what the offensive line gives him.
If you don't have a great pass rusher, then it's typically not that big of an issue protecting Wilson. Any one threat and he's gonna be harassed all day.
2. WR Doug Baldwin is one of the top slot receivers in the NFL and TE Jimmy Graham looks like his Saints-self. Who are some of the other skill players to watch and what are their strengths?
Tyler Lockett is flying under the radar because he was shelved from offense for most of the season after suffering a knee injury, but he's really special. They're figuring out new ways to use him and often putting him in there as a decoy to really distract defenses that know how damn dangerous he is with the ball in his hands. He's one of the best kick and punt returners in the NFL, if not the best, but his development in the offense was slowed down by that injury. He got two touches on Monday and gained 30 yards plus a 43-yard kick return. He has a devastatingly-bright future.
Prosise had 103 total yards against the Saints two weeks ago and I said before the season that he'd be the Lockett of this year: take some time to work into the offense and then be a huge part of the team in the second half. He was also slowed down by an injury (high ankle sprain) but now he's getting snaps over Michael and showing what he can do catching passes out of the backfield. I think he's really, really dangerous. Ideally he'll just be the third down back when Thomas Rawls is healthy again but for now, they're just gonna find new ways to involve him in the offense earlier.
The other guys have their special talents, but are overall just "okay." A lot of fans love Tanner McEvoy because any time he touches the ball it's a mega-gigantic play, but he's sparingly, sparingly used.
3. QB Russell Wilson has failed to crack 20 yards rushing all year, a benchmark he exceeded in all but 3 of his 18 games in 2015. Is this all because of his injury, has he changed his playing style, or is there something else at work?
This is 60-percent because of his injury, 20-percent because of Rawls' injury, 15-percent of the offensive line, and 5-percent the scheme. Because I think if he was 100-percent healthy, he'd scramble more--he's worked with a poor offensive line for most of his career, so I don't think that's the issue.
His running skills are utilized because of the bad line. If he was 100-percent healthy, they'd have more designed runs and zone read options. The option has been almost completely removed as he heals. And Rawls is a much better back than Michael, so without a second running threat, with a legit zone read threat, Wilson is someone teams can spy.
Over the second half of the year, I think you'll see him pick up a lot more yards, though overall, yes, he'll soon be a QB who just throws it all the time anyway. He's a superb passer.
4. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots noted DL Michael Bennett was the most important player to block. He won't be playing. Who should the Patriots focus on this week?
Avril has nine sacks in eight games and should be considered as an All-Pro. He's that good. He's in on everything. He's the strip-sack master. He's been so overlooked throughout his career, it's ridiculous. Bennett is the more complete player and more versatile player, but Avril is absolutely beasting on offensive tackles this year and on pace for huge numbers. He's always among league-leaders in hurries, but he's finally turning those into sacks and it's been hell on quarterbacks. (He's the one who broke the bone in Tony Romo's back in the preseason.)
Fellow defensive end Frank Clark has 6.5 sacks in seven games. He's an extremely good pass rusher. He's already a very good player but if he keeps being a model citizen, teammate, locker room presence, and stays healthy, he'll be a great player.
Another rookie, Jarran Reed, is a lot of fun to watch in the middle of the defensive line. He's a great, great run stuffer out of Alabama. He's also had a couple batted passes and one sack but his skill is tackling running backs with one arm whenever he can reach them.
5. The Patriots avoided throwing towards CB Richard Sherman in Super Bowl XLIX, opting to throw to the other side of the field. Who is CB DeShawn Shead? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Shead is a former UDFA out of Portland State that worked his way up from the practice squad to being a backup safety and special teamer to finally being forced into action at cornerback after free agent signee Cary Williams totally fell apart on that side of the field and got benched, released.
Shead did a really nice job filling in and there was an immediate and obvious upgrade from Williams right from the start. He earned that job over the summer and is proving to be the next in line after Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell to go from obscurity to starter to maybe getting that nice free agent contract; even if Browner (as you know) and Maxwell didn't work out that great for their new teams.
I don't have anything bad to say about Shead, he has 17 passes defensed in the last 1.5 seasons and really only started 15 of those games. He's really great at breaking up passes at the point of contact and rarely seems to get beat man-to-man. With one career interception, it would be nice to see him turn more of those opportunities, because he does get tested, into turnovers.
Slot corner Jeremy Lane, who broke his arm and tore his ACL in that Super Bowl, signed a nice free agent contract to remain with the team, and I would say his play has been less than ideal. I'd test Lane and then also test him emotionally, because he's been close to losing his cool and drawing a flag for it multiple times this year. I've seen him get beat a lot more than Shead, but maybe I'm wrong and it just feels that way. I think attacking the slot will be the way to go.