The NFC West has become a meat grinder overnight, and the Patriots visit the Seattle Seahawks on their second stop of a difficult tour of duty against the league's best division.
The Pats face plenty of obstacles in their quest to improve to 4-2. In order to win, they'll have to overcome a 2,500-mile commute, the likelihood of heavy rain on Sunday, a raucous CenturyLink field and the unslakable optimism of Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
Okay, strike that last one—though it will certainly be fun to see how old friend "Compete Pete" fares against the team that fired him 12 years ago.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to the Patriots' leaving the Pacific Northwest with a win is the Seahawks themselves.
The Seahawks boast the league's No. 1-ranked defense, including the fourth-best passing D and the third-best rushing defense. On offense, Seattle can batter opposing defenses with Marshawn Lynch (third in the NFL in rush YPG).
New England likely won't be able to rely on their high-scoring attack to beat the Seahawks—especially with injuries mounting on offense. Instead, they'll need a strong two-way performance to win in Week 6.
Let's take a look at a few Pats who will need to be at their best for New England to win its third straight.
LB Brandon Spikes
Brandon Spikes didn't have himself a good week off the field.
Spikes enraged many of his followers after posting an ill-advised attempt at humor on his Twitter account on Wednesday (per ESPN.com):
I'm homophobic just like I'm arachnophobic. I have nothing against homosexuals or spiders, but I'd still scream if I found one in my bathtub!
Spikes will need to rebound from this incident quickly, because the Pats need him against the Seahawks and bruising rusher Lynch. Lynch runs hard and keeps his legs pumping through initial contact, making him tough to bring down. According to Football Outsiders, Lynch was fifth in the league in broken tackles last year.
The Patriots can counter with Spikes, the league's best run-stopper not named Patrick Willis. Spikes leads the league in forced fumbles with three. He's got a huge body and great instincts to the ball that compensate for average lateral speed.
Once Spikes gets to the ball-carrier, he lays the wood like few others in the NFL. No one forces more fumbles simply by pure tackling force than Spikes.
The Pats need Spikes to set an early tone against Lynch and discourage him from fighting through initial contact. That's going to be a tough task, but an engaged Spikes is up to it.
WR Wes Welker
Given his recent bout of fumblitis, RB Stevan Ridley might see limited time against the Seahawks, who are tied with the Pats for the league lead in forced fumbles with nine. Without much Ridley against Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor and the Seahawks defense, New England's run game will see diminished production in Week 6.
That puts a lot more pressure on the passing game.
CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner should be able to slow outside threat Brandon Lloyd on either side of the field. TE Rob Gronkowski will likely need to support a banged-up offensive line against the vicious pass-rushing DE tandem of Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin (10 combined sacks).
That leaves Wes Welker as the most reliable target for Tom Brady. What else is new?
Welker presents a bit of a matchup problem for the Seahawks. Their linebacking corps is too slow to stay with the slot receiver, and nickel corner Marcus Trufant had trouble with Rams WR Danny Amendola, who displays Welker-like shiftiness and crisp route-running.
Welker will likely be QB Tom Brady's hot read when the Seahawks blitz. The Pats will need Welker to establish quick separation in order to keep the defensive front on its heels.
LT Nate Solder/RT Sebastian Vollmer
The flow of the Patriots offense will be determined by the effectiveness of Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer in slowing the Seahawks' outside rush.
The tackles got their lunch handed to them in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. Brady was sacked four times and DEs Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell dominated the point of attack.
Since then, they've both improved steadily. Vollmer in particular looked excellent against Bills LB Mario Williams in Week 4, not allowing the $100 million man to gain enough distance to leverage his long arms against the RT's frame. Solder, playing LT in the NFL for the first time, appears to be gaining confidence each week.
Despite allowing four sacks, the line played well again against a ferocious Broncos pass rush in Week 5. Most of the sacks were coverage sacks or the result of Brady ducking against ghost rushers.
They also played a big part in the Pats churning out 251 rush yards against a top-10 Broncos rush defense.
They'll need to step up against Clemons and Irvin, who provide a monster pass rush. In particular, they'll need to seal off the outside shoulder for C-gap runs against Irvin, who hasn't yet figured out how to set the edge. That will mean a quick first step to angle off the rushers, and good balance to avoid being leveraged.
That will compel Irvin to cheat towards a 5- or 6-technique (lining up across from the tackle's outside shoulder) to bounce runs inside. This will result in open running lanes between the tackles and more room for Brady to step up in the pocket.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots deal with pressure off the edge, and whether they'll leave Gronkowski in to help on the outside. Slowing the Seahawks edge rushers will go a long way towards helping the Patriots avoid a fate similar to the one they experienced against Arizona.
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