New England Patriots: 4 Things to Watch for Against the Seattle Seahawks

James DiMaioCorrespondent IOctober 13, 2012

New England Patriots: 4 Things to Watch for Against the Seattle Seahawks

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    The New England Patriots meet the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday at CenturyLink Field, as the NFL's best offense and the NFL's best defense will clash in the nation's loudest stadium.

    With Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reporting that Aaron Hernandez has packed his bags for the trip, many will be focused on whether the star tight end plays.

    However, there are many other things to watch for against the Seahawks, including the health of key defenders and rookie Alfonzo Dennard's emergence in the secondary.

    Here's a look.

Alfonzo Dennard's Playing Time

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    There's been a lot of hype about rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard after a strong performance in his season debut against the Broncos last week.

    Dennard split time with Sterling Moore as the team's fifth defensive back, and, according to Doug Kyed of NESN.com, the rookie was targeted four times last Sunday and didn't allow a single reception.

    That's impressive stuff, especially considering Peyton Manning was throwing the football.

    With New England still searching for playmakers in the secondary, it wouldn't be surprising if Dennard completely took over Moore's role in New England's nickel set this Sunday in Seattle.

Could Ras-I Dowling Split Time with Tavon Wilson at Safety?

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    With Patriots starting free safety Steve Gregory ruled out with a hip injury for Sunday's showdown against the Seahawks (per Patriots.com), rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start in his absence (as he did last week against Denver).

    While Wilson performed admirably in a starting role (particularly his tackling), he still struggled some in coverage.

    With the safety depth now thinned, perhaps the Patriots will opt to include second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling—who has unexpectedly fallen out of favor as a cornerback—in the safety rotation.

    Dowling seems to have ideal size (6'1'', 210 pounds) and athleticism for the safety position (either strong or free) and has already seen some time being utilized as a hybrid linebacker/safety in New England's dime package.

Will Running Game Stay Elite?

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    Coming off of two games in which the running backs ran for more than 200 yards, it's easy to get excited about New England's explosive running game.

    But will Stevan Ridley and company be as effective against a stingy Seattle rushing defense that ranks third in the NFL?

    The Patriots ran all over Denver, Buffalo and Tennessee, but those teams all rank in the bottom half of the league in rushing defense.

    Seattle's front seven presents the greatest challenge of the season for New England's rushers.

Dont'a Hightower's Health

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    Rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower is listed as questionable for Week 6, (per Patriots.com).

    With the team also announcing that top backup Tracy White has been ruled out of Sunday's game, New England's linebacker depth is looking rather thin.

    This may force Rob Ninkovich to move from defensive end to his old position at strong-side linebacker, with Jermaine Cunningham manning the left defensive end spot.

    If this is the case, it could be a good thing as Nink has played well at strong-side linebacker and Cunningham appears to have taken a large step forward in his development this season.

    On the other hand, it could also disrupt the chemistry of a front seven that has been playing well through five games.