Key matchup: Patriots wide receivers vs. Seahawks cornerbacks

Posted Oct. 09, 2012 @ 5:18 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

In today’s “Key Matchup,” PFW’s Dan Arkush focuses on the Patriots' wide receivers vs. the Seahawks' cornerbacks in the New England-Seattle Week Six battle at CenturyLink Field Sunday.

Patriots wide receivers vs. Seahawks cornerbacks

In an intriguing game pitting New England’s top-ranked offense against Seattle’s top-ranked defense, this strength-against-strength matchup just might end up being the featured attraction this Sunday.

Tom Brady has the Patriots’ increasingly balanced offense operating on all cylinders, and in the 31-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday, scrappy WR Wes Welker was back to being Brady's reliable workhorse, attacking Broncos slot CB Chris Harris early and often on the way to a huge 13-104-1 outing (15 targets).

Seattle’s defense, meanwhile, has not allowed a TD in the past two games. With head coach Pete Carroll making better defense on third down a top priority for the Carolina game last Sunday, the "D" responded by limiting the Panthers to 2-of-11 third-down conversions.

Starting second-year CBs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman were major forces, each coming up with key second-half forced fumbles. Browner was particularly effective, registering a team-leading six tackles while making a key recovery of his forced fumble on a brilliant effort to set up the Seahawks’ only TD of the game. Sherman had five tackles and a pass breakup to go with his forced fumble and clearly frustrated Panthers No. 1 WR Steve Smith the entire afternoon, limiting him to just four catches for 40 yards on 13 targets. 

Welker leads the AFC and is tied for second in the NFL with 38 catches for 484 yards (12.7 ypc), a long of 59 and one TD. He will work out of the slot running mostly short hitch routes and is generally Brady's first read. A nifty route runner with magnets for hands, Welker is among the best in the league at finding space underneath and then racking up yards after the catch.

Working on the outside, Brandon Lloyd, the Pats’ other starting WR, excels at catching any kind of pass Brady can throw (fades, back-shoulder throws, etc). Eighth in the AFC among receivers (28-321-1), Lloyd is not the fastest receiver in the league by any means, but he has outstanding body control and runs precise routes.

There are two big factors to keep in mind regarding the usage of the Welker-Lloyd duo.

First off, the Patriots have been running the ball with great success lately, and even though they will be facing one of the league’s strongest run defenses, it would not be a shock at all if Bill Belichick decided to concentrate on grinding away on the ground in an effort keep Seattle’s increasingly dangerous pass rushers from pinning their ears back.

Secondly, the touches for Welker and Lloyd could hinge in great part on the extent to which two other Patriots pass catchers who have been injured (TE Aaron Hernandez, ankle; WR Julian Edelman, hand) might get involved in the action (check statuses). If Hernandez is good to go, Brady might opt to throw a great deal more to his potent TE duo of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski than his receivers.

Ex-Seahawks WR Deion Branch, the Pats’ other outside WR, hasn't done much for New England this season. He won't beat many guys off the line any more, but he has a great rapport with Brady and runs good routes.

Browner and Sherman are big and physical, sometimes to an extreme. They each have unusual combinations of size and strength, which allows them to effectively jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of their opponent's passing offense.

Browner, a former CFL product, led the Seahawks with six interceptions last season but also was the NFC’s most penalized cornerback. A key for Browner is to figure out the balance between playing physical and staying in the framework of the rules to avoid costly pass-interference penalties.

Sherman, a fifth-round rookie last season, was a pleasant surprise on the left corner after both Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond were hurt. The former wide receiver possesses the press skills Carroll covets and plays with a real swagger. But he can be overly aggressive and vulnerable to double moves.

Seahawks backup CBs Trufant and 2011 sixth-rounder Byron Maxwell could be kept very busy shadowing Welker out of the slot. Formerly a top starting cover corner, Trufant is hanging on these days in a reserve role despite persistent back problems. Maxwell has good speed and great length.