Bill Belichick created this dilemma.
Now, the New England Patriots’ coach must find a way to overcome one of the NFL’s better defensive fronts on Sunday in Oakland, which will be one of the NFL’s showcase games of Week 4. The catalyst of Oakland’s defensive line -- a ferocious combination of power, speed, experience and zestful youth -- is a man Belichick said goodbye to two years ago. Belichick stunned the NFL, Richard Seymour included, by shipping him to Oakland a week before the 2009 season started. Belichick had a knack for knowing when to pull the plug on veterans over the years in New England. Seymour has been the exception.
Yes, there are reasons for the Patriots to feel good about the trade. They’ve made the playoffs both years without Seymour, they saved a lot of money (Seymour was re-signed to a lucrative deal by the Raiders prior to the lockout) and they got a promising left tackle in Nate Solder with the No. 17 overall pick in April as compensation from Oakland. Still, that won’t help the Patriots on Sunday in a critical early-season game for the two 2-1 teams. Seymour and his explosive defensive line mates will be coming after New England quarterback Tom Brady all game.
The Patriots know it.
“That’s a good question,” said New England offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien this week when asked how he is going to prepare for the former New England star defensive lineman and his new mates. “That’s a tough question. These guys are really big up front. They’re a physical defense, they’re fast. Again, that’s part of our discussion right now of all the different areas of their defense and how we’re going to handle some of the problems all over the place that they present -- challenges that they present. So, there are a lot of different things you can do -- I’m certainly not going to tell you, but [Seymour is] playing really well. They’re all playing really well right now; it’s a really good football team that’s playing fast and physical.”
There is no denying Oakland’s attitude, talent and success up front starts with Seymour. Eyebrows were raised when Oakland traded for Seymour two years ago. The three-time Super Bowl winner would have been better-suited for a playoff contender. It has taken a couple of years, but the Raiders are now playoff contenders with Seymour spearheading the line.
“He’s obviously a leader for that defensive line,” Brady said at his press briefing Wednesday. “When he gets going, they all get going.”
The Seymour trade immediately improved massive defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. It allowed him to disrupt the middle. The Raiders continued to build with youth around Seymour. They added feisty, underrated pass-rusher Matt Shaughnessy in the 2009 draft and the versatile Lamarr Houston in the second round last year to round out the starting front four. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said Houston greatly benefits from playing next to Seymour; they are similar because both are able to play each position along the line.
The line also has strong depth. Add massive run-stuffer John Henderson, young defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, pass-rusher Trevor Scott and former Denver first-round flameout Jarvis Moss (he had two sacks in an upset win over the Jets last week), and the Raiders have a steady stream of talent on their first line of defense.
"I've been around some teams with six guys, maybe seven," Raiders coach Hue Jackson told reporters recently. "To have eight, that is kind of unbelievable."
Scott has said the line is like a “tag-team match.” This unit just keeps coming against the pass and the run. Oakland is tied for fourth in the NFL with 10 sacks in three games, but is still having trouble stopping the run. It is allowing 120 yards per game. Still, opponents know the best way to get success against Oakland defensively is get the game past the front four.
“The front four are very strong penetrators,” Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said this month. “They really get after you and create. They try to disrupt the running game by penetrating and they try to create pass rush by penetration.”
Williamson said he thinks the Raiders have a top-10 defensive line that continues to get better. He said the trade for Seymour was the beginning of the dominance.
“The beauty of Seymour is that he is good at everything. He is a great interior pass-rusher on throwing downs,” Williamson said. “He can be an excellent defensive end in either the 4-3 or the 3-4, and he still is a great 3-technique for the 4-3. So when he is on the field, you don’t know exactly what front you are going to get, and he can shift effectively right before the snap to further confuse matters ... by all accounts, Seymour is a great locker-room guy and leader.”
Seymour will surely like to remind his former coach about all of those attributes that Oakland is benefiting from Sunday.