Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Super Bow XLIX, with the Patriots facing the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday (NBC, 6:30 p.m. ET)
Mike: So many places we can start, Tedy. Let's begin on the sidelines, as you played for both of these head coaches -- Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick.
Tedy: I really credit Pete for a lot of development I had as a player. I think a lot of players on our championship teams could say the same thing -- Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, you go down the line. We also got playoff experience under Pete. I know we went to the Super Bowl with Bill Parcells, and then it was 10-6, 9-7, 8-8, we had that decline. I thought it was great to see there was a different way of doing something, a different mentality compared to Parcells. Pete was from California, I'm from California, and we related to each other. I just wasn't ready for a lot of stuff he wanted me to do. He'd talk about those great 49ers leaders from his time as an assistant there, and he'd say, "You have to be a leader, more vocal." I wasn't ready, and I always felt leadership had to start with a great example. On the field, you had to be one of the guys doing it. I wasn't there yet.
Mike: Neither was owner Robert Kraft, it turns out. He said this week that he didn't give Carroll the best chance to succeed, in part because he was a relatively new owner still figuring things out. He said that was part of his "evolution as an owner."
Tedy: I think that sort of encapsulates Pete's whole time in New England. Maybe there were just a lot of players who weren't ready to take themselves to the level that Pete wanted them to go. They weren't ready to be naming days -- Competition Wednesday, Turnover Thursday, No Repeat Friday. He had endless energy. We went from old-school Jersey with Parcells to new-school California with Pete and a lot of players couldn't handle that. So Pete leaves, Bill comes in, and I took a lot of stuff that I learned from Pete into my time with coach Belichick. I always like to say, when coach Belichick came in, that's when I learned how to win championships. I was in the right place to take it to the next level. I always respected Pete as a good coach. I'm so happy he's doing well and proud to have played for him. I read his book, "Win Forever", and he's the same guy. He has the same energy. It's just that his hair is a little whiter.
Mike: So while the Patriots face a former coach, they also return to the site of one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history -- Super Bowl XLII against the Giants. Kraft relayed that he talked to Tom Brady about having the chance to "close the order" with a win in the team's first trip back here since that game.
Tedy: That was the biggest loss of my career by far. We were trying to achieve the Super Bowl that would trump all Super Bowls. When I look at this state of Arizona, it's sliced in half in terms of good memories and bad memories. I went to college at the University of Arizona and loved my time there. I loved beating up on Arizona State when we played them. But then you think about what happened in Glendale, and that loss to the Giants, I think about it a lot during the football season. You can't not see the highlights of it and those aren't good memories. Part of me views this as a case of the Patriots coming full circle, coming back here. I know Tom wants to come back here and not so much right the wrong -- because that can't be done, it's not like they're undefeated or things like that -- but I'd even look at Arizona differently if they won this game. Sometimes the analyst hat comes off and you cheer on your old team a little bit.
Mike: Another storyline of note is that the Patriots are looking to deny the Seahawks the chance to be the first team to go back-to-back since New England did it in 2003 and 2004.
Tedy: I look at it as if Seattle already has completed the tough part, which is getting through the offseason and all the distractions. Surviving the subtractions, as players like Brandon Browner, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and others departed in free agency. There was Percy Harvin, you survived that during the season. They took the best shot of many opponents, like the Cardinals and 49ers and in the process still found a way to come close as a team. I think a big moment for them during the season, as silly as it looked, was when Richard Sherman brought out that cardboard cutout of Doug Baldwin to a news conference to make a point about the NFL fining running back Marshawn Lynch for not talking to the media. That was them saying, "Forget everybody. We don't care what anybody thinks of anyone. We're defending our guy. We're defending Marshawn Lynch, you attacked him, so now we're going to attack you." It was an "us against the world" mentality and playing for each other.
Mike: The Patriots have had their moments in that area too, going back to the aftermath of the Week 4 blowout loss to the Chiefs and now most recently with underinflated footballs. Brady said that he has watched more film of the Seahawks than he's probably ever watched in his life. What do you think he's seeing from Seattle's defense?
Tedy: This is a unit that wants to get up the field and penetrate. So it's a dramatically different look than what we saw earlier in the playoffs from the Ravens and Colts, who a lot of times ask their guys to take on blocks and there are elements of two-gap principles. These guys get on the edge and get up the field, and that can cause some problems. Because of how they play along the defensive line, I think the availability of starting center Bryan Stork (right knee injury) is critical because I see a noticeable drop-off when the Patriots get to their next level of depth by inserting Josh Kline into the top five at right guard.
Mike: Stork has been limited in practice, and when I asked him how he's doing, he said he's working hard with the athletic training staff and giving him the best chance possible to be ready to go.
Tedy: When I look at how to have success against the Seahawks' defense, a big part of it is that tight ends and running backs have to be productive in the passing game. If you go back to the Week 2 game against the Chargers, when the Seahawks lost 30-21, tight end Antonio Gates and running back Danny Woodhead had big games for San Diego. The Chargers also used the draw play. These rushers want to get up the field and the Chargers used that against them. The Seahawks don't want to give up the big play and their coverage is based on defensive backs having up-field leverage. So they drop back into their three-deep zone and the linebackers drop back, so there will be opportunities to get the backs in space, but your backs have to be able to break a tackle and win in space.
Mike: Any more recent examples stand out in film study?
Tedy: Sure, there were a few from the divisional-round game against the Panthers. You see quarterback Cam Newton check down to Mike Tolbert (first quarter, 3:12) when the defense plays from deep to short on third-and-4. It's a 14-yard gain. Then later in the game (third quarter, 8:19), tight end Ed Dickson comes out late after the zone has gotten their depths and it's a 14-yard catch-and-run on second-and-7. Those plays are a good example of how this defense is going to make you earn it, bit by bit. There are no chunks. Another thing to mention, from a general sense, is the Seahawks' speed on defense. This is one of the fastest defenses in the NFL, their effort is extraordinary, and their pursuit is way above average.
Mike: One of their best players, safety Earl Thomas, is managing a shoulder injury. One of the most notable things I heard this week at the Super Bowl was Thomas talking about how he will have to adjust his tackling technique to account for it.
Tedy: He takes so much pride in tackling. He is so competitive and that's the word that has been driven into this whole team by Carroll -- compete, compete, compete, be competitive. No one defines that more than Thomas. If he's hurt, he wants to play. If he's 30 yards away, he's going to run and hustle to the play. Late in the season, he forced a fumble on the 1-inch line, which was one of the best plays in the season. So this guy has amazed me ever since he's come into the league; Pete took him over his own safety at USC, Taylor Mays. Thomas is an element that a lot of teams don't have. One thing to watch in this Super Bowl will be how Brady controls Thomas with his eyes. A good example of that came in that Seahawks-Panthers game (fourth quarter, 7:22) when Newton looks to the left to occupy Thomas in the middle of the field and then fires a strike down the right side to tight end Greg Olsen for 31 yards.
Mike: Those big plays don't come around often because of their scheme. How would you break that aspect of it down?
Tedy: It's a cover-3 buzz principle, with each corner having a third of the deep part of the field, and Thomas handles the middle third. Within that, there is something we call a "sloop." That is when an edge defender has the flat, and there are hooks inside, but the flat defender sloops out underneath the No. 1 receiver just so they can't have the quick little comeback route. When the corner knows that, he can play over the top. So that's a big part of their principle. There are elements of man coverage also. They are not a big pressure team. They want to bring it with the front four. Bruce Irvin is very fast, and Michael Bennett rushes from the inside at times, and they also have Cliff Avril. So it's very similar to the Giants' type NASCAR package in terms of getting more pass rushers on the field and getting on the edges of offensive linemen.
Mike: See any vulnerabilities with the defense?
Tedy: This unit can be run on. They want to be so aggressive at times, running up the field, and that can open up some B-gap type runs -- if you can build a wall and cut off everyone else. The Packers did a good job of that in the NFC Championship Game, with one example coming in the first quarter (2:58) on an Eddie Lacy 9-yard run as the end rushed too far up the field. I'd also say that the receivers are going to have to get involved in blocking this game. Their defensive backs tackle and to have big runs, you're going to have to break a tackle because a win vs. this type of defense is a 9-yard gain on a run; you have to take that and get out. That over-aggressiveness also shows up in the passing game at times, with one example an 18-yard catch by Carolina's Olsen when linebacker Bobby Wagner took the cheese on a high-low concept (9:38) to open the window for the completion.
Mike: Between Wagner, K.J. Wright and Irvin, that's a lot of speed at the linebacker position.
Tedy: Wagner gets a lot of pub and I've given him a lot of love this year, and Wright is a very good player too. They are very good at playing zone coverage. They are very good at breaking on the ball, reading the quarterback, and also understanding what's going on behind them. If a receiver gets behind him, they know what he's doing based on what they see in front of him. That's a sign of a good linebacker -- if I have a shallow cross going right in front of me, basic route-concept principles mean there's a deeper route coming behind me. So they do a good job playing from deep to short. They are coached so aggressively that sometimes you can influence zones; you can influence a part of the zone and hit someone in a vacated area, which we saw in the Carolina game.
Mike: As for Seattle's offense, let's start with your thoughts on quarterback Russell Wilson.
Tedy: I hear some people say they don't think he can throw from the pocket, but I think those people are greatly mistaken. I loved his throw in the third quarter against the Panthers (13:41), on third-and-3, stepping up and delivering a strike to Paul Richardson for 21 yards. Also, the 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Luke Willson in the fourth quarter, he recognized the blitz and hit his hot read. He has a strong arm and he's accurate. That's just really nice football.
Mike: On Willson, the tight end, the Patriots have talked about respecting his explosion after the catch, as we saw on that play.
Tedy: Speaking of respect, that's what I have for Seattle's receivers, starting with Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. These guys are gamers, along the lines of a Golden Tate in terms of their mentality and how hard they play. I do think Tate is better than both of them, let me say that. At tight end, Willson is someone who can create some problems. These guys play hard and that is the ultimate compliment, but I don't think it's the most talented group the Patriots have faced. I feel like they should be able to handle them.
Tedy: People might see "Beast Mode" and the way Lynch runs, and they automatically might assume the offensive line is very good. But I think the Patriots' front can have its way with them. It's just that Lynch makes them better, and that makes this is a bit unusual because usually it's the offensive line that makes the running back. They lose at the line of scrimmage, leave their defender there, and still go to the second level to block another player. But what happens is that Lynch breaks a tackle and he's out of the gate because his offensive linemen are already down the field. I almost view it as what they teach you how to block on punt returns and kickoff returns; if you're chasing someone into the returner, now you're in the way and you need to just peel off and get somebody else. That's sort of what they do once they get beat, as they have a zone running scheme. There are a lot of chops down on the back side, but on the front side, if the defense gets penetration, they're moving on. They missed Britt in the NFC Championship Game, so keep an eye on that during the Super Bowl. Britt is expected to start, but if he runs into any health issues during the game, there was a notable drop-off.
Mike: Lynch can also hurt an opponent as a receiver. When he gets some momentum going, look out.
Tedy: I've been thinking about the toughest backs I've ever tackled and this guy comes to mind. I remember playing him when he was with the Bills, I had his legs wrapped up, and they just kept going. I was wondering when the cavalry was coming to help me. He's that strong, with abnormal lower-body strength. You have to respect how hard he runs. It's going to take more than one guy to bring him down. They also have Robert Turbin, who will come in for a few carries. He's not the threat that Lynch is, but is definitely a back they are comfortable turning to at times.
Mike: The other thing that is important to mention is the read option and how the Patriots handle that. Seattle runs it well. So let's get a little deeper into the passing game.
Tedy: I mentioned that the Patriots should be able to handle the wide receivers, and when I say that, I mean it within the structure of the play. These plays are going to go five, six, seven and sometimes eight seconds with Wilson at quarterback. The normal play is usually four seconds. But when you start talking about seven and eight seconds, you're talking kickoffs and punts. There is a lot that can go on when a play extends to that length. So when receivers are running their route tree and route combinations, that's where I feel like the Patriots have a definite advantage. The longer the play goes, the Seahawks have the edge based on Wilson and his creativity and the receivers' relationship with him. Kearse, Baldwin, Ricardo Lockette, Kevin Norwood, Willson. This puts more pressure on the Patriots, who will need an outstanding game from defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones with their pass-rush principles and pursuit. They're going to be chasing Wilson around. Brady referred to him as Barry Sanders with an arm, and that sounded a lot like a Bill Belichick line to me.
Mike: One of the things that stood out to me this week was the respect that Belichick showed Carroll. The Patriots view the Seahawks as a team built for the fourth quarter, which is tough and plays good situational football. It could be an epic game.
Tedy: I have a lot of respect for this Seahawks team because they learned the lesson quicker than we did. Yes, we won three out of four Super Bowls, but we didn't even make the playoffs the year after the first one. We had to learn how to handle things. I think a lot of us got full of ourselves, lost focus a little bit, and we couldn't survive the certain subtractions on the roster. Maybe guys got a little complacent. It happens to everyone and that's why repeating is so hard to do. But this Seahawks team didn't have that. They figured it out quicker than we did. There are a lot of players on this team I respect. They've been bred to compete the entire game and they've shown they can win in different ways, just like the Patriots. A lot of the things you say about the Seahawks -- mentally tough, compete, win in different ways -- also apply to the Patriots. I see the '01 team in these guys, in terms of their situation and what they can break through and do. But part of me tells me they've done it one step better because they didn't need a couple of years to break through. That's a huge compliment to Pete and the players.
Mike: On special teams, the Seahawks had only 17 punt returns against them this year, a result of Jon Ryan's excellent hang time. I'm curious to see if Julian Edelman gets a chance to make something happen in that area because that could be an edge for New England. I could see this third phase of the game being a difference-maker for the Patriots.
Tedy: I don't see the same explosiveness in the return game for the Seahawks since they traded Harvin, and we saw Baldwin give one away on a kickoff in the NFC Championship Game.
Mike: Let's finish with predictions. Running back LeGarrette Blount plays the bruising role of Lacy from the NFC Championship Game, and the Patriots do what the Packers couldn't and close the deal. Patriots 23, Seahawks 20.