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You don't need me to tell you about the dominance of Seattle's defense. Seattle romped through the 2013 regular season with ease, putting up statistics on par with all-time greats like the 2002 Buccaneers, 2000 Ravens and 1985 Bears. Then they saved their best for last, cementing their legacy with a dominant Super Bowl performance that turned a highly anticipated showdown with Peyton Manning's record setting Broncos offense into a snoozefest. If there was any doubt that we were witnessing a historic defense, it was gone by the end of a 43-8 stomping.

The most impressive thing about Seattle's defensive success is the era in which they are dominating. It's well documented that scoring has never been higher in the NFL, with the passing games particularly deadly. There's never been so many dynamic, mismatch-creating offensive weapons in the league, be it in the form of freakishly athletic tight ends (Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas etc), explosive receivers out of the backfield (Darren Sproles, Jamaal Charles, Shane Vereen, etc) or otherworldly physical specimens at receiver (Megatron, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, etc).

Don't get me wrong, a lot has had to go well for the Seahawks to put together a defense that can dominate against modern NFL offenses. They've had an incredible string of four drafts that have the team loaded with young talent, and the cap savings of getting so much production from players on inexpensive rookie deals has enabled them to load up with several supplemental veterans (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril), helping an already scary defense make the jump to historic.

However, the way Seattle has built and played their defense makes a lot of logical sense in how it deals with the myriad of challenges NFL offenses throw at you. The NFL is notoriously a copycat league and it certainly won't be surprising to see Seattle's influence on defensive philosophy become evident around the league. Fortunately for the Patriots, many of these changes are things Bill Belichick has been subtly trending towards for years, leaving the Patriots closer than you may think to having an excellent defense once again. Here's a look at some of the key aspects of Seattle's defense and how the Patriots stack up in each area.

Explosive Pass Rushers:

Chandler Jones looks like a star-in-the-making, but he needs some help
One of the keys for Seattle's defense has been their ability to consistently get pressure without blitzing. This, of course, is easier said than done, as it requires players with the pure talent to consistently win their individual matchups. The Patriots took a big step towards this in 2012 by trading up in the first round to draft Chandler Jones, an athletic marvel who already has an 11.5 sack season on his resume and looks likely to keep improving, but are still clearly at least a pass rusher away.

The 2013 Patriots actually recorded 48 sacks, the most by any Pats team in Bill Belichick's 14 season tenure, but they were prone to stagnant stretches with very little pressure, allowing opposing quarterbacks to get into a rhythm and punish a secondary that spent much of the season's second half fighting through injuries. Of course, injuries hurt the pass rush as well, as they missed the steady push inside expected from Tommy Kelly, but so did an over-reliance on Jones and fellow starter Rob Ninkovich. Jones played a whopping 98% of the teams defensive snaps last regular season, while Ninkovich played 95.5%. Not only were they easily the top two in snaps played by defensive linemen this year, but they had the two highest totals in the league since 2008, according to ProfootballFocus.

While both Jones and Ninkovich had good seasons in 2013, both seemed to wear down from the workload at times. This manifested itself not only during those aforementioned stagnant stretches, but also towards the end of the season, when both saw their pass rushing production dip. Jones won Defensive Player of the Month after a four sack November, but would only get one more QB takedown the rest of the year, culminating with two very quiet playoff games. Ninkovich actually finished the regular season well, collecting three of his eight sacks in December. However, the seven year vet hit a wall in the postseason, managing only three tackles and no impact plays in the team's two playoff contests.

The Patriots obviously can't count on Jones and Ninkovich taking on such a workload again, making the addition of a rotational defensive end a high priority. A third defensive end, preferably one who brings some pass rush punch, could give the team a very strong three-man rotation, enabling all three players to stay fresh and effective even later in the season. Seattle has used this "strength-in-numbers" concept to great success, using a deadly four-man rotation of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin in 2013.

While it's hard to imagine the Patriots matching that level of pass rushing weaponry, there are a number of intriguing possibilities out there. They got cold feet on adding 13 year veteran John Abraham last offseason, only to see him give the Cardinals 11.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, and could look towards Jared Allen or Will Smith if they decide to revisit the "productive but aging" veteran approach. Allen would bring more of a pass rush threat, while Smith would cost less and bring better run defense, but either would be a solid third man in a rotation, providing that Father Time hasn't caught up to them just yet. I've also been a huge proponent of pursuing Ravens free agent (and Chandler Jones' brother) Arthur Jones, whose versatility could help the team both at end and tackle, but I fear the market will drive him out of the Patriots price range.

Finally, this is an area the Patriots could address in the draft. Many have projected the Pats taking a tight end (usually Jace Amaro) with their first round pick, but the opportunity could be there to add a monstrous physical specimen like Minnesota's Ra'shede Hageman or Auburn's speedy Dee Ford. The Patriots 2012 drafting of Jones was a drastic break from their past history of having bigger, slower defensive ends, instead opting for the pass rushing potential of Jones' athleticism. If the Patriots do look to bolster the line early in the draft, look for them to continue to emphasize explosive athleticism and pass rushing ability.

Athleticism at Linebacker:

While the Seahawks secondary has been deserving of the praise it's received, they have overshadowed an excellent group of linebackers who have also been a big part in the defense's success. The common denominators amongst Seattle's linebackers are youth and athleticism. Between Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, Seattle has a number of athletes that are fully capable of covering a linebacker's traditional duties, even in today's NFL when those duties often include dealing the explosive speed amongst the league's running backs and tight ends.

Bill Belichick has always preferred bigger, thumper-types for his linebackers, but he made a major departure from that preference by drafting Jamie Collins in the second round last year. At 6'3", 250, Collins is practically a twig by Patriots standards, but he possesses rare athleticism and length for the position. Collins eased his way into the NFL most of his rookie season, playing largely on special teams, but continued to earn more opportunities on defense before exploding onto the scene with a monster game in the playoffs against Indianapolis. Collins is projected to be a full time starter in 2014 and his athleticism should bring a dynamic to the Patriots linebackers that had been missing before.

Jamie Collins, redefining "explosiveness" at the 2012 combine
The projected starting trio of Collins, Jerod Mayo and Donta' Hightower looks very good on paper, but the Patriots could stand to make some reinforcements. Even if they resign free agent Dane Fletcher, the depth still looks a little shaky, and they could use another athlete here to reduce Hightower's coverage responsibilities.

A quick look at Seattle proves athletic projects at linebacker can be found later in the draft: Wright was a fourth round pick, while Smith lasted until the seventh round. Finding an athlete capable of stepping into a coverage role in those middle rounds could be huge for this defense.

In discussing the linebacker position, lets not forget the possibility that safety Adrian Wilson earns a role as essentially a coverage linebacker. Wilson, 34, was expected to play such a role after signing with the team last offseason, but he wound up on injured reserve before the season even started after being hampered by an Achilles injury in the preseason. Many have speculated that Wilson will become a salary cap casualty soon, but rapidly increasing cap projections could carve out enough space to lesson the team's need to cut costs. This could save Wilson's job at least until the end of August, giving him another offseason to be fully healthy and win a role.

This emphasis in speed and athleticism from the linebackers can also bring benefits to a team's pass rush. Collins flashed his excellent pass rushing potential during his late season success, and adding an additional coverage linebacker could help the team unleash Donta' Hightower more as a blitzer on passing downs. Hightower was a tremendous pass rusher in college, at times even playing with a hand on the ground as a defensive end. Using his 270 pounds to attack the quarterback certainly seems more advantageous than asking him to chase fleet-footed running backs and tight ends all around the field.

Of course, adding speed to your linebackers generally means getting smaller at the position, which theoretically makes a team more vulnerable against the run. Seattle has managed to work around this problem thanks to having quality...

Big Bodies up Front

Could Red Bryant join the DT rotation in New England?
Team speed is essential to cope with modern passing attacks, but it's important to not neglect finding the right big guys to hold up the middle of your defense. In Seattle's case, their run defense has been stout thanks to having big Red Bryant (6'4", 323) and Brandon Mebane (6'1", 311) clogging up the line of scrimmage. Not only do both of those big (both of those listed weight totals are laughable) guys do an excellent job of making plays themselves, but their immense size helps them to occupy multiple blockers, allowing those athletic linebackers to fly around and make plays.

On paper, the Patriots appear to have an excellent tackle rotation with Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead and Sealver Siliga. However, each guy is somewhat of a question mark going into 2014, be it due to age and injury (Wilfork, Kelly), injuries and inexperience (Armstead) or simply inexperience (Siliga). They'd do well to add another body, as they can't afford to lean too heavily on Wilfork or Kelly at this point in their careers.

Yes, you'll note that I haven't included Chris Jones or Joe Vellano in this assessment. Both of those guys played extremely hard, with Jones actually factoring in a little bit as a motor-driven pass rusher, and you'd be remiss to complain about what they gave the team last year given the circumstances. However, the results speak for themselves, and both of these undersized tackles got pushed around mercilessly in the running game. They'll certainly have the opportunity to win roles with the team going forward, but the Patriots would be foolish to not look to upgrade here.

One potential name that could become that upgrade is that of Bryant. Multiple reports have surfaced that the Seahawks are likely to release the tackle in order to create the cap space needed to resign Bennett. The Patriots nearly landed Bryant in 2012, with Bill Belichick leading a strong recruiting push, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them try again to bring Seattle's captain into New England. Combining Bryant with some combination of Wilfork, Kelly and Siliga could be scary to run against, while allowing the Patriots to keep a steady rotation and lower the workload on Wilfork and Kelly.

Secondary Play: Big, Physical and Opportunistic

Talib's length helps him to defend the league's biggest and best receivers
The final and hardest aspect of Seattle's defense to replicate is it's otherworldly secondary. The Hawks secondary features transcendent talents in shutdown corner Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, a feared enforcer at safety in Kam Chancelor, and a seemingly never-ending pipeline of developing prospects at the other corner spot. No other team can lose a Brandon Browner and not miss a beat, the way Seattle did last year en route to their championship.

While that kind of success is unlikely to be replicated- by New England or anyone else- there are certain aspects of Seattles pass coverage that can be imitated. For instance, the Patriots don't have anyone on the level of Richard Sherman, but they do have someone who can come close when healthy in Aqib Talib. Like Sherman, Talib's size (6'1", 205) and length allow him a fighting chance against the elite receivers in the NFL, making him a rare and very valuable player. This was evident at the beginning of 2013, when Talib faced Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, AJ Green and Jimmy Graham in a four game stretch and held each well below their season averages, including a shut out of Graham.

Having a player capable of handling matchups like that is an essential chess piece for any defense hoping to compete in an NFL filled with monster receivers. The Patriots unfortunately have seen that first hand in back-to-back years, as their secondary has been shredded in back-to-back AFC Championship games after injuries forced Talib off the field. Those injuries will certainly play a factor in Talib's negotiations with the Patriots, but the Pats must be prepared with a back-up plan if Talib winds up bolting for more money elsewhere. They simply can't afford to lose a #1 corner without making a meaningful attempt to replace his level of production.

With Talib in the lineup, the Patriots are able to mix and match a solid group of supporting cornerbacks based on matchups. The emergence of playmaking rookie Logan Ryan helped keep Kyle Arrington inside the numbers covering the slot, where he belongs (Arrington had his occasional struggles this year, but they were largely the result of playing through a painful groin injury that required offseason surgery). Alfonzo Dennard also had a solid season, overcoming his lack of size with excellent ball skills. This group of corners isn't quite as good or physical as Seattle's, but they are all willing and able tacklers with a knack at getting their hands on the ball.

At safety the Patriots don't have anyone who brings the wood like Chancelor, but Duron Harmon could bring more hitting and speed to the lineup. Steve Gregory is a logical cap casualty due to his $3.68 million cap charge, and Harmon looks ready to take over his job after a strong rookie season. Another intriguing addition could be Kerry Rhodes, a productive playmaker in 2012 (his last year in the league, possibly due to rumors about his sexuality) who recently expressed his desire to play for the Patriots.

While both Seattle and New England possess a Pro Bowl caliber free safety, the difference in the two players signifies the differences in their respective team's approaches to pass defense. Seattle's Earl Thomas is practically the Tasmanian Devil in shoulder pads, flying around the field causing destruction in the form of big hits and interceptions. His reckless style may surrender a few more big plays than New England's Devin McCourty, who is renowned for his sure tackling, intelligence and steady fundamental play in coverage, but he makes up for it by making more impact plays. While Bill Belichick seems to value the conservative style of McCourty, preventing big plays, Pete Carroll loves Thomas' ability to create game changing plays.Granted, it's much easier for Thomas to take risks playing with such a loaded defense, a privilege McCourty has yet to have in the NFL.

In conclusion:

There are several ways Seattle's defense will likely influence personell trends in the NFL for the next few seasons. The obvious impact of Seattle's team speed will likely manifest itself in more teams investing in explosive athletes, both from their pass rushers and linebackers. Teams are already starting to value size in the secondary more-and-more, as everyone tries to find the next Richard Sherman or Kam Chancelor. Seattle's penchant for finding gems in the middle/late rounds of the draft could also lead to teams valuing those picks a little more, hoping to supplement their depth with diamonds in the rough.

Finally, Seattle's impressive depth was absolutely necessary to maintain their attacking, physical style of play for 60 minutes each week. While most teams play largely the same 11-13 guys week in and week out, Seattle's deep rotations allow them to come at opponents in waves, keeping all of their playmakers fresh and productive. While imitating this will be easier said than done (as I said, plenty had to go exactly right for things to fall into place the way they did for Seattle), it wouldn't be surprising to see teams start to look to replicate that "strength-in-numbers" attack.

While the Patriots 2013 numbers don't suggest a team on the verge of championship-level defense, closer examination reveals they may be closer than you think. Remember, this defense was playing excellent football early on, carrying the team to several wins before injuries decimated the team up the middle. If the Patriots can keep Aqib Talib in the fold, they retain the vast majority of that defensive core, with Collins seemingly poised for a big breakthrough season. Make a few clever additions here and there and it's not hard to see a legitimate Top 10 defense there.

Of course, there's a lot of time just between now and August, let alone next January. There's always the possibility that certain players regress or simply don't pan out the way their expected too. For example, a failure by Collins to deliver on his considerable promise will leave a big hole in the linebacking group. Furthermore, injuries are always a threat to dash Plans A, B, C and D, as the 2013 Patriots found out the hard way.

Still, there is reason for optimism in Foxboro. The additions of athletic freaks like Jones and Collins in recent years seems to signify an adaptation to the challenges defenses face in the modern NFL. The classic 3-4 Patriots defenses that won three championships in the early 2000s were built around brute strength and gap control, using bigger and slower (but smarter) defenders to read and react to opposing offenses. Against the speed of the modern NFL, that kind of approach will get you killed. Against weapons like the Grahams, Sproles and Megatrons of the world, there is no time to read and react, hesitation will quickly result in six points the other way, and speed is a necessity, not a luxury. The Seahawks realized the best way to counter this is to force opposing offenses to react to you, something accomplished by playing fast, physical and carrying the play. With a little luck, an increasingly athletic Patriots defense could look to do similar thing in 2014.

Ned Brady 2/26/2014 11:25:00 AM Edit
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