*Around The NFL will look at one compelling matchup or comparison each day leading up to Super Bowl XLIX. Today: Russell Wilson vs. the Patriots' pass rush *
The trio that changed the Patriots
The early PatriotsSuper Bowl championships were defined on defense by tough, versatile linebackers. Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel could play multiple positions, set the edge, stop the run and rush the passer. The Patriots' defense never truly recovered after losing the trio, failing to generate a pass rush for years because of poor draft picks and free agent signings like Adalius Thomas.
Bill Belichick started laying the foundation for a new-school Patriots defense in 2012 with the drafting of first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Second-round pick Jamie Collins arrived a year later and suddenly Belichick had options like it was 2004 again.
The defining characteristics of the new group: athleticism and versatility. Jones and especially Collins aren't stout run stuffers in the mold of the old-school Patriots, but there aren't many groups with more pure talent in the league. Jones has some jaw-dropping pass rush moves, often looking like his MMA champion brother when throwing defenders aside.
Collins, a former safety, can cover running backs, slot receivers and tight ends in coverage. He sometimes lines up wide like a cornerback and sometimes blitzes teams up the middle. Hightower also lined up primarily as a pass rusher early in the season, showing surprisingly good skills off the edge. When inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost for the season, Hightower took over primarily on the inside. But Hightower and Collins often line up next to each other on the inside, with the opposition not knowing if they will both blitz, drop back, or whether one of them will take on a different role entirely.
Jones is primarily a defensive end, but he can rush from the inside as well. His speed is too much for defensive tackles, especially on passing downs. Hightower and Collins share a position: No position.
"This year I definitely feel that (pass rushing) role coming into play a little bit more with playing that joker position and doing everything," Hightower told Around the NFL this week.
While Hightower is generally the rock in the middle, Collins can be all over the place. He admits his coverage skills were not great when he came into the league. Now Collins can do it all, and looks like a future All Pro.
"Jamie makes plays, and I'm like 'Wow.' Jones said in Phoenix. "I gotta rewind that play. Even certain times he'll be rushing the passer and I'll ask Jamie how you do that?' And he'll say 'I don't know.'"
"That's me," Collins explained. "I sometimes work off reaction. Some plays I can't explain. It's all reaction."
No defense for Wilson
Having an athletic trio of linebackers is nice. But stopping Russell Wilson from extending plays outside of the pocket is one of the toughest feats in football. It's not like the Patriots have had a lot of experience this season. They've seen virtually no "read option" plays as a defense this year.
When we brought up the lack of athletic quarterbacks the Patriots have faced this season, Jones had a telling response.
"How deep do you want to get into it? We played Geno Smith, I feel like he's a fast guy, a mobile guy outside the pocket," Jones said.
Wilson is no Geno. He might be the best quarterback in the league at escaping oncoming pass rushers. The Green Bay Packers did an excellent job in the NFC Championship Game keeping Wilson in the pocket and contained him ... for 56 minutes.
The Seahawks did a better job late in the season creating "traditional" pass plays where Wilson delivered the ball on time after three or five steps. But this is still an offense built around the running game, selected deep shots, and improvised plays late in the down by Wilson and his underrated wide receivers.
Darrelle Revis gave the Seahawks receivers a lot of credit for knowing how Wilson thinks and knowing where to go when the play breaks down. Wilson made a number of plays in last year's Super Bowl by simply running away from the line of scrimmage. Perhaps the Seahawks' biggest play of the year -- their two point conversion against Green Bay -- came on a similar play. That strategy is the exact opposite of what most coaches would teach. And yet Wilson pulls it off. There is no defense for it.
So who will win?
The trouble with facing Russell Wilson is that the perfect play call often doesn't work. Defensive coordinators cook up pressures that result in free pass rushers who get past Seattle's mediocre offensive line and to Wilson. And he still gets away.
There is no better quarterback in the NFL at throwing the ball away. Seriously. Wilson often makes incredible plays just to escape pressure and miraculously avoids taking a sack. The Patriots used linebacker Rob Ninkovich well in the AFC Championship Game to mirror Andrew Luck, and Ninkovich's instincts resulted in a few passes defensed and some key tackles. But Ninkovich is not the big playmaker like Hightower, Collins, and Jones.
This is the trio that Bill Belichick has wanted ever since Bruschi, Vrabel, and McGinest left town. The Patriots' strong secondary allows Belichick to take more chances and get creative. This is a group uniquely qualified to slow down Wilson, and give Tom Brady all the chances he needs to win a fourth Super Bowl.
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