FOXBOROUGH — A week ago, Bill Belichick lauded Champ Bailey, Denver’s 11-time Pro Bowl cornerback, as being in a class by himself. Although the Patriots coach did not suggest there was anyone in Seattle who approached Bailey’s stature, he is nonetheless impressed by the physical skill set of the Seahawks’ bigger-than-average secondary.
“They’ve got really big corners, unusual,’’ said Belichick, referring to Brandon Browner, a 6-foot-4-inch, 221-pounder, and Richard Sherman, a 6-3, 195-pounder. “[Kam] Chancellor [6-3, 232] is a big safety, too, so they’re a big, physical team.’’
Third-year safety Earl Thomas, a 5-10, 202-pounder, would rank as the runt of the litter, but by no means is he the weakest link.
“This guy is a really good weak safety,’’ Belichick said. “He’s tremendous. He has range, speed, ball skills, anticipation, and these guys get their hands on a lot of balls. They knock them down, they tip them for interceptions, they’re a hard group to throw against.’’
The Patriots, who have the league’s leading offense at 439.4 yards per game, will be challenged on all fronts when they travel to noisy CenturyLink Field Sunday, particularly against a defense that is the stingiest in the league, allowing an average of 258.6 yards, and is second in points allowed per game at 14.0.
“These guys are long, they’re extremely big, they’re 6-4, 6-3 corners,’’ Belichick said. “You just don’t see them very often, and to see them on one team, they’re hard to get away from. They’re big and they’re physical and they take up a lot of space. A lot of guys aren’t used to going up against that size a player — 220-pound corners.
“For the quarterback, it’s hard because it’s no different than playing against a taller middle linebacker, a guy like [Brian] Urlacher or somebody like that who’s 6-4, 6-5 in the middle of the field. Their range and their height just make those throws in the middle a little tougher.’’
Deion Branch said he didn’t have much in the way of lasting impressions from when he played against the Patriots in 2008 as a Seahawk.
“Just the loss,’’ said Branch, referring to New England’s come-from-behind 24-21 victory Dec. 7, 2008, in which he had two touchdown catches. “Not the game I had. It was the loss overall. I was very excited to play against my old team.’’
Branch will return to Seattle again, but this time he’ll be suiting up with the team that originally drafted him out of Louisville in 2002.
Asked about the differences between playing for Pete Carroll and Belichick, Branch laughed and said, “Oh, yeah, they’re different. I enjoyed my time there with Coach Carroll. They’re different coaches. I think they’ve proven they can get a lot out of their players, so those are the similarities. But they’re different.’’
Will there be any special feelings for him to be going back to Seattle in a Patriots uniform?
“Special feelings?’’ he said. “Yeah, I hope we go out there and get the victory. That’s the most important feeling I need to have.’’
If you start at the top, any idea how far down you have to look to find where Zoltan Mesko ranks among NFL punters? Anyone? OK, let’s go to the source.
“As far as gross average, I’m definitely a catfish, a bottom-feeder right now,” said Mesko, who ranks last in the league with a 39.3-yard average. And he is last by a lot since the two punters closest to him are averaging 42.7 yards. Mesko is next-to-last in net average, at 34.2 yards.
But the numbers can be deceiving, because aside from a blocked punt against the Cardinals, Mesko has had a solid season in two very important categories. Only three of his 19 punts have been returned (best in the NFL), and he has placed 11 of his 19 kicks inside the 20-yard-line. The Patriots have only allowed 22 punt-return yards, tied for the lowest.
“It has a lot to do with me, but as well as with our gunners and our protection,” Mesko said. “Matthew Slater and Marquice Cole have done a tremendous job, they’re experienced gunners that have done this before and I’m happy to have them on my side.”
Brady, Welker limited
Four injured Patriots missed practice Wednesday, while quarterback Tom Brady, tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and receiver Wes Welker were among those limited in participation.
Receiver Julian Edelman (hand), safety Steve Gregory (hip), tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion), and linebacker Tracy White (foot) were not at practice, which was held behind Gillette Stadium in shells and sweats under an intermittent drizzle.
Welker (ankle) was one of 13 Patriots who were limited, including Brady (right shoulder), Hernandez (ankle), and Gronkowski (hip).
Hernandez hasn’t played since Sept. 16, but returned to practice last week and could play in Sunday’s game at Seattle.
The other Patriots who were limited: running backs Brandon Bolden (knee) and Shane Vereen (foot), defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick (ankle) and Justin Francis (ankle), offensive linemen Nick McDonald (shoulder), Sebastian Vollmer (back/knee), and Logan Mankins (calf/hip), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (hamstring), and cornerback Sterling Moore (knee).
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s star running back, was limited in Wednesday’s practice with a back injury.
Take it away
While they seem well-practiced in the art of the strip, causing 11 fumbles this season, the Seahawks have only four recoveries, and a minus-1 turnover differential. That pales in comparison to New England’s plus-10, which is tied for best in the league. “They’re a turnover-driven team,” said Belichick. “They take the ball away, they just don’t wait for you to drop it. They go in there and aggressively take it away. They’ve caused a lot of fumbles this year, 10, 11 whatever it is. They’re very disruptive.’’ . . . Hoping to simulate the decibel level of CenturyLink Field in Seattle — one of the loudest venues in the NFL — the Patriots sampled some music from the Seattle scene during Wednesday’s practice, blaring tunes from Pearl Jam and Jimi Hendrix in addition to Green Day and the Charlie Daniels Band (just for a change of pace).