PHOENIX -- Super Bowl XLIX promises to be one of the more intriguing matchups in the near half-century history of the game. The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots each bring a ton of talent to this show, but more than that, both teams have certain aspects of their play that opponents find very difficult to stop. Conversely, each franchise has structural limitations that can be exploited, if an opponent knows how to go about doing that. Here, we look at a few of the schematic ideas that could decide who walks away with the Lombardi Trophy.
Stopping the Seahawks
A great running quarterback, a dominant running back, a tough overall running game to stop with average receivers has been the narrative for the Seahawks' offense all season. And though it may make Doug Baldwin very unhappy to hear it, there is some truth to that last part. Seattle's receiver corps of Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette won't keep enemy defenses up at night, though Baldwin in particular would most likely be a more notable receiver in a high-volume offense -- no team has thrown the ball less over the last two seasons, and that's by design.
These days, the Seahawks get their receivers open (we'll include the sneakily underrated tight end Luke Willson in the discussion as well) through scheme, route design to a point and the chaos that comes when Russell Wilson starts running. When that happens, his receivers break off their assigned patterns, and those receivers start to act up in a designed and choreographed sandlot ballet. Seattle's passing game, designed by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, isn't really complex by any means, but there's the argument that it really can't be -- those receivers aren't big enough, or physically gifted enough, to beat press coverage and consistently win contested catch battles -- especially against cornerbacks like New England's starting duo, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. And the option game cuts the field in half to a great degree, but this team doesn't seem to care.
So, how does the Seahawks' passing game work? Quite often, it's with shot plays created out of Wilson's rare ability to throw on the run (again, designed chaos) and the relative inability of opposing defenses to adapt on the fly. Especially in the second half of the season, the Patriots have played a lot of man coverage, and they may want to switch that up a bit to avoid any area breakdowns when Baldwin et al go rogue.
Here are two plays against the Cardinals in Week 16 that illustrate just how hard it is to keep everything in check when Wilson is on pace with every part of his game. Arizona plays a lot of man coverage, and they blitz a lot, and this 39-yard pass from Wilson to Willson with 14:14 left in the game illustrates what happens when you throw a heavy front-side cluster blitz at Wilson and you don't get home -- like most of the better quarterbacks in the league, he'll spot the opening, and he'll take it. Willson was able to bring the ball in up the numbers from the slot against delayed overhead coverage.
Then, we get into the zone-read part of Seattle's offense, which is mostly discussed as a rushing option. That's true, but Wilson's ability to exploit defenses torn between option reads and straight coverage was typified in this 80-yard touchdown to Willson with 7:16 left in the first half.
If Wilson has time to roll out and review his options, it's generally bad news for the defense.
"A lot of times you talk about a clock in your head, but with Russell Wilson there’s really no clock," New England safety Devin McCourty told me this week. "A quick three-step drop that should be a play that happens fast... he can spin out of it and turn it into a 10-second play. You’ve got to cover a guy like Jermaine Kearse or Doug Baldwin or Ricardo Lockette for those whole 10 seconds. It’s definitely not an easy task, and I think that’s one of the reasons they [Seattle's receivers] are a really good group.”
And Wilson doesn't need those openings out of zone-read insanity to make great throws downfield -- if he has time to get the ball out to receivers who run their generally basic routes, you have what he did against the Packers in overtime of the NFC championship game against the Packers. These matching 35-yard throws -- the first to Baldwin, and the second to Kearse -- propelled the Seahawks to their second straight Super Bowl.
Now, onto the running aspect of the read-option. We know that Marshawn Lynch is the best power runner in the game -- no other back causes as many missed tackles, and the Patriots have talked all week about how much they'll need to focus on getting multiple bodies to Lynch when he's carrying the ball. Let's instead focus on Wilson as a pure runner, because he could do a lot of damage against a defense that isn't used to the kind of quarterback he is.
Football Outsiders has the numbers, via ESPN Stats & Info -- New England has faced 38 read-option plays this season, which is exactly the NFL average, and they allowed 4.18 yards per carry, which is below the league average. However, most of those runs they faced came courtesy of their two games against the Jets, whose offense isn't a boilerplate for a successful run game of this type. In New England's Week 15 win over the Dolphins, they dealt with a few zone-read runs from quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is athletic enough to pull it off, and did it more often in 2014 as a sidebar in Bill Lazor's offense.
Lazor is a Chip Kelly acolyte -- he's learned the value of wide formations outside the numbers that test defenses horizontally and create wide openings for runners based on impossible choices for defenders. This 15-yard run with 3:06 left in the first quarter is a perfect example. Below are two views, so you can see linebacker Dont'a Hightower (no. 54) try to split himself in half to deal with all aspects of the play, only to be left behind. The result is a five-lane highway for Tannehill.
Seattle has this idea on lock. On this 26-yard run with 14:24 left in the first half of the Seahawks' Week 14 win over the Eagles, Seattle was lined up in a dual Twins 2x2 set, with both pairs of receivers outside the numbers. Eagles LB Casey Matthews was about to take the same dive Hightower did when it came to balancing the multiple aspects of the Russell Wilson run game. Because the formation wasn't compressed, the defense had no boundary help of any kind, putting Wilson in an open space playground. No quarterback in the NFL is more dangerous in that scenario.
“Me being a pass rusher, or even being called an aggressive pass rusher, a lot of people ask does it slow me down with that zone read offense?" Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones posited this week. "How do you pass rush? How do you know when to pass rush and when not to pass rush? I feel like pre-snap, whenever you read your keys and you look at your keys and your target points, it should take you to the ball nine times out of 10. If guys just focus and are aware of certain pre-snap keys, and once you get it, you should be fine.”
That's the only option New England has. Anything else will put them in a rather large hole.
Stopping the Patriots
There's no question that the Seahawks' defense is one of the greatest in recent memory -- perhaps one of the four or five greatest of all time. But any monolith has vulnerabilities, and in Seattle's case, it's covering tight ends. The Seahawks have allowed 11 touchdowns to tight ends, which ranks third-worst in the league. San Diego's Antonio Gates took Seattle's defense to school with a three-touchdown performance in the Chargers' Week 2 win over the defending Super Bowl champs, and both Denver's Jacob Tamme and Philly's Zach Ertz exploited the Seahawks defense for touchdowns using a concept called a vertical switch release.
If the Seahawks are able to hold down Patriots super-weapon Rob Gronkowski purely with personnel (and that's no sure thing), I'd expect Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to try and similarly take advantage of Seattle's defense.
The switch release is a deep crossing concept that looks to expose a weaker pass defender to a superior receiver using pure numbers and mismatches; the Broncos used it to engineer a near-comeback against the Seahawks in Week 3. Two receivers will align on one side of the formation, with the outside receiver either running an inside route or staying straight, and the slot/flex receiver will run an up-and-out. Ideally, the crossing concept will take one or more defensive players out of position, leaving openings downfield. And if there isn't the kind of pressure that forces quick throws, the offense can get rapid and long gains out of it.
With 24 seconds left in regulation, Tamme ran an out-and-up to the end zone from the Seattle 26-yard line. Linebacker K.J. Wright (who was exposed more than once against Gates the week before) was playing curl-flat responsibility, and he was taken out of his area by the vertical switch -- nobody expected Tamme to take his man outside. Meanwhile, with safety Earl Thomas cheating up and playing robber coverage, cornerback Byron Maxwell was covering receiver Demaryius Thomas on a deep over route, which took both Thomas and Maxwell out of the area of assistance for Wright.
The Eagles enjoyed a touchdown in Week 14 using the same principle. With 12:16 left in the third quarter, Ertz took Wright outside to the left sideline, while receiver Riley Cooper took Maxwell inside. Safety Kam Chancellor was playing the intermediate force role this time, and the additional factor of running back Darren Sproles motioning wide right out of the backfield spread Seattle's defense out, and forced Thomas, who was the deep safety, to hesitate. The switch release is a great Cover-3 beater (the Seahawks play Cover-3 predominantly), because it takes a defense out of its assigned responsibilities and forces man-on-man matchups the defense doesn't want.
Pete Carroll believes his defense can match up with Gronkowski in ways other defenses can't, and Chancellor could (and should) be the key to that.
"We do have an excellent opportunity to match up as good as anybody because our guys, our outside backers are pretty tall and long, which they need to be, and they’re still smaller than he is," Carroll said earlier this week. "Kam Chancellor’s about as big a strong safety as you can find. It’s just about bodies on bodies, you know? We’ll have to play him a number of different ways to have a chance to slow him down. I don’t think -- they will get the ball to him, it’s just how effective will it be. And we’ll try to do a terrific job of it, because if we don’t, he can control the football game.”
Gronkowski certainly can, and if he doesn't do it with "bodies on bodies," as Chancellor put it, you might see some switch trickery that puts Gronk on the boundary, and Wright (or another linebacker) in a very bad place.
Outside of Gronkowski, the Patriots have a trio of receivers who are efficient, but underrated -- much like the Seahawks. Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola provide Tom Brady with a good -- not great -- receiving option, but there's one of these receivers -- and one specific matchup -- that could drive Seattle's best pass defender nuts.
Let's rewind back to that Week 2 loss to San Diego, where we see Chargers receiver Keenan Allen bedeviling cornerback Richard Sherman with this route concept. Allen takes the outside position on a sideline route, encouraging Sherman to move right with him in inside position. That's usually where footballs go to die -- I'm fascinated by the fact that quarterbacks still want to try the spidery Sherman on those deep fades -- but Allen added a twist. He faked the deep route on the outside right side and then turned back inside, and Sherman couldn't recover in time.
LaFell does this a lot -- he's a big and strong enough player to box cornerbacks out, and though he's also Brady's primary fade receiver, Brady's too smart to test Sherman on those. Instead, watch for the Patriots to try and set Sherman up with quick inside breaks out of fake fades. Edelman could also drive Seattle's secondary nuts with deep routes, but the kind of in-breaking routes he also runs well? This, again, has been Seattle's kryptonite at times. As I discussed with Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup in this week's Matchup Podcast, it's a bigger problem than some may think.
"I think they're very unique in their abilities," Sherman said about the Patriots' receiving corps on Thursday. "Edelman does a great job getting open in the slot, and he's a very shifty receiver -- they use him sometimes the way they used Wes Welker a few years ago. He's been able to make big plays and break tackles and get yards after the catch -- he does that all very well.
"Brandon LaFell has given them a new element. He'll stretch the field from time to time, and he's a physical receiver. It's kind of like how we use our receivers -- Pete [Carroll] celebrates our uniqueness, and they know exactly what they're going to get out their receivers. They use them efficiently. "
Justifiably so, there's been all kinds of talk this week about Seattle's run game, but the Patriots have a formidable power running game as well, led by LeGarrette Blount. And the Seahawks have been more vulnerable to power backs since they lost nose tackle Brandon Mebane to a hamstring injury in early November. The Seahawks looked to plug that hole with a youngster (Jordan Hill) and a veteran (Kevin Williams), and then, Hill went down with a calf injury in early January. That left Williams as the primary nose tackle, with Tony McDaniel as help and end/tackle Michael Bennett playing inside on more running downs.
Williams and Bennett are great players, but they've struggled at times against power concepts, as in this 15-yard run by Jonathan Stewart in Seattle's divisional playoff win. With 0:50 left in the first quarter, the Panthers pulled tight end Greg Olsen and left guard Andrew Norwell, getting the power edge and catching Chancellor out of position as the Seahawks tried to re-jigger their defense at the linebacker level. This was forceful and fundamentally sound blocking all the way through; Vince Lombardi would be proud of the way the Panthers created "a seal here and a seal here" as Stewart ran up the alley.
This play, with 12:22 left in the third quarter of New England's rout of the Colts in the AFC championship game, shows how the Patriots like to play power football. First of all, they'll go with six offensive linemen quite frequently, and that's not necessarily a tip-off to the run game -- Brady will also pass out of 6-OL sets, with Cameron Fleming as the primary extra lineman.
When the Patriots do run out of this formation, it's with a lethal combination of running back power and synchronized violence from the offensive line and tight ends. The blocking of Michael Hoomanawanui is also a big part of that -- he'll block and pull from all along the formation -- and Hoomanawanui will also catch passes when teams are draped all over Gronkowski, especially in running sets. What you see isn't always what you get with New England's run game.
Michael Bennett could be the difference here, because the Patriots run a lot of slide protection, and Bennett is one of the league's best when it comes to splitting line slides and forcing negative plays.
“I love being a run defender," he said Thursday, when I asked him how important it is to be a great run defender when he plays inside. "I think that’s a part of the game that is going away because sacks mean so much to the fans and the media, and that’s usually how they pick their Pro Bowls, All-Pros and all that kind of stuff.So guys tend not to give a care about the run. They tend to run up the field and try to get sacks, but you have to take pride in that because that’s part of the most important thing about being on the defensive line.
"You really can’t let people run through you, and to have the worst rushing defense would be an insult to the team. I take pride in being there and being where I’m supposed to be for the team because I am a team type of guy.