Our film-study guru breaks down the matchups, schemes, strengths, weaknesses and gambits from every conceivable angle. And the winner will be...
Seahawks’ offense vs. Patriots’ defense
1) Seattle’s passing game has no chance
The Patriots have the best man coverage in football. The Seahawks’ passing attack is heavy on isolation routes, and we just saw their receivers get stifled for 55 minutes by the Packers’ man-centric defense. Expect Darrelle Revis to shadow Doug Baldwin, eliminating Russell Wilson’s top target. The Seahawks might be able to occasionally work Baldwin open from the slot with short-area pick routes, stack releases, and their staple wheel routes, but Revis is phenomenal at working through traffic to defend those (see his interception in the AFC Championship Game). Most likely, Wilson will have to look elsewhere. But with two safeties in help coverage—a tactic the Patriots use often and will certainly employ against the mobile Wilson—do we really foresee Jermaine Kearse consistently separating from Brandon Browner? Or Ricardo Lockette shaking free from Kyle Arrington and a safety?
2) Russell Wilson’s legs
The quarterback’s mobility, along with Marshawn Lynch and the running game, will determine Seattle’s chances of hoisting a second straight Lombardi Trophy. Because receivers will have such trouble getting open, the passing attack will have to extend into sandlot mode late in downs. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell may actually welcome this. Wilson has quickly evolved into the most dangerous sandlot player in the league. There’s a structure to his movement; unlike most quarterbacks, when Wilson gets out of the pocket, he has a plan.
3) Containing Wilson
The Patriots will also have a plan when Wilson extends the play. Being a man-coverage defense, they’ll have to designate certain interior defenders to spy the QB or play zone. (This is because man-to-man defenders have their eyes on the receivers, not on the QB, so they won’t see Wilson when he scrambles—and they’ll often be running away from the ball.) Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is a respectable athlete with sharp diagnostic abilities. He’d be a better spy than Jamie Collins, who could be deployed in man coverage to eliminate tight end Luke Willson—or, more likely , the running back.
4) The miscellaneous passing matchups
Instead of putting Collins on Luke Willson, don’t be surprised if the Patriots put former cornerback Devin McCourty on the tight end in passing situations. They like to do this out of their dime package, leaving safeties Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson in a two-deep shell. And in nickel, Bill Belichick will cover the tight end with Patrick Chung, a thumper who has been surprisingly stout in pass defense this year. Regardless of which safety takes Willson in passing situations, Collins will be a free defender. He can spy (and chase down) Russell Wilson or he can blitz, something he’s done with aplomb this season.
5) Controlling the linebackers
Like any defense, the Patriots are most diverse out of their sub-packages. Considering that Seattle’s wide receiver depth is iffy at best, it’d make sense for the Seahawks to operate out of base personnel (two backs, one tight end or vice versa) and try to dictate with their play design. Their designs should focus on widening the defense to create possible running lanes for Wilson. The Patriots primarily deploy a four-man pass rush. That leaves one running lane open for the QB. This is something Bill Belichick worries about. That’s a big reason why he’ll have a spy or a lurk defender watching Wilson. With the field widened (either through spread formation or running backs and tight ends running flare routes toward the sidelines) Wilson will gain a clear view on who is spying him and from where.
6) Seattle’s only chance…
… is their running game. Marshawn Lynch is the league’s best at gaining yards after contact when they’re needed most. The Patriots’ aggressive run D features linebacker blitzes. This can be a boom-or-bust approach, especially against a zone-blocking team like Seattle, because the action is often steered horizontally. One missed gap assignment and Lynch is a cut away from getting into the secondary. The read-option will also be critical, particularly late in the game when the Seahawks are more apt to challenge defenses with Wilson’s mobility and throw out of 3 x 1 closed formations.
7) Crunch time
Speaking of Wilson running late in games: This season, 17.4% of his rushing attempts and 23.4% of his rushing yards came in the fourth quarter (or overtime) when it was en eight-point game or closer. These numbers do not include kneel downs. (Quick rant: It’s ridiculous that the league counts kneel downs as rushing attempts.) In crunch time, Wilson becomes a more aggressive and more dangerous runner.
8) Attack Seattle’s right tackle
It doesn’t matter who starts here. Whether it’s backup Alvin Bailey or Justin Britt, who missed the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury, the Patriots will attack Seattle’s right tackle with their pass rush. They went after Indy’s Joe Reitz with twists and stunts and they’ll do the same in the Super Bowl. Neither Bailey nor Britt is very good at pass blocking on an island or redirecting against late movement.
Patriots’ offense vs. Seahawks’ defense
1) Key for Seattle: Make Tom Brady beat you
Sounds crazy, right? It’s not. The Patriots are at their best when their underneath, short-area passing game is clicking with Julian Edelman. Or when Rob Gronkowski is working the seams. If either of these two gets rolling, the Patriots will be able to move the ball and score on a Seahawks defense that has allowed less than 10 points per contest during their current eight-game winning streak. If they can take away these patterns and force Brady to throw at the deep-intermediate levels or, better yet, downfield outside the numbers, Seattle wins. With the exception of hitting Brandon LaFell on the occasional play-action skinny post, Brady doesn’t throw downfield outside the numbers with any regularity. He’ll especially want to avoid that against suffocating corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell.
2) The most important player for Seattle…
… is Kam Chancellor. The fifth-year strong safety should have been named the MVP of last year’s Super Bowl. Heading into this contest, he’s the MIP (Most Important Player). Chancellor will be the primary defender on Gronkowski. He’ll pick him up inside when in zone coverage, where he and the linebackers are excellent at recognizing routes and help-coverage concepts. And Chancellor will shadow Gronkowski in many man-to-man scenarios. In the NFC Championship Game, Chancellor lined up across from tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers even when they were split out wide. (Unless it was “2 man,” a coverage in which Chancellor plays deep and K.J. Wright takes the tight end. In “2 man” Chancellor will still likely be part of a double-team on Gronkowski over the top.) Because Gronkowski is a much greater receiving threat than any of Green Bay’s tight ends, the Seahawks may elect to keep Byron Maxwell or Richard Sherman out there against him. (They’ll for sure do this when in zone.) But for most of the game, Chancellor will be the primary defender on Gronkowski.
3) Stopping Julian Edelman
In man coverage, Seattle should feel good about its chances with nickel corner Jeremy Lane on Edelman in the slot. Lane won several important battles against Randall Cobb last Sunday and he has the quickness and physicality to combat Edelman’s option routes. But in certain passing situations—especially against empty sets, which the Patriots employ regularly—look for the Seahawks to rush three and drop a defensive lineman back into coverage. This takes away shallow crossing patterns and allows the linebackers to fan a little wider to better defend the flats. Shallow crosses and the flats are where Edelman (and much of New England’s passing attack) lives. The Seahawks did this with great success against the Broncos last year.
4) The ground battle
The other part of making Brady beat you is taking away the Patriots’ power running game. It racked up 177 yards against an undersized Colts front seven that couldn’t prevent offensive linemen from working up to the linebackers in the AFC title game. The Seahawks don’t have the biggest D-line. At linebacker, weighing in the mid 240s, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright both have better size than Indy’s D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman, but they’ll have trouble gathering the necessary strength to bring down the rumbling LeGarrette Blount if they’re forced to shed blockers at the point of attack. Speaking of Blount, he seemed to discover a hidden compartment of lateral agility against Indy. If he runs like that again, the Patriots will be tough to stop.
The Seahawks will have two weeks to prepare for New England’s new eligible/ineligible receiver ploys. But the Patriots will also have two weeks to add wrinkles. How this plays out is anyone’s guess. We only saw the tactic a few times against the Colts. It’s still very nascent. But Seattle has a good response for this, as well as for the myriad shifts, motions and stack-release concepts that define New England’s offense: do nothing. This defense is talented at all three levels; it’s built to simply line up and play, and the Patriots’ stratagem is the ultimate “line up and play” challenge. Seattle’s man-zone Cover 3 hybrid can work against almost any offensive look. Sure, there will be instances when linebackers get stuck guarding wide receivers. But what the Seahawks have figured out is that against multifaceted, scheme-driven passing attacks, preventing the mismatch is not as important as being able to react to it. Don’t focus on what happens before the snap, just execute the play soundly. The emphasis is on preventing yards after catch. A wide receiver might catch a pass against a linebacker, but there will be a handful of fast, fierce defenders racing to the ball.
6) Pass protection
New England’s offensive line has been inconsistent in pass protection throughout the season. Keep in mind, inconsistent doesn’t mean bad. It means sometimes good, sometimes bad. But inconsistent lines tend to find their nadir against explosive pass rushes, which the Seahawks certainly have. Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn teach a straight-up, fundamentals-driven brand of defense, but five or six times each game they’ll reveal a pressure package out of an amoeba front. At the forefront will be Cliff Avril, who primarily comes off the left defensive edge, but in key situations he could be deployed from a standup position or from the other side.
7) Attack Bruce Irvin
The third-year outside linebacker is a hybrid edge-rusher by trade. He’s been a pleasant surprise in coverage this season, but look for the Patriots to go after him with a wheel route (or similar concepts) at some point, likely with Shane Vereen, one of the league’s best receiving backs.
And the winner is…
New England 23, Seattle 17
This is a nerve-racking pick; it’s hard to overcome visions of Russell Wilson running around and making spectacular out-of-structure plays. But the Patriots’ advantage in man coverage is so distinct that the responsible prediction is to go with New England. The Patriots will have to be patient in the running game. You beat Seattle’s defense not with big plays but with long drives fueled by the rushing attack. The Patriots, with their six-man O-lines and short-area passing game, are equipped to play that way.
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