The key to winning the Super Bowl for the Patriots will depend on their ability to keep Seattle's QB under wraps. Here's how New England's defense could do it
If the Patriots contain Russell Wilson’s movement, they’ll win Super Bowl XLIX. If they don’t, the Seahawks will.
It’s that simple.
Wilson and the Seahawks have achieved what no offense in recent memory has: a viable attack built around the quarterback’s mobility. There have been plenty of running quarterbacks in the NFL, especially now. Some are faster than Wilson (see Colin Kaepernick). Some are stronger (see Cam Newton). Some have been shiftier (see Michael Vick, circa early 2000s). But no quarterback has been more effective than Wilson at using his legs to make his entire offense better.
There’s a structure to Wilson’s movement. His 849 rushing yards this season (fifth most alltime) don’t begin to tell the whole story. Wilson is the most accurate on-the-move passer in football. That movement gives Seattle’s passing attack sustainability. It’s a passing attack that takes place behind a so-so line and with very mediocre wide receivers, all of whom struggle to separate from man coverage. When Wilson gets outside the pocket, instead of breaking down the play, he alters its configuration. His receivers, who can separate if afforded extra time, have gotten very good at adjusting to their improvising quarterback.
Containing Wilson means not only preventing him from running around, but also having a plan for when he does. For the Patriots, this is tricky. Being a man-based defense, at least four and often five of their players will have their eyes off the quarterback and on their receiver. And those players will be running away from the ball, following their receiver’s route.
Of New England’s other seven defenders, four figure to be used in the pass rush. These guys can keep eyes on Wilson but they still have to fight their blocker. Bill Belichick might employ a mush rush with defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who would focus on keeping Wilson in the pocket. This wouldn’t be too expensive for New England; Jones and Ninkovich are both fundamentally sound but neither is super explosive around the edge.
What’s left are the linebackers and safeties. The Patriots have two options for how they can use these men against Wilson while still playing their foundational man coverage: man-free lurk or inside zone assignments.
Here’s how each works:
Man-free lurk is what it sounds like: man-to-man across the board, a free safety in centerfield and a lurker underneath. It’s a great coverage against a mobile QB because the lurker helps eliminate the shallow crossing patterns (which Seattle uses often) and also acts as a spy on the quarterback.
In this example, the lurker is Cowboys linebacker Justin Durant. Usually a defense will employ its strong safety in this spot. But against an empty backfield spread look like this one, the Cowboys put strong safety Barry Church on tight end Luke Willson and leaned on their linebacker. The Patriots can take this approach because inside linebacker Jamie Collins is more athletic than most strong safeties, and he’s especially deft in pursuit on the outside.
The Cowboys did not disguise this man-free-lurk, which is somewhat uncommon. Most teams are inclined to start out in a two-high safety look and rotate down to the lurk coverage. But if it’s going to be Collins on Wilson—and it almost certainly will—then the disguise would have to come out of a different look. (Collins is not going to align at safety presnap.)
One possibility would be a double-A-gap front, with Collins and Hightower threatening to blitz inside (see below). The Patriots lately have had success with increased doses of this concept. The upside is it would put Collins closer to Wilson. The downside is it’d force Collins to drop back while keeping eyes on the QB. And if Wilson were to move early in the down—which he tends to do in tight situations—Collins would have to redirect and fight through traffic. That’s a tall order.
The zone option for defending Wilson would entail leaving both inside linebackers in a stacked position with eyes on the backfield. One would be responsible for the running back and the other for the quarterback, depending on the release. Here’s an example:
This 3 x 1 closed formation is a Seahawks staple. In this instance, the Packers are in a man-zone look. All the defenders have a man assignment on the outside. Inside, linebacker Clay Matthews and strong safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are in zone.
After the snap, Marshawn Lynch releases to the left. Clinton-Dix, having aligned on that side, picks him up in man coverage. Matthews spies Wilson as a shallow free defender. Had Lynch released to the other side, Clinton-Dix would have been the one to drop back and Matthews would have picked up the running back.
This is a slightly safer coverage against a mobile quarterback. With multiple defenders reading the backfield inside, there’s more help in the middle of the field. Notice how most of the man defenders in this example have outside technique, subtly forcing their receiver inside towards that help, as opposed to outside towards the sideline, which is how most man coverage is played.
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Of the two single-high safety man coverage concepts we’ve examined, man-free-lurk is the better fit for New England against Wilson. It’s more proactive, especially with an athletic lurker like Collins, who knows how to get on his horse and attack. Against Green Bay, Wilson had his worst game as a pro. Though we just illustrated an inside zone concept from that game, the Packers actually had most of their success playing man-free lurk in obvious passing situations.
Of course, we’re talking about the Patriots this week. Perhaps with the extra time to prepare, they’ve installed an entirely new Cover 2 foundation that we’ve yet to see this year. But if they haven’t, the Seahawks must be prepared for these man concepts.
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