The Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots will go head-to-head in Super Bowl XLIX Sunday. Who has the edge in this battle of evenly matched foes? Doug Farrar makes a case for the Seahawks below. (Chris Burke makes a case for the Patriots here.)
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1. Seattle's pass rush will force Tom Brady to forego the aerial show.
Forget the air pressure in the footballs -- Tom Brady's real problem this season, if he has one, is the fact that New England's passing offense is no longer designed to beat defenses deep. This season, including the playoffs, Brady ranks 15th in accuracy when throwing the ball over 20 yards in the air, completing 21-of-69 such passes for 649 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions, and those 21 deep completions ranked 14th, tied with Detroit's Matthew Stafford (per Pro Football Focus). This is a trend that has been going on for a while -- with Brady aging and his receivers and offensive line declining in talent, the primary function of New England's passing game is to get the ball out quickly and avoid Brady throwing under pressure on a regular basis. Brady has 171 passing attempts under pressure in the 2014 season, with 77 completions, four touchdowns and seven picks. If you combine Brady under pressure and Brady throwing the deep ball, the interception percentage skyrockets -- and that's what the Seahawks' defensive front will be looking to create.
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In both Super Bowls New England lost to the New York Giants, defensive lineman Justin Tuck was able to bull through the middle of the Patriots' offensive line, making things very difficult for Brady by rushing him right up the middle. If Brady can't step up to throw, his options become limited, and he starts throwing off a base that is not as solid. Watch out for Seattle D-lineman Michael Bennett, who has provided outstanding pass rush from both the tackle and end positions, to play the Tuck role in this game. Only Carolina's Charles Johnson had more total pressures than Bennett's 80 this season, and Bennett can do that everywhere from wide-nine defensive end to three-tech defensive tackle. I asked Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo about Bennett this week, and he compared Bennett to Reggie White -- not to say that Bennett has White's Hall of Fame-level destructive ability, but that he'll play from different gaps with great effectiveness as White did, and as J.J. Watt does.
"He is very disruptive in the run game and the pass game," Brady said of Bennett on Monday. "He’s a very stout defender, he’s got a great motor, he’s got a great knack for the ball. He’s a playmaker for that defense. You have to be able to account for him. He’s a tough matchup. That’s why they signed him, that’s why they really like him. They move him around quite a bit, so he can have different opportunities against different guys on the offensive line.”
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn also has a formation in which Bennett and end Cliff Avril line up right next to each other outside the formation, with Bennett generally stunting inside, and Avril moving outside. It's been tremendously effective, and the Patriots should watch for all kinds of pressure packages this Sunday.
2. Russell Wilson's mesh point is difficult to solve.
The Seahawks are by far the NFLs most effective zone-read team, and they run several iterations of it. Russell Wilson can hand off to Marshawn Lynch in an inside or outside zone-run play, he can keep the ball and read the end, he can watch the linebackers and try for a long vertical gain through the interior gaps, and he can improvise in the passing game once he gets out of the pocket. As Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar pointed out this week, Wilson gained 8.43 yards per carry on his 47 designed run this season, and 9.53 yards per carry on his 55 scrambles.
Seattle has a fairly elementary passing game, but they get away with it because Wilson is the rogue factor with his mobility. And his mobility as a passer can be a real problem for enemy defenses. Through his first three NFL seasons, Wilson has led the league with 24.7 percent of his passes from outside the pocket, as opposed to a league average of 13.5 percent. When Wilson gets outside the pocket, he extends plays -- and that places a specific burden on the secondary. Seattle's receivers are highly attuned to the timing and direction of Wilson's scrambles, and they know when to break off from their called routes to help Wilson improvise with his arm downfield.
“It definitely is," Patriots safety Devin McCourty told me Tuesday, when I asked him whether Seattle is tougher to cover because of this. "Especially with the guys they have. They have guys that are short, quick guys. They have guys that can run it and get deep. So, you’ve got a guy that runs a comeback or so and then he [Wilson] scrambles and they can run across the field, go vertical. It’s very tough to try to stay with them. You don’t know how long the play’s going to last.
"A lot of times you talk about a clock in your head, but with Russell Wilson there’s really no clock. 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 are a really good group.”
As for Wilson the runner, defensive end Chandler Jones echoed the mantra Bill Belichick always prescribes: "Do your job."
“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? 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.”
Nine times out of 10 would be a good ratio -- most of the Seahawks' opponents this season have not fared as well.
3. Marshawn Lynch is too tough to stop.
When the Seahawks hand the ball to Lynch, that's another matter, because he's the league's best runner after contact -- per PFF's metrics, Lynch led the league with 3.11 yards per carry after initial contact, and an incredible 109 missed tackles caused (Dallas' DeMarco Murray finished second this season with 71). Lynch is also an effective receiver out of the backfield -- the Seahawks will throw him quick wheel routes, and they'll roll him to Wilson's backside when Wilson rolls right, often leaving huge gaps for Lynch to plow through. New England's run defense has been good at times this season, but they haven't faced a back like Lynch -- because there really isn't a back like Lynch in today's NFL.
"He’s a complete back," New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said of Lynch. "I think you give credit where credit is due. He’s a complete back in this league, and I’ve said many times I think he’s the best back in the game. With the ball in his hands, catching the ball, running the ball, blocking, yards after contact, you name it. All those areas he leads. He’s amazing when he gets the ball in his hands ... when you have a guy that special that’s a running back and the bulk of his load is when he has the ball. The only reason the quarterback has it more than him is because the quarterback has to get it from the center. So that’s how especially dominant he is at that position. I don’t think anybody out there does it any better than him.”
Doug Baldwin has said that he wants Lynch to be the Super Bowl MVP, and if he puts up that type of performance -- especially in early-down situations -- the Seahawks start to sustain drives, and their opponents start to run out of oxygen. Obviously, the Patriots can't afford for that to happen.
4. The Seahawks have time to solve their tight end issues.
Seattle's defense is great to be sure, but every great defense has its issues, and Seattle's has been a relative inability to cover tight ends. The Seahawks have allowed 11 touchdowns to tight ends this season, third-most in the league, and they now have to deal with Rob Gronkowski -- who, like Lynch, has no equivalent in the NFL at his position.
Not only is Gronkowski the best-blocking tight end in the league and one of the better you'll ever see (I'm convinced that if you put 30 pounds on him, he could be an All-Pro offensive tackle), but at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, he's simply a physically overwhelming player. And when you factor in his hands, toughness, route awareness and determination to bring in every football in his general area, the challenge becomes tougher.
"I went back to a cut-up of Rob just to check him out, to see if there’s some things we could help our guys out on, because he’s such an effective player," Carroll said of Gronkowski on Monday. "He really has all of the elements that you’re looking for from a big-time tight end, every aspect of it. I was looking real close again just to see if there’s a way to find some approach [with which] we could slow him down."
However, the Seahawks have been stronger against tight ends since safety Kam Chancellor recovered from early season injuries, and the 6-3, 235-pound Chancellor has a rare skillset of his own -- he covers quite a bit better than a lot of people think, and few defensive backs in the NFL hit with more authority.
"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 of Gronkowski. "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. ... [T]hey 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.”
As current Patriots and former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner said, “That’s going to be one for the ages. Gronk is a beast and Kam is a beast. It will be interesting to watch that matchup; it could go either way.”
If it goes either way, and Gronkowski is effectively limited from going Full Gronk Mode, the Patriots will have trouble matching their other receivers against Seattle's excellent secondary. The pressure here is more on Gronk than on Kam.
5. Seattle has a good enough bead on New England's run game.
If the Patriots lead with LeGarrette Blount to try and counter Seattle's limited nose tackle position, that could be a good play. Veteran Kevin Williams is the primary guy in that slot, and though Williams has had a stellar career as a three-tech tackle, moving inside to nose -- as Williams has had to do to replace the injured and hugely underrated Brandon Mebane -- presents its own set of challenges.
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“He is a tough guy," Williams said of Blount. "He is a big guy to bring down. If you've seen him, he is a load in person. The key is to get his legs to get him down. It is going to take more than one guy. You have to continue to fly around. It shouldn’t be much of a problem but you can’t just count on one guy to make the tackle.”
And there's where the Seahawks have a bit of an advantage -- they have other players who can make that tackle. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the better run-stuffers in the league, and if Chancellor is free because Seattle goes a different way to cover Gronkowski on certain snaps, Chancellor will be looking to put Blount's lights out. Not an easy task, but even without Mebane, Seattle's run defense has been quite good for the most part, and only occasionally problematic against bigger backs.
Chancellor sounded quite confident when asked whether Blount would get any yards after catch, or after contact Sunday.
“Not at all," he said. "No way. When we play this game, when you touch this ball, it is all about getting you down. It’s about running and hitting. It’s about being fundamentally sound. If you prepare for it, it will get done in the game. So, if you prepare and once that man catches it, the rest is want to. I say, the coaches can get you to the position to get you where you need to get, get your feet under you and line you up, but the rest of it is the want to. You’ve got to want to get that guy down and you’ve got to want to do it with aggression and that’s my team.”
If the Seahawks can live up to Chancellor's brio -- and they do quite often -- they've got a great chance of taking home their second straight Lombardi Trophy.