Middle Men

If Sunday was any indication, Super Bowl XLIX will get hashed out between the hashmarks. And both teams must like that idea
January 26, 2015

JULIAN EDELMAN has decent speed. His quickness is pretty good, hands O.K. His 5'10", 200-pound frame, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick might say, is what it is. He makes up for it a little bit with a high football IQ and sharp route running. All in all, though, Edelman is a middle-tier wide receiver.

To clarify: He's middle tier when facing cornerbacks. But most of the time, Edelman is working against linebackers. And in those matchups he might as well be Jerry Rice. His speed and quickness are more than ample. He gets open with relative ease, his catches become easier and his size irrelevant.

The NFL is all about matchups, and no team is as good at dictating them through formation and presnap movement as the Patriots. Given these mismatches, the majority of their passing game takes place between the numbers or in the flats. With all due respect to superhuman tight end Rob Gronkowski, a crucial contributor on seam patterns and post or corner routes, it's Edelman who acts as the sustainer of New England's passing attack. Many of his snaps come from the slot or off presnap motion, and that's where the Patriots create mismatches against zone linebackers. To ensure that those 'backers are on the field the Patriots operate out of base personnel, which for them is typically one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. Their system also works out of three-receiver sets, which most teams defend with a two-linebacker nickel package. If a tight end or back lines up outside Edelman, the only zone defenders left to handle him inside or underneath are linebackers.

A defense can negate these mismatches by playing man coverage, allowing corners to shadow wide receivers. But the Patriots are also the best team in the league when it comes to tactically defeating man-to-man. Their presnap motion, bunched receiver alignments and pick routes force those defenders to back off. And Edelman against a soft cornerback might as well be Edelman against a linebacker. We saw these kinds of mismatches play out over and over in the AFC championship, when Edelman moved the chains on five third downs plus a fourth down. The Patriots had no trouble dictating matchups against a Colts D that they knew would keep its top two corners outside.

Enter the Seahawks, with a defense that mostly keeps its top corners outside. Mostly—but not always. In most obvious passing situations against the Packers on Sunday, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell moved around and matched up against wide receivers regardless of where they aligned. Their coverage was stifling. Even with well-executed motions, bunches and picks, New England's wideouts will have trouble consistently separating from this cornerback duo. And if Edelman gets paired up in the slot against nickel man Jeremy Lane, that's still an unfavorable matchup for New England. The third-year corner is physical and fast—just ask Randall Cobb, who often got controlled by Lane in the NFC championship.

No matter how poorly their receivers match up against Seattle's corners, the Patriots won't eschew the passing game—not with Tom Brady at QB. Instead, they'll throw on early downs and out of base personnel, which the Seahawks are almost sure to defend with their staple Cover Three zone. For New England this will also be a hedge against the possibility of its red-hot power running game cooling off against a D that boasts a very active front line, the league's fastest linebacking unit and its fiercest safety tandem in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

Those fast backers—K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner—also happen to be sturdy against the pass. No defense is better at route recognition and ball pursuit than the Seahawks'. Their 'backers might not always stop Edelman from making catches, but they can prevent him from running much after them.

We saw this in last year's Super Bowl against Denver and Wes Welker (New England's original Julian Edelman). Once again Seattle's ability to handle inside-receiver matchups will determine whether it becomes the first team since the 2003--04 Patriots to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in back-to-back years.

PHOTOJONATHAN FERREY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPACKING IT IN Inside against Lane or outside against Thomas and Sherman, Edelman will have trouble—just ask Randall Cobb (above).

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)