The Patriots and Seahawks aren’t built for one another. These are two teams built around dominant secondaries that were designed to target other opponents. These are defenses built to stop the Broncos,1 Colts, and Packers, teams with terrifying no. 1 wideouts who challenge mortal teams to stop them from throwing downfield on every single play. Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman are the two best cornerbacks in football and they will likely spend their Sunday evening covering Doug Baldwin and Brandon LaFell. That just seems wrong.
Well, the pre-Manning-injury Broncos.
In fact, if anything, they’re built in ways that play into the opposition’s strengths. The Patriots are one of the most efficient offenses in the league, a short passing attack with spread concepts relying heavily on Tom Brady’s ability to diagnose pressures and coverages before the snap and make safe, accurate throws afterward. Most teams try to disguise what they’re doing to give Brady a crucial moment to pause and fail. The Seahawks don’t need to. They line up, run a three-deep coverage Brady probably saw in high school, and succeed anyway because they’re so damn good that it doesn’t matter. New England is built upon staying flexible and attacking the opposing team’s weakness, and it’s playing a team that ranked third against the pass and second against the run.
And there are the Seahawks, who run outside zone and inside zone and dare you to overpursue, at which point Marshawn Lynch cuts back and runs over your poor, backpedaling safety, or Russell Wilson keeps it and runs past him. But the Patriots are an immaculately coached defense that doesn’t make those sort of mistakes; the only defense to allow fewer yards after initial contact on a per-carry basis over the past three years2 is the 49ers. The Seahawks exploit mistakes, and the Patriots defense doesn’t make many.
The Patriots are seventh in that category this year.
This probably won’t be a game in which one side flexes its strongest muscle and overpowers the other. It will be about the weak points, the lesser spots on each team’s roster that other teams aren’t effective or concise enough to exploit. And it will be about adapting, both to what these teams have shown on tape over the course of the season and to whatever they’ve cooked up over the past two weeks. Will either team implement an enormous strategic shift and go to something they don’t typically do to try to throw off the other? Or will they just butt heads and dare the other to out-execute them at their best? When two teams that play into each other’s strengths line up, it’s not a question of which one blinks. It’s whether it’s the right idea to even blink at all.
When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature
The question I keep coming back to when I think about this game, far more than any other, is about the way the Patriots will structure their offensive attack. Some of that will be situation-dictated, of course. If they go down 14-0 in the first quarter, they’re going to spend the rest of the game throwing. If they’re up 27-7 in the third quarter, chances are they’ll turn the game over to LeGarrette Blount. I’m not talking about that. In a vacuum and given a close game, I want to know how the Patriots plan on going at this Seattle defense.
The reason why it’s so interesting, of course, is because the Patriots went incredibly pass-happy the last time these two teams played. In that 2012 encounter, Brady threw what was then a career-high 58 passes in a game in which the Patriots had the lead for more than 45 minutes. And sure, that was a Patriots team with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in key roles, but the Patriots are even more pass-friendly in 2014; 59.2 percent of their offensive snaps this year were pass plays (pass attempts and sacks), up from 56.1 percent in 2012.
Naturally, when the Patriots show such an extreme look in one game, you might assume that Bill Belichick would expect the other team to prepare for that trend in the next game and thus for New England to head in the opposite direction. I’m not so sure. The most recent sort of extreme game plan that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put together was the run-intensive attack they prepared for the Colts, a scheme that they’ve now used in three consecutive games against Indianapolis, dating back to the 2013 playoffs. Even some of the wrinkles like the six-offensive-lineman sets the Patriots used in the second encounter were staples in the most recent game. If it works, the Patriots don’t necessarily need to make changes.
As I wrote about when I recapped the 2012 Seahawks-Patriots game last week, New England was very successful for most of the game with its pass-first attack. Through three quarters, Brady was 31-of-45 for 314 yards, carving up Seattle by throwing at the seams and making safe throws to the edges, mostly against then-Seahawks corner Brandon Browner, now a Patriots player, and now-retired cornerback Marcus Trufant, who was lined up in the slot against Welker.
The current Seahawks playing those roles are Byron Maxwell (in the Browner spot on the right side of the defense) and Jeremy Lane, Seattle’s slot cornerback. Lane is a critical player in this game, somebody who is far more likely to figure into the success or failure of the New England offense than Sherman. Just as the Patriots picked endlessly on Baltimore defensive backs Rashaan Melvin and Matt Elam in the divisional round, they’re going to go after Maxwell and Lane in the hopes of avoiding Sherman, Earl Thomas, and as much of Kam Chancellor as possible.
What will those plays look like? For Maxwell, he’ll have to contend with various route combinations designed to take advantage of his aggressiveness. When I wrote about the Broncos-Seahawks matchup last year, I mentioned that Manning was likely to go with the curl-flat concept in an attempt to stretch Maxwell, who would have been worried about dealing with Demaryius Thomas getting past him downfield. Denver did a little of that, but the Seattle pass rush was so effective that the Broncos shifted midgame and ran Thomas across the field far more frequently on drag and dig routes against Seattle’s zones.
For the Patriots, a more likely route pairing is the slant-flat combination, a concept they ran repeatedly against the Seahawks the last time these teams played. The Patriots will run that combination against both sides, but they’ll do it very frequently as the backside combination on their version of Y-Stick, an old staple in the Air Raid offense that James Light wrote about at length last week.
The slant-flat combination takes advantage of Seattle’s aggressiveness at cornerback by creating a natural rub from the closeness of the routes. If you try to jam the outside receiver, the slot guy (or more accurately Lane, the defender) will bump into Maxwell, the outside cornerback, creating an easy throwing lane for a safe completion. Even if the Seahawks aren’t jamming at the line, Maxwell’s myriad responsibilities in Seattle’s Cover 3 approach — staying close to his man at the line of scrimmage while simultaneously cutting off any throw down the sidelines that Thomas won’t be able to get to from center field — allows the Patriots to play off those concerns and create separation. Here’s Y-Stick against the Seahawks in 2012, with the Patriots beating Browner for a first down:
Brandon Lloyd is the outside receiver there. Notice his footwork. His first step is down the field, like he’s running a fade or a curl route. That opens Maxwell up and prevents him from denying the inside route. Lloyd actually stops for a quarter-second, just long enough for the flat route to clear in front of him and create a throwing lane, and then he makes a hard cut inside on the slant for an easy throw.3
Two plays later, the Patriots actually flipped it and ran Y-Stick the other way, with Brady progressing to the slant and throwing it to Lloyd against Sherman, who was playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Lloyd slipped trying to catch a pass that was thrown behind him for an incompletion.
The front side of Y-Stick is where the Patriots will likely target Lane. With the outside receiver running a go route to occupy Sherman and take him away from the play, the Patriots get a two-man game with Rob Gronkowski and either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola running a pair of routes that are tough to defend, as our Chris B. Brown wrote about on his site several years ago. Amendola will run a flat route against Lane, who has to both diagnose the play immediately and quickly get his hips moving to cut off the throwing lane and prevent Brady from having an easy completion. Gronkowski, meanwhile, runs a stick route designed to take advantage of the space created by the other two routes, with Brady throwing him open to whatever side is left available by the coverage around him. That’s where Chancellor and Bobby Wagner are going to have to come in; they’ll need to close on Gronkowski’s routes quickly and deny Brady that read without committing illegal contact or pass interference.
The return of Wagner and Chancellor from injuries — Wagner with turf toe, Chancellor with a groin complaint — coincide with a dramatic improvement in Seattle’s defense. The Seahawks allowed just 39 points over the final six games of the regular season after Wagner’s return in Week 12, and one of the most obvious ways they’ve improved is against tight ends. Seattle’s opponents threw 10 touchdowns to tight ends in their first 10 games of the year, including three for Antonio Gates in Seattle’s Week 2 loss to San Diego. They’ve allowed one to a tight end in the ensuing eight games. The QBR split is, well, pretty staggering:
There are other ways the Patriots will try to attack Lane in the slot. They’ll throw the tight ends into Trips Bunch sets in the slot, daring Seattle to work through the clutter to find the guy Brady really wants to target for an easy completion. They’ll stack receivers in the slot and run clear-out routes designed to basically serve as a lead blocker for an easy completion. Here’s a GIF of that Patriots-Seahawks review, with Welker following Hernandez through a zone for an easy first down:
While I don’t expect to see the Patriots make a ton of throws downfield, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see them go to the switch verticals concept the Broncos used for their comeback drive against the Seahawks in the fourth quarter of their regular-season game this year, especially with Gronk in the slot on Maxwell’s side. Jacob Tamme took advantage of the routes for the game-tying touchdown this year, and hell, nobody’s writing sexy fan-fiction about Tamme:4
YET. Coming soon: The Tamme of My Life.
Now, none of this will be news to the Seahawks. They know all of this is coming. They just have to stop it. They might be able to get away with doing what they normally do because Wagner and Chancellor are so good that they can eliminate Gronk’s ability to catch hitch routes coming out of his break. They can use their telepathic communication with Thomas to close off the seam routes that Gronkowski seems able to work against any defense in football. Maybe Maxwell and Lane can get past the picks and the stacks to impose their will on New England’s smaller receivers and take away Brady’s instant throwing lanes. And when the Patriots do catch passes, the Seahawks will surely tackle; they’re the third-best team in the league in preventing yards after catch (at an average of 4.58 yards) and yards after initial contact (1.25 yards on pass plays).
There is another option. What if the Seahawks stuck Sherman on Edelman and had him follow Edelman around the field, even if it meant lining up against New England’s top receiver in the slot? Seattle almost never moves Sherman around, but there is precedent: Week 2 of the 2013 season, when he volunteered to chase around San Francisco wideout Anquan Boldin, who was the only player of note in a very limited 49ers receiving corps. Sherman held Boldin to one catch for 7 yards, and Colin Kaepernick was never able to adjust and make throws to his secondary targets, going 13-of-28 for 127 yards with three picks.
Brady also went after Sherman in a similar spot during that 2012 game, on a play in which Sherman lined up for a rare moment in the slot. Brady tried to throw a fade route over Sherman’s head to Deion Branch, but Sherman played it expertly and picked the pass off. You can see that play here. It was a bad throw from Brady, who probably aimed to get his pass farther outside to keep Branch away from Thomas, but it’s not an accident that he made a bad throw in Sherman’s direction. Sherman forces a lot of bad throws.
The Seahawks wouldn’t normally consider moving Sherman out of his comfort zone, but if they were ever going to do it, this would be the time. They can’t be too scared about the Patriots beating Tharold Simon, who would likely step in for Sherman on the outside, downfield for big plays. It’s just not New England’s offensive style. The Seahawks know the Patriots are going to focus heavily on throwing to their slot receivers and while using reduced splits, which would take Sherman out of the game otherwise. And they’ve had two weeks to prepare, so now would be the time to install an exotic look, in an incredibly high-leverage situation.
There’s an easier way for the Seahawks to stop the Patriots from stretching them in all directions: beat the bejesus out of Brady with their pass rush. While Sherman noted after the Patriots game in 2012 that Seattle made adjustments in the second half to take throws away from Brady, the real adjustment was having Chris Clemons turn into Superman against Nate Solder, which forced the Patriots to give him help or carry Brady off the field in a body bag.
When the Patriots send five receivers out on routes and the opposing team doesn’t get pressure on Brady, he posts a QBR of 92.5, the third-best rate in the league. Even considering that everyone is going to look good without pressure on them, he’s still really good in those situations. When the Patriots have to keep six pass-blockers in to protect Brady, though, his QBR of 71.2 is the 10th-best in the league. The Patriots want to go five-wide, stretch Seattle, and get the ball out before the pass rush can get home.
That’s a dangerous plan. It’s the smartest way to attack this pass defense, but that’s hardly a guarantee it will work. The Broncos learned that last year in the Super Bowl. Manning had the league’s best QBR (85.8) in 2013 when the Broncos went with five receivers, but in the Super Bowl, he went 28-of-42 for just 211 yards and two picks when the Broncos went five-wide. His QBR in those situations in that game? 12.0.
Mentioning the idea of an opposing pass rush putting up a dominant performance should cause only about 97 or 98 percent of Patriots fans to break out into hives. The simplest explanation for why the Patriots have lost the last two times they’ve made it to the Super Bowl boils down to the Giants front four simply overwhelming New England’s offensive line and disrupting Brady and the Patriots’ game plan. The Giants hit Brady nine times and sacked him on five of his 53 dropbacks in Super Bowl XLII; four years later, they sacked him only twice but knocked him down eight times amid 42 dropbacks.
The Giants succeeded because they had three great pass-rushers lining up inside and outside, and when the Patriots couldn’t double any individual rusher, their linemen couldn’t hold up one-on-one. During the 2007 run, it was Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora on the outside; in 2011, it was Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul. Both times, Justin Tuck was lined up in the middle and laid waste to poor Logan Mankins, a Hall of Fame–caliber guard who happened to have two of the worst games of his career in Super Bowls.
The Seahawks pulled off a similar game plan in beating up Manning and the Broncos last year. Blessed with one of the deepest defensive lines in football after buying low on Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, the Seahawks were capable of creating mismatches at any spot in the line and often did. Unafraid of Denver’s running game, the Seahawks were able to line up Avril, Bruce Irvin, and Clemons outside, put Bennett inside with Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, or Red Bryant, and force the Broncos to try to stop them all with little help. While they sacked Manning only once and knocked him down four times, they forced a ton of desperate throws and premature passes from an overmatched Manning.
Things won’t be quite as easy this year. Clemons, McDonald, and Bryant are gone. Mebane is on injured reserve. Bennett has almost exclusively stayed outside as a defensive end this season, playing nearly every snap. I wonder if the Seahawks will consider moving Bennett back inside for some likely passing downs in this game, which would give them a few advantages.
It would dare the Patriots to run on third-and-medium, which the Seahawks would probably appreciate. It would allow him to go up against Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, and either an injured Bryan Stork or backup Josh Kline, all of which are better matchups for Bennett than right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. And it would allow the Seahawks to push Irvin onto the line of scrimmage as an edge rusher, where he could represent a speed problem for Vollmer and avoid being targeted in coverage by the Patriots. Maybe it’s O’Brien Schofield who steps in and has a couple of critical hurries in a 25-snap performance. Somebody has to get to Brady.
The Broncos tried to combat Seattle’s pass rush with screens last year, but they made a crucial mistake. Instead of going with the sort of fast-developing screens that leave overaggressive defensive linemen out of a play, the Broncos repeatedly went with slow-developing, looping screens that saw Manning draw the rush in before attempting to lob a pass over them to a waiting running back. That didn’t work, because Seattle’s defense is so fast that it was able to catch up and rip the Denver backs apart before they could secure the football. The Patriots tried stuff like this in their Super Bowl matchups against the Giants and failed; they somewhat famously ran a screen with a pair of play fakes on their opening play from scrimmage in the first Super Bowl matchup, and it looked like it was about to go for a touchdown until Barry Cofield annihilated Brady.
The other way to slow down a pass rush is to run right at it and force the defense to stay disciplined against the run. I don’t know if the Patriots will be able to successfully pull that off. The Seattle run defense has been really good all season, even after losing Mebane to a torn hamstring. There was one subpar game after Mebane went down, the loss to the Chiefs in which Seattle was without both Mebane and Wagner, but since Wagner has returned, the Seahawks have allowed an average of 3.6 yards per carry, the third-best rate in the league over that period.
Here’s where the injuries start coming into play. The New England offensive line seemed to exhibit any interest or skill in protecting Brady and clearing holes for the running game only after Week 5, when Stork was inserted into the starting lineup at center alongside Connolly and Wendell at guard. The rookie fourth-rounder acquitted himself admirably before suffering a knee injury in the playoff win over the Ravens, a game in which the Patriots were entirely unable to run the football. They had no such problem running against the Colts, but running the ball against Indianapolis appears to be New England’s birthright at this point. Their best shot at running against Seattle involves Stork, and while Stork has been practicing in a limited fashion this week, it’s still not clear whether he’ll be able to play.
We know that Thomas and Sherman are going to suit up for the Seahawks. We just don’t know how effective they’re going to be, and that’s going to matter in the running game. Thomas will be two weeks removed from dislocating his shoulder, which means he’ll likely be playing with some kind of support for the shoulder. Any sort of harness or brace is going to limit Thomas’s range of motion with that arm, and if there’s any weakness in the four-time Pro Bowler’s game, it’s an occasional habit of sprinting up and missing a tackle on a bigger player. There’s also the risk of the shoulder redislocating.
Sherman’s injury seems more mysterious. He played through what looked to be a serious elbow injury in the second half of the Packers game, albeit while constantly leaving his arm at an awkward angle while clearly gritting his way through obvious pain. ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that Sherman has torn ligaments in his elbow. There are different degrees of torn ligaments, of course — a strain is a tear, so it’s worth remembering that some tears are perhaps more popularly characterized as strains — but it’s also possible that there’s more to this elbow injury than the Seahawks have publicly let on. Given how injured Sherman looked during that game, you have to wonder if he’ll be close to his usual self on Sunday. Then again, given that he played through a high ankle sprain during part of last year’s Super Bowl before coming out after the game was out of hand, I’m not entirely sure that Richard Sherman is breakable.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Burn Last Sunday
In contrast, the range of possibilities and game plans when Seattle has the ball seem less interesting. The Seahawks are not going to throw the ball 55 times by choice. They’re not going to build a plan for taking Revis out of the game. They’re not going to suddenly implement some enormous new wrinkle on offense, because that’s not what they do. They’re going to hand the football to Lynch, and the Patriots are going to either do something about it or crown the dude. Barring a repeat of the disastrous, turnover-filled performance from the first 55 minutes of the NFC Championship Game, everything for Seattle on offense will start there.
Will the Patriots be able to do something about Lynch? Hard to say. The New England run defense has been decidedly erratic this season. It was awful the first half of the year and great during the second half, so what do you think happened in the postseason?
Well, that’s confusing. And really, those playoff figures are dragged down a bit by a 19-carry, 83-yard performance from the Colts, whose running game was so unthreatening that the Patriots lined up with four cornerbacks and a free safety on most downs. Baltimore ran the ball 28 times for 136 yards against New England in the divisional round, and it was running much of the same sort of zone-blocking scheme that the Seahawks will run.
I would be hesitant to imply causation here, but it is worth noting that many of the games in which New England has struggled to stop the run have come against teams that employ zone-blocking principles as some semblance of their rushing attack. The Dolphins, Chiefs, Bears, Packers, and Ravens each use zone-blocking and each ran the ball very well against the Patriots. Of course, a good chunk of the league is at least willing to mix in some zone principles on the ground these days, and the Patriots did stifle the Dolphins the second time the two teams met up, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Here, actually, is a rare spot where one of these teams has a strength that matches up with a weakness of the other. The Patriots do not make a lot of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage in the running game. Football Outsiders notes that they are 28th in the league in stuff percentage, which accounts for plays in which the opposing runner is stopped behind the line of scrimmage. They’re last in power situations — runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, and runs within two yards of the goal line — while allowing teams to convert a whopping 81 percent of the time. The Seahawks are second in the league in power situations, with Lynch & Co. getting stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on only 17 percent of their carries, the sixth-best rate in the league.
The Patriots trade off on that inability to win at the line of scrimmage, though, by taking big running plays virtually off the table. They allowed just two runs of 20 yards or more, a 24-yarder by Eddie Lacy and a 48-yarder by Knile Davis. Everybody else in football allowed at least five such runs, and the average team allowed 10. That makes sense, given the numbers I quoted in the intro about New England’s propensity for taking guys down after first contact.
This isn’t the first year the Patriots have acted like this. They were last in stuff percentage last year and didn’t allow a single run of more than 34 yards, so there’s some reason to think this is a schematic choice. Instead of a signature Beast Mode run through the secondary for the forever-growing Marshawn Lynch highlight reel, it’s likelier the Seahawks will gain a more subtle advantage by repeatedly winning on the line of scrimmage, play after play, and using that advantage to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations.
That’s going to be a problem for New England, because the Patriots really want to see the opposition in third-and-long. When opposing teams make it to third down with five yards or less to go for a new set of downs, the Patriots allow them to pick up the conversion 58.9 percent of the time. That’s the seventh-worst figure in football. When the opposition has six yards or more to go for a first down in those same situations, though, the Patriots allow them to convert only 24.6 percent of the time. That’s the seventh-best figure in the league.
All of those numbers tell us the Seahawks should be aggressive in short yardage, that they should consider going for it on fourth-and-short if the opportunity arises. I just can’t see Pete Carroll doing that, though, which hurts Seattle’s chances. One simple measure of aggressiveness is what a coach does on fourth down with 2 yards or less to go on the opposition’s side of the field when the game is within 14 points. (Maybe “simple” was the wrong word.)
Over the last three years, with Wilson and Lynch around, Carroll has gone for it in those situations just 11 times in 35 opportunities, a 31.4 percent rate that ranks as the fourth-most conservative in football. Only the Patriots, Chargers, and Falcons have been more conservative in the same spots, and none of them has had this sort of running game. It’s also fair to say that Belichick is known for being open-minded and taking very aggressive stances in certain key situations if the context suggests it’s a good idea; Carroll, both statistically and anecdotally, manages the game in a very conservative manner. That’s not the worst thing when you have a great defense, but if he should ever lean on his team’s ability to get a yard when they need one, Sunday would be the time.
Part of the mystique of Belichick constructing a defensive game plan is the idea that he’s capable of finding the most meaningful link in an opposing offense and coming up with a way to stop it. His famous game plan against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI bypassed Kurt Warner to hit Rams running back Marshall Faulk as frequently as possible, in the hopes of slowing down the player he saw as the fulcrum in the St. Louis attack. It’s hard to remember what happened in that game, but I’m pretty sure the plan worked out OK.
Step into Belichick’s shoes for a second. If you’re going to try to get at the very essence of the Seattle attack, if you want to attack it at its core — like you’re the football equivalent of Jeff Goldblum’s computer virus — what do you do? Do you go after Lynch, sell out to stop the run in the backfield, and hope your linebackers clean up when Wilson chooses to keep the football? Or do you trust the interior of your line and your linebackers to slow down Lynch and emphasize to your edge rushers and defensive backs that they need to set the edge and contain Wilson at all costs?
The more I think about it, the more I think Belichick will adopt the latter approach. Staying disciplined on defense is obviously key against anybody, but it’s so incredibly important against the Seahawks because of the offense they run and the way they beat people. Avoiding the cut blocks on the backside of Seattle’s zone runs and staying in your lane help prevent Lynch from making those unholy cutbacks that seem to drive so many of his big plays.
That approach also helps keep Wilson from getting on the edge and doing what he does best. The Patriots would much prefer things if Wilson just stayed in the pocket and emulated another great Pacific Northwest quarterback of days gone by, Drew Bledsoe. They get stretched when quarterbacks make it outside of their rush. New England’s pass defense was 12th in the league in QBR when throws came from inside the pocket. They were 21st on throws originating from outside the pocket. Wilson, meanwhile, is 23rd in QBR on throws inside the pocket and 14th on throws outside.
You must have a plan for keeping Wilson inside the pocket. It’s not as simple as taking one guy, sticking him on Wilson, and telling him to attack if Wilson looks like he’s about to run. Maybe if you have Luke Kuechly or Patrick Willis you get away with that. The Patriots have a talented pair of linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins and a versatile hybrid in Rob Ninkovich, but none of them is Kuechly or Willis. Instead, expect the Patriots to mix it up and give Wilson different looks from different spies.
Belichick will tell the front seven rushers he’s sending after Wilson to avoid running themselves out of a play, to transition from rushing the passer to spying in the hopes of containing Wilson inside the pocket. Ninkovich can’t create a tackling angle on Wilson if he has to account for the entire field on his own, but if Vince Wilfork can stand in the middle and at least discourage Wilson from trying to run straight forward between the hashes, and if Chandler Jones can set a strong edge on the other side and force Wilson to scramble toward one specific half of the field, then Ninkovich has a shot. Or, alternately, if the two ends can keep Wilson from getting outside, then maybe Collins can read Wilson’s movement forward, come off his robber coverage in the middle of the field, and make a tackle before Wilson makes it into the open field.5 Belichick places a premium on versatility with his defensive players, and here he needs them to be capable of executing multiple roles during the same play.
Of course, Wilson is also capable of drawing Collins forward with movement before bringing the ball back up and throwing it over his vacated zones. That gets me thinking: I don’t believe that the Seahawks have run a pop pass since Week 1, when they used it for a touchdown against the Packers. If they were ever going to bring it back out of mothballs …
Instead of attempting to neutralize a strength, I wonder if the New England defensive game plan should revolve more around attacking a weakness. The right side of the Seattle offensive line is where New England has to attempt a pass rush. Julius Peppers simply torched right guard J.R. Sweezy and fill-in right tackle Alvin Bailey in the NFC Championship Game, and while rookie second-rounder Justin Britt is likely to be back for the Super Bowl, he was credited as having allowed 7.5 sacks during an uneven campaign.
The Patriots have to at least consider moving Jones, their most athletic pass-rusher, over to that side to go after Britt or Bailey. While Jones has four quarterback knockdowns this postseason, he’s produced zero sacks against a pair of tackles he should have eaten up, Baltimore undrafted rookie free agent James Hurst and Indianapolis’s Anthony Castonzo. Jones had two sacks when these teams played in 2012, but one was against tight end Zach Miller, while the other came when he was lined up in the B-gap inside of then-Patriots linebacker Jermaine Cunningham against Seattle left guard James Carpenter. Lining Jones up between Sweezy and Britt on passing downs could be a way to create some interior pass rush for the Patriots.
Even if the pass rush doesn’t get home, Wilson will need to find an open receiver. That was a problem against the Packers, who repeatedly tipped Wilson’s passes away and were able to stay in tight coverage until the final few minutes of the game. The Patriots have similar depth and talent in their secondary, but they’re more flexible with mixing and matching different coverage concepts and ask more out of their individual players than the Packers do.
That starts with Revis, who seems likely to spend his day matched up against Seattle’s top receiver, Baldwin. The talented but oft-insulted Baldwin, who somehow still believes that the Seahawks are surrounded by negative critics, had a team-high 98 targets this year. The Patriots are happy to stick Revis against the opposing team’s no. 1 target unless it’s somebody they’re seriously worried about as a downfield burner, like T.Y. Hilton. Baldwin isn’t that guy.
Jermaine Kearse, however, could give the Patriots problems with his speed. You may remember him beating Tramon Williams downfield for the game-winning touchdown in overtime two weeks ago. The default is for the Patriots to stick Browner on the opposition’s no. 2 wideout, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them assign the speedier Kyle Arrington to Kearse and give him help over the top from Devin McCourty. Kearse, who was targeted on all four of Wilson’s interceptions two weeks ago, needs to fight through tighter coverage at the line of scrimmage and catch the passes he gets his hands on this time around.
That would leave Browner on Luke Willson, who could figure as another crucial contributor in Sunday’s game. The biggest weakness in the New England pass defense is its performance against tight ends; the Pats were 30th in the league in DVOA on throws to tight ends this season, and they ranked no worse than 17th on throws to players at any other position. Willson can also contribute as a blocker and help that right side of the line hold up against pressure. If the Seahawks do win, players like Willson, Britt, and Lane will loom large as under-the-radar contributors.
Revenge Wears No Wristwatch
… and do I think the Seahawks will win. Maybe they emotionally left everything on the field in Seattle two weeks ago and they just won’t be able to find that final gear for this game and the Patriots will blow them out. Maybe Thomas and Sherman are hurt more than we think they are and Brady will spend three quarters picking on Lane and Simon. Maybe Wilson will have another nightmare game. That’s all possible.
I just think the Seahawks are going to be able to run the ball to their heart’s content, and that’s going to yield long drives and successful trips to the red zone. I’m also skeptical the Patriots will be able to get Gronk going the way they do when their offense is truly clicking, and without a 100-yard game from Gronkowski, this offense suddenly looks a lot more ordinary. The Seahawks will transition from champions to budding dynasty, and Pete Carroll will get a healthy dose of revenge on Robert Kraft. Seahawks 24, Patriots 20.