The media firestorm surrounding DeflateGate has diverted some attention from what we can actually expect to see on the field during Super Bowl XLIX, but many observers are still intrigued to find out how the New England Patriots will attack one of the stingiest defenses in NFL history.
With the big game just days away, I've dug into the All-22 Coaches Film to come up with five things the Pats can do against the 'Hawks:
1) Put a blanket around Marshawn Lynch.
Quarterback Russell Wilson receives plenty of attention for being one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, but every defensive coordinator around the league knows the Seahawks' offense runs through Marshawn Lynch. The five-time Pro Bowler sets the tone for Seattle with his rugged running style between the tackles. He overwhelms defenders in the hole with his violence and physicality -- and he also displays the quickness and agility to slip in and out of traffic. He is one of the few big-bodied backs in the NFL capable of winning with power or finesse, making it nearly impossible to slow him down without committing extra defenders to the box. Lynch is also a legitimate receiving weapon out of the backfield. He has strong hands and displays natural receiving skills, particularly when he runs swings or rail routes down the boundary. The Seahawks routinely target Lynch on a variety of bootleg-throwback passes and "pick" routes designed to exploit undisciplined defenders on the second level.
In the play depicted below, which took place during the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks will run a "pick" to get Lynch free down the boundary. The Seahawks originally align in a dubs formation, with Lynch positioned to the right. The slot receiver (Kevin Norwood) motions across the formation, creating a 3x1 formation prior to the snap. The overload results in isolations on the back side, making the defense vulnerable to pick plays for the ball-carrier coming out of the backfield. At the snap, Luke Willson runs a shallow cross directly into the path of Packers linebacker Sam Barrington, who is assigned to Lynch. The back then runs a rail route down the boundary behind Willson's crossing route. Wilson sees the defender knocked off his path and delivers a pinpoint tear-drop to Lynch for a huge first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given Lynch's overall impact on the Seahawks' offense, it's clear New England must pull out all the stops to limit his effectiveness as a runner and receiver. This certainly will require the Pats to use an eight-man box on early downs, adding an extra run defender to the mix to shut down any cutback lanes. In addition, they must assign a defender to shadow Lynch on passing routes, to eliminate the throwback passes that have produced a number of Seattle's most explosive offensive plays.
After reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film of how the Pats have handled other prolific running backs, I believe coach Bill Belichick will play a lot of Cover 1 (man-free), with a linebacker assigned to shadow Lynch all over the field. Jamie Collins can certainly fill that role, based on his size, athleticism and comfort in coverage. If the Patriots elect to play press-man coverage on the outside and drop an additional defender, they can keep a blanket around Lynch on running plays while also limiting his effectiveness in the passing game.
2) Force Russell Wilson to play from the pocket.
Defensive coordinators around the NFL will tell anyone within earshot that a mobile quarterback with polished passing skills is the most difficult sort of playmaker to defend. As an improvisational wizard with exceptional passing ability, Wilson certainly fits the bill. He can deliver the ball on time following three-, five- or seven-step drops -- yet, he's at his best when making throws on the edges of the defense. Whether he's rolling to his right or left on a pre-designed bootleg pass or making a scramble toss following an improbable escape from the pocket, Wilson is able to generate his biggest pass plays when on the move.
The Patriots need to make a concerted effort to confine Wilson to the pocket and force him to throw into the teeth of the defense at the top of his drop. This is a strategy commonly used against athletic quarterbacks. Most mobile playmakers prefer to run around a bit to find an open lane or allow a receiver to work free from coverage. However, when they're contained and forced to sit inside the tackle-to-tackle box, and the primary and secondary reads are covered early in their routes, such quarterbacks can struggle to work through their entire progressions. This results not just in errant passes or hurried throws, but it also produces a number of coverage sacks that knock the offense off schedule.
Consider how the Patriots handled ultra-athletic Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during their Week 13 trip to Green Bay. In the play depicted below, New England uses a four-man rush and Cover 1 "Rat" coverage to keep the MVP candidate confined to the pocket. The Pats execute a simple twist on the left, with Vince Wilfork serving as the contain player and Rob Ninkovich looping around to the opposite A-gap. The contain players do an outstanding job rushing to the level of Rodgers' drop without running past the quarterback, leaving no escape lanes to the edges. Ninkovich, meanwhile, works hard to stay in his gap, eliminating any seams for Rodgers to flee up the gut. With receivers blanketed in man coverage and the Patriots successfully corralling Rodgers in the pocket, Chris Jones is able to net a 5-yard sack (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
I would expect the Pats' defensive ends to take a similar approach to stopping Wilson. This "mush rush" approach requires outstanding discipline and awareness, but it is the most effective way to disrupt Wilson's rhythm as a playmaker. If executed properly, the "mush rush" will limit Wilson's overall effectiveness and lead to some long-yardage situations that could produce a critical turnover.
3) Pound the Seahawks with power rushes from run-heavy sets.
Seattle thrives against one-dimensional, pass-heavy offenses, as coach Pete Carroll has constructed a defense ideally suited for suffocating the passing game. From their athletic edge rushers with explosive speed and quickness to their long, rangy cornerbacks adept at harassing receivers with physical jams at the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks are built to play against pass-centric offenses.
I looked at the teams that have given Seattle problems in the past and noticed that offenses with the personnel and patience to play "smash-mouth" football have enjoyed the most success against Carroll's troops. Now, I know the statistics suggest that the Seahawks are dominant against the run (they had the third-best run defense in the NFL this season), but the Dallas Cowboys (who had 162 rushing yards in Week 6), Carolina Panthers (132 rushing yards in the Divisional Round) and Green Bay Packers (135 rushing yards in the NFC Championship Game) were all able to move the ball on the ground against them. The Patriots could follow a similar blueprint, with LeGarrette Blount playing a feature role as a workhorse.
The 6-foot, 250-pound veteran is an old-school runner with the physicality and toughness to grind out yards against this Seattle defense. Blount runs with an aggressive demeanor, daring defenders to step into his path on downhill plays. His preference is to run between the tackles, but he can also chew up yards on the perimeter. He possesses enough speed and quickness to turn the corner, yet he's nimble enough to make hard cuts on the edges, to take advantage of overaggressive defenders in pursuit. As a result, the Patriots can hammer opponents with downhill runs or perimeter plays with Blount in the game.
Against the Seahawks, I would expect the Patriots to feature Blount as the workhorse in a variety of run-heavy formations. This not only puts the ball in the hands of their most physical runner, but it forces Seattle to defend downhill plays between the tackles. The downhill approach negates some of the speed and athletic advantages the Seahawks enjoy at the point of attack and forces them to play "big-boy" football within the box.
4) Feature a quick-rhythm passing game with a variety of formations.
The Patriots take a systematic approach to attacking defenses. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will craft a game plan specifically to exploit the weaknesses of the coverage while also targeting a vulnerable defender on the perimeter. Facing a Seattle unit that features single-high safety coverage and bump-and-run tactics on the perimeter, the crafty play-caller will need to come up with a plan to help his receivers escape the clutches of the "Legion of Boom" at the line.
The utilization of empty formations and various stacked or bunched alignments can help McDaniels make life easier for his pass catchers in Super Bowl XLIX. By aligning two or more receivers within 3 yards of each other, McDaniels can force one of the Seahawks' defenders to back away from the line of scrimmage, to avoid the possibility of being picked. McDaniels can also use motion to enhance those pick possibilities and create more space for his pass catchers to work away from coverage.
In the Patriots' Week 11 win over the Colts, I noticed New England used a stack formation to create a big-play opportunity in the passing game, as is depicted below. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is aligned at WR3 as part of a Trips stack formation. Gronkowski motions across the field to form a Dubs stack formation at the snap. The Patriots are running a corner-flat combination, with receiver Brandon LaFell and Gronkowski on the left. The Colts are playing man coverage, with linebacker D'Qwell Jackson shadowing the Pro Bowl tight end. With LaFell working up the field on a vertical route, the Patriots are able to pick off Gronkowski's defender and get their most explosive player an easy touch on the perimeter. Gronkowski proceeds to break multiple tackles and rumble into the end zone (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, which took place during the Patriots' game against the San Diego Chargersin Week 14, New England uses short motion by Julian Edelman to create a stack formation on the right. The close proximity of the Patriots' receivers creates a pick possibility when the Chargers' cornerback fails to back away from the line. At the snap, the Patriots run a flanker-drive concept, with Edelman running a shallow cross underneath LaFell's corner route. Running back Shane Vereen is instructed to run an angle route behind the crosser as a checkdown for Tom Brady. The play works to perfection when LaFell inadvertently picks the cornerback, leaving Edelman open over the middle. Edelman snags the pass for a 14-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, which comes from that same game, the Patriots are aligned in an empty formation, with Edelman positioned in the slot as the WR2 to the right. He is running an "under" route underneath the vertical seam route by the WR3 (Michael Hoomanawanui). With the Chargers in man coverage, the seam route creates a pick for Edelman, allowing him to run away from his assigned defender on the quick crossing route. Brady delivers the ball on time and on target for an easy 7-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, which took place during the Pats' home win over the Oakland Raidersin Week 3, New England originally aligns in a dubs stack formation, with Edelman positioned at the front of the stack to the right. The close alignments of stack formations forces the Raiders' defensive backs to back off, to avoid possible picks or rubs at the line. Danny Amendola motions across the formation to create a three-man bunch across the field from Edelman. The bunch formation is used to divert attention away from Edelman, who is facing one-on-one coverage at the top. This gives Brady an easy pitch-and-catch option on a square out against "off" coverage. The throw and catch are perfectly executed, resulting in a 10-yard gain by Edelman (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Seahawks' aggressive bump-and-run tactics will require McDaniels to use clever scheming to create easy access for his receivers at the line. Other opponents have attempted to use similar strategies with moderate success, but New England's experience and creativity with these alignments could be a game-changer on Super Bowl Sunday.
5) Steal some points in the kicking game.
Coaches always talk about the importance of winning all three phases (offense, defense and special teams) in big games -- and few teams pay greater attention to the kicking game than the Patriots and Seahawks. Both squads are willing to use gadgets and gimmicks to flip the field or register an easy score. New England, in particular, has shown a knack for pulling out deceptive tactics in the playoffs to create a spark with a momentum-changing play. Facing a Seattle squad that's been susceptible to fake punts and trick plays on special teams, Belichick should consider running a gadget play with a kicking unit early to seize control.
I believe special teams coach Scott O'Brien could use a creative tactic on the punt team to maintain possession or generate a big play. New England has previously used a "hockey line shift" play to catch opponents off-guard on fourth down. The Pats will trot out their punt team in a conventional alignment, then rush their offensive unit back on to the field. The chaotic nature of the play creates a sense of panic among the receiving team; defenders wind up being out of position when the offense is set and ready to snap the ball.
As you can see in the video just above, the sudden shift completely caught the Chiefs' punt-return unit off-guard in Week 4, forcing Kansas City coach Andy Reid to use a timeout, so that he could tell his team how to properly adjust to the late switch. Although the loss of a timeout on a gadget play doesn't appear to be a big deal on the surface, it could play a huge role in the crucial late moments of the Super Bowl, as it could prevent the Seahawks from stopping the clock.
In addition, the "hockey line shift" could also help the Patriots pick up a first down in a critical moment. The offense can run on to the field and quickly execute a short-yardage play before the defense can react and properly adjust to the formation.
The Patriots nearly pulled this off against the Denver Broncosin Week 9, as you can see in the video to the right -- although a false-start penalty shut down the play before it could get started. Regardless, the tactic is a clever one that could help the Patriots get a pivotal first down or generate a score against a defense that rarely surrenders points.
The Patriots can also hope to generate an explosive return in the kicking game to flip the field. The Seahawks have been vulnerable to big returns during the regular season, and the unit did allow a 29-yard return to Micah Hyde in the NFC Championship Game. Given Edelman's reputation as one of the top punt returners in the NFL, this could be the advantage that pushes the Patriots over the top.