The Seattle Seahawks have an opportunity to become the first back-to-back champions in 10 years -- but to do so, they'll have to face the last team to pull off that feat: the New England Patriots. And the Pats will be rolling into Super Bowl XLIX with a red-hot offense and a suffocating defense. After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with five suggestions to help Pete Carroll knock off Bill Belichick's group:
1) Make the zone-read the focal point of the offensive game plan.
The Seahawks' offense features a zone-based running game and several West Coast principles, but the unit is at its best when quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch are executing variations of the zone-read on the perimeter. From the traditional version of the option play -- which features standard zone blocking, and in which the quarterback is instructed to read the play-side defensive end -- to various exotic forms featuring pulling tight ends, the Seahawks use a number of deceptive option tactics to spring Wilson and Lynch on the perimeter. Seattle repeatedly ran variations of the zone-read during its epic comeback in the closing moments of Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
In the play depicted below, taken from the fourth quarter of the NFC title match, the Seahawks are running the zone-read, with Wilson instructed to put the ball in Lynch's belly and read the reaction of the defensive end (Julius Peppers). When Peppers attacks Lynch at the mesh point, Wilson pulls the ball in and races around the end for a 15-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
A few plays later, the Seahawks went back to the zone-read with Wilson and Lynch in the backfield, as you can see in the video to the right. Wilson puts the ball in the belly of Lynch and reads the reaction of Peppers at the point of attack. When Peppers hesitates and steps toward Wilson, the quarterback leaves the ball in Lynch's hands, allowing the Pro Bowler to attack the center of the line. Lynch slips through a crease on the backside and rumbles 24 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
In addition to utilizing several read-option runs to attack defenses, the Seahawks have sprinkled in a few tricky read-option passes to create explosive plays in the passing game. The Patriots' secondary features a number of crafty playmakers in the back end, but the use of run-action fakes could lure a defender to the line of scrimmage, leaving a receiver to run free through a void on the second level.
In the play depicted below, taken from the NFC title game, the Seahawks are aligned in a trix formation, with Doug Baldwin positioned as the WR3 in the slot. The Packers are aligned in man coverage, with Tramon Williams shadowing Baldwin. At the snap, Baldwin will run reverse action into the backfield to complement the zone-read fake by Wilson. After the fake, Baldwin will reverse pivot and run a swing route to the flat. The reverse action prompts Williams to initially race across the formation, leaving the veteran cornerback out of position when Baldwin redirects and heads to the flat. If Baldwin had hauled in the pass, it could've been a home-run play for the Seahawks. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted in the screengrabs below, taken from the Seahawks' Week 1 win over the Packers, Seattle uses a read-option "pump" pass to get an easy score against an overaggressive defense. The team is aligned in an Ace formation, with Ricardo Lockette aligned on the left. Wilson will fake the zone-read to Lynch and read the reaction of the cornerback (Sam Shields) to determine whether to run or throw. When Shields aggressively races to the line of scrimmage, Wilson tosses a lollipop over his head to Lockette for an easy completion. Lockette avoids Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and races in for a spectacular touchdown on a play stolen directly from a college playbook. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Play a "clean" football game on both side of the ball.
Nearly every head coach in the NFL stands in front his team during game week and preaches the importance of playing a mistake-free football game. They stress the importance of avoiding the silly pre-snap penalties (false starts, defensive offsides, neutral-zone infractions, illegal motion, illegal substitutions and delay of game) and turnovers that will kill a team's momentum while giving its opponent a boost.
Carroll is certainly in lockstep with his peers in this area, constantly emphasizing the importance of winning the turnover battle. He dedicates a practice day ("Turnover Thursday") to stressing ball security and takeaways, and his "All About the Ball" mantra is frequently repeated in defensive meeting rooms around Seattle's practice facility throughout the season. The Seahawks have consistently ranked near the top of the charts in turnover margin since his arrival in 2010. Their ability to win the takeaway battle is one of the reasons they've emerged as an NFL heavyweight.
Coming off a five-turnover showing against the Packers, however, the Seahawks must tighten things up against a Patriots' team that finished second in the NFL in turnover margin (plus-12) and ranks as one of the best in the league at converting takeaways into points. They'll also need to cut down on the penalties.
Yes, Seattle has continued to win at a high level despite leading the league in penalties in back-to-back seasons. But the hidden yardage surrendered on pre-snap violations could be a major liability against New England, enhancing the Patriots' chances of scoring or getting stops in key moments. These penalties would also potentially disrupt the rhythm of the offense, or give New England quarterback Tom Brady a handful of "free shots" (deep throws following neutral-zone infractions or defensive offsides) to take advantage of an out-of-position defender unaware of the violation at the line of scrimmage.
3) Challenge the Patriots' receivers with aggressive bump-and-run tactics.
Anyone watching the Patriots' complete dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Championship Game saw how easily Brady picks apart defenses that refuse to challenge receivers on the perimeter. The three-time Super Bowl winner is a superb quick-rhythm passer adept at delivering accurate throws to receivers at short and intermediate range. Brady is one of the best anticipation throwers in the business; his impeccable timing makes him nearly impossible to defend when he's given the opportunity to throw the ball to his receivers in rhythm.
In addition, the Patriots' receiving corps features a big-bodied playmaker (Rob Gronkowski), a steady pass-catcher (Brandon LaFell) and a pair of jitterbug possession receivers (Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola) adept at working over defensive backs sitting in "off" coverage. Count on New England to employ a number of quick option routes and crossers to take advantage of the unit's skills as polished route runners. The Seahawks must disrupt their access to their routes and alter the timing of the passing game by adopting a physical approach on the perimeter.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of the Seahawks' defensive schemes throughout the season, I noticed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn mixing Cover 1 (man-free) and variations of Cover 3 (buzz-sky), with the cornerbacks positioned in press coverage on the outside. This has been Seattle's defensive approach since Carroll's arrival, as we saw with the defense's successful use of press-coverage tactics against the Patriots in their last meeting, back in 2012.
The personnel has, of course, certainly changed for both teams since then. Still, the matchups should prompt the Seahawks to adopt a similar approach, based on their success defending multifaceted offenses, including the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. I believe the Seahawks' defensive backs (Richard Sherman, Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell) enjoy advantages over Edelman, Amendola and LaFell, while Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright boast the size and athleticism to challenge Gronkowski in coverage.
I know some will take umbrage with that last statement, but the Seahawks have consistently blanketed elite tight ends over the past few seasons. Their physical approach wears down even big-bodied pass catchers over the course of a game. Most importantly, Wright and Chancellor are comfortable covering tight ends in space, which is important against a Patriots team that frequently aligns its Pro Bowl tight end on the outside to exploit weak defenders.
Consider the play depicted below, also from the NFC title game. The Seahawks adjust to a spread formation with a tight end (Andrew Quarless) on the outside by deploying Wright in space. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound linebacker aligns slightly inside in a crouched position, to take away any in-breaking routes while maintaining enough leverage to stay on top of vertical routes. When Wright reads Quarless' hitch route, he quickly closes to the body and knocks down a pass that should've been an easy completion for Aaron Rodgers. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, which occurred in the final minute of the same game, the Packers are again aligned in a spread formation, with the tight end positioned on the outside. Chancellor is assigned to Richard Rodgers in man coverage and elects to use press technique at the line of scrimmage. The Pro Bowler gets a nice jam on Rodgers early in his route, knocking him off his line and forcing him close to the sideline. He continues to keep ideal position on Rodgers as he heads upfield, eliminating an open window for an Aaron Rodgers throw. This results in an incompletion on the play. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
4) Stop LeGarrette Blount with "loaded" boxes.
The late-season emergence of Blount as the Patriots' primary workhorse has given them the ideal weapon with which to attack the Seahawks' defense. The 6-foot, 250-pound Blount is a rugged downhill runner with the speed, quickness and power to bludgeon defenders on hard-hitting runs between the tackles. New England will turn to the fifth-year pro as the focal point of the running game when coach Bill Belichick wants to feature the power-based run attack. In the AFC title game, Blount rushed for 148 yards on 30 carries, giving the Pats the physical presence they needed.
Given that the Dallas Cowboys(in Week 6) and Green Bay Packers (in the NFC title game) have enjoyed success on the ground against the Seahawks, it would make sense for the Patriots to make Blount the primary ball carrier in the Super Bowl. Thus, Quinn must be prepared to slow the rugged runner with an assortment of "loaded" boxes designed to get a free hitter loose at the point of attack. By putting eight defenders near the line of scrimmage against two-back sets and seven defenders in the box against one-back formations, the Seahawks can limit Blount's effectiveness on inside runs.
The Seahawks must also have a strategy to deal with the various unbalanced line formations and "tackle-over" sets that the Patriots frequently deploy on running downs. The various "oddball" formations will require Seattle to switch gaps to avoid facing a numerical disadvantage, and the defense will have to make the proper adjustments to keep Blount from effectively running the ball between the tackles. If the unit can slow Blount down, it can force the Patriots to play against the Seahawks' strengths: rushing the passer and harassing receivers on the perimeter.
5) Be aware of quirky formations and exotic personnel alignments.
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The Patriots' offensive approach is designed to test the mental awareness and football intelligence of defenders at every level. New England will jump into various empty formations with running backs and tight ends aligned on the outside to determine whether defenders are in man or zone coverage. In addition, they have used a variety of unbalanced lines and exotic formations to test the defense's understanding of eligibility rules on the perimeter.
In the playoffs in particular, the Patriots have unveiled an assortment of quirky formations that have left defenses confused and bewildered in coverage. From their use of a four-man offensive line with a number of running backs and receivers in odd alignments to run-heavy sets with offensive tackles in eligible positions, the Patriots have produced a number of explosive plays on deceptive tactics.
In the play depicted below, from the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots are aligned in an unbalanced line, with Nate Solder at left tackle. He becomes an eligible receiver because LaFell and Edelman are aligned off the ball. The Colts' defenders are unaware of his eligibility and leave him uncovered when they overreact to Brady's aggressive run-fake in the backfield. Solder sells the run by punching the defensive end before leaking to the flat. Brady finds his big tackle alone in the open field and fires a pass to the former college tight end. Solder rumbles in for a 16-yard score. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):