The New England Patriots' high-powered offense just took down one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. The unit dominated the action throughout much of Super Bowl XLIX, amassing 320 net passing yards against the Seattle Seahawks' vaunted "Legion of Boom" secondary and overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to notch a 28-24 win. Given some time to reflect on the spectacular effort, I've come up with three reasons why the Patriots got the best of the NFL's top-ranked defense:
1) Josh McDaniels crafted a perfect plan to attack the Legion of Boom.
The Patriots' offensive coordinator has been lauded for his creativity in the past, but his Super Bowl XLIX game plan might've been his best work yet. McDaniels put together a script that featured a number of pre-snap shifts and motions that allowed Tom Brady to quickly decipher Seattle's coverages and identify the vulnerable defender on the perimeter.
In the play depicted just below, taken from the opening drive on Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots break the huddle aligned in a trips bunch formation, with Danny Amendola positioned on the outside. Richard Sherman is matched up with the veteran receiver, but Brady doesn't know whether Sherman is in man or zone -- until he motions Amendola across the formation. When Brady sees the All-Pro cornerback tracking Amendola, he knows it's man coverage and abruptly targets his slot receiver on a flat route. With Brandon LaFell's slant route creating a pick for Amendola, the Pats pick up a 6-yard gain on an easy pitch-and-catch set up by clever pre-snap motion (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
McDaniels' utilization of pre-snap motion not only allowed Brady to identify and exploit Seattle's man-to-man principles, but it also allowed the quarterback to quickly diagnose zone coverage and target the vulnerable areas of the defense.
In the following play, the Patriots are originally aligned in a twins formation, with Julian Edelman positioned in the slot. He motions across the field to provide Brady with clues to the coverage. When Kam Chancellor doesn't run across the formation and Byron Maxwell expands on the motion, Brady recognizes that the Seahawks are in a zone. With Edelman running a deep out against soft coverage on the outside, Brady knows he can take the easy throw and delivers a pinpoint pass to Edelman for a first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In addition, McDaniels trotted out a variety of spread and bunch formations that allowed New England receivers to escape the clutches of the Seahawks' defensive backs at the line of scrimmage. The creative alignments provided Edelman and Amendola with enough room to maneuver between the numbers, while also allowing the Patriots to isolate Rob Gronkowski against an overmatched linebacker or safety on the perimeter.
In our next breakdown just below, the Patriots are aligned in a dubs formation. Seattle is playing man-to-man coverage on the perimeter. With the Seahawks intending to employ bump-and-run tactics, Edelman motions into a stack position behind LaFell to get a free release. Edelman runs away from the defender on a short crossing route over the middle. Brady delivers a dart to Edelman, who weaves for a 23-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
From a play-calling standpoint, McDaniels promptly identified a core set of plays that exploited the Seahawks' man and zone tactics -- and he didn't deviate from his script when the Patriots sputtered a bit in the second half. Many offensive coordinators would have abandoned the game plan if their unit had failed to move the ball for a little more than a quarter, but McDaniels stayed the course and repeated successful play calls throughout the game.
For example, the Patriots scored their game-winning touchdown by repeating a "snag" play to Edelman that should've resulted in a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter (in that instance, Brady missed the throw). In the following play depiction, the offense breaks the huddle with two receivers on the right and Edelman all by himself on the left. The shifty receiver is instructed to run a "snag" or "whip" route against Tharold Simon. Edelman takes a hard release to the inside across Simon's face, but then he stops on a dime and redirects to the outside. Simon overreacts to the inside move, gets turned around and leaves Edelman wide open in the front corner of the end zone (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
McDaniels also dialed up a number of complementary plays to take advantage of Seattle's aggressive tactics on the perimeter. By deploying his top playmakers in familiar spots in a few select formations, the Pats' play-caller was able to exploit defenders playing the tendencies, leading to big plays in key moments.
One of the best examples of McDaniels' complementary play-calling featured Gronkowski aligned on the outside of a spread formation. As you can see below, the Patriots positioned the All-Pro tight end all alone on the right side of the formation, with trips lined up across the field. The Seahawks are in man coverage, with linebacker K.J. Wright assigned to shadow Gronk in space. Notice how Wright is sitting at 6 yards off the line of scrimmage, anticipating a short route. Gronkowski runs a "sluggo" (slant-and-go route) with a hard inside fake at 6 yards. The fake causes Wright to stop his feet, allowing Gronkowski to run past the athletic linebacker on the vertical route. Brady delivers a perfect throw to the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the fourth quarter, the Patriots again position Gronkowski on the outside of a spread formation, as illustrated just below. This time, the Pro Bowler is aligned on the right as part of a 2x2 formation with four wide. Wright is matched up with Gronkowski again, but playing with more depth after surrendering the earlier touchdown. The Patriots exploit Wright's cautiousness by instructing Gronkowski to run a curl route against soft coverage. With Wright bailing out quickly to defend a possible vertical route, Brady delivers a strike on a 10-yard curl for a pivotal first down on the game-winning drive (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
2) Tom Brady picked apart Seattle with a "dink and dunk" approach.
While McDaniels concocted a superb script, it was Brady's execution and discipline that allowed the Patriots to prevail. Earning his third Super Bowl MVP trophy, Brady efficiently picked apart the Seahawks' defense utilizing a dink-and-dunk strategy that featured a host of quick-rhythm throws to pass catchers between the numbers. Most importantly, Brady worked the short and intermediate areas of the field -- the most vulnerable real estate in Seattle's single-high-safety coverage scheme.
Now, it's important to note that the Patriots have been a small-ball team in recent years due to the lack of an explosive vertical threat on the perimeter. Brady completed just 25 percent of passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air during the regular season, indicating the bulk of his production was accumulated on a variety of catch-and-run passes to slot receivers, tight ends and running backs. The small-ball approach continued during the 2014 playoffs, with Brady only attempting nine passes beyond 20 yards (out of 85 total attempts) heading into Super Bowl XLIX.
The Seahawks' scheme is susceptible to dink-and-dunk action due to the emphasis placed on taking away the deep ball on the outside with bump-and-run tactics and the utilization of spot-dropping in zone coverage. From a philosophical standpoint, Seattle challenges opposing QBs to make a number of tight-window throws to push the ball down the field or exhibit the patience to move the chains using short throws and checkdowns. Most quarterbacks can't resist the temptation to throw downfield, leading to interceptions on tips or overthrows in traffic.
While Brady fell victim to the Seahawks' tactics with a rare red-zone interception in the opening quarter and a surprising pick in the third quarter, for the most part, the veteran showed exceptional patience and discipline. Brady completed 37 of his 50 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns on an assortment of quick-rhythm throws to underneath coverage. He connected with seven different receivers and routinely hit the open pass in the flat instead of forcing the ball into the teeth of the defense. Veteran quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Tony Romo employed this measured approach in victoriesagainst the Seahawks during the regular season, and Brady wisely adhered to the plan in Super Bowl XLIX.
Watching Brady operate during the opening stages of the contest, it was apparent that he was intent on working the underneath areas of the field. He frequently tossed the ball to Shane Vereen and Amendola in the flat, while also targeting Edelman on quick crossing routes. These routes are readily available against the Seahawks' Cover 3 scheme, but few quarterbacks possess the discipline to consistently take the "lay-ups" instead of pushing the ball down the field. However, Brady stuck with the plan throughout, and his patience eventually frustrated the Seahawks, leading to schematic changes during the game.
In the next play breakdown, the Patriots are aligned in a dubs formation, with Amendola and LaFell positioned on the left. The Patriots are running a slant-flat combination against the Seahawks' Cover 3. Brady will read the flat defender (Jeremy Lane) and determine whether to toss the ball to the slant or flat based on the DB's reaction. When Lane sits inside on the slant, Brady swiftly throws the ball to Amendola in the flat. The nifty receiver makes a quick move and heads up the field for a 10-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Brady also displayed outstanding awareness and football intelligence by targeting the Seahawks' most vulnerable defenders on the field. Simon and Wright struggled with their matchups on the perimeter, prompting Brady to throw repeatedly in their direction. Simon, in particular, was the frequent target of Brady's throws in the red zone. The second-year player was thrust into the lineup following Lane's first-quarter injury, making him the ideal target in key situations.
In our last play depiction, the Patriots are aligned in a dubs formation, with LaFell and Amendola positioned on the left. Once again, New England is running a slant-flat combo, but this time it's against Seattle's man coverage in the red zone. Brady will read the reaction of the slot defender to determine whether to throw the ball to the slant or flat at the top of his drop. When Maxwell races to the flat to chase Amendola, Brady delivers a dart to LaFell for a score. Because Simon is aligned on the outside of the receiver, the quick in-breaking route is nearly indefensible in man coverage. This is a technical mistake that a veteran cornerback wouldn't make in this situation. Thus, Brady was wise to target the young defender (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Brady deserves great praise for a fantastic performance against a defense that rarely surrenders big plays -- even to elite passers. The future Hall of Famer showcased enviable discipline, poise and awareness in reading Seattle's D and consistently delivering the ball to the open man.
3) The Patriots' O-line held up against the Seahawks' fierce pass rush.
The biggest question mark heading into Super Bowl XLIX centered around the Patriots' ability to neutralize the Seahawks' fierce pass rush. Seattle features one of the most athletic defensive lines in football, with rushers like Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin wreaking havoc off the edges. New England's offensive line struggled against speedy defenders at times this season (see: the humbling Week 4 loss at Kansas City), leading many to wonder how McDaniels would alleviate pass-protection concerns in this game.
Looking back at the tape, I believe McDaniels helped his offensive line by featuring a quick-rhythm passing game designed to get the ball out of Brady's hands before pass rushers could get home. These plays require each offensive lineman to short-set and punch or cut-block at the line of scrimmage. This slows down the pass rush and provides Brady a clear passing lane to deliver quick, accurate strikes to shifty receivers on the perimeter. Brady took some hits, but he was sacked just once in the game.
While an injury to Avril midway through the third quarter certainly affected the Seahawks' pass rush, I believe the barrage of quick passes took the starch out of the legs of the defensive line, leading to ineffective pressure at the point of attack in the game's late stages. Given the impact the defensive line has on the performance of the "Legion of Boom," the Patriots' O-line certainly came up big, largely controlling the trenches in Super Bowl XLIX.