Super Bowl 49 features the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, two teams with very contrasting styles from an X’s and O’s perspective: one team is very simple, and the other is constantly changing. Seattle’s defense plays a 4-3 under and either Cover 1 or Cover 3 for over 90% of its snaps. The Seahawks have a fierce pass rush and the best secondary in recent memory. On the other side, New England could become the first team to win the Super Bowl without recording a sack in the playoffs. The Patriots use their athleticism, position versatility, and lockdown man to man corner Darrelle Revis to change their defensive scheme nearly every game. On the offensive side of the ball, Seattle loves to run inside and outsize zone with bruising Marshawn Lynch, play action off of it, and some Zone Read with ultra mobile Quarterback Russell Wilson. As for New England, they may throw the ball 50+ times and not run the ball at all (Divisional Round), or run the ball 30+ times for 3 TD’s (AFC Championship) depending on the defense. Let’s take a further look at the X’s and O’s of Super Bowl 49:
WHEN SEATTLE HAS THE BALL
The zone run game has given the Patriots problems, most recently against Baltimore in the Divisional Round (24 carries for 129 yards). While Seattle primarily runs zone, they use more inside zone and cut defensive lineman less efficiently. Most teams who run the football well have a dominant offensive line; but this isn’t the case for Seattle. Marshawn Lynch’s “beast mode” runs overshadow the fact that the Seahawks offensive line isn’t overly powerful or big.
The Seahawks will likely see a variety of Front-7 looks from the Patriots, including a true 3-4, with Vince Wilfork (#75) playing a 0 technique, Alan Branch (#97) and Sealver Siliga (#96) at Defensive End, Rob Ninkovich (#50) and Chandler Jones (#95) at Outside Linebacker, and Jamie Collins (#91) and Dont’a Hightower (#54) at Inside Linebacker. Look for (#55) Akeem Ayers to also play some outside linebacker in this look. This defensive front gives both teams advantages: While the 3-4 gives the Patriots both athleticism and versatility with 4 linebackers as well as over 1,000 pounds of stout mass on the defensive line against the run, it undoubtedly sacrifices the ability to get any pass rush against Russell Wilson.
The chess game will be particularly important when the Seahawks are in the Shotgun. Because the zone read such a dangerous threat, how the Patriots respond to it will be crucial to the outcome of the game. Expect the Patriots to take away Russell Wilson on the zone read and make him hand the ball off nearly every time. The first way this can be done is the feather technique. Below is an example of the feather technique, where the last defender on the line of scrimmage (#58 Thomas Davis) makes Russell Wilson hand the ball off by slow playing the read. Meanwhile, all the defensive lineman rip to their right hard, making all gaps accounted for. Once Marshawn Lynch has the ball, Davis can fill in the last gap for a one yard gain. (This is against a 4-6 Bear look, which the Seahawks may also see.)
The problem with feathering or slow playing the Zone Read is that it can leave the last defender on the line of scrimmage in a passive position. It also leaves him susceptible to concepts, such as split zone (seen below) that look like zone read, but take advantage of the feather technique’s passiveness:
What the Patriots could also do is aggressively take away the QB run option from Russell Wilson by flying fast downhill and making Wilson make a read quickly. Below isn’t the same exact type of play, (Counter vs. Zone) but Terrell Suggs (#55 on Baltimore) shows how playing fast downhill at the Quarterback can disrupt plays as the unblocked last defender on the line of scrimmage:
Seattle could respond to this type of approach from the Patriots by moving to a double tight end set, making it more difficult for the defense to keep a defender outside of the Tight End, and making it more difficult to play the zone read aggressively. The look below gives Seattle 9 in the box against Carolina’s 7, and the Defensive End let’s Wilson get outside because he does not attack Russell Wilson’s outside shoulder:
With respect to the passing game, expect Darrelle Revis to match up primarily with Doug Baldwin and follow him around the field. Brandon Browner will likely cover Jermaine Kearse (#15) for some of the game, but also expect designated T.Y. Hilton stopper (#25) Kyle Arrington to get some time matched up against the speedy Kearse with Safety help. When Arrington is on Kearse, this could leave Browner to cover speedy Seahawk Tight End Luke Willson (#82).
The Seattle passing game vs. the Patriots secondary isn’t necessarily about X’s and O’s, but a game of attrition: the Patriots will likely sell out to the stop the run and try and contain Russell Wilson instead of outright rushing him. The Patriots secondary is able to cover for long periods of time, while Russell Wilson is excellent extending plays and finding open Wide Receivers. This is a strength on strength, and will likely decide the game: who can win the scramble drill– will New England be able to cover when Wilson extends the play, or will his Receivers find a way to get open?
WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL
The combination of two weeks to prepare and the simplicity of Seattle’s Defensive scheme should make for an interesting New England game plan. The 2012 Patriots vs. Seahawks game featured almost 60 throws for Tom Brady, a ton of empty formations and almost 400 yards passing (The most Seattle has given up in the Legion of Boom era). New England had success throwing underneath with various schemes including their Y-stick and slant/flat combinations.
On the other hand, if Seattle’s defense has any vulnerability, it’s that the Front 7 is slightly undersized and built on speed. New England could run right at the Seattle defense, as all of Seattle’s losses this season had their opponents rushing for 100 or more yards.
Overall, I anticipate New England will implement aspects of both game plans depending on down + distance and field position. Expect New England to swing back and forth between Empty sets and Power and Iso looks with multiple tight ends and Fullback James Develin (#46) isolated on Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (#54). Running the ball will also test Seahawks All-Pro Safety Earl Thomas (#29) injured shoulder. Because Seattle plays so simple schematically, New England could attack and keep Seattle off balance by making the Seahawks defend two completely different styles of football. It also gives the Patriots flexibility to adjust to the scoreboard.
Seattle’s elite pass defense has struggled against a few concepts this year, including Post-Wheel, Switch Verticals, and Seams paired with out and ups:
These concepts all have something in common: It exploits the ultra aggressive nature of Seattle’s Cover 3, where Cornerbacks match vertical releases and essentially play man-to-man after 10 yards and also try to undercut seam routes. This puts immense pressure on the linebackers to carry wheel routes and double moves. Of course, Seattle will be well aware of this weakness. In order for New England to take advantage of it, the Patriots could include a play action wrinkle to freeze linebackers, as well as use Rob Gronkowski as a decoy. The play below is a perfect example: The top of the screen features Gronk running a seam route while Tight End Tim Wright (#81) runs a wheel route and is also wide open. If this type of play action can freeze linebackers, and Gronk draws the attention of the Deep 1/3 corner, the Patriots could find huge plays up the sideline:
The Patriots could also attack the seams, but must set up Shane Vereen, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola underneath first. The Patriots certainly looked to the San Diego vs. Seattle tape for hints on how to attack Seattle. Many point to Antonio Gates 3 Touchdowns that day, but Danny Woodhead and Eddie Royal had 11 catches that day and provided crucial 3rd down conversions. In the 2012 Seattle/New England game Wes Welker came up with 10 catches for 138 yards and a TD. (Precedent for smaller, shiftier receivers succeeding against Seattle). The following play is a great example of how New England can isolate the Tight End via the Dakota formation, attack the seams, but also open up a versatile running back underneath for a big gain:
If the Patriots can get Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor to come up to play the underneath routes from Vereen, Edelman, and Amendola, they will be able to attack the seams. In the play below, Safety Cam Chancellor freezes up for just a split second to cover Panthers Running Back Jonathan Stewart (#28) out of the back field, opening up the seam behind him:
Finally, as I’ve wrote about before, the Seahawks seem to move Richard Sherman inside to the slot when they feel the biggest receiving threat is there:
New England can find out early in the game if the Seahawks will move around Richard Sherman by putting Shane Vereen or Rob Gronkowski on the outside with Julian Edelman in the slot. What they will do with this matchup depends on if Edelman can beat Sherman consistently. This will be especially interesting given Sherman’s arm injury.
One interesting statistic of note: Seattle Punter Jon Ryan allowed the lowest number of punts returned this year, while Julian Edelman lead the league with 19.3 yards per return. Look for this strength vs. strength match up to be a key factor in field position and impact the game in a big way.