The Seahawks defense is based on forcing the opponent to throw the ball in the middle of the field. The Patriots’ passing game is at its best when attacking in the middle of the field. So something will have to give when these two teams meet on Super Bowl Sunday.
Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell play vertical routes extremely well. It’s almost impossible to get a big play over the top on the outside against Seattle. Teams are therefore forced to attack inside, where Seattle has very fast linebackers and the best safety tandem in the league.
The Seahawks play lots of “lurk” coverage. This is where a safety drops down into the middle of the field and hunts up any inside routes.
Because Seattle feels confident in Sherman and Maxwell shutting down the outside, the rest of the defense can play in the middle of the field. The Lurk coverage is a major aspect of this. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are able to use their football acumen and instincts (their speed helps too) to pounce on any digs and crossing routes. This is how they force incompletions and limit yards after the catch.
The Patriots attack between the numbers. They utilize tight end Rob Gronkowski inside. They get Julian Edelman in advantageous 1-on-1 matchups. They also use motion and route combinations that create picks and natural rubs as you can see on the play below. Here, Julian Edelman motioned across the formation. The cornerback covering him followed.
Because the defender followed and because a safety was aligned on the outside against Rob Gronkowski, the coverage was defined. It was man.
At the snap, Edelman ran upfield and then slowed down about 5 yards into his route. Gronkowski ran an in-route underneath him, breaking inside right off of Edelman’s hip. The timing of the routes was perfect. Edelman’s route created congestion for the safety covering Gronkowski to fight through. The result was a wide-open receiver for Brady.
This ended up being an incompletion on a rare drop by Gronkowski. But this play illustrates how good the Patriots are at generating open receivers with their route combinations. More importantly, plays that use motion and routes like this deter teams from playing press-man coverage.
The Patriots use stacks and bunches to create picks as well. Defenses try to play receiver releases against this look. In this type of coverage, instead of matching up to a particular receiver, teams play man coverage where one defender takes the receiver that runs outside and another defender takes the receiver that runs inside, for example. The Patriots attack this by having both receivers break inside, for instance. The defender with outside responsibility ends up covering no one. This leaves a wide-open receiver.
Teams tend to back off from playing true man or receiver releases by then playing lots of zone coverage. Simple zones are easy for elite quarterbacks to pick apart. The Patriots have an elite quarterback in Tom Brady, and they have smart receivers who understand how to find the voids in zone coverage.
This is where the matchup gets interesting. The Seahawks are very disciplined on defense. They pass off receivers extremely well. This is what makes their defense so good. Even in man coverage, they avoid getting picked using that lurk defender in the middle of the field for help. They play releases well, rarely making mistakes in responsibility. They play their cover-3 zone to near perfection, as they read and react to route concepts quickly and accurately, which closes passing windows as quickly as they appear.
So what can the Patriots do to get Seattle out of their comfort zone? They need to get Richard Sherman out of his comfort zone. In this game, with Sherman’s elbow less than 100 percent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see New England align Rob Gronkowski on the perimeter to Sherman’s side. This will lead to one of two reactions by Seattle. Either Sherman stays on Gronk in zone coverage and has to deal with the most physical receiver in the game with a bad left arm. Or, Sherman moves inside where he has more of the field to defend and can’t use his sideline for help. This is where he is more human as a cornerback.
If Sherman does move inside, this also creates a mismatch opportunity for the Patriots with Gronkowski aligned against either a linebacker or a safety. Seattle might have some of the faster and better cover linebackers and safeties in the league, but even they will struggle if regularly left in 1-on-1 matchups against Gronkowski.
In Week 2, the Seahawks allowed 3 touchdowns to tight end Antonio Gates. The Chargers used a formation that forced Richard Sherman to align inside. Antonio Gates was isolated backside against a linebacker or a safety in this 3×1 set.
All 3 Chargers touchdown passes came out of this look. In fact, out of this formation, Philip Rivers was 6-6 for 73 yards and 3 touchdowns on the day. Again, all three touchdowns were thrown to tight end Antonio Gates – twice when he was covered by a linebacker and once against a safety.
The Patriots have used unconventional personnel alignments and utilized their backs and tight ends in the passing game all season. They’ve put Gronkowski on the edge, similar to what the Chargers did in week 2 with Gates. Anticipate them doing the same thing in the Super Bowl.
As far as the running game is concerned, this might look like a good match up for the Patriots at first glance. When they run the ball well they do so with physicality. They use power runs and zones that get good double teams and move defenders off the ball. The Seahawks have struggled (relative term) against teams that are physical in the running game. Take their early-season loss to the Cowboys, for instance.
Seattle mostly avoids getting pushed around in the running game, though, because they create enough negative plays. Excluding kneel downs, they were 3rd in the NFL this season in percentage of runs allowed that gained negative yards. They like to use slants and quickness to penetrate into the backfield, and these negative plays lead to teams throwing out of less manageable down-and-distances against a very good secondary.
Bill Belichick has shown a tendency to quickly get away from whatever isn’t working. As we saw against the Ravens in the Divisional Playoffs, the Patriots couldn’t run the ball against a good front. Belichick had no problem putting the ball in Brady’s hands and spreading it out. We’ve also seen him have no qualms with running the ball down the defense’s throat until they can show the ability to stop it.
It’s never a good idea to try and predict what New England will do. They are who they are because they don’t rely on one system or style of play. If they can pound the ball on the ground, they’ll stick with the run. But if Seattle can create enough negative plays in the running game that put New England in less manageable situations early, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots spread it out and throw the ball 40-50 times.