The Patriots defense has pretty much conquered the pocket passer in 2014. Their secondary has put constant pressure on the offense. Their corners have gotten their hands on receivers and been physical at the line of scrimmage. This has disrupted the timing of opposing passing games. However, the Patriots have yet to play a quarterback who uses his legs as often and as well as Russell Wilson.
First, let’s talk about what the Patriots do well on defense. They play lots of man coverage. When teams play the Patriots, they go in knowing this is the coverage they’ll see most of the time. But Bill Belichick doesn’t just let his two best cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, take two receivers and follow them around the field all game. He mixes up defensive assignments.
For instance, in the AFC Championship against the Colts, Darrelle Revis predominantly played man coverage on Donte Moncrief. However, he also had at least one snap of man against T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, and even tight end Coby Fleener. Against the Packers in Week 13, Revis alternated between Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson for large stretches of the game.
Belichick doesn’t care about status. He matches up his defensive backs based on skills and attributes. In both games against the Colts this season, Kyle Arrington, a smaller and quicker corner than Revis and Browner, took the Colts’ best receiver, T.Y. Hilton. Big and physical cornerback Brandon Browner took tight end Coby Fleener in both games.
The Patriots are also very good at deceiving the offense. They’ll use their personnel and man tendencies to disguise zone coverage. For instance, on several occasions we’ve seen Darrelle Revis follow a receiver when he motions across the formation. This is generally an indicator of man coverage. We’ve seen that receiver, who Revis has been covering all game to that point, stop in the slot with Revis doing the same. Revis generally doesn’t play in the slot unless he’s playing man coverage. At the snap, however, Revis would then drop into zone. This type of disguise makes it difficult for a quarterback to trust what he’s seeing.
Still, other times, the Patriots will play man coverage with one deep safety, normally an indicator of man free. But that safety will rotate to one side at the snap, leaving no deep safety to the other side of the field. To the side with the safety help, the corners will trail the receivers as they would in 2-man, playing directly to their safety help. The other side will be responsible for their receivers with no help over the top. The Patriots did this in the AFC Championship against the Colts. As you can see below, the corners at the top of the screen are trailing their receivers. On the bottom, cornerback Logan Ryan and linebacker Jamie Collins are responsible for their men with no help over the top.
Most teams don’t play this way. The Patriots can and do because they are so well prepared for other teams’ tendencies that they don’t waste their defenders. Here, they knew that linebacker Jamie Collins was athletic enough to handle a running back on the outside. They also knew that Reggie Wayne doesn’t pose a deep threat anymore, so why waste extra safety help on him downfield? Instead, they had a safety drop down into the middle of the field to take away any intermediate routes to that side. They used their safety help on the other side where the Colts’ deep threats, Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton, were aligned.
This play was so interesting because Belichick left Logan Ryan and linebacker Jamie Collins on islands against their receivers while giving his best corner, Darrelle Revis, help over the top. It’s plays like these that make deciphering the Patriots’ exact coverage before the snap difficult for the quarterback.
The Seahawks do not have an intricate passing game. They do not have a traditional pocket passing quarterback. Their receivers are average at best. There is not one personnel matchup in the passing game that favors Seattle. Everything is about Russell Wilson, and the Patriots know this.
Wilson is decent from the pocket, but he is most dangerous when the play breaks down. He is a controlled scrambler. When he moves he keeps a downfield focus. This is often when Seattle creates their biggest plays in the passing game. Bill Belichick knows his secondary is vastly superior to the Seahawks’ receiving corps. He knows the only way the Seahawks can hurt the Patriots through the air is when Wilson is running around. The Patriots will make it their mission to keep him from winning with his legs on Sunday. They’ll do this by continuing to try and win with their coverage rather than their pass rush.
The Patriots don’t blitz very often. When they do, they tend to bring a 2nd-level defender and have a player drop out from the defensive line. Most of the time, they don’t like to rush more than four. They don’t sacrifice coverage in today’s quick-passing NFL. This probably won’t change against Seattle. In fact, the Patriots will likely rush to keep Wilson in the pocket. Instead of rushing upfield off the edge, they’ll rush towards Wilson and stop if they’re getting pushed beyond the pocket. They’ll aim to avoid allowing any escape lanes that will enable Wilson to capitalize on his dual-threat ability.
New England has used a spy before. They’ve done so at times against mobile quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. With them feeling confident about their 1-on-1 matchups against Seattle’s receivers, and because they don’t like to blitz with lots of pass rushers, they’ll likely have enough defenders to spy Wilson without sacrificing their normal coverage or pass rush.
Many teams throughout the NFL are hesitant to play man coverage against a scrambling quarterback because defenders end up turning their backs to him. If the quarterback is able to get through the first level, he’ll generally have lots of room to run before those defenders in coverage realize what’s going on and finally turn around to tackle him.
The Patriots are well prepared for someone like Wilson, though. They often play man coverage on the outside and then play zone in the middle with their linebackers, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. This means that against Wilson, the Patriots should still be able to play man coverage while allowing defenders at the 2nd level to keep their eyes on Wilson. Even when they don’t use a spy, New England should be well prepared for Wilson’s scrambles.
This side of the ball will ultimately come down to the running game. Whenever the Seahawks have gotten into trouble this year on offense, it’s been because they decided to spread it out and throw the ball around. This is not who they are. Wilson is not that type of quarterback yet. His receivers are not made for that style of play. When the Seahawks get away from the running game, they struggle. It will be important for them to stick to what they do best and not abandon who they are as an offense.
In particular, the read-option is the play of choice for Seattle. This run gives defenses the most trouble. It’s also what the Seahawks go back to when they’re struggling or in a dire moment of a game. In the NFC Championship, their last 10 called runs of the game were read-options. These 10 runs racked up 93 yards and 2 touchdowns.
This run is difficult to defend for a number of reasons. It leaves defenders unblocked, yet takes them out of the play. If Russell Wilson gives the ball to Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks have a numbers advantage to the side of the run because defenders are occupied by the threat of Wilson keeping the ball. If Wilson keeps it, it’s normally because the defense has gone with the running back and he has no immediate defenders to beat. Sometimes the defense will play it perfectly, but Wilson’s athletic ability will enable him to outrun any defender waiting for him.
Additionally, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell does a great job of putting his team in a position to succeed using the read-option. He likes to spread the defense out, aligning his receivers to the perimeter as shown below.
This leaves fewer defenders inside to help out. On this play, the result was a 26-yard touchdown run by Russell Wilson.
It sounds simple, but the Patriots will have to wrap up against Marshawn Lynch to stop the run. He is a physical runner with deceptive quickness who breaks tackles frequently. Gang tackling will be vital to New England’s chances. Yet gang tackling isn’t always easy to do against the Seahawks. Seattle’s running game creates enough confusion to prevent the entire defense from swarming to the ball carrier immediately. The threat of Wilson keeping the ball via the read-option or on bootlegs has to be accounted for as well. This creates running lanes and often takes defenders away from Lynch, which puts him in more 1-on-1 situations where he is very difficult to bring down.
This side of the ball provides an intriguing matchup. The Patriots appear to have the talent advantage. But the Seahawks offense always appears to be at a disadvantage when it comes to talent. They still manage to generate big plays and put points on the board though. Part of this is because of the opportunities their defense creates for them. Part of this is because of the random plays created by Wilson that are difficult to prepare for.