Super Bowl XLIX lived up to its expectations. Obviously, Seattle’s decision not to run the ball from the 1-yard line will live in infamy. Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson’s pass at the end of the game might go down as the biggest play in the history of the Super Bowl. But there were a lot of key plays that led up to that moment.
Entering the game, Bill Belichick knew that the Patriots had to try and stop Seattle’s bread-and-butter play, the read-option. To stop it, New England wanted to eliminate any big runs by Russell Wilson. By and large, this is what they did. The defensive end to the side of the option (most often Rob Ninkovich), slow-played Wilson. As you can see below, he stayed outside to force Wilson to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Then, it was up to the rest of the defense to play the run.
The Seahawks called 13 read-options during the game. On 12 of them, the defensive end stayed outside, forcing Wilson to give the ball to his back. You couldn’t really say that they stopped this play because on those 12 gives, Seattle running backs gained 64 yards (more than 5 yards per carry) and scored a touchdown. But the Patriots did keep Wilson from making any game-changing plays with his legs.
The one time Wilson did keep it, the Patriots tried to bait him. They had their defensive end slant inside to take the running back, forcing Wilson to keep the ball. They then had their most athletic linebacker, Jamie Collins, scrape overtop of the slant. The Patriots technically won on this play, and Collins had Wilson for a loss in the backfield. But Wilson used his athleticism to get around Collins and gain 17 yards. This was on Seattle’s touchdown drive at the end of the first half. New England went back to slow-playing the read-option after that.
Defending the Pass:
As we anticipated, the Patriots tried to shut Seattle’s passing game down with coverage. They rarely rushed more than 4 defenders all game. Unsurprisingly, they played mostly man coverage. Wilson’s stat line might not show it, but New England’s defense blanketed Seattle’s receivers. Darrelle Revis was aligned on Doug Baldwin all day, holding him to just 1 reception – a 3-yard touchdown pass where Revis was picked by the referee. Baldwin really had difficulty getting open all day aside from that play.
The same can be said about the rest of Seattle’s receivers. Chris Matthews, who came out of nowhere, never really got open. Instead, he used his height advantage to pull down some big plays. He had receptions of 44 and 45 yards in tight coverage. Jermaine Kearse’s only big play came on an unlikely circus catch for 33 yards at the end of the game. These, and a few other big plays provided most of Seattle’s passing game. The Seahawks weren’t able to sustain anything through the air as the Patriots were all over their receivers.
As expected, the Patriots also made sure to not provide any escape lanes for Wilson with their pass rush. They made sure to keep him in front of them, rarely rushing too far upfield. With their ability to cover 1-on-1 in the secondary, they had defenders left over to spy Wilson. Sometimes, they even used 2 spies. This prevented Wilson from running around and making spontaneous big plays with his legs.
Leading 24-14 in the third quarter with their defense starting to dominate, the Seahawks had a chance to put the game out of reach for good. But they failed to score any points during the final 19:54 of the game. This, as much as anything else, cost them a second straight Super Bowl title.
They had a chance on a 3rd-and-2 from the Patriots 47 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Here, Wilson made a perfect throw to Jermaine Kearse down the left sideline. Kearse got his hands on the ball but couldn’t bring it in. It looked like Malcolm Butler (who entered the game in the 2nd half) may have gotten his hand on Kearse’s wrist. Regardless, Kearse got two hands on the ball. That play has to be made. The Seahawks could have added a field goal or even a touchdown on this drive to go ahead by 3 scores. They didn’t though.
On 3rd-and-7 of their next drive in the 4th quarter, still up by 10 points, Russell Wilson took a sack against man free coverage. He looked right for a stutter-go route, then immediately looked left, where his receiver was also running a stutter-go. Had he looked down the middle of the field to Doug Baldwin, he would have seen an open receiver beyond the first down marker.
Maybe he didn’t look Baldwin’s way because Revis was on him and Wilson wanted to stay away from this match up. But this was another missed opportunity for the Seahawks. The Patriots offense got rolling after this drive.
Still, Seattle had yet another opportunity when leading 24-21 on their next drive. Wilson hit Ricardo Lockette on a crossing route for what would have been a big play. Lockette stumbled to the ground before the ball got to him. The ball still could have been caught, but the stumble clearly caused the incompletion here. There was a reason for Lockette’s stumble, though. Malcolm Butler was defending him, but slipped and went to the ground. He reached out and blatantly hit Lockette’s ankle, tripping him. The refs didn’t see this and didn’t call it. The Seahawks ended up punting on this drive.
With the game theirs for the taking, the Seahawks ran 9 straight offensive plays without a first down between the end of the 3rd quarter and late in the 4th. The next time they got the ball back, they trailed 28-24 with 2:02 remaining.
Final Thoughts – The Final Play:
The Seahawks quickly drove downfield on the strength of a beautiful throw by Russell Wilson to Marshawn Lynch for 31 yards. A few plays later, Jermaine Kearse made his circus catch at the Patriots’ 5-yard line, and it looked like New England would lose yet another close Super Bowl late in the game.
The Seahawks ran the ball on 1st-and-goal from the 5 with Marshawn Lynch, and he got it all the way down to the 1-yard line. Had left tackle Russell Okung stayed on linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Lynch would have walked in. But Hightower made a great play to get around Okung and stop Lynch short.
Then, the chaos began.
The Seahawks had been in base personnel, with fullback Will Tukuafu on the field. Darrell Bevell/Pete Carroll took him out and sent in “11” personnel. That’s 3 wide receivers. At the one yard line. WHY?
Even if you do want to throw the ball here, why change to smaller personnel from the 1 yard line? Why run a high-risk play over the middle of the field? Russell Wilson is not very tall. He can’t see as well on throws over the middle with all of his much taller offensive linemen in front of him. Hindsight is 20-20 right now, but why throw a pass that could be potentially tipped at the line of scrimmage?
If you are going to throw it, why not get Wilson on the move. Perhaps run a play where he fakes to Lynch and rolls out. Doing so would have enabled Seattle to accomplish everything they wanted. They would have been able to stop the clock if nothing was there as Wilson could’ve throw the ball out of bounds from outside the pocket. Perhaps the design of the play would have worked and Wilson could’ve either thrown a safe pass or use his athleticism to run it in. Worst case scenario, it would have been 3rd-and-1 and you’d still have a timeout, which means you could run the ball on the next two plays.
Seattle also could have tried running it on 2nd down. If they didn’t get in, they could have then called their final timeout. On 3rd down, they could call a pass in the end zone (a rollout please!) and if they didn’t get it, the clock would be stopped and they could run any play they wanted on 4th down.
Ultimately, the problem here was that Seattle did not get the chance to win or lose with their strength, Marshawn Lynch and the running game. Up until that point, Seattle had run the ball 29 times in the game and failed to gain 1 yard only twice. They should have had at least 2 cracks at it with Lynch.
Instead, they called a play with a short quarterback throwing the ball in a tight area over the middle of the field. This play was a quick, catch-and-throw type of pass where the quarterback throws it a little bit blind because there isn’t a ton of time to decipher the defense post-snap. The receivers’ tight splits only added to the quickness and riskiness of the play.
Ultimately, the Seahawks robbed themselves of a chance to decide the game with their best asset. We’ve written before that when the Seahawks offense gets itself into trouble, it’s almost always because Darrell Bevell gets away from what they do best – running the ball with Lynch. This play was an egregious microcosm of that very flaw.
Seattle’s play-calling aside, Malcolm Butler made an absolutely phenomenal play. You can see below that he clearly knew what was coming. He broke on the ball almost immediately.
The other aspect of this play is that Brandon Browner did a tremendous job of jamming Jermaine Kearse at the line. Kearse was supposed to run Browner upfield to impede Malcolm Butler’s path. Because he couldn’t, Butler was able to run through and make the play.
New England deserves all the credit in the world for making a tremendous play at the end of the game. But the Seahawks deserve plenty of blame for out-thinking themselves and giving away the Super Bowl.