The Patriots might have the best secondary in football. It’s for that reason that Bill Belichick loves to use man coverage relentlessly, often jamming receivers at the line to disrupt opposing passing games. On Sunday against the Seahawks, however, we did not see the aggressive man coverage we’ve become accustomed to in recent seasons. Instead, they dropped into zone on more than 50% of Seattle’s called pass plays. Maybe they should have done so a little more, because Russell Wilson absolutely torched them in man coverage, completing 11 of 14 passes for 196 yards and 5 touchdowns.
It makes sense that Belichick decided to tone down the man coverage against Seattle. The Seahawks have a talented receiving corps. D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are a dynamic duo the Belichick seemed to correctly anticipate would give his secondary issues. Also, in man coverage, defenders normally turn their backs to the quarterback. This leaves running lanes for quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs. Russell Wilson happens to be one of those quarterbacks, as you can see below.
New England’s zone coverage was designed to reduce big plays through the air and runs by Wilson like the one you see above. In some ways, this approach did work. Wilson completed 10 of 14 passes for just 92 yards (6.57 yds per attempt) against zone. He threw a pick-6 as well, although it’s hard to attribute that INT to the zone coverage. Wilson also ran for just 18 yards on 4 carries against zone.
Still, the zone coverage didn’t do enough to slow Seattle down. Yes, the big plays were limited. However, too often we saw completions that kept Seattle in manageable down-and-distance situations. 9 yards here, 8 yards there… And this happened for a few reasons. The Seahawks were consistently threatening downfield with their route concepts. New England wasn’t able to get much of a pass rush all game, which gave those routes time to develop and stretched the defense at the deep and intermediate levels. This left lots of room underneath, where Seattle’s pass catchers could get the ball in space and take advantage of New England’s weakness at the linebacker position, as you can see here.
So while Seattle did most of its damage against man, it’s not like they were being held to just 3 yards a reception on those underneath throws.
To some extent, it didn’t matter how New England played in zone, because they were beat thoroughly in man coverage by Seattle’s receivers. The marquee matchup of the day saw D.K. Metcalf get the best of reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore.
On the below completion, you can see this matchup at the top of the screen. Watch how Metcalf created separation using the threat of his speed and his physicality for a 19-yard pick-up.
Here he was in the slot, beating Gilmore with his speed and route-running.
Watch him sell the crosser just enough to get Gilmore to begin moving across the field. This allowed Metcalf to get on top of Gilmore, resulting in a 54-yard touchdown reception.
Even when Seattle’s receivers weren’t winning, Russell Wilson was making great throw after great throw.
You really can’t put that ball in a better spot.
How about this throw from an off-balanced position with a man in his face.
Perfectly in stride. Wilson is such a natural passer, much of that likely coming from his baseball background. But I’m not sure I’ve seen him have a better day throwing the ball than he did against the Patriots on Sunday. He will undoubtedly be in the MVP discussion at season’s end.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ front-7 will be something to watch all season. This is the weakness of their team, which isn’t a surprise given how many players left due to Covid-19 and free agency. This unit had trouble generating a consistent pass rush against Seattle, and it didn’t help that they allowed 154 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. It will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick finds a way to mask this weakness as 2020 progresses.
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