Super Bowl XLIX: Mismatches
Whether you’re partaking in Playoffs salary cap fantasy games or simply have an interest in specific players that should do well in the Super Bowl, the four mismatches detailed below can serve as a jumping-off point.
Depending on the source, this Super Bowl is the closest ever forecast. There has never been a pick ‘em Super Bowl, and only twice has the spread been one point. The game opened with Seattle favored by one, and now New England has that honor. No matter where it ends up at 6:30 on Sunday night, the game projects to be close enough that just one or two plays may decide the outcome.
Despite two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, it’s conceivable that this Super Bowl will come down not to passing prowess but ground superiority. League-best pass coverage clamping down on mediocre wide receiving corps, in addition to occasionally suspect pass protection on both sides, may result in a pair of offenses taking the air out of the ball. (Eye-roll)
Let’s take a look at why that will be, and where it should lead us:
Nate Solder vs. Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, and Company
Former first round pick Solder had his worst season since he was a rookie, which happened to end with a sub-par Super Bowl performance (-3.9 pass block grade; four hurries surrendered). He was the 44th-graded tackle during the regular season and ranked 57th in pass blocking. When facing a top-third-graded pass rush team, he earned a -5.1 pass blocking grade in seven games versus -2.3 in his 11 other outings. He often comes up short against speed rushers, which bodes poorly for Tom Brady’s blind side and long-developing downfield routes.
Seattle finished as PFF’s seventh-best pass rushing outfit, with three edge defenders (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and K.J. Wright) ranking in the top-eight at their position in Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP). Former first-round pick Bruce Irvin has blossomed of late, with a PRP mark of 11.3 over his last five games. Starters Avril and Bennett have rushed more often from the left side this year, but not exclusively. O’Brien Schofield, who has a healthy 20.7 PRP during the playoffs, also will face Solder, as the Seahawks rotate their pass rushers often. A no-huddle-based attack will help cut down on Seattle’s substitutions and make Brady a viable fantasy option – but less of a high-ceiling one than usual.
Gronk Effect vs. Seahawks Linebackers
While Wright (+3.3), Bobby Wagner (+2.5), and Irvin (+0.2) all sport pass coverage grades in the green, they’ve struggled at times with top-tier tight ends. Wagner’s pass coverage grade over his last six outings is -3.4, Wright gave up a deep touchdown to Zach Ertz, and Irvin surrendered a long catch to Travis Kelce. It’s not exactly a state secret that Rob Gronkowski will be a focal point of Seattle’s game plan, and their linebackers won’t last long in single coverage. Enter Kam Chancellor. The hard-hitting strong safety will often take over coverage after Gronkowski fights through early linebacker jams.
Gronk will still get his, and we’ve seen what extra coverage attention does for other Patriot pass catchers. Yet New England’s running game also stands to benefit. Seattle’s run defense ranked 10th, but was vulnerable to power ground attacks. That was abundantly clear against the Packers, with the Seahawks grading an abominable -18.0 versus the run. New England won’t be able to embarrass them like they did to the Colts, but with center Bryan Stork returning (+5.4 since Week 10 bye; 4th-best) and occasional light boxes due to the Gronk effect, power-back LeGarrette Blount should find creases – and makes for an worthwhile playoff pool investment.
Marshawn Lynch vs. The World
As Christine Michael enthusiasts know well, Beast Mode will not go away quietly. PFF’s highest-graded runner (+19.6), Lynch led the league by a good margin in Elusive Rating (94.3), Yards after Contact per Attempt (2.96), and forced missed tackles on handoffs (88). While Dont’a Hightower (12th) and Jamie Collins (17th) showed well in Tackle Efficiency, they will need their best effort of the season to keep the key to Seattle’s offense in check. Greatly complicating matters for New England is the ground-based schemes that the Seahawks will employ.
It took until deep into a seemingly lost Championship game for Seattle to break out the read option. The Patriots struggled with similar concepts against Miami in Week 1 and, albeit less often, again in Week 15. More worrisome is Seattle’s zone blocking scheme. New England was gashed just two weeks ago against Baltimore, as Patriot linemen struggled with cut blocks. They were fortunate that their secondary tackled Justin Forsett well, although he still rang up 129 yards on 24 carries. New England needs to bring Lynch down before he gets to the third level this time, which is far easier said than done, or he’ll surpass his Vegas-projected 92.5 rushing yards. He’s the top fantasy play of the game, despite New England’s penchant for neutralizing opponents’ top weapon.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich vs. Russell Okung and Justin Britt
Out of 47 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers, Jones (26th) and Ninkovich (35th) don’t stand out in PRP. In fact, Akeem Ayers (10th) leads the Patriots in the metric, although it’s unlikely he sees much playing time (12 total playoff snaps). As uneven as Ninkovich and Jones—who missed roughly half the season with a hip injury—have been in their performances, they both have matchup advantages against Seattle’s tackles. Since Week 14, Okung (67th out of 73 qualifiers) and Britt (69th) are dangerously close to the worst-graded tackles in the NFL and Russell Wilson is the second-most pressured passer (45.7-percent of dropbacks) during that time.
Britt was the league’s 81st-ranked pass-blocker at his position, and even Ninkovich’s diminished pass rushing skills will give him the upper hand in that matchup. Britt is a better run blocker (30th-graded tackle), though Ninkovich is adept at edge-setting. Jones, who sometimes struggles to anchor against the run, will match up with Okung, whose -8.2 run blocking grade since Week 14 ranks third-from-worst among fellow tackles. While keeping contain on Wilson will be priority No. 1 for New England’s edge rushers, they should have the advantage when Seattle either runs or passes. Both Patriots’ projected sack totals are 0.5, and while Wilson typically offers a safe floor due to his legs, playoff pool participants should not count on gaudy passing totals.
The Super Bowl’s likely game script favors the starting running backs, and should lead to relatively reduced passing game volume and infrequent downfield success. It’s recommended that selections made for your playoff leagues reflect this scenario. Unless, of course, you are type of degenerate who’s in the midst of participating in a dual Pro Bowl-Super Bowl DFS contest, and the need for diversification plays a larger role. No matter which angle you’re taking, a close game between the league’s best teams means we’re all in for a treat. Enjoy.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman