SB XLIX: When New England has the Ball

In the companion to yesterday's look at the Seattle offense, Ben Stockwell this time focuses on how the Patriots' offense matches up.

| 2 years ago

SB XLIX: When New England has the Ball

SB-XLIX-feat-NEAfter taking a dig into the detail of the matchups when the Seahawks have the ball yesterday, now we turn our attention to some key battle grounds and who has the edge when the Patriots have the ball. Widely viewed as the main event with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski squaring off with the Legion of Boom and the rest of a physical Seattle defense, this is a matchup befitting the biggest stage in the sport.

As we explored yesterday, the Seattle offense and the New England defense feature a number of strength-on-strength matchups, and with the Seattle defense facing off with one of the most decorated quarterbacks of all time there’s sure to be plenty of strengths when the Patriots have possession. New England has proven already in the playoffs that their offense is capable of changing its personality from week to week, going pass-heavy to run-heavy in the space of a week to dispatch the Ravens and Colts to reach the Super Bowl and they’ll need that versatility again if they are to produce against the Seattle defense.

Key Personnel Groups

12 personnel (38.1% of plays)
Run-Pass Ratio: 70.0% pass, 30.0% run
Pass Success: 6.3 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
Run Success: 4.9 yards per attempt, 4 touchdowns

11 personnel (28.4% of plays)
Run-Pass Ratio: 75.1% pass, 24.9% run
Pass Success: 6.6 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, 4 interceptions
Run Success: 4.5 yards per attempt, 1 touchdown

Production against Single High

The Seahawks’ defense is not one that sets out to confuse you and beat you with disguise. They play with a single-high safety closing the middle of the field on more than 84% of their snaps only rolling to that look from an “open” two-high look at the snap on 15.7% of their snaps. Obviously there are variations in play calls within this, but the Patriots will know what they are facing from the Seahawks’ defense.

When the Patriots lined up against a defense showing a “closed”, single-high defense this season they passed the ball 57% of the time and gained 7.7 yards per attempt with Tom Brady throwing a league-best 20 touchdowns with only two interceptions. His favorite targets against the single high look were Brandon LaFell (65 targets), Julian Edelman (61) with Rob Gronkowski only third by number of targets, though he did contribute eight touchdowns.


LaFell had 23 targets on hitches and slants and as the Patriots’ biggest wide receiver the burden will fall on him to keep the Seahawks’ big corners honest on the outside. On the inside, the Patriots need to get the ball in Gronkowski’s hands rather than Edelman’s, the Patriots’ slot receiver only gained 5 yards per target out of the slot against single-high defenses where Gronkowski gained 13.3, snagging three scores. Seahawks’ cornerback Jeremy Lane has provided Gronkowski with his bulletin board material for this game and Gronkowski will be eager to continue producing from inside against single-high looks.

Winning the Battle Inside

Winning inside in the trenches will be a key battle ground here in both run and pass games. In the passing game it is a chance for the Seahawks to get pressure on Brady in the area that historically has the biggest effect on his production and performance, while when the Patriots run the ball it will be a chance to exploit an area of the Seahawks’ defense that has suffered in the absence of Brandon Mebane.

In the first eight weeks of the season the Seahawks had one of the stingiest interior run defenses in the league, letting up just 3.4 yards per carry on runs aimed inside. Only four defenses bettered that, but since Mebane went down (and including the playoffs) that yards per carry allowed has jumped by a full yard with only seven defenses letting up more yards per carry inside over the second half of the season. In the postseason the Patriots have averaged 4.2 yards per carry and snagged a trio of scores in the red zone. The Patriots are a chameleon offense and winning inside to exploit a relative weakness in the Seattle defense could be productive.


When Brady drops back to pass the key will be getting suitable protection from his guards and center, especially when the Patriots line up three wide and Michael Bennett moves inside. The loss of Jordan Hill for the post season has taken away the Seahawks’ pass rushing defense tackle so if the Patriots can pass more against Seattle’s base defense that should make life easier for their interior pass protectors.

Whoever lines up at right guard for the Patriots does not match up well against Bennett in pass protection so the Patriots will have to scheme to protect them. In their nickel pass rush, Cliff Avril or O’Brien Schofield will be outside of Bennett so help in protection calls will be tough, so any help in terms of personnel usage (to limit Bennett’s rushes inside) or by getting the ball out too quick for Bennett to get pressure from inside will be crucial.

Avoiding Sherman without Limiting the Passing Game

Once again this postseason Richard Sherman has been on fire and the question of how and when you go after or avoid him is one of the hot topics leading into this Super Bowl. This season we’ve seen teams test Sherman (eight targets against the Giants) and we have seen teams almost completely avoid him, sometimes to the detriment of their offense. If his track record this season is anything to go by then Tom Brady won’t be sending too many passes into his coverage if Sherman remains on an island at left corner.

League wide, 24% of passes were aimed outside the right numbers, into what would be Richard Sherman’s third of the field. Against Sherman and the Seahawks that distribution drops to 19.2% but the Patriots’ distribution on offense was even lower; Brady and the Patriots have sent 16.4% of their targets to the right-hand third of the field. If they want to avoid Sherman then, unlike other offenses who have faced off with the Seahawks, this wouldn’t be the same break from their offensive norm.


Brady predominantly targets the left side if he is looking outside the numbers (179 targets left to 102 right) completing 70.5% of his passes outside the left numbers on short and intermediate throws. A busy night for Sherman would be a break from Brady’s norm and would imply a busier night for Byron Maxwell and the Seahawks’ linebackers trying to contain the New England passing attack.

Stopping Gronk

Both teams have their own tackle-breaking beast on offense and for the Patriots the key will be getting the ball in the hands of Rob Gronkowski to try and bring some of New England’s own physicality to Seattle’s defenders in coverage. Gronkowski broke 21 tackles this season which only one Patriot running back (Shane Vereen) bettered for the most missed tackles forced on offense. Gronkowski is a handful whatever his alignment; more productive in terms of yards per target from the slot and a tight alignment he has snagged eight of his touchdowns in the redzone as either the left or right wide receiver in the offense.


The Seahawks don’t tend to bend to opposing offenses but if they just let Gronkowski move around the defense untracked, he will be the sternest physical test that any of Seattle’s defenders will have faced all season. If they don’t stop him catching the ball then the Seahawks’ tackling will need to be at its best if they aren’t to concede big plays after the catch — Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas have missed a combined 13 tackles in the passing game this season with Chancellor missing two already in the postseason. Gronkowski is the biggest threat to the Seahawks in the passing game and if Seattle can’t keep the ball out of his hands they need to fell him quickly.


It’s hard to look past the Seahawks’ defense as having the slight edge here heading in, after what they did to the Broncos’ vaunted offense a year ago it’s hard not to say that they have the edge at least on paper. What should make this a more even battle than a year ago, however, is that the Seattle defense isn’t quite as good as it was, particularly up front, and the Patriots have a proven track record of being able to change their focal point week to week to attack the weaknesses in the opposing defense. Arguably their most important task is preventing Michael Bennett from playing the Justin Tuck role, getting after Tom Brady from the inside as Tuck did for the Giants in 2007 and derailing the New England offense from the heart of the pocket.


Follow Ben on Twitter: @PFF_Ben

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Chris

    The Seahawks defense has been in total shutdown mode for the last 8 weeks, during which they’ve only allowed 10ppg. That 8 week span also coincides with the return of Wagner. Clearly he is integral to this defense’s success. They’ve averaged 13ppg and allowed more than 20 points just twice in the 12 games Wagner has started and played the whole game, compared to 22ppg allowed in the other 6. How can you argue with that?

    Well for one, I’d examine the opponents/QBs Seattle has faced in the last 8 weeks. Stanton, Kaep, Sanchez, Kaep, Lindley, Hill, Cam, and a one-legged Rodgers. That isn’t exactly a list of Pro Bowlers, especially with how poorly Kaep played altogether this year. Yes holding any group of 8 teams to 10ppg is phenomenal, but I’d argue that a handful of defenses would post similar numbers against this slew of below average QBs.

    If you compare how Seattle’s defense played against “great” QBs vs. “less-than-great QBs” this year:

    Great: Rodgers (twice), Rivers, Peyton, Romo
    Other: Cousins, Davis, Cam (twice), Carr, Eli, Smith, Stanton, Kaep (twice), Sanchez, Lindley, Hill

    Great: 5 games, 3-2 record, 24ppg allowed, 102 rush yards allowed, 241 pass yards allowed, 1.2 sacks

    Other: 13 games, 11-2 record, 13ppg allowed, 82 rush yards allowed, 185 pass yards allowed, 2.6 sacks

    They allowed an average of 20 more rush yards, 60 more pass yards, and 11 more points this year when facing teams with a competent QB (including one-legged Rodgers). Simply put, when you can’t throw the ball the Seahawks will shut you down. If you can’t challenge their secondary, they’ll match you one-on-one and stack the run and then blitz their eyes out. But against a great QB that can challenge them outside and keep them honest, they allow more yards, more points, and log less sacks.

    Now obviously New England has a QB that falls into that “great” category. He will test them outside and challenge the corners, especially Maxwell as the article mentions because Brady prefers throwing left anyway.

    And they should have some success running the ball as well. As mentioned above, Mebane has been out since week 10. Just like Seattle has seemed invincible since Wagner returned because of the creampuff QB list, their vulnerability against the run has been somewhat masked for the same reason.

    With Mebane in there the Seahawks allowed only one team to top 3.8 YPC through the first 9 games. That game was against Murray and the Cowboys, who beat them. Since Mebane’s injury they have allowed four teams to rush for 4.4+ YPC.

    For comparison, the Seahawks allowed 717 rush yards on 226 carries (3.2 YPC) in 9 weeks with Mebane and 852 rush yards on 216 carries (3.9 YPC) in 9 weeks without Mebane. The Pats have established they can run the ball when they want to, and you have to think they’ll look to take advantage of this.

    And a semi-competent run game will keep the Pats in shorter down-and-distances, which means the Seahawks won’t be able to move Bennett inside as often as they’d like to get some interior pressure. With Hill out Brady will enjoy a cleaner pocket and he’ll be able to step up to avoid outside pressure from Bennett and Avril around the edges. Plus Brady has one of the quickest releases in the league, which helps mitigate pressure as well.

    With that said, literally everything I just typed also applied to the Packers last week, so that is no guarantee of beating Seattle. However McCarthy’s conservative playcalling both near the goal line and in the 2nd have altogether left the door open for a comeback. That’s not even mentioning that if they recover that onsides kick they win the game anyway.

    Belichick is a better coach than McCarthy. Likely one of the best at gameplanning and scheming based on opponents and matchups in the league. He will not make the same mistakes McCarthy did nor will his team be unprepared.

    All the Patriots have to do is score 25 points and the game is theirs.

    • AJ

      I agree that Wagner can help somewhat compensate for the loss of Mebane. Also worth noting is that Seattle won against GB (albeit pretty miraculously) despite an atrocious game by Russell Wilson. My guess is that he won’t have two such games in a row. New England’s lack of pass rush on defense may also be an important factor. Their need to account for Wilson’s running ability could also create some more favorable 1-on-1 match ups for Seattle receivers.

      Also, running the ball won’t be as easy as it was against the Colts (whose defense has been very weak up the middle for years). I agree with you that they’ll need at least a good enough run game to put them in favorable 3rd down situations. Otherwise Seattle’s pass rush could force Brady to get the ball out quickly without having much room to throw it (due to Seattle’s secondary jamming receivers) or simply take a sack (especially if Cliff Avril plays anywhere nearly as well as he did in last year’s Super Bowl)

      • Chris

        Yea I was purely looking at when NE had the ball.

        Mainly my point is that Seattle has played a slew of crappy QBs lately and it’s made their really good defense look invincible again. But they’re not. They aren’t as good against the run without Mebane, it just goes unnoticed because they’ve played a bunch of crap QBs who can’t throw it.

        I expect a close game. NE is one of the best coached teams in the league. Don’t know which way I’d pick this yet.

        • AJ

          Yea the bad QB’s have definitely deflated some of the raw defensive statistics to make them look a bit better than they actually are, allowing them to move Chancellor in the box without having to worry about being short handed in the secondary. Josh McDaniels is the king of finding mismatches, so stacking the box probably won’t be as effective against New England (obviously Seattle is well aware of this).

          On a separate note, I like the way Michael Bennett’s versatility allows them to exploit mismatches almost anywhere along the line, which in this case would be the Patriot’s interior line. Lining him up alongside Avril really worked well last year since one of them, or even Bruce Irvin, would likely be 1-on-1 against an inferior blocker. The trench warfare in this game is one of the things I’m really looking forward to.

    • Guest

      You can apply that to any team. If your team faces bad QB’s, of course their numbers will look better. Yet Seattle has all the tools necessary to limit Brady.

      Seattle has to worry about Blount however- especially since they’re missing Mebane and Red Bryant. They also have to be worried that Russell Wilson will have another dreadful performance, since New England will take full advantage, unlike Green Bay

      I’ll say Patriots: 28 Seahawks: 13

    • Brian

      That game against Romo and the Cowboys, Lane was out, Maxwell got hurt early on and so did Wagner. Rodgers had short fields to deal with all day in the NFC Championship game and, all things considered, had a pretty terrible game. A little misleading.

  • Patsfranchise>Seattlefranchise

    SuperBowl Prediction
    Patriots-35 seahawks-14
    SBMVP-Rob Gronkowski or Tom Brady

  • AJ

    Brady (like most QB’s) actually struggles greatly when he has to throw into tight windows. He rarely is even put in a position in which he has to make a difficult throw. The vast majority of his throws are little dump-offs or to guys completely wide open. Seattle does a great job of limiting the damage of short dump-offs while also not letting receivers gain separation. Unless that Seattle secondary has an uncharacteristically bad game, this will be a very tough day for Brady and company, especially if the pass rush is also there. This defense is the worst possible match-up for most pass-happy offenses.

    Also interesting to note, no team has figured out this defense even though they know what they are going against (the coverages don’t change very much play to play, game to game), but no defense has figured out how to control Gronkowski. Seattle shut down Jimmy Graham last year, but Gronk brings a different, more physical skill set not found in any other TE in the league that will be very interesting to watch.