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.
SB XLIX: When New England has the Ball
After 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.
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.
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Ben Stockwell | 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.