SB XLIX: When Seattle has the Ball

Ben Stockwell offers the first of two pieces exploring the challenges ahead for each Super Bowl defense, here looking at the threat Seattle's offense poses.

| 2 years ago

SB XLIX: When Seattle has the Ball

SB-XLIX-feat-SEAEvery year the Super Bowl is the ultimate embodiment of the “any given Sunday” ethos. Each team must stay true to their own identity while bringing enough variation into their gameplan that their opponents don’t come in knowing exactly what they’re going to see and how to stop it.

Over the next two days as we build to the climax of another NFL season we’ll take a look at the identity of each offense, looking at what they emphasize and do well in their gameplan and how well setup each defense is to cope with that.

We start with perhaps the under card in this year’s Super Bowl, every year one matchup is more hyped than the other and understandably the matchup of Tom Brady against the Seattle defense is getting more attention, but how the matchup of the Seattle offense and how the Patriots will try to shackle Marshawn Lynch is just as enticing.

Key Personnel Groups

11 personnel (49.6% of offensive snaps)
Run-Pass Ratio: 63.5% pass, 36.5% run
Pass Success: 7.8 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, 9 interceptions
Run Success: 6.5 yards per carry, 9 touchdowns

12 personnel (15.1% of offensive snaps)
Run-Pass Ratio: 50.8% pass, 49.2% run
Pass Success: 8.3 yards per attempt, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions
Run Success: 5.1 yards per carry, 5 touchdowns

Running Outside

Ordinarily, you think of physical football teams and physical ball-carriers as doing their damage on the inside between the tackles, but Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks bring their physicality to the fore on the edge of the defense. Lynch broke 40 tackles on runs aimed outside, gaining 3.4 yards per carry after contact in a ground game that is far more strength than guile. The Seahawks run their zone attack with the threat of Russell Wilson to keep the edge honest and create space for Lynch to build a head of steam and, though the blocking is far from top draw, execute on the strength of their runners.

The Patriots will counter the Seahawks’ greatest strength with a relative strength of their own; statistically, one of the league’s strongest edge defenses. The Patriots surrendered less than 4 yards per carry on runs aimed outside the tackles this season, re-directing better than one in seven of those carries and limiting those re-directed runs to less than 2.5 yards per carry.


The point of difference for the Patriots will be that they have not faced a team with the running threat of a Russell Wilson at quarterback this season, only facing two option keepers by a quarterback all year (both by Ryan Tannehill). Discipline to both parts of the option will be key, but fundamentals could be telling here. On the edge, Rob Ninkovich has missed 10 tackles against the run this season, tied for the most in the league among 3-4 outside linebackers, the Patriots cannot afford to add to this and give Lynch an opportunity to get loose on the edge.

Making Plays Down the Field

The Seahawks don’t have a prolific passing game but they make the most of their shots down the field to establish the balance in their offense. They don’t have big name pass-catchers but that doesn’t stop them from making their plays when needed, as they proved once again in overtime to make it to the Super Bowl.

In terms of volume, 23 teams took more shots down the field than the Seahawks, even including their two playoff wins, but no offense gained more yards per attempt down the field. The Seahawks completed 44.4% of their deep balls this season, leading the league in yards per attempt on deep throws and scoring a touchdown on better than every eighth downfield shot.


Just like on the outside running, however, the Seahawks’ strength matches up with a strong, but this time extremely well tested, area of the New England defense. No team faced more deep shots than the Patriots this season and few have defended it better than them.

Facing exactly 100 deep balls en route to the Super Bowl, the Patriots have let up only 33 completions and only eight defenses have been stingier in terms of yards allowed per attempt down the field. The Patriots are particularly proficient at stopping the deep ball from the slot (6/29, 1 TD, 4 INT) and with the Seahawks unbelievably efficient at getting big plays down the field from that position (17/25, 3 TD) this could be an area that gives us some game-defining plays.

Stopping Wilson the Runner

As the league’s most prolific running quarterback this season, it is to some extent stating the obvious that Wilson’s ability to impact the game with his legs will be a telling factor in this game. Late in the NFC title game, the Seahawks were able to get him loose and exhibit his threat not only on scrambles (529 yards on 56 carries this season) but also on designed runs (46 carries for 398 yards) and this threat just opens up the rest of the Seattle offense to be that much more dangerous.

As we discussed above, the Patriots haven’t faced a genuine rushing threat at quarterback yet this season, so it will be interesting to see how they choose to attack the option and how often they allow Wilson to keep the ball from the mesh. Controlling Wilson as a runner when he drops back to pass, however, is a different matter.


The Seahawks’ pass protection is an area to exploit, but not at the expense of letting Wilson free on scrambles. The Patriots were scrambled on 28 times this season (among the league’s most) but defended it well, surrendering 6.6 yards per carry and missing only one tackle. However, they didn’t face a scrambling threat of Wilson’s caliber, so if they can’t contain him, the quality of their scramble defense will face a stern test.

Key Matchup – Stopping Lynch

Though you can make a strong case that Wilson opens up more in the Seattle offense, including for Lynch himself, there can be little doubt that more often than not Lynch is the man that makes the Seattle offense go. His performances getting the Seahawks to the Super Bowl the last two seasons have been spectacular, but the Broncos were able to hold him in check in New York last year, so stopping him isn’t the be all and end all. On 15 carries, the Broncos missed only two tackles on Lynch last year and allowed only 1.6 yards per carry after contact.


The Patriots will be eager to repeat that feat and back themselves not to capitulate around that effort in the same way the Broncos did. Lynch broke 50 tackles from interior linemen and edge defenders this season but, aside from Ninkovich, the Patriots are sound tacklers up front. Jamie Collins and Patrick Chung were the only other Patriots to hit double digits in missed tackles and, if the New England defenders can get off their blocks up front, Lynch could well find it a hard grind to make things happen as he found against the Broncos last February.


On paper heading in, this matchup is extremely tight and a big play or two could be all that swings it in favor of the Patriots or the Seahawks. With some tantalizing strength-on-strength encounters, it will come down to overall execution on Sunday night, but the narrowest of edges would go to the Patriots on the defensive side of the ball. They have long maintained solid and particularly disciplined defenses, but this year have the players to create and not just capitalize on the key plays in the key moments. As the Packers showed in the NFC Championship game, they will have to do that for sixty minutes to see off Seattle.


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.

  • sam

    Well written

  • Coley c

    If the NE can man cover the Seattle skill players, don’t see why they don’t just offer Lynch and Wilson 8 in the box, and blitz if they try to boot. If they can conver than make it an all out assault.

  • Antti Vanhanen

    Great analysis. Looking forward to seeing a similar piece on the other side of the ball.

  • Guest

    I just can’t see Russell Wilson throwing successfully on a great secondary featuring Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty. I’d expect 1-2 interceptions. Oh, and don’t forget New England’s pass rush can push him out of the pocket.

    New England’s biggest worry is Marshawn Lynch- question is, will Seattle go to him if they’re down?

    • John Joseph

      The Pats need to keep him IN the pocket in order to maximize the efficiency of the secondary. Russell makes his hay scrambling and elongating plays until coverage breaks down.

    • Brian

      SEA has faced better defenses and offenses. New England has not, obviously.

      • mr.roboto

        I would say Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Denver, Buffalo, NY Jets, San Diego would count as pretty good defenses (Top 10) New England has faced and I would add they offensively dominated all but one of those defenses. So, yeah TB 12 and his offense are pretty damn good. The Seattle Defense ranks 26th in the NFL in RedZone, game, set, match.

      • Josh Coryell


        Fwiw, the Jets entire defensive scheme is designed to beat the Patriots, and they have two of the best defensive linemen in the game.