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.
SB XLIX: When Seattle has the Ball
Every 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
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
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.