Friday, January 30, 2015

Super Bowl Preview: Patriots vs. Seahawks

Well folks, it’s finally here. After two weeks of more PSI than YAC, the Super Bowl is this Sunday, kicking off around 6:35 pm. Not as much hype this year, with discussions side-tracked by deflated footballs and a non-talking running back.

It is tough to predict how this game will go, because the teams haven’t met in over two years. That game ended with a rookie Wilson (Seahawks quarterback Russell) beating another rookie Wilson (Patriots safety Tavon) on a last-minute touchdown to win the game 24-23. Both players are improved since then, the QB becoming a star and the safety becoming a part-time player who doesn't get beaten deep any more.

Given that I haven’t watched a lot of Seahawks games, I’ll concentrate more on how I see the Patriots attacking them, on both offense and defense. And without further adieu, here are five questions that make up my Super Duper Super Special Super Bowl Preview.

Is the Seahawks defense as good as advertised?

The Seattle defense gets a lot of pub, and most of it is earned. They are the first team since the 1985-86 Bears to allow the fewest points and the fewest yards two seasons in a row. In 2014 they ranked #5 in opponent QB rating, #2 in yards-per-completion against, allowed the fifth-fewest plays of 40+ yards, and gave up the third-fewest first downs.

They did have surprisingly few interceptions (17, ranking them #18) and sacks (37, ranking them #20). And to be fair they faced some real dreck at the quarterback position this year. Arizona and St. Louis put up backup QBs in both division games with Seattle, and they played Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) twice, and he had his worst year as a pro. They also got to rout old friend Marc Sanchez with Philadelphia.

But you can only play who is on your schedule, and the Seattle D earned respect no matter who they faced. They even do well against the run. They ranked #2 in yards per carry against (3.4 ypc), and they only gave up a rushing touchdown every other game (eight on the year).

So even if you think the Patriots diversified offense will find a way to attack this defense, don’t for a second think Seattle’s D is overrated.

Is the Patriots defensive plan as simple as 5-2-4?

In week 16, the Patriots employed an unusual defensive alignment to stop the Jets: five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs. This 5-2-4 defense gave them more players at the line to stop the Jets running attack and more pass rushers to collapse the pocket without allowing the quarterback to escape.

It worked very well. From the first game to the second one, the Jets rushing production dropped from 218 yards to 116. And QB Geno Smith, who ran for four first downs in the earlier game, ran for none in the second one.

Seattle plays a similar style of offense, albeit with much better execution and quarterback play than the Jets.

The Seahawks boast an excellent running attack and a quarterback who is better when improvising outside the pocket. Running back Marshawn Lynch averaged 81.7 yards a game (4.7 ypc), and their second leading rusher was Wilson with 53.1/game (7.1 ypc). And Wilson is okay in the pocket but much more dangerous on the run, especially when his receivers break patterns down the field.

I think it’s likely the Patriots will use the 5-2-4 to combat Seattle’s offense. They can always switch out of it, but it seems perfectly suited to slowing down the Seahawks running attack and containing Wilson in the pocket.

If the Pats decide to use a more conventional defense, look for more zone than man-to-man to start the game, as that helps them against the run. Either that or you’ll see more single-high safety with Patrick Chung near the line to help in run support and Devin McCourty playing centerfield.

Also, if they go with a more standard defensive set, discipline is the key. Lynch thrives on contact, so the Patriots have to tackle well. Wilson excels outside the pocket (running or throwing), so maintaining rushing lanes and collapsing the pocket is more important than knifing in for a big play.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Patriots go more conventional at first. But if Lynch or Wilson start to crank it up, look for the Patriots to beef up on the line to slow them down.

Will Blount force soften Seattle’s defense?

Four times this year the Patriots played teams with quick-but-small defensive fronts. And all four times they loaded up with extra offensive linemen and a second and/or third tight end, and they ran the ball at will. And it just so happens Seattle's defense is quick-but-small, especially up front.

The first such game was in Minnesota, where they ran for 150 yards on 37 carries (4.1 ypc).  Three weeks later the Patriots racked up 220 yards on 46 carries (4.8 ypc) in a pasting of the Bengals. And in two games versus the Colts, the Pats gained 423 yards on 84 carries (5.0 ypc).

The Patriots didn’t just run the ball when they had a big lead; in all those games they used the rushing attack to bludgeon the opponent into submission. And 42 carries per game might be the most important stat of all. It shows how the Patriots tailored their game plan to defeat a specific weaknesses: a size mismatch.

In those four games, they averaged 42 carries for 198 yards (4.7 ypc). In their other twelve games they averaged just 22.6 carries for 78 yards (3.5 ypc). So they saw a weakness on the other team and switched to a power running game for just that week.

How long they stay with it mostly depends on how effective it is. And even if it is successful, eventually they’ll use play-action passes to attack deep. But if the New England running game gets going, it’ll be tough for Seattle to stop it -- they just don’t have the muscle up front.

And no doubt the Patriots will give this a try. After all, the aggregate score of the Patriots four run-heavy games was 160-51!

How will they stop Gronkowski? And Edelman? And LaFell? And Amendola?

The Patriots offense is an absolute nightmare for most teams. Too many formations, too many players shifting pre-snap, too many options out of every set, different pace, changing up without substituting, and a quarterback as good as anyone who’s ever played the game.

Seattle for their part likes to line up in Cover-3 or Cover-1 and beat you with superior talent, speed, and technique. They won’t shift much with pre-snap motion or formation changes, they’ll adjust who is covering whom but they won’t move people around a lot. And once the ball is snapped, they’ll be ready for whatever comes.

The problem for Seattle is that the Patriots are far more diversified on offense this season, especially in the passing game. In past years I bemoaned how they’d become too dependent on Gronkowski and Edelman (or Welker), and how that made them to easy to defend in the post-season. Most playoff teams have enough secondary talent to take two receivers out of the game, and the Patriots lacked a third or fourth threat in the passing game.

Not this year. In the last four games in which all of their top receivers played (excepting the Jets and Bills games in December), here are the number of receptions for each of those players:


So even if Seattle concentrates on Gronkowski and Edelman, that will leave LaFell and/or Amendola one-on-one or even open in zones. Last year it would have been enough to stop the Patriots top two receivers, but not this year. The Seahawks don’t like to mix it up on defense, but they’d better consider it on Sunday. Otherwise, once the Patriots figure out what they are doing, they’ll find the open man and slice down the field one 5- to 8-yard pass at a time.

Quick Hits:

A) For all their physical play, the Seahawks committed the fewest defensive penalties (70) in the league this year. Ironically, their offense committed the most penalties, 130.

B) Seahawks ranked a surprising twentieth in Red Zone defense, giving up touchdowns on 56.8% of opponent trips inside the 20 yard line. Patriots ranked sixth in Red Zone offense, scoring touchdowns 62.3% of the time.

C) Seattle outscored opponents 255-123 in the second half of their games (including playoffs). New England outscored opponents 265-157 in the second half of their games (including playoffs). Sounds like those two might offset each other.

D) Seahawks defenders will push the limits of what’s legal. In the NFC Championship Game, corner Byron Maxwell committed at least five penalties but was flagged just once. And defensive end Cliff Avril was cited for illegal hands to the face twice in the first half.

BTW, even though every call was obvious, both players complained to high heaven after the flags were thrown.


I’m predicting a Patriots win, by 10+ points. Not because the Patriots offense will dominate, but because the Seattle offense will struggle against the Patriots defense. For all the pre-game questions about how the Patriots will score, I don’t see how the Seahawks score more than 20 points without getting turnovers. And they are much more likely to score 13-16 points, IMO.

Note #1: for the record that every time I think a playoff game should be a “comfortable win” for the Patriots, it turns out to be a nail-biter where the Pats are as likely to lose as win.

Note #2: I am 15-3 predicting the victor in Patriots games this year, and 16 of those predictions were made before the season even started :D

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Both teams have played 18 games this year, but the Patriots have given up fewer fourth-quarter points (65) than the Seahawks (80).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Too bad the NFL botched their investigation. It would have been fun to talk about the actual matchup for two weeks."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-4 & 2-0!

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