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Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady will try to join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to capture the Lombardi Trophy 4 times. Standing in his way are the defending champs looking to become the 8th team in NFL history to win back to back Super Bowls.
For a second consecutive Super Bowl, we get a vaunted defense facing a high-powered offense, featuring one of the games better quarterbacks to ever step foot on the Gridiron. When best offense met best defense in last year’s battle on the grandest stage, it was Seattle’s ball-hawking, pass-rushing, heavy-hitting and opportunistic defense that dethroned Peyton Manning and Denver’s high-octane offense, propelling Seattle in one of the more dominating performances to capture their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. New England and Seattle have overcome early-season, sluggish-play. After Tom Brady’s dreadful outing against the Chiefs on Sep. 29, many spectators wondered if the best of the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks days were spiraling downward. Since then, Brady has silenced his critics, and with adjustments on the offensive line along with some new wrinkles thrown in the offensive game planning – an offense that was once searching for answers has found itself rocking and rolling on multiple combinations, ranging from concepts and formations within the run and pass that’s put Bill Belichick’s crew at full-force.
Pete Carroll’s Seahawks made a shocking trade after their loss to the Cowboys in Week 6 when they shipped Percy Harvin, an instrumental tool of their offense and special teams to the Jets. Reports would later surface that Harvin was part of locker room confrontations that created a separation between members of the team. The direction of the offense looked cloudy after the move, but without Harvin’s explosiveness and big-play abilities, Seattle’s offense has managed to function behind their powerful ground game and playmaking quarterback to guide their offense — losing only two games since Harvin’s departure. Most notably, their defense has found a string of good health down the stretch and the defending champs have yet to lose a game since Nov. 16 – giving the organization the opportunity to become the 8th team in NFL history to win back-to-back titles. With those key-factors being said, the chips are stacked between both heavy-weights that are well-coached and solid in just about all facets of the game when it comes to execution. And in the wake of New England’s controversial deflate-gate stealing most of the headlines, it’s time for me to breakdown some intriguing matchups that has all the implications to be a hard-fought, chess-match-like, thrilling-extravaganza that could come down to the wire.
When Seattle has the ball: In offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s system, it’s all about running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch setting the pace for Seattle’s offense on the ground. When Lynch gets going, it sets up the creativity by design, getting the play-fakes for quarterback Russell Wilson operating proficiently on isolating opposing linebackers and safeties through the read-option concepts of Seattle’s offense. When it comes to man-coverage, New England is as good, if not, perhaps slightly better than Seattle’s talented defensive backs. New England’s defensive coordinator Matt Patricia utilizes a four-man pass-rush, and to contain Wilson and Lynch from gashing his defense on running downs, I’d expect to see his unit aligned with extra defenders in the box and free safety Devin McCourty as the lone deep safety in single-high. What’s vital here for Seattle to create opportunities to attack New England’s stout back seven is to get Lynch plowing his way between the tackles of New England’s front — shedding tacklers with his bruising style of running to (neutralize New England’s linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower from being effective run stuffers).
Patricia will blitz his linebackers, but doing so will need gap discipline when Seattle tries to stretch them with their zone-runs. Lynch is also capable of cutting back against the grain, and the horizontal movements can catch New England’s linebackers out of position to whiff on gap assignments, giving Lynch open lanes to burst up field for large gains. If Seattle is able to mix and match between the run and pass, the play-action pass can get New England’s linebackers and safeties to bite towards the play-side — and when the elusive Wilson is throwing outside the hash-marks, he becomes dangerous. The sleeper option of Seattle’s offense is tight end Luke Willson, who can get behind New England’s linebackers, particularly in the boot-game when Wilson is rolling out to throw on the run. When Seattle is in passing situations, Belichick and Patricia’s decisions on who to place on the speedy tight end will be interesting when Seattle is in spread-alignments (3-receiver or empty backfield sets). This is where safety help comes into play for New England, whether it’s strong safety Patrick Chung, who’s been viable in pass-coverage or potentially McCourty to shadow Willson. Whoever takes the responsibility on passing downs in nickel or dime packages, the main objective still remains for Collins to spy on Wilson and for New England’s defensive front to keep him in the pocket.
Seattle’s receivers Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette aren’t the bona fide types that make dazzling catches, but as a group, they play within the system and deploy the proper techniques to help Wilson get them the football. New England’s cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington have the upper hand in their one-on-ones, but with a back like Lynch, who can leak out and spring up field on wheel routes, Bevell will dial up pick-routes for his receivers to draw traffic in the middle-seams that could leave Lynch alone on the perimeter for Wilson to connect with. You can’t underestimate Seattle’s vertical game – it’s in the playbook, and evidence showed us that on Wilson’s game-winning touchdown pass to Kearse against the Packers in the NFC championship. Belichick and Patricia know this, so don’t expect New England to fall asleep at the wheel like Green Bay did without safety help over the top. Wilson doesn’t necessarily need the option to make plays with his feet, and with New England’s pass-defenders keying on Seattle’s receivers, blitzing could be costly for New England, especially if Wilson uses his bag of skills to get away from rushers, extending plays or taking off with his blazing speed. Over aggressive blitzing defenses have paid the price when sending the house at Wilson, and if New England gets blitz-happy instead of trying to contain Wilson, the improvising-game of Seattle’s quarterback could open up to keep drives sustained, moving the sticks on third down. Instead of blitzing lots, relying on stunt-rushes from their front four while the linebackers keep their eyes on Wilson would be ideal for Belichick and Patricia, strategically.
When New England has the ball: In last year’s Super Bowl, the Broncos featured a greater abundance of talent for Seattle’s “Legion of Boom Defense” to prepare for. This doesn’t mean that New England’s offense is far down the line of what Denver’s offense presented, but this time, Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will need to get his defense ready for an offense that takes it deep in the avenue of formations and concepts. The Cover 3 scheme of Quinn’s defense has the ultimate personnel on deploying bump and run techniques on the perimeter with his cornerbacks, while keeping a safety bracketing the deep middle of the field. The pressing and bailing from star-cornerback Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are tremendous when funneling receivers towards the games best free safety Earl Thomas in the middle, but in New England’s offense, coordinated by Josh McDaniels – there’s elements within their approaches of being diverse, as one of the better balanced offenses in the NFL to take Quinn’s defense away from its strengths. Being a diversified unit at the point of attack will be imperative for New England’s offensive-strategy, knowing Seattle’s defense thrives when making opposing offenses one-dimensional.
When New England runs the football, they have a litany of ways from using heavy-sets (6-man O-lines, double tight ends and 2 back formations) on running downs, and they’ll throw out single-back alignments when in 3-receiver sets as well. Seattle’s linebackers Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin and strong safety Kam Chancellor are the tone-setters of Quinn’s unit. These four viable assets of Seattle’s defense aren’t only top-leveled run-stoppers, laying bone-crushing hits, swarming to the ball-carrier — they also have the quick instincts to recognize and react to drop back to defend the pass, whether in the flats against screens, or when receivers are working the seams and middle of the field on crossing-routes. LeGarrette Blount should be the workhorse on power-runs between the tackles, and I’m expecting McDaniels to use his specialty of creating running lanes for Blount (with blocking-fullback James Develin as a lead-blocker to negate Wagner and the rest of Seattle’s stout front keying on New England’s back). Chancellor is the hybrid X-Factor of Seattle’s defense that plays the role of a linebacker and defensive end when up near the line of scrimmage as an enforcer against the run. He’ll also man up in a 6 technique on a tight end when he’s lined up next to the tackle. He could also rush off the edges in a wider-alignment to rush the passer, while a linebacker picks up on the tight end running down the seams. Rob Gronkowski is a physical specimen of a tight end and Brady’s bread and butter option on passing downs that Chancellor will be mostly responsible for — wherever New England lines him up because Chancellor is good enough to defend the outside if McDaniels splits him out. Trying to soften up the playmakers of Seattle’s front on heavy-runs will be an objective, but spreading Seattle’s defenders out could work well to New England’s advantages when the ground game comes into play. By forcing Chancellor away from the line of scrimmage, New England can stymie Seattle’s defense with some draw-runs on spread- formations.
In their two playoff wins to get to the “Big Dance,” New England started things off in the divisional round by topping Baltimore – a team that featured dynamic pass-rushers and hybrid-like linebackers that are sound against the run. Well, the running game wasn’t the recipe for success for New England in their high-scoring-affair-win, as McDaniels dialed up 50 pass-attempts, mostly on spread-alignments to exploit the weaknesses of Baltimore’s secondary. Could they do the same against Seattle? I’m not going to say they can’t, but they’ll need to neutralize Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril of Seattle’s D-line on the edges. This goes back to Blount needing to be effective on the ground, not only to mitigate Seattle’s rush, but to get the play-action pass going for Brady to stay upright in the pocket — and not get forced out of his comfortable spots before attempting to get the football to his receivers. Like Seattle’s ways of motioning receivers on empty-sets, stack-bunches and trips formations, New England’s passing concepts isn’t predicated on just lining up their receivers, but being creative has helped Brady find his pass-catchers in open space. New England’s receivers Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola aren’t the vertical threats that strike fear in opposing deep ends, but they’ll pick defenders to free one of Brady’s targets on underneath routes.
The picks they set come from a variety of angles, whether it’s New England’s tight ends running the seams to get Edelman free on crossing routes, or LaFell running skinny-post-routes, the rhythm and timing of New England’s passing game consist of Brady getting rid of the football quickly. Seattle will switch from zone to man tactics when defending the pass, but giving New England’s receivers free releases off the snap is unlikely. Now back to Chancellor on defending Gronkowski; on some occasions were Quinn will have his secondary aligned with Chancellor playing deep, he’ll deploy Seattle’s linebackers (more so Wright) on Gronkowski and have Chancellor play over the top to double the freakishly talented tight end. In any event, Quinn will keep his best defensive backs on Brady’s prime target, and don’t be startled to see Sherman or Maxwell matched up on him on a few snaps, though Chancellor will get most of them. Shane Vereen may be listed as a running back, but his pass-catching skills and versatility makes him a viable factor for New England’s aerial game. McDaniels will line him up in the backfield, slot, split wide and motion him around to create mismatches and draw defenders away from Brady’s main-read. The key for New England on utilizing Vereen is to get him matched up on a linebacker on check-downs, screens and wheel routes where Brady can stifle Seattle’s defense when working out of the shotgun. With Seattle primarily focused on taking away the outside and deep-ball, they’ll leave some voids in the middle of the field for Brady to attack. Mainly, McDaniels will move all of Brady’s targets around to give Seattle’s secondary multiple looks, and the no-huddle can’t be left out of the equation – Seattle’s defense has proven to be vulnerable against it at times (look back at loss to San Diego in Week 2).
My Verdict: New England gets the slight nod when manning up with their herd of pass-defenders on Seattle’s less-physical receivers, and they have the methodical patience on offense to move the ball, inch-by-inch, play-by-play, and won’t let Seattle’s aggressive defense frustrate them. On the flip side, I like Seattle’s chances to be able to play smash-mouth football, relying on the animalistic legs of Lynch to run with authority to keep Wilson ahead of the down and distance. Both offenses don’t turn the football over much, making the make or break plays come down to third down efficiency, and which offense can punch it in the end zone when in striking distance. Staying out of third and longs will be vital for both offenses, and the running game will be extremely important. That lends me to roll with Seattle’s ground game to keep Wilson in higher percentage passing downs, and for Seattle’s defense to place Brady in longer distance snaps when the Patriots have to throw to move the chains. Could it be, that once again, Brady’s on the opposite sideline, watching the oppositions quarterback engineer a game-winning-drive?
Pick: Seahawks 23, Patriots 20
Super Bowl MVP: Russell Wilson
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt