The New England Patriots captured their fourth championship title in franchise history after a thrilling 28-24 comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Long before “the Butler did it” with a game-sealing interception on the one-foot line, the Patriots defense held the Seahawks to a critical three-and-out, capped by the Ninkovich sack no one will remember.
After New England failed to convert on 3rd and 1 to begin the final quarter, the Seahawks appeared primed to repeat as Super Bowl champions as their offense looked to bleed the clock. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell turned to running back Marshawn Lynch on first and second down, but the interior of the Patriots defense contained the bruising halfback, holding him to three yards and setting up 3rd and 7 at the Seattle 39 with 12:55 left in the game and the Seahawks holding a 10-point lead.
Enter defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich and a perfect illustration of how team defense works.
Facing third and long, the Seahawks deploy quarterback Russell Wilson in the shotgun and spread the field with 11 personnel in a double-wing formation, using Lynch tight to the left side and tight end Luke Willson on the right. The QB splits wide receiver Ricardo Lockette out to his left and wide receivers Doug Baldwin (aligned in the slot) and Jermaine Kearse to his right.
Creating a flood to the left, Lockette runs a fade route, with Lynch releasing into the flat and Baldwin crossing the middle. Yet despite the overload on that side, Wilson’s first read appears to be Kearse on a curl/in-cut just past the first down marker on the opposite side of the field. Meanwhile, the tight end is on a block-and-release pattern into the flat, leaving six in pass protection if needed:
The Patriots counter with pass rush nickel personnel, using Ninkovich, Chris Jones and Chandler Jones as down linemen and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Akeem Ayers on the perimeter threatening blitz.
Linebacker Jamie Collins ‒ positioned off the line of scrimmage ‒ simulates A-gap pressure pre-snap but actually has Lynch in man coverage with New England playing Cover 1 behind the blitz with a robber element.
Cornerback Brandon Browner presents press coverage on Lockette with cornerback Darrelle Revis doing the same against Baldwin in the slot. However, Butler gives Kearse a six-yard cushion and safety Devin McCourty, guarding against a potential release by Willson, plays off-man coverage against the tight end. Safety Duron Harmon (not pictured below) patrols the deep middle:
When blitzing a mobile QB like Wilson, rush lane integrity remains an integral part of the pressure scheme. The Patriots use Hightower and Ayers to set the edge; they rush the passer but stay diligent in their contain assignment ‒ cognizant that a push too wide or too tight would create a running lane for the QB.
Pulling double-duty, Hightower drives the tight end almost five yards into the backfield. This forces Willson to stay in to block, removing him as a receiving option. It also frees up McCourty to read the QB and act as a robber or free defender on the play.
While Browner locks down Lockette on the backside, Revis initiates a solid jam on Baldwin within five yards of the line of scrimmage. But the slot receiver, though delayed slightly on his crossing route, gains separation from the All-Pro cornerback.
However, Wilson’s eyes remain locked on Kearse where Butler maintains ‘close enough’ coverage over the top of the receiver as McCourty starts to slide underneath. And before Wilson can progress to his second read with a chance to hit a now-open Baldwin for a first down, the machinations up front have been brought to a boil:
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Along the interior defensive line, the Patriots execute a well-controlled line stunt, careful not to open up any creases for Wilson to exploit with his legs.
Ninkovich, aligned pre-snap in a three-point stance on the outside shoulder of the right tackle, immediately drops back behind his fellow linemen at the snap, mirroring the movements of Wilson in the pocket. Lined up over the right guard, Chris Jones slants toward the B-gap, drawing two blockers. Meanwhile, Chandler Jones ‒ positioned pre-snap between the left tackle and guard ‒ slants into the A-gap, also occupying two blockers.
Taking the cue from Chandler Jones’s rush toward the center, Ninkovich loops around his teammate. Ayers delivers a chip on Lynch at the snap and pushes into the backfield against the left tackle, causing the nearby left guard to shuffle over and help on the block. This seemingly unrelated combination of movements creates an opening for Ninkovich to burst upfield unimpeded and take down the QB for a sack.
After the ensuing punt, New England quarterback Tom Brady and his offense would go on to score a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-21. The Patriots defense would follow-up by forcing another quick three-and-out, allowing Brady and company to once again drive downfield for what would end up being a game-winning touchdown. And only then did Malcolm Butler step up when the defense needed it most.
The above defensive stand will be long forgotten amidst Brady’s clutch TD drives, Kearse’s circus catch and Butler’s sensational interception. But it’s those small, forgotten moments that often win or lose ballgames before the more famous moments ever have a chance to materialize.
The play also exemplifies the old cliché: football is the ultimate team sport. Several moving parts work in unison to achieve a common goal. If one component falters, the suffering is collective. Those teams that consistently carry out the simple do. your. job. mentality more often than their opponents over a demanding 22-week period ultimately get to call themselves champions.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.