The New England Patriots pass defense had an up-and-down game in Super Bowl XLIX. The Seattle Seahawks failed to complete a pass until late in the second quarter, but eventually proved efficient with their air attack, gaining more than 20 yards per completion before the Patriots stood firm to earn the victory ‒ including the game-clinching interception. Dave Archibald takes a look at what went right and wrong for the Patriots pass defense.
Following a slow start, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson connected with his teammates 12 times in the game. However, those dozen completions went for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Seattle went on to score 24 points over four consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters. However, the New England defense buckled down after that, holding Seattle scoreless on their final four possessions.
Are You Not Contained?
Wilson is perhaps the most dangerous running quarterback in football, averaging better than 53 rushing yards per game in the regular season. The Seahawks feature Wilson on option plays via the zone read, but he wreaks much his havoc when scrambling on designed passes, both to generate yards with his legs and to buy time for his receivers to get open. The Patriots contained him well, holding him to just three rushes for 39 yards while sacking him three times. No play better illustrates the dedication to keeping Wilson in the pocket than this one from early in the second quarter:
The four-man rush chases Wilson from left to right and back. At one point, Rob Ninkovich (#50) appears to have a clear shot at the quarterback, but notices that Chandler Jones (#95) ‒ the right-side contain ‒ is on the ground. He eschews his chance at a sack to keep Wilson from the edge. Jones recovers his feet and pursues Wilson all the way to the other side.
In addition to the four-man rush, safety Devin McCourty (#32) lurks in a middle zone, spying the quarterback. With other rushing quarterbacks, the Patriots have used linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, or Ninkovich as spies, but in the Super Bowl the Patriots often turned to McCourty, perhaps the fastest player on the team, showing the respect they have for the speedy Wilson.
The Patriots don’t sack the Seattle signal-caller here, but they hound him to the 11-yard-line ‒ 15 yards back of the original line of scrimmage. That adds distance and difficulty on his attempt to Bryan Walters (#19) in the middle of the field. The coverage is good, the throw is high, and the ball sails harmlessly over the target, leading to a Seahawks punt.
From Bad to Worse
The worst sequence for the New England pass defense came just before the half with the Patriots leading by seven. The Seahawks had the ball at the New England 44 with just 17 seconds left. It should have been a simple matter to hold them scoreless, and at worst a completion would have set up a field goal.
The Patriots show their typical one-high safety look but, rather than playing man-to-man coverage underneath, they drop into a zone as the play unfolds:
At the top of the shot above, cornerback Brandon Browner (#39) is playing textbook Cover 3 technique. In this coverage, the outside corners are responsible for the deep zones, so he’s giving a big cushion to his man. He stays outside of the receiver, knowing he has help to the inside of the field. By contrast, Kyle Arrington (#25) has just a small cushion on his man, Ricardo Lockette (#83). But while Arrington angles towards his help, he’s not far enough outside Lockette:
Because of the lack of cushion and outside leverage, the WR manages to beat Arrington with a cut to the sideline. Wilson hits Lockette for 23 yards and the receiver steps out of bounds to stop the clock. Worse still, Arrington grabs Lockette’s face mask on the cut, resulting in a penalty that adds another 15 yards to the gain, giving the Seahawks a shot at the end zone.
From Worse to Even Worserer
With six seconds remaining, the Seahawks have time for only one quick pass play, needing to leave at least a second on the clock to kick a field goal if unsuccessful. They line up in the shotgun with two receivers to each side.
The Patriots play their corners off the line, nearly ten yards deep. Wilson targets 6’5” Chris Matthews (#13), who is split wide left against 5’11” cornerback Logan Ryan (#26). Even though Ryan has a cushion and positioning, he drifts backwards at the snap, likely to guard against the fade to the taller receiver. Wilson goes for the quick back-shoulder throw, however, and Ryan is unable to react in time.
Ryan erred here, but Wilson also deserves credit for excellent ball placement. The throw gets to Matthews where he can high-point it right as he’s crossing the goal line, which would have been difficult to defend even with better coverage from Ryan. Still, given the time remaining, if Ryan had just committed a hold or interference penalty, Seattle would have had to kick the field goal.
Longball with Chris Matthews
Matthews wasn’t done making an impact on the game. On Seattle’s first drive of the second half, Wilson looked for the 25-year-old off play action:
The Patriots did not blitz much in the contest, but sent Darrelle Revis (#24) on a rare corner blitz from the slot, with Hightower (#54) coming around the edge. The Seahawks keep both running backs in to pick up the blitzers, and Wilson unloads the ball quickly, throwing to Matthews running a streak route up the left sideline against Arrington. There’s little mystery to the pattern, and Arrington stays in close coverage, but he’s giving up seven inches to the taller Matthews, and the receiver is able to haul in the catch for 45 yards. After this play the Patriots benched Arrington, moving the 6’4” Browner to defend Matthews. The receiver only logged one nine-yard catch the rest of the way. This move also brought Butler into the lineup in sub packages … and the rest, as they say, is history.
Stay Away from Revis Island
Revis held Seattle’s leading receiver Doug Baldwin to just one catch for three yards, though that catch was a touchdown. The Seahawks abandoned targeting their top receiver ‒ Wilson never threw to Baldwin again ‒ and frequently used him as a decoy:
Here the Seahawks line up in a running look with just two wide receivers: Baldwin to the offensive right (bottom of the screen) and Lockette to the left. The Patriots counter with Cover 1: free safety McCourty aligning deep, with Revis on Baldwin and Butler on Lockette in man-to-man coverage underneath. Seattle puts Baldwin in motion towards the middle of the field, and at the snap he cuts upfield along the seam towards McCourty’s territory. Wilson fakes the handoff and, because of Seattle’s deep passing attack, McCourty must maintain over-the-top coverage on Baldwin’s seam route.
That creates a window for Lockette, who runs a deep cross into the vacated section of the field. Butler slips and then trips Lockette, causing the pass to land incomplete, but he is not flagged. Still, this was a well-designed play by the Seahawks, drawing both Revis and McCourty with the deep route and isolating the matchup on the rookie corner.
Revis did his job on Baldwin, forcing Wilson to ignore his favorite target. It’s telling that on the game’s critical play, Seattle drew up a play for Lockette ‒ a player who had totaled just 18 catches in a four-year NFL career.
Odds and Ends
- Football Outsiders ranked the Patriots defense 30th in the NFL against tight ends, but Seattle never targeted Luke Willson despite his recent productivity. The Patriots used primarily man coverage against the 25-year-old, and whether it was Collins, Browner, McCourty, or strong safety Patrick Chung matched up on Willson, he was unable to shake free. Willson also fell victim to the way New England schemed: with the Patriots usually playing one safety in the deep middle and a spy in the underneath, Seattle clearly felt more comfortable attacking the perimeter of the field where they had better numbers.
- Jermaine Kearse was held catchless on five targets until overtime of the NFC Championship game, where he hauled in the game-winning touchdown reception. He was having a similarly quiet night (two catches on five targets for just 12 yards) before his miraculous 33-yard-catch on the final drive.
While the New England pass defense held down Seattle’s offense for long stretches of the game, they allowed too many big plays to consider the Super Bowl one of their stronger efforts. They held down Baldwin and Kearse, but Lockette and especially Matthews did surprising damage. Still, the defense came up big when it had to, holding the Seahawks scoreless in the fourth quarter and sealing the win with a huge interception at the goal line. Patriots fans can’t ask for much more than that.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.