The New England Patriots added another Vince Lombardi Trophy to their collection, thanks to Tom Brady’s near-perfect fourth quarter and Malcolm Butler’s improbable interception. In a game often decided by mere inches, less heralded plays can be just as important. In Super Bowl XLIX, stopping the read option proved crucial in the Patriots’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
One of those soon-to-be forgotten moments came early in the third quarter with the New England defense facing 3rd and 1 on their own eight-yard line. With the scored tied at 14, the Seahawks offense was in the midst of a five-play, 72-yard drive, highlighted by a 45-yard reception by wide receiver Chris Matthews and three runs for 25 yards by running back Marshawn Lynch.
The Set Up
Looking to pick up the short yardage to continue the drive, quarterback Russell Wilson operates out of the shotgun with Lynch offset in the backfield ‒ a bread and butter formation for Seattle’s zone-read plays. Using 10 personnel on the field, the Seahawks align two stacked wide receivers to each side.
With the triple option at his disposal, Wilson will read the defense and elect to either hand off to Lynch, run it himself, or throw a screen pass to one of the low-stacked wide receivers:
The Patriots respond with nickel personnel, using a 3-3 front and free safety Devin McCourty in the box. The defensive alignment shows strength to the QB option side with defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Dont’a Hightower lined up outside right tackle Justin Britt, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork positioned as a 3-technique lineman on the outside shoulder of right guard J.R. Sweezy:
Using four wide receivers to spread the field forces the Patriots to lighten the front. However, the counter-effect leaves the Seahawks undermanned in terms of available blockers. The overload also eliminates Wilson’s decision to keep it himself ‒ since both Hightower and Ninkovich will intentionally be left unblocked on the play due to the run-blocking scheme.
Unblocked and Ready To Rock
As a result of the pre-snap alignment, Wilson’s read is clear. The QB will receive the ball and hand off to Lynch, attempting to pick up the measly one yard and a first down.
Because the Seahawks do not adjust the run-blocking scheme to account for Ninkovich, he and Hightower are left unblocked, giving the Patriots defense a significant advantage over their opponent. With Hightower accounting for Wilson on the QB option, Ninkovich is free to crash the backfield in pursuit of Lynch from behind:
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While Ninkovich bursts into the backfield unimpeded, it is the much-needed help from the spill defenders in the middle, particularly Wilfork and defensive end Sealver Siliga, that proves instrumental. By driving Britt laterally toward the center, Wilfork opens up additional space for Ninkovich to work with, creating a shorter path to the running back for his teammate. Meanwhile, Siliga ‒ faced with a double-team block from center Max Unger and left guard James Carpenter ‒ holds up at the point of attack, eventually driving Unger a full yard behind the line of scrimmage.
The efforts of Wilfork, Siliga and linebacker Jamie Collins as the spill defenders along the interior force Lynch to bounce further outside than desired. With defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones setting the edge as the force defender, and McCourty ‒ who avoids the second level block from Carpenter ‒ filling the alley, the running back has little room to run, allowing a heat-seeking Ninkovich to zero in.
Just a little hesitation is all it takes. With Lynch unable to immediately pick and hit a hole, Ninkovich has time to swoop around and pull down the ball carrier from behind for no gain on the play, holding the Seahawks to a field goal ‒ and potentially keeping four additional points off the scoreboard.
While this is not a true scrape-exchange defense as mentioned in our Super Bowl running game preview piece, the overload alignment works as a similar idea to guard against the read option.
Since the Patriots defense essentially tips its hand, it’s up to the Seahawks ‒ whether Wilson or the offensive lineman responsible for the line calls ‒ to adjust the blocking scheme (such as shown above) prior to the snap in order to account for Ninkovich. These adjustments (or lack thereof) in critical situations, from the first quarter to the last, can tip the scales of victory or defeat one way or the other.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.
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.