The Seattle Seahawks aim to become the NFL’s first back-to-back Super Bowl Champions in a decade, back when their upcoming opponent, the New England Patriots, notched their third title in franchise history. In order to knock off the defending champions, the Patriots need to contain the league’s most dominant running attack by almost any metric.
The Seattle run game finished the regular season with the most rushing yards (2,762) and highest yards per carry average (5.3) in the NFL by a significant margin. Through a combination of talent and an extremely well-executed scheme, the Seattle running game overpowers and confuses defenses like few others in the league.
Under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, the Seahawks rely heavily on the zone-read option, a run concept allowing quarterback Russell Wilson to read the defense (or a particular defender) pre- and post-snap before deciding to hand off or run it himself. Specifically, the read-option QB keys off the defender ‒ typically the backside defensive end or outside linebacker ‒ that is purposely left unblocked by the offensive line. If the QB sees the backside defender crash down into the backfield toward the ball carrier ‒ thus abandoning his contain assignment ‒ the QB may elect to pull back the handoff and take advantage of the now-open perimeter run.
Wilson’s mobility and in-pocket decision-making skills allowed him to gain 849 yards on the ground (7.4 yards per carry) in the regular season, leading all quarterbacks. But while the zone-read option starts with Wilson, it more often ends with running back Marshawn Lynch, whose punishing running style led him to a 1,300-yard season (4.7 yards per carry) and, most recently, a monster effort (157 yards on 25 carries) in the NFC Championship game versus the Green Bay Packers.
As the Patriots defense prepares to take the field against Wilson, Lynch and the rest of the Seattle offense, limiting the success of the zone-read option (and the play-action concepts that work off it) will be objective number one for head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Understanding what the Seahawks zone-read option aims to exploit reveals that the Patriots must remain technically sound, disciplined within individual assignments, and tackle, tackle, tackle.
Seahawks Zone-Read Option
When the Patriots last faced the Seahawks in 2012, the Seattle offense that we know today was in the very early stages of transitioning into a zone-read option oriented attack. In reviewing the matchup that ended in a Seahawks comeback victory at CenturyLink Field, Wilson ‒ a then-rookie quarterback in just his sixth NFL start ‒ operated mostly under center and the offense did not run a single zone-read option play until the fourth quarter.
In 2014, however, you would be hard-pressed to find a full offensive series in which Wilson wasn’t in the shotgun utilizing the zone-read at least once.
The Seahawks run both inside and outside zone-read concepts in both pistol (running back aligned behind the QB out of the shotgun) and, most often, offset formations.
In Week 11 this season, the Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs ‒ another offense laden with zone-read concepts ‒ combined for almost 400 total rushing yards, a good indication that a steady diet of poor run defense was on display.
In the zone-read below, Wilson takes the snap out of the shotgun with Lynch offset to the strong side. The QB then reads the unblocked outside linebacker Tamba Hali (#91) to make his decision:
Recognizing that Hali ‒ the force defender on the backside ‒ has not abandoned his contain assignment, Wilson proceeds to hand off to Lynch. While Hali exhibits discipline by staying home, the run side force defender ‒ outside linebacker Justin Houston (#50) ‒ does the exact opposite. The overly aggressive linebacker shoots the B-gap (inside the offensive tackle), sacrificing contain and opening up a sizable running lane that Lynch exploits for 13 yards.
If Houston had simply remained disciplined as the run force defender, Lynch likely would have been bottled up in the backfield, given the penetration by the defensive line. His eagerness to make a play instead of remaining patient with the fundamentals of the team defense hurt them.
In Week 12, the talented Arizona Cardinals defense held Lynch in check throughout the contest (39 yards on 15 carries), while illustrating the difficulties in accounting for both the running back and elusive Wilson. As shown below, the Seahawks execute an inside zone-read option with the QB electing to keep the ball based off the action of the unblocked defensive end, Josh Mauro (#73):
The handoff, running back, and blocking actions present a run toward the weak side of the formation. But just prior to Wilson planting the football in Lynch’s stomach, the QB sees Mauro crashing into the backfield in pursuit of the running back. The rookie defensive end bursts past Wilson and wraps up Lynch from behind with an impressive tackle.
Only one small issue: Lynch doesn’t have the football.
With Mauro ‒ the backside force/contain defender on the play ‒ gambling on the handoff, Wilson makes him pay by taking off. Tight end Cooper Helfet (#84) blocks safety Tyrann Mathieu (#32) out of the play, providing Wilson with an enormous amount of running room ahead of him. The 40-yard run is partly negated due to a late (and questionable) holding penalty on wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (#15) enforced at the Arizona 9-yard line. Despite the infraction, the play exhibits the dilemma of the unblocked defender: should I stay or should I go?
The answer to that question ‒ one that New England perimeter defenders will be asking themselves over and over in the Super Bowl ‒ largely depends on the overall framework of the defense and individual assignments within a given play.
The Cardinals, for example, adjusted their above methods, employing a different strategy that paired an aggressive style with a well-laid scheme. With the Seahawks operating out of their familiar shotgun offset-back formation, Wilson runs the zone-read option, once again taking his cues from the unblocked Mauro:
Nearly identical to the play above, all the action flows toward the weak side of the formation while the unimpeded Mauro explodes into the backfield and brings down Lynch. Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but this time there’s a slight wrinkle in Arizona’s favor.
Again Wilson correctly reads Mauro and takes off with the football, trailing closely behind tight end Tony Moeaki (#88). But this time, he does not get too far. The Cardinals either assign safety Deone Bucannon (#36) as a spy designed to shadow Wilson or the rookie defender displays excellent recognition as he mirrors the QB’s escape from the pocket. Despite a great effort by Bucannon, the quick-footed Wilson eludes the safety as he cuts back upfield for four yards ‒ a far cry from his earlier 40-yard run.
Filling the Lanes
While it’s unclear if Bucannon’s positioning on the play was instinctive or pre-planned, this next defensive play by Arizona is executed to perfection. Working out of the shotgun with Lynch offset, Seattle attempts an outside zone-read option in which the blocking action flows in unison to the strong side of the formation as it would on a stretch play. Wilson again locates the backside edge defender in Mauro and keys off him:
Moments before the snap, the Cardinals shift their defensive front. Mauro slides from the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle (4i-techinque) to his outside shoulder (5-technique) while linebacker Larry Foote (#50) shifts from a stacked position to one on the line of scrimmage in a wide alignment. The late shift leaves two unblocked defenders, allowing each to target one of the two potential ball carriers on the play. With Foote pressuring wide from the edge, the QB hands off to Lynch, who appears to have his blocks lined up on the stretch run. But, as he’s done twice before, the unblocked Mauro penetrates into the backfield and drags down Lynch ‒ this time with the football in tow ‒ for a loss on the play.
A similar tactic to the one displayed by Foote and Mauro is the scrape-exchange, although it does not explicitly involve a late alignment shift by the defense. Rather, it’s when the backside force defender crashes down (instead of staying home) and the nearby linebacker scrapes over the top to replace the contain assignment. But like the play above, it leaves the middle of the front vulnerable, as blockers outnumber defenders – having a stout, space-eating defensive tackle like Vince Wilfork can help remove some of those concerns. However, the defensive call relies on the crashing defender to bring down the ball carrier or for the QB to misread the scraping linebacker and run right into him.
Be it installing a QB spy element or using late shifts and assignment exchanges in an attempt to confuse Wilson, expect the Patriots to use one, if not several, of these tactical strategies to combat the Seattle run game and the Seahawks zone-read option.
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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.