The Seattle Seahawks enter their Super Bowl XLIX matchup with the New England Patriots with the best statistical defense in the NFL. The Seahawks finished the regular season with the fewest points and total yards allowed for the second consecutive season. After reviewing the tape, the stats don’t lie —— the reigning champs may be better than ever.
While their elite secondary tends to steal most of the headlines, the Seahawks also possess one of the league’s stoutest run defenses. Holding opponents to 3.4 yards per carry during the regular season ‒ good for second in the NFL and an improvement over last year’s 3.9-yard average ‒ the talented defensive front boasts a collection of explosive athletes with tremendous closing speed and an aggressive yet disciplined approach under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
If the Patriots are to find success on the ground against Seattle, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to scheme and neutralize several key defenders at each level of their defense. Game-planning strategies that can exploit weaknesses in Seattle’s defense is a difficult task simply because the vulnerabilities are few and far between.
By recognizing the strengths that make Seattle’s defensive squad one of the stingiest run defenses around, we can begin to formulate possible concepts the Patriots offense will (and won’t) be using come Super Bowl Sunday.
First Line of Defense: Bennett Leads The Way
The Seahawks picked up defensive end Michael Bennett in free agency prior to the 2013 season, viewing him as a situational pass rusher. But while Bennett, who finished the regular season with the second-most QB hurries in the league according to Pro Football Focus, continues to be one of the best at disrupting the passer, he has also been one of Seattle’s biggest playmakers against the run. As a result, Bennett saw his snap total rise from 58% last season to 85% this year – a high percentage for a defense that uses a heavy rotation across the defensive line.
While Bennett is more than strong enough to take on a block (or even two, as we’ll see in a bit), the defender’s greatest attributes may be his agility and explosive first step. As seen below, Bennet (#72) can exploit run blocking schemes and stuff plays in the backfield using his quick burst off the line. The St. Louis Rams attempt an off-tackle run to the strong-side – away from Bennett – who lines up between the guard and tackle:
The blocking scheme calls for the backside offensive tackle to engage Bennett, but that doesn’t work out so well. To begin with, the tackle’s split seems too wide, increasing the size of the B-gap. The difficult assignment is further compounded by Bennett’s quick first step, leaving the tackle reaching for air. Shooting past the line of scrimmage untouched, Bennett hauls down the running back as soon as he takes the handoff.
While Bennett’s timing on this particular play could not have been better, he did accrue the most offside/neutral zone infraction/encroachment penalties in the NFL during the regular season with 10. He also picked up two more flags against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady will certainly try to entice Bennett to jump by varying snap counts, even using the occasional hard count in an attempt to earn five yards and a free play.
In addition, look for the Patriots to run more toward right defensive end Cliff Avril (#56), a quality pass rusher that is less accomplished against the ground game. Of course, having a safety support the run like Kam Chancellor (#31), who plants the pull blocking guard on the above play, helps cover up potential deficiencies.
Speed and Strength
While Bennett excels as a penetrating defensive lineman, he also possesses the strength to take on blocks and keep his linebackers clear of traffic. On the play below, the Rams look to run a double-team block on Bennett:
The offensive tackle and tight end work the combo block on Bennett, but neither is able to peel off and engage the second-level defender. The DE drives his blockers laterally down the line of scrimmage, flowing to the play. The Rams pull the guard from the backside to trap block one of the Seattle linebackers, but Bennett’s slide ensured that his defense had the numbers advantage as the running back hit the hole.
Eight-man fronts like the one shown in the above clip will be a common occurrence against New England. Since six or seven blockers are used in most run blocking schemes, executing combination blocks will be a necessity in order to account for all eight defenders.
During the offseason, the Seahawks signed veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams to be part of a deep rotation along the interior line. When starting nose tackle Brandon Mebane landed on injured reserve in early November, the 34-year-old Williams took a larger role. The former All-Pro shifted his preferred technique, going from a traditional 3-technique alignment (outside shoulder of offensive guard) to a 1-technique nose tackle (shaded over the center).
If there is one clear weakness within the Seattle defense, it’s the interior defensive line following the loss of Mebane. Williams is far removed from the caliber of player he was with the Minnesota Vikings, and the Seahawks sensibly use a three-man rotation at the interior tackle positions with Demarcus Dobbs and Tony McDaniel chipping in. Rookie center Bryan Stork (or, if injured, his replacement Ryan Wendell) will be squaring off frequently opposite Williams in what could be a key matchup on running downs.
Super Second Level: Wagner The Run Stuffer
Wagner is not the prototypical run-stuffing middle linebacker, standing just 6-0, 240-pounds, but his skill set fits perfectly within the structure of the Seahawks defense. Intelligent, disciplined, and incredibly fast both downhill and sideline to sideline, Wagner may be Seattle’s most important piece against the run.
Many run blocking schemes aim to isolate linebackers in space, using tight ends, fullbacks, or pulling offensive linemen to execute the job. Wagner presents a difficult challenge in this area because of his athleticism. Here the Arizona Cardinals attempt an inside zone run, isolating the tight end on a play-deciding block against Wagner:
The Cardinals offensive line steps left and drives the opposition to the weak-side, creating a running lane between them and the turn out block by tight end John Carlson (#89) on the backside. This leaves tight end Rob Housler (#84) one-on-one with Wagner. The linebacker jab-steps inside and then cross-steps to the outside of Housler, beating him with a swim maneuver, leaving the tight end tumbling in his wake. Running back Stepfan Taylor (#30) is forced to cut inside and, showing tremendous quickness, Wagner lunges for and drags down the ball carrier, limiting him to a minimal gain.
Wagner has the ability to slip blocks using his fast feet and hands rather than relying on power. The Patriots will need to find favorable blocking angles that place Wagner in tighter quarters. By bottling him where technique becomes less important, brute strength can win out ‒ such as using trap blocks with pulling backside guards or tight ends at the point of attack. Look for guard Ryan Wendell and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui to play big roles in this regard for New England.
Run Wide At Your Peril
The Seahawks are well-equipped to defend perimeter rush attempts with athletic linebackers like Wagner and teammate K.J. Wright and strong run support from their secondary.. Showing both lateral agility and discipline, the Seattle defense diagnoses and contains this Packers off-tackle power run behind a lead-blocking tight end:
With the running back pressing toward the sideline, the second level of the Seahawks defense flows toward the action, shuffling patiently from gap to gap. With center Scott Wells (#63) moving to the second level but curiously ignoring Wright (#50), the linebacker freely moves along the line of scrimmage, staying parallel with running back James Starks (#44). Positioned at a slightly greater depth than Wright and further outside, Chancellor (#31) angles toward the sideline.
Together, they limit the running back’s options to either a continued run up the sideline or a cutback to the inside. Chancellor, a safety built similarly to the rest of the Seattle linebackers, prepares to take on the block of tight end Richard Rodgers (#89) but doesn’t have to as Wright shoots underneath to bring down the ball carrier for no gain.
The Patriots may want to use the outside run concepts to test the injured elbow of cornerback Richard Sherman, but wide rushes to the short side of the field, such as the one shown above, feed into the Seahawks strengths.
Run Support: The Chancellor of Seattle
The presence of All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas – an exceptional ballhawk in the deep middle of the field within their predominantly used Cover 1 / Cover 3 shells – allows the Seahawks to be aggressive with their defensive alignments. This includes the flexibility of dropping Chancellor into the box as essentially an extra linebacker.
Below, Chancellor displays discipline and good play recognition as he plugs the running lane:
Pre-snap, Chancellor trails the motion of the tight end, who settles behind the right tackle. At the snap, the tight end crosses the center as part of a split flow run concept, but Chancellor does not follow. Instead, he reads the inside handoff and fills the running lane, meeting the running back while the rest of his teammates rally to the ball in support of the tackle.
The Rams execute this particular blocking scheme very poorly as they engage only three of the seven defenders in the Seahawks front. The scheme itself does not even seem to account for Chancellor, in part because the expectation was for the defender to key off the tight end and follow his path. The safety’s quick diagnosis of the play negates the attempt at deception.
Wide Receivers: Get Ready To Block
If the Patriots are to find room to run against the Seahawks, they will need all hands on deck. The wide receivers could prove to be a vital part of the offense’s run blocking scheme.
A good example of this can be seen on the below running play by the Dallas Cowboys where the blocking design utilizes a crack-back block from a wide receiver on Chancellor:
Just prior to the snap, wide receiver Dwayne Harris (#17) motions into the slot on the strong-side of the formation, drawing Chancellor toward the line of scrimmage. As the play develops, the Cowboys offensive line walls off the Seattle defenders, isolating Chancellor on the perimeter. Running back DeMarco Murray presses wide toward the sideline. Caught slightly out of position to the inside to begin with, Chancellor regains momentum to the outside, but is met by a shoulder to the chest from Harris on the crack-back block. Murray finishes the run for a first down.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Packers executed a similar concept, relying on two important blocks by their wide receivers:
Running the ball out of a bunched receiver alignment tight to the formation, Green Bay forces the Seattle secondary to make a play. The effective crack-back block on Chancellor by wide receiver Randall Cobb (#18) takes out the alley defender. As running back Eddie Lacy proceeds through the created opening, wide receiver Jordy Nelson (#87) delivers a key block on cornerback Jeremy Lane (#20), eliminating the secondary force defender. The rush attempt by Lacy picks up 14 yards and a first down.
For the Patriots, expect wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola along with the tight ends to be active as blockers in similar runs out of bunched and stacked receiver sets aligned tight to the formation.
Jet Sweeps and Ghost Motion
Another way the wide receivers can impact the run game is by taking an occasional handoff themselves. During the regular season, Edelman tallied 10 rushing attempts for 94 yards and added one more in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts:
Split out wide, Edelman comes in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage. Brady takes the snap right as Edelman crosses his path and turns to tuck the ball into the stomach of the receiver. The QB then fakes a handoff to the running back while the blocking action up front suggests a stretch play to the short side of the field. The Colts defense is clueless as Edelman races past the edge defender and picks up an easy 12 yards.
Since the jet sweep features a wide receiver motioning fast down the line pre-snap, it tends to draw the defense’s attention, particularly the eyes of the linebackers. This is perhaps more true after running a successful jet sweep early. Once the offense has established the threat of the handoff to a motioning receiver, it opens up another opportunity: the fake jet sweep.
By running the jet sweep earlier in the game, the Seattle linebackers are overly quick to react to the familiar motion – only this time running back Jamaal Charles has the football. With the second level defenders flowing toward the wide side of the field, the Chiefs exploit a weakened interior and Charles bursts up the middle for 28 yards.
The use of motion followed by a quick snap forces a defense to think and adjust in a fraction of a second. A few missteps, no matter how fast a defender may be, is sometimes all a ball carrier needs to produce a big play on the ground. The same jet sweep fake concept can be used for a play-action pass as well.
While the Patriots do not utilize the jet sweep and fake jet sweep too often, it is a playbook wrinkle that McDaniels may toss at the Seahawks.
Or Just Forget The Run and Spread ’em Out
Seattle’s most significant struggles in defending the run this season came at the hands of read-option running attacks such as the Chiefs and Carolina Panthers – where the threat of a QB run can preoccupy one defender on a given play. With an exceptionally quick defensive front that has the luxury of dropping eight defenders in the box with regularity, the Patriots may not be suited personnel- and scheme-wise to matchup with Seattle when running the ball.
Although the Seahawks secondary is exceptional, the Patriots may prefer to play to their own strengths: spread formations and the short- to intermediate-passing game. Much like against the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round playoff, New England may elect to work exclusively out of the shotgun, using running back Shane Vereen and his receiving skills to spread the defense out.
While the battering ram running style of LeGarrette Blount (or his backup Jonas Gray, whose quicker one-cut burst ability actually may be a better matchup) versus a smallish front may seem favorable in theory, Seattle wields one of the most relentless run defenses that the Patriots will have seen all season.
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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.