Super Bowl XLIX Preview: Rob Gronkowski versus The Legion of Boom

In part one, Mark Schofield went deep on the Seattle Seahawks secondary, examining their oft-used coverage schemes and the four key components of the Hawks’ defensive backfield. While those players are great talents, there are holes to be found against Seattle through the air. Two areas the New England Patriots could exploit in Super Bowl XLIX: Getting the tight end open and attacking the Seahawks’ nickel and dime package defenders.

Getting the Tight End Open

The marquee matchup of Super Bowl XLIX pits Rob Gronkowski versus the Legion of Boom, specifically the safeties. Gronkowski is, literally, the NFL’s biggest threat in the passing game, while the Seahawks have struggled a smidge against TEs in 2014. Here are some concepts opponents used to get the football to their tight ends this season.

Isolate the Tight End

In their Week 2 victory over Seattle, the San Diego Chargers used a few wrinkles to find Antonio Gates, who caught seven passes for 96 yards and three touchdowns. One method was to isolate Gates on one side of the field in 1 x 3 formations.

Below, Gates lines up to the right using a tight split from the right tackle. Philip Rivers is in the shotgun with three receivers to his left and a running back standing to his right. Seattle has its nickel defense in the game with Cover 1 in the secondary:


This is one of the rare occasions where Richard Sherman moves from his preferred position on the field, as he aligns over the inside trips receiver to the offensive left. The only defender on Gates’s side of the field is Kam Chancellor. On the closed side of the formation, Chancellor is responsible for the TE in man coverage and begins the play eight yards off the line of scrimmage in catch-man alignment. Watch as Gates runs a deep curl route against the strong safety, twisting the defender in coverage:


At the top of his route, Gates feigns a cut to the outside. This causes Chancellor to turn away from the line of scrimmage, while Gates throttles down and breaks back to the football. Rivers hits his tight end between the numbers and the Chargers have a 19-yard gain.

Attack When Chancellor is the Deep Safety

A subtext to the previous play is Chancellor’s weakness in deep zone coverage. He excels in man situations, especially near the line of scrimmage, and in underneath zone coverage. However, he can be exposed when Seattle uses him in deep zones, where he can be slow to react to plays and break on routes.

At times, the Seahawks roll Earl Thomas toward the line of scrimmage to cover smaller, quicker running backs in Cover 1 or Cover 3 situations. Opponents have exploited the middle of the field in such situations, including this example from Seattle’s game against Dallas:


Tony Romo is in the shotgun with 11 personnel for the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray stands to Romo’s right, while Jason Witten is in-line to the left side of the formation. Seattle’s nickel defense has Cover 2 showing in the secondary. At the snap, the defense rolls into Cover 3 with Thomas shadowing Murray. The slot receiver on the left runs a vertical route while Witten runs a post:


The vertical release from the slot receiver momentarily freezes Chancellor along the hash mark. Witten clears the underneath zone defenders on his post route and Chancellor breaks late on Witten’s route. Romo delivers a perfect throw to the tight end, who secures the reception and a 21-yard gain.

This is a similar look from the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game. Aaron Rodgers is in the shotgun with 01 personnel on the field and wide receiver Randall Cobb lined up in the backfield. Seattle’s nickel defense shows Cover 2:


Cobb motions out of the backfield to the left side of the field. This gives Rodgers a slot formation on his left and trips to his right, with tight end Richard Rodgers the inside receiver:


As the WR exits the backfield to the left, Seattle rolls its coverage. Thomas is now cheating outside over Cobb as they begin the shift to Cover 3, leaving Chancellor as the deep middle safety. Watch how quickly Rodgers gets the football to his TE on a seam route:


Chancellor delivers a hard hit on the tight end, but he cannot prevent the completion or the 12-yard gain. This is something to watch for Sunday night. If Seattle cheats Thomas down toward the line of scrimmage to shadow Shane Vereen, leaving Chancellor in the deep middle, the Patriots need to attack him and exploit the safety’s weakness in deep zone coverage.

Get Gronk Vertical

Vertical passing concepts might not be New England’s forte, but they are a proven means of attacking Seattle’s coverage schemes. These routes test cornerbacks in press-man coverage, and can attack the seams – and the free safety – in Cover 3. Here are two ways teams used the tight end in the vertical game against Seattle in 2014.

On this first play, the Chargers have Rivers in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. Gates is the inside receiver on trips to the right, running a deep crossing route. The middle trips receive runs a straight go route:


These two routes bracket Thomas. Forced to choose, the free safety plays it safe and breaks on the vertical route, hoping the underneath zone defenders can maintain coverage on the tight end. They cannot:


Gates beats the linebackers underneath and pulls in the throw from Rivers for a quick 20-yard gain.

Another example of the tight end working vertically comes with the Cowboys putting 11 personnel on the field, with Witten in the slot to the right. Seattle’s nickel defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary and Chancellor again the deep safety, while Thomas shades toward the running back:


The offense employs a well-designed deep pattern here, with the outside receiver running a deep route aimed at the free safety, while Witten runs an out-and-up:


The vertical route from the WR draws the cornerback away from the sideline, and occupies the free safety. This opens up the entire deep outside zone for Witten’s double-move. The TE gets a step on the linebacker, but the throw is incomplete. However, this is a blueprint for a big play for the Patriots on Sunday night. Do not be surprised to see Gronkowski working double moves and/or on deep routes from the slot.

Attack Slot Cornerbacks

While Gronkowski is a critical element in New England’s passing attack, the Patriots will need production from other receivers Sunday night to put pressure on Seattle’s defense. One way teams attack the Seahawks is from the slot, with receivers working against man coverage from defenders not named Sherman or Byron Maxwell.

Here are two examples from Seattle’s game against the New York Giants. On this first play, the offense has 01 personnel in the game in a 1 x 4 alignment. Eli Manning is in the shotgun with four receivers to his right, including Odell Beckham Jr. who lines up in the slot against nickel cornerback Marcus Burley:


The slot receiver runs a deep route, bending toward the sideline before sprinting vertically toward the front corner of the end zone:


The initial move to the sideline takes him away from the free safety. Then, Beckham just uses pure speed to beat Burley. Manning drops the throw in, setting the Giants up with a first-and-goal situation.

Another example from that game has Preston Parker running the vertical route from the slot against Jeremy Lane:


Same route, same result. Parker pulls in the throw from his quarterback and the Giants record another 20+ yard play against the Seattle secondary.

A name to watch for in Super Bowl XLIX is Brian Tyms. If active, he can play a big role for New England in the passing game. The Patriots may use him to occupy Thomas in the deep middle, and they could put him in the slot to beat Lane and Burley on similar routes to these two plays.

Wrapping Up

Using the concepts discussed here, the Patriots can free up room for Rob Gronkowski versus the Legion of Boom on both intermediate and vertical routes. With respect to the vertical passing game, attacking the slot cornerbacks is a way to get the football to wide receivers against Seattle’s secondary. While New England is not known for its prowess in the vertical aerial game, opportunities exist against the Seahawks. And, as we will see in the final installment of this series, deep routes downfield and along the sidelines are the foundation for attacking Cover 1 and Cover 3.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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