The Seattle Seahawks pose a unique challenge for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s combination of passing acumen and running ability forces coordinators to alter their scheme to account for his diverse skills. Reviewing this season’s film reveals some strategies the Patriots might use in trying to contain the distinctive talents Wilson brings to the field.
The best comparison to Russell Wilson’s skill set among quarterbacks faced by the Patriots this season is Aaron Rodgers. Both can break the pocket when needed to extend plays, and they excel at focusing downfield while moving behind the line of scrimmage. That ability ‒ to stay ready and in position to pass when a receiver evades coverage ‒ makes them very dangerous.
The Patriots used a few different looks to keep Rodgers at bay early, primarily basic 3- and 4-man rushes with excellent gap discipline to keep him in the pocket and prevent scrambles. However, when the offensive line was able to hold up later, it allowed plenty of time for receivers to get open. Notably for New England, defensive end Chandler Jones was inactive against the Packers while defensive tackle Dominique Easley saw action; For Sunday’s battle, Jones will play while Easley is sidelined with a knee injury.
Several plays from their matchup with the Green Bay Packers illustrate New England’s approach. In this 3rd-and-7 sequence with 11:23 remaining in the 1st quarter, the Packers deploy 11 personnel while New England counters with a 2-4-5 nickel package. Only three men rush (the two down lineman and a linebacker) while LB Rob Ninkovich takes a quick step toward the line to hold the left guard. While watching Rodgers, Ninkovich steps back and shades to the offensive left as LB Akeem Ayers closes off the right and DT Chris Jones slides inside:
Rodgers’ primary read gets swallowed by the zone coverage. He instead lofts the fade to the back corner of the end zone where it falls incomplete.
With 3:37 left in the 1st quarter we see the same personnel matchups on 3rd and 9. Again the Patriots only rush three while Ninkovich engages the blocker in front of him and then quickly backs out. He attempts to follow Rodgers’s eyes to block passing lanes, quickly darting to cover ground while getting his hands up:
Rodgers is contained in the pocket but not hurried by the disciplined rush. Dont’a Hightower lurks in the passing lane to the quarterback’s left, while Ninkovich’s action has disrupted the short read to the left. Rodgers goes over the top, floating a pass in Randall Cobb’s direction which sails incomplete.
Dropping a Dime
Facing 3rd and 17 with 10:10 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers come out in 01 personnel. The Patriots trade a defensive lineman for an extra defensive back in a 1-4-6 dime package. New England again rushes, but this time Hightower is the linebacker assigned to quickly engage his blocker before dropping back to read Rodgers:
However, Hightower cannot completely free himself from his man and Rodgers completes a quick slant pass.
New England typically used a linebacker to spy on 3rd-and-long situations. In most cases the Patriots kept four linebackers on the field, hoping for missed blocking assignments caused by confusion on who would be rushing. Green Bay did a good job of picking up the rushers and Rodgers found open men in the secondary, but he was generally kept in the pocket and only picked up 22 rushing yards on 5 carries.
Another quarterback with a similar skill set is Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots used Ninkovich in multiple ways to contain and frustrate Luck, as astutely broken down by Brian Filipiak.
While the Patriots this season have generally favored a conservative plan against mobile quarterbacks with basic 3- or 4-man rushes and using an occasional spy, Seahawks’ opponents have had success with various other schemes. In Week 17, the St. Louis Rams generated pressure while limiting Wilson’s scrambling.
This leads to quick pressure and forces an early throw for an incompletion.
In the NFC Championship game against Green Bay, Wilson again faced pressure while getting minimal movement out of his scrambles. With 4:42 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Packers create pressure with only four rushers. Linebacker Mike Neal gets a good push against RT Alvin Bailey while DT Mike Daniels forces the interior of the line backward:
This pressure forces Wilson right into Neal and prompts a quick throwaway.
With 3:13 left in the 2nd quarter, the Packers only rush three while DE Julius Peppers drops into a spy role. Peppers overcommits to the inside and Wilson makes him pay:
Wilson manages to sneak around the left edge before the defender can recover to chase down the sliding quarterback.
The Seahawks have some problems in pass protection which have created issues. The Rams exploited Seattle’s poor technique to get to Wilson, while the Packers kept him rattled and off-balance in the first half.
Look for the Patriots to continue emphasizing a basic 4-man rush early to test the Seattle offensive line, with a few A-gap blitzes thrown in to attempt to overpower the Seahawks’ inexperienced guards. Viewers won’t likely see many exotic blitzes. The Patriots defense should be well-equipped for tackling Russell Wilson if they can keep him in front of them.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jturner1540.
Jeremy Turner is Inside The Pylon‘s isolation expert. He has looked in-depth at Russell Wilson, Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley and Nate Solder.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.