Despite two near-perfect fourth-quarter drives by the New England offense, Super Bowl XLIX was by no means a flawless contest for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. On the second possession of the game, the veteran signal-caller inexplicably forced a throw into the end zone that came to rest in the hands of Seattle defensive back Jeremy Lane. The turnover resulted from brilliant design and implementation by the Seattle Seahawks defense, both in the secondary and up front.
After taking over on their own 32-yard line, the Patriots marched methodically down the field during the 13-play drive. Facing 3rd and 6 on Seattle’s 10-yard line, Brady stood in the shotgun formation with 11 personnel on the field in this alignment:
New England puts Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski in a trips formation to the left with wide receiver Brandon LaFell split wide to the right. Running back Shane Vereen sets up to Brady’s right in the backfield.
Seattle counters with nickel personnel:
The Seahawks give several indications that they intend to run Cover 3 on this play. First, the cornerbacks are in catch-man alignment a few yards from the line of scrimmage, their backs to the sideline. Second, the alignment of the safeties: Kam Chancellor stands deep in the end zone, shaded towards the trips side of the field, while Earl Thomas sets up closer to the line of scrimmage, shaded towards Vereen. As we saw in the Super Bowl passing preview, Seattle often drops Thomas into the box to cover shifty running backs coming out of the backfield. Finally, check the underneath defenders: Two linebackers and Lane are all off the line of scrimmage, showing zone coverage.
This is the play New England runs:
The outside receivers (Amendola and LaFell) run deep curl routes, turning to the middle of the field on their cuts. Edelman and Gronkowski run option routes, making their reads on the goal line. At this moment, and with this play called, Brady must be licking his chops as these are perfect route combinations to attack Cover 3. The cornerbacks surrender inside leverage in this coverage scheme knowing they have help in the middle of the field.
Brady can read the middle safety – in this case, Chancellor – and influence him toward one of the curl routes before throwing to the other. As illustrated in the Super Bowl previews, Chancellor is less accomplished serving in the deep middle than his teammate, Thomas. But if Brady cannot move the safety, he will pull the ball down to one of the option routes. Edelman and Gronkowski will read the coverage and either settle in a soft zone or break to the sideline and away from man coverage. This animation provides a glimpse of how this play should work against Cover 3:
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One problem: Seattle rolls this coverage to Cover 2/Red 2 at the snap:
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Unfortunately for New England, Cover 2 handles this route design very well. The cornerbacks (Sherman and Maxwell) stay with the vertical routes into the end zone, while Chancellor and Thomas each handle a deep zone. This creates a double-coverage situation on the two curl routes, meaning Brady must pull the ball down (once he recognizes the rolled coverage) to one of the option routes.
But pressure up front hurries the process, and Brady forces a throw into the end zone that Lane intercepts:
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To understand how Seattle created the pressure in the pocket that worked in tandem with the coverage to force the turnover, we turn to the end zone camera angle. The Seahawks have only four defenders on the line of scrimmage in this alignment:
With five linemen (plus Vereen) in position to block the four defenders, New England should be able to keep a clean pocket on this play. But Seattle employs a twist – literally and figuratively. Nate Solder’s struggles with the spin move are well-documented. On this play, defensive end O’Brien Schofield adopts a wide-9 alignment outside the left tackle. At the snap, the defender takes a quick step to Solder’s left shoulder, setting him up for the speed spin to the inside. Simultaneously, defensive end Demarcus Dobbs (#95, lined up at defensive tackle) drops into underneath zone coverage. This leaves Seattle only three pass rushers on the play.
Schofield executes his spin move, but Solder does a great job of maintaining contact through the move and riding the defender inside. But this is exactly what Seattle wanted:
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As Solder moves the defender toward the center, defensive end Michael Bennett (#72, lined up at the opposite defensive tackle spot) twists around the end and into the rushing lane vacated by Schofield. This gives Bennett a free run at Brady. The quarterback hurries his throw, forcing the pass off of his back foot, and the ball floats into Lane’s hands.
The turnover results from terrific design and execution by Seattle, both in the secondary and up front. The defensive backs show Brady numerous keys to read Cover 3, yet roll their coverage to Cover 2/Red 2 at the snap. This requires the quarterback to read the coverage quickly and look for one of the option routes underneath. But because of the scouting and design, the defensive front generates a free shot on Brady. The defense sets up the play by exploiting Solder’s weakness in handling the spin move. Although the LT handles Schofield’s maneuver well, his reaction opens the rushing lane for Bennett. Under the gun, Brady forces the throw and the Seahawks stop New England’s drive.
However, the Jeremy Lane interception proved to be costly for Seattle; at the end of the play Lane suffered a gruesome left-arm injury and was lost for the remainder of the Super Bowl. New England was quick to capitalize, picking on his replacement on the ensuing drive en route to the game’s first touchdown. In addition, the Patriots were ready for the spin/twist rush when they saw it again – which they did, on a long touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski.
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.