While the rest of the nation became acquainted with the Ideal Gas Law, Mark Schofield locked himself in his film room with the Seattle Seahawks 2014 and 2013 game film, a case of Mountain Dew, and Mark Ronson’s “Record Collection” on repeat. He emerged late last night gleeful and confident that he had put together a New England Patriots passing preview worthy of the matchup. Don’t believe us? Just watch.
Seattle’s Single-High Safety Schemes
For the second straight season, the Seahawks fielded one of the premier passing defenses in the NFL. They held opponents under 200 yards per game throwing the football, the only team to achieve such a result in 2014. Opposing quarterbacks managed a mere 80.4 passer rating against Seattle, 5th-lowest in the league. Only one quarterback – Peyton Manning – threw for over 300 yards against the Seahawks in a regular-season game, and he needed overtime to accomplish the feat. They held three quarterbacks (Alex Smith in Week 11, Drew Stanton in Week 12, Colin Kaepernick in Week 13 and again in Week 15) under 150 yards passing, and kept Mark Sanchez and the high-powered Philadelphia Eagles under 100 air yards in Week 14.
How did they do this?
Seattle favors single-high safety coverages, running mostly Cover 1 and Cover 3 in the secondary. Unlike man-to-man schemes where cornerbacks will track a receiver for the entire game, the Seahawks typically keep their cornerbacks on a single side of the field.
The Seahawks have their nickel defense on the field to combat Carolina’s 11 personnel. Seattle has ten defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, with free safety Earl Thomas the lone exception, stationed 15 yards deep and shaded towards the Panthers’ trips formation. This is an unmodified Cover 1 alignment. The four man coverage defenders are in press-man alignment, with Thomas set up in the deep centerfield role, which he plays very well:
Thomas reads Cam Newton, breaking on the outside route and nearly pulling down the interception.
The Cover 3 Wrinkle
The Seahawks’ other primary coverage scheme is Cover 3, which they implement in two ways: the standard Cover 3 with the outside cornerbacks eight yards off the line of scrimmage in catch-man alignment, and Seattle’s Cover 3 press variant, which looks much like Cover 1:
Thomas again aligns himself in deep middle and is responsible for that area, as with traditional Cover 3. A combination of linebackers and the strong safety are responsible for the underneath hook/flat zones, which also reflects regular Cover 3. However, the two outside defenders are not eight yards off the football, but rather in press-man alignment. This change brings them closer to the line, allowing them to assist in run support, while they remain responsible for the deep outside thirds of the field. Accordingly, the outside defenders will turn and run with all vertical routes, but will settle into deep outside zones should those receivers break off into routes over the middle or into other zones.
Here is that coverage in action:
Each defender rotates into the indicated zone, while the two cornerbacks break with their receivers on vertical releases.
This scheme is very effective against the run and the pass, as the Seahawks have shown in achieving back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. But it requires incredibly talented players in the secondary – with specific skill sets – for it to work. It needs two cornerbacks adept at turning and running with vertical routes, yet physical enough to handle receivers on quick routes against press coverage. It also demands a strong safety who is comfortable in zone coverage and willing to make plays near the line of scrimmage against the run or the pass. Finally, it requires a free safety capable of taking away the middle of the field in the passing game, reading quarterbacks and breaking on throws along either sideline, and supporting the defense against the run.
Readers, meet the Seahawks Legion of Boom.
Byron Maxwell – Cornerback – #41
Byron Maxwell is the newest member of the group, becoming a full-time starter in 2014 and recording 39 tackles and two interceptions while defending 12 passes. Because of his inexperience, he is considered the “weak link” in the secondary, but that is similar to calling Gary Larsen the weak link in the Purple People Eaters. Maxwell is a talented defender who fits this scheme perfectly – and Larsen, while falling shy of the Hall of Fame inductions garnered by his Vikings teammates Carl Eller and Alan Page, was a two-time Pro Bowler.
A big and physical cornerback standing 6’1” and weighing 207 pounds, Maxwell excels at getting a good initial jam on receivers. Even from this alignment, he is skilled at defending the vertical route. Watch him defend the streak against Rams’ wide receiver Kenny Britt:
Maxwell makes decent initial contact on Britt and then swivels his hips toward the sideline, running with Britt’s vertical route. Maintaining a good spatial relationship with the receiver, he turns to look for the football and pins Britt to the sideline. This nearly flawless technique increases the level of difficulty for quarterback and receiver, preventing the completion.
If Maxwell does have a weakness, it is against the deep curl route, from either Seattle’s Cover 3 press alignment or in traditional Cover 3. We illustrated how the Green Bay Packers used the deep curl against him in Week 1 in our NFC Championship Game Preview, but here is another example of Maxwell trying to defend the deep curl from a catch-man Cover 3 alignment:
The primary issue is Maxwell’s footwork. He does a good job of gaining depth into his zone, but as the receiver makes his break the cornerback lets his feet get away from him. This requires more time for him to break on the curl route and he cannot prevent the completion. He does a good job of holding the player to minimal yards after the catch, but this is one area in which Maxwell needs to improve his game.
Richard Sherman – Cornerback – #25
Richard Sherman is a household name, thanks to his verbal skill off the field and his tremendous talent between the lines. Sherman’s play has ushered in a new era of scouting, as NFL scouts now look for players that fit his prototype: Tall, smart, physical cornerbacks with top-end speed and man coverage skills. While other teams try to find the next Richard Sherman, head coach Pete Carroll can remain confident that he has the real article.
At the outset, Sherman is a ball hawk. He has 24 interceptions over his four-year career, with four INTs this season. In the NFC Championship, he showed everyone just how skilled he is:
Seattle is in Cover 1, with Sherman at the bottom of the screen in press-man alignment. At the snap he chooses not to jam his receiver, instead quickly opening his hips to the sideline to turn and run with the WR. This puts him in perfect position to run with the deep route, staying on the receiver’s inside hip, pinning the WR to the sideline. Sherman is also practiced at turning his head to find the football while maintaining close proximity with the receiver. With his head facing the offensive backfield, he tracks the flight of the football and then attacks the ball at his highest point:
Sherman completes the interception by attacking the football. He prevents the receiver from making a play to avoid the INT.
Here is another example of Sherman’s skill against the vertical release, from this year’s tilt against the Oakland Raiders. On this 3rd-and-5 play, he again uses press-man technique against Raiders receiver Andre Holmes. As with the previous play, Sherman forgoes the initial jam, choosing to run with Holmes. When quarterback Derek Carr tries to throw the back-shoulder route to Holmes, Sherman implements a tremendous head-turn to find the football:
Thanks to getting his head around, Sherman picks up the football and intercepts the pass. Again, this is flawless technique.
Because of his size, there is a school of thought that Sherman struggles with smaller, slot-receiver types. In Seattle’s first meeting this season with the Rams, they dropped Sherman inside to cover the shifty Tavon Austin late in the game, with the contest still in doubt:
The cornerback matches the physical play from the receiver, getting a jam on Austin within the five-yard rule. Staying right on the receiver’s inside hip, Sherman avoids making contact with Austin while swatting the football to the turf. This is one more example of outstanding defensive back play.
Kam Chancellor – Strong Safety – #31
“We’re a bunch of wild dogs until the big lion [Chancellor] comes around. We’re some bad men when he comes. He just brings that menacing force. We’re a pack of wild dogs and they’re pretty dangerous, but a lion running with a pack of wild dogs, that’s something.”
Sherman’s colorful description of Seattle’s strong safety might seem amusing – until you watch Chancellor on tape. He is the defense’s intimidating physical force, possessing the coverage skills of a cornerback and the ferociousness of a linebacker. In Seattle’s defensive schemes, Chancellor is often stationed near the line of scrimmage or in the box, allowing him to make plays against the run and the pass.
Here is an example from the Divisional Game against Carolina:
Seattle has their base defense in the game against the Panthers’ 21 personnel. Chancellor rotates down into the box as the offense employs motion. At the snap, he covers the short out route but quickly recognizes the halfback screen play. He explodes forward, dodges the pulling linemen, and launches himself into the running back to deliver a thundering hit on the ball-carrier.
When the Seahawks run their Cover 3 coverage, Chancellor is often responsible for the underneath zone. He excels in this area and shows good recognition, breaking on throws when in zone coverage. In this play from Seattle’s regular-season meeting with the Denver Broncos, the defense has a 4-1-6 dime package on the field:
Chancellor aligns as a linebacker on this play, responsible for an underneath hook zone in the Cover 3 scheme. He breaks flawlessly on the curl route from Wes Welker, nearly making the interception.
But sometimes, a defense just needs a big lion. This hit from early in Super Bowl 48 set the tone for Seattle’s dominating performance:
Earl Thomas – Free Safety – #29
Each of Seattle’s four secondary defenders is impressive on tape, but Thomas stands out more for the tape that does not exist. Simply put, he takes away the middle of the field from an offense. According to Pro Football Reference’s Play Tracker, offenses attempted only 10 throws to the deep middle against Seattle, second only to the Chiefs (8). Just four of those passes against the Seahawks were completed. Teams dare not throw in his direction.
Thomas slips initially, but recovers in time to knock the football out of the receiver’s hands and prevent the completion.
Because teams rarely test him over the middle, Thomas is free to read quarterbacks and play sideline-to sideline. Earlier we illustrated him toying with Cam Newton for a near-interception in the Divisional Round. On this play from later in that game, he nearly pulls in a pick on a seam route from a slot receiver:
Thomas gains depth in the deep middle on this play and quickly reads the quarterback, breaking on the seam route from the slot WR. He arrives in time to prevent the completion, nearly making the interception.
While that was a play on the seam route inside the numbers, Thomas is truly a sideline-to-sideline defender. Watch the distance he covers on this play against the Giants:
With the ball on the right hash-mark, the Giants have Eli Manning in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. At the bottom of the screen exists a marquee matchup: Odell Beckham against Richard Sherman. Seattle uses their Cover 3 in the secondary and Thomas starts this play on the opposite hash-mark from the football. But he covers tremendous ground on the throw to Beckham, and pulls in the tipped pass by Sherman for the interception. Here is another view:
The Legion of Boom is a perfectly assembled machine. Each player brings a specific skill-set to the unit that, when assembled, is a force on the football field. In short, they are Voltron with better ball skills. Maxwell and Sherman are two big, physical cornerbacks on the outside who can defend vertical routes from press-man alignment thanks to their quick head-turns and recognition of routes.
Chancellor is an intimidating presence in the secondary, comfortable in zone coverage in Seattle’s Cover 3 scheme and willing to play downfield against the run or pass. Finally, Thomas adds a level of security to the ten players in front of him. He eliminates the middle of the field and provides assistance from sideline-to-sideline. Together, this is a formidable group that seemingly has no holes.
In Part Two of this preview, I will introduce you to those holes.
Follow Mark Schofield 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.