After thrashing the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots secured a spot in the NFL’s ultimate match, Super Bowl XLIX. They face the Seattle Seahawks, who defeated the Green Bay Packers in overtime, 28-22, for the NFC Championship. Reading the Seahawks numbers reveals a stingy defense and a powerful running attack, behind which Seattle has won its last eight games and 11 of 12.
“You Shall Not Pass”
Led by cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s pass defense held regular season opponents to 185.6 yards per game (lowest in the league), 6.3 yards per attempt (second-lowest) and 17 passing touchdowns (second-lowest). Football Outsiders ranks the Seahawks third in pass defense DVOA, but merely 18th when covering tight ends and running backs. A deeper look into opposing teams’ passing numbers reveals a similar split:
*Includes 3 spikes and 4 throwaways (no receiver targeted)
Quarterbacks had more success against the Seahawks when throwing to tight ends than to wide receivers, especially with regard to touchdowns and interceptions. Tight ends caught TD passes in 10.6% of their targets, compared to 1.8% for WRs and 0.8% for RBs. In Seattle’s four losses this season, six of seven TD receptions went to TEs. During the San Diego Chargers’ 30-21 victory in Week 2, Antonio Gates led all receivers with seven receptions for 96 yards and 3 TDs. In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks face their strongest challenge yet in the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s top tight end with a league-leading 74.9 YPG and 12 TDs.
Standing Their Ground
In addition to their excellent secondary, the Seahawks boast a tough ground defense that allowed 3.4 yards per carry (2nd in NFL) and 81.5 yards per game (3rd in NFL). Football Outsiders rank Seattle’s defensive line fifth in run blocking, and a look at the distribution shows they are stronger against the opponents’ right side than the left:
|L. End||L. Tackle||L. Guard||Middle||R. Guard||R. Tackle||R. End|
In Week 11, the Kansas City Chiefs rolled through Seattle’s front seven with 190 yards rushing. Although they scored two touchdowns off the right end for five yards combined, Jamaal Charles gained 102 yards on 10 carries up the middle and scored the Chiefs’ remaining touchdown on a 16-yard run behind the left guard.
As part of their offensive game plan, the Patriots may try running behind Nate Solder and Gronkowski. During the regular season, New England had more success running off-tackle or around the ends:
|L. End||L. Tackle||L. Guard||Middle||R. Guard||R. Tackle||R. End|
The Patriots won five of six regular season games, plus the AFC Championship, when they ran the ball for 100 yards or more. Their only loss when reaching that mark came in Week 17 against Buffalo, with most of New England’s first-team offense resting on the sidelines after having already clinched home field advantage for the postseason. Meanwhile, Seattle is 10-0 when holding teams to under 100 yards on the ground.
Controlling both the run and pass enabled the Seahawks to limit their opponents to a league-low 15.9 points per game, winning all 13 games in which they allowed fewer than 24 points (including postseason). In contrast, New England scored an average of 29.2 points per game and are 11-0 (including playoffs) when scoring 24 points or more.
Beasts on the Run
The heart of Seattle’s offense is its ground game. Led by Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing with 2,762 total yards, 408 more yards than the second-place Cowboys. Averaging 5.3 yards per carry, they put the runner-up Miami Dolphins (4.7) closer to league average (4.2) than to the top, even though they ranked second to the Houston Texans in rushing attempts. While Lynch’s 1,306 rushing yards rank fourth in the NFL, Wilson supports him with 849 yards on the ground, good for 17th in the league. Often running the zone read option, quarterback Wilson presents a difficult problem for defenses with the threat to pass. The respect defenses must show his ability to throw on the run has helped him lead all rushers with 7.2 YPC. When Lynch needs a rest, Robert Turbin fills in, providing 310 yards on 74 carries.
The Seahawks are so proficient on the ground that only one team, the Cowboys, managed to hold them under 100 yards rushing. Seattle has exceeded 150 yards in 10 games, including the NFC Championship Game. Their 194 rushing yards against the Packers was just sixth-highest on their résumé this season.
Lynch and Wilson present a tough matchup for the Patriots. Four teams have run for more than 150 yards against New England, though all of those games took place in the first half of the season. In the Divisional Round, the Ravens ran for 136 yards, the most by a Patriots opponent since Week 8. The additions of Akeem Ayers and Alan Branch, plus the return of Sealver Siliga, has bolstered the run defense, which improved from allowing 129.6 YPG in the first half of the season to 85.1 YPG since Week 8, including the postseason.
The Seahawks rely on their passing game less than other teams, attempting just 454 passes, fewest in the league. Despite averaging 203.1 YPG (27th in the NFL), Wilson’s ability on the move, either rushing or buying time for the scramble drill, complements the Seattle running game enough to give opponents pause:
Even while accruing 33.7 fewer passing yards per game than league average, Wilson completes passes at an average rate and for slightly more yardage per pass than average, while throwing picks at the same rate as Tom Brady and the Patriots. (Note: These numbers do not include the four interceptions Wilson tossed in the NFC Championship). Doug Baldwin leads Seattle with 66 receptions for 825 yards, and Jermaine Kearse follows with 38 catches for 537 yards. Lynch (367 yards) and TE Luke Willson (362 yards) round out the primary receiving targets.
Wilson protects the ball and makes big plays, both on the ground and in the passing game, most often while on the move. Limiting his mobility will be key for the Patriots defense. During the last offseason, New England added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to shore up the secondary after Aqib Talib left in free agency, and it has paid off handsomely with a trip to Glendale. As a team, they hover around league average in all categories for pass defense, but when combined with the league’s fourth-ranked scoring offense, they lead the league in point differential and place second in turnover margin.
The 2014 NFL season ends with the top two teams in the league. With Seattle’s stout defense pitted against New England’s multifaceted offense, Sunday’s Super Bowl promises a pitched battle between evenly matched franchises. Each team has rallied in the fourth quarter in the playoffs, and the game may hinge on a key turnover or punt return to decide a champion. We’re on to Glendale!
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.