Super Bowl XLIX Preview: The Seahawks Passing Game Isn’t Great

Much attention has been given to the marquee matchups of Super Bowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. The versatile and innovative Patriots offense against the strength and smarts of the Seahawks secondary gets the most attention, followed by the Seattle running game against the New England defense. Dave Archibald has studied the pass defense of the Patriots all season and, after reviewing the film, assesses the Seahawks passing game.

In a league increasingly dominated by passing offenses, the 2013 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks defied trends by finishing just 26th in passing yards ‒ the lowest rank of any Super Bowl winner in history. If the Seahawks repeat as champions, they’ll one-up last season’s squad, as this year’s version ranks 27th in the same statistic. That doesn’t mean the Patriots can ignore the Seahawks passing game; Seattle’s 6.6 net yards per passing attempt was a tick better than both the league average (6.4) and New England’s mark (6.5). The Seahawks don’t throw often ‒ their 454 passes ranked last among NFL teams ‒ but when they do, they’re efficient and generally mistake-free. Only two teams finished with fewer than their seven interceptions.

Why You Wanna Give Me a Run-Around?

As our Mark Schofield highlighted after the Thanksgiving game against the San Francisco 49ers, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has the kind of scrambling ability that lays waste to the plans of defensive coordinators:

Russell-Wilson-escapes-Dontae-Johnson-hits-Tony-Moeaki

Here the 49ers dial up a perfectly timed corner blitz, only to see Wilson elude Dontae Johnson (#36), run around, and finally find backup tight end Tony Moeaki along the sideline. To paraphrase Omar Little, if you come at Wilson, you best not miss. The blitz leaves fewer 49ers in coverage, and Moeaki finds space to rumble along the sideline for a 63-yard gain. San Francisco had a terrific play call, but watched their plan crumble to pieces thanks to Wilson’s agility and improvisational skills.

Wilson’s 849 rushing yards led all quarterbacks, and his 7.2 yards per rush was tops among all qualified players. What sets him apart, however, is his ability to find receivers after scrambling like the play above. According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback had more time to throw than Wilson. This is less indicative of the quality of Seattle’s offensive line ‒ an average unit ‒ and more reflective of Wilson’s ability to extend plays with his legs. The Patriots will need to watch for this with a spying linebacker, zone coverage schemes, or a pass rush focused on contain. This, however, can cause other issues.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

If the defense focuses too much on stopping Wilson’s scrambling, they become vulnerable elsewhere. Wilson torched the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Round in part because they were so concerned with keeping him in the pocket. Carolina did limit Wilson to just three rushes for 25 yards, but he threw for three touchdowns, including this gorgeous 63-yard strike to wideout Jermaine Kearse:

Touchdown-pass-Russell-Wilson-to-Jermaine-Kearse-63-yards-markup

On 3rd and 7, the Panthers show Cover 1, with Tre Boston (#33) as the one deep safety, and man coverage underneath. The Seahawks deploy three receivers left while keeping the tight end and running back in to block. This allows time for vertical patterns by slot receivers Paul Richardson (#10, outside) and Kearse (#15, inside) to develop. Boston can only help on one of the deep routes, so when he turns towards Richardson, Wilson lets the pass fly to Kearse. It’s a perfect throw and catch against tight coverage by rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere (#25), and Kearse speeds into the end zone.

The Seahawks love to attack deep when they see a lack of safety help there ‒ Wilson’s game-winning touchdown throw to Kearse against the Green Bay Packers came against Cover 0. The Seahawks see many coverages with one safety or fewer because teams worry so much about Seattle’s running game and Wilson’s ability to scramble that they put extra defenders in the box. That shows up on this play: Two linebackers get stuck in “no-man’s land,” not blitzing or applying pressure, but not deep enough to factor into coverage. They’re in good position to stop Wilson if he scrambles, or if the back or tight end leak out into a route late, but they become irrelevant here. The Patriots run a ton of Cover 1, and they’ll need to find a way to stop the running game and Wilson’s scrambling without exposing themselves to deep shots like this one.

The Packers generally did a good job preventing the deep pass in the NFC Championship Game. On this play, Seattle looked for a deep shot off play action, but the coverage held up and Clay Matthews (#52) got quick penetration and a 15-yard sack:

Clay-Matthews-sacks-Russell-Wilson

Wilson was sacked 42 times in the regular season, sixth-most in the NFL. He’s elusive, but Seattle’s love of deep throws and Wilson’s tendency to hold onto the ball means pass rushers can get to him.

Runnin’ on Empty

Wilson is a precocious young quarterback, but at times the Seahawks try to help out the third-year signal-caller by simplifying his reads. One way they do that is by spreading the field in an empty set with five receivers. With the typical seven pass defenders for five pass-catchers, the opposing defense can only double-team two players at most, and the spread look makes obvious which defenders have help. The Seahawks used this look on 3rd and 8 against the Dallas Cowboys earlier this season:

First-down-pass-to-Doug-Baldwin-from-empty-look-markup

Seattle lines up with three receivers left, with Doug Baldwin (#89) split out wide. Cornerback Sterling Moore (#26) plays off, respecting the deep ball. Baldwin runs a curl to the first-down sticks and catches the pass to convert. It’s an easy read and throw for Wilson. The 26-year-old Baldwin is the team’s best route-runner and Wilson’s go-to resource on 3rd down, where his 41 targets and 28 catches easily led the team. Baldwin is Seattle’s best receiver but plays in the slot 58% of the time, so it will be interesting to see if the Patriots match #1 corner Darrelle Revis against him or slot corner Kyle Arrington.

The Seahawks receivers do not execute a lot of combination routes, and when they try they often show why offensive coordinator Darren Bevell has ripped many of those pages out from his playbook:

Russell-Wilson-pass-intended-for-Jermaine-Kearse-intercepted-by-Ha-Ha-Clinton-Dix-markup

 

On 3rd and 7 the Seahawks again use an empty set, with three receivers left and two right. Tight end Luke Willson (#82) lines up in the right slot and runs a seam route up the numbers. Wideout Kearse runs a five-yard in-cut. The two routes cross, which can create a natural rub or pick, but the timing is off and cornerback Tramon Williams (#38) stays tight on Kearse. Wilson tries to force the pass into the small window, but even though the throw is on-target, Williams disrupts Kearse and tips the ball to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (#21) for an interception. Seattle’s receivers lack the nuanced route-running and precise timing to execute plays like this on a consistent basis.

Wheel’s On Fire

Marshawn Lynch is known more for his bruising between-the-tackles running than his pass-catching prowess, but his 37 receptions this season ranked third on the Seahawks and placed him just one catch behind Kearse. He’s a tough matchup for linebackers in coverage, and Seattle likes to run wheel routes to exploit this:

Wheel-route-to-Marshawn-Lynch-26-yards-markup

The Seahawks show two receivers on each side, but shortly before the snap they motion Kevin Norwood (#81) from right to left, giving them three receivers on the left side and only tight end Willson split out wide right. The motion and unbalanced alignment attract the defense’s attention, freeing some space on the right side, where Lynch will attack. The halfback runs to the right flat, while Willson sets a (borderline illegal) pick on linebacker Sam Barrington (#58), tasked with covering Lynch man-to-man. Lynch bursts up the sideline behind the wall created by the pick, well ahead of Barrington’s pursuit. Wilson throws a perfect touch pass and Lynch gains 26 yards before stepping out of bounds, setting up a key late touchdown.

At 6’4” and 270 pounds, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower has the size and smarts needed to slow down Lynch in the running game, but the Seahawks can exploit him with plays like the one above in the passing game. The more athletic Jamie Collins would figure to handle coverage duties more easily.

Odds and Ends

  • At times, the Seahawks will use package plays that include the option to run or throw a quick pass off play-action. Mark Schofield has more here.
  • Speedy rookie Richardson caught just one pass before Week 7 but emerged as the third receiver before landing on injured reserve with a torn ACL after the division round. Journeyman Ricardo Lockette played 49 snaps in the NFC championship game, but caught just two passes for 25 yards. Lockette has good size (6’2”) and physical tools but has just 18 catches in a four-year NFL career.
  • Don’t sleep on second-year tight end Willson, who broke out Week 16 with 139 yards and two touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals. Willson slipped to the fifth round of the 2013 draft after logging just nine catches in an injury-plagued senior year at Rice, but he’s a physical freak ‒ too big for most safeties and too fast for most linebackers. As the Tacoma News’ Gregg Bell points out in a recent Q&A, the 25-year-old can struggle with drops and his blocking, but he could be a factor, especially if the Patriots focus too much attention on Lynch.
  • The right side of the Seahawks offensive line is a question mark. The tandem of right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Justin Britt has been up-and-down this season, and both have struggled with injuries, with the rookie Britt missing the conference championship game with a knee injury and Sweezy absent from practice all last week with an ankle issue. Both figure to play in the Super Bowl, but if they’re less than 100% effective the New England defensive line could capitalize.

Summary

The Seahawks don’t have a prolific passing attack or a dynamic receiving corps, but they still present headaches for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Wilson’s play-making and touch on deep passes is a great complement to the Seattle running game, as defenses that stack the box to stop the run can expose vulnerabilities to the deep pass, where Wilson excels. New England has the personnel to match up on Seattle’s receivers, but can they shut down the passing offense while slowing down the Seahawks’ running game? New England figures to have the edge when the Seahawks pass the ball, but Wilson’s ability to create big plays off-script has felled giants before. Seattle may rank just 27th in passing yards, but they pose a considerable challenge in Super Bowl XLIX.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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

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