It has been a very strange build up to the Super Bowl, with the news dominated by the seemingly endless leaks regarding deflated footballs, except we don’t actually know yet if the balls were deliberately tampered with, just that they were under the regulated pressure. Right now I can’t bring myself to care too much about it as I want to be looking at the upcoming game which should be a fascinating contest. What I will say is that yet again the NFL is demonstrating that even though they are a billion dollar business, that regulation and investigation does not seem to be their forte. I cannot understand why this investigation is being allowed to go on for so long and overshadow the showcase game of the football season.
The Super Bowl will be fascinating contest between contrasting teams and coaches, who will approach the games in different ways, but there are also a number of similarities.
The Patriots are famously adaptable, and it would be foolish for anyone to attempt to pre-empt what Bill Belichick has planned for this game. The Patriots dynasty has been built on Belichick’s attention to detail and the way he prepares his team to do whatever it is that he believes will win the game that week. It was interesting to her Ross Tucker on his podcast talk about one of the ways that this attention to detail manifests itself, in that rather than talking about the need to say run the ball against a particular team, Belichick would say there were three key things to win a game such as stopping a particular receiver running crossing routes on third down. Not only would he identify these specific key battles, but the players would be drilled so that when this situation occurred in the game, the players knew precisely what they had to do.
If Belichick’s teams are defined by their adaptability and tactical ingenuity, then Pete Carroll deliberately keeps his system straight forward as he believes in keeping his players unencumbered by the system so they can play faster. That’s not to say that he isn’t running a modern playbook, but part of the philosophy that he believes is key to success is to limit the number of reads a player has to make so they can be free to play.
However, even though they have their philosophical differences, there are similarities between Belichick and Carroll as both are defensive minded coaches, who’ve worked through a similar era, and have failed as head coaches before they attained success. What’s more, discussing Pete Carroll made Bill Belichick unusually verbose during this year’s media day, as he said that looking at Carroll from afar had made him a better coach, a rare complement from the famously tight lipped Belichick.
This should be a tight game as we have two very closely matched teams, who both had slightly stuttering starts, but as their personnel coalesced and got healthy managed incredibly strong runs. They have differing personalities that reflect their coaches, with the Patriot players staying tight lipped on message, where as the Seahawks are given the freedom to be themselves and so are a much loser group as a result. Neither are necessarily fan favourites with the repeated wining and various pushing of the rules by the Patriots leading them to hated in a lot of quarters, whilst the brashness of some of the Seahawks can rub people the wrong way and there have been a number of PED suspensions for this team. However, both are undeniably well coached, and whilst the game may not be the offensive spectacle that some would desire, there should be some fascinating football to watch.
Perhaps the unit to discuss in this game is the Seahawks defence, who if you stop to listen to its players is the best of all time. It is so hard to compare units across the ages, and so I’m not sure I would go that far, but this unit is very, very good. They ended the season on top of the DVOA stats and led the league in both points and yards allowed through the regular season. The defining part of this unit is their secondary, the legion of boom, three of whom are as good as any player in their league if not the best. They are most know for their three deep zone coverage, with Earl Thomas roaming the field as the deep safety, both corners locking down their respective sides of the field and Kam Chancellor stalking the centre of the field looking for the big hit. The front seven do not blitz that often, but by default align as a 4-3 under defence, meaning that the lineman slide to the side so that the strong side linebacker can line up over the tight end. From this alignment they will be aggressive, with the majority of the front seven have one gap assignments, meaning they can push up the field to make the play, but they won’t be trying to trick the Patriots with complex pressure packages. They will trust their system to cope with what the Patriots will throw at them.
So what will the Patriots throw at them? If the Seahawks are defined by their defence, then the Patriots are characterised by their offence, and their quarterback who is playing to win his fourth Super Bow at his sixth attempt. The question is how will they attempt to attack this defence, and a couple of way have been suggested. One thing that they won’t do is challenge the Seahawks on the outside as they don’t have the explosive kind of receivers to do this. In fact, as good as both team’s secondarys are, they’re almost wasted on the receiving corps that they are facing in this game. One way to challenge a zone system is to attack the seams in between the zones, and with a tight end like Rob Gronkowski this would look like a definite possibility. The other thing I’ve repeatedly heard suggested is given that both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are carrying injuries, that the Patriots could use the short passing game to move the ball and test their ability to make tackles, this seems to be popular as last time these teams met the Patriots ran over fifty passing plays. That said, as much as Tom Brady loves running long drives of ten to fifteen plays, chipping away at the defence, this is not the team that you want to be trying this against as they are just too good. However, if there is one area that you can attack the Seahawks, it might be in the run game as since losing defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to injury, they don’t have that top level run stuffer in the middle of the defensive line. The truth is though, that perhaps more than any other team, we won’t know what the plan is until we see it, and even then it is very likely to change throughout the game. That is the flexibility that Belichick and Brady to the game.
The Seahawks however, are a lot more of a defined prospect on offence. Although Pete Carroll is not afraid to be aggressive and is fond of the odd trick play, the bread and butter of this team is the run game. This is partly out of necessity as the Seahawks’ receivers are not a dynamic unit, but mainly because the duel threat of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson is so very hard to defend. In Lynch the Seahawks have an amazingly physical runner, whose yards after contact numbers are almost absurd compared to the rest of the league. The duel threat comes from the read-option that they run, and Wilson’s ability to make the right decision and challenge the edges of the run defence. Like any system, there are benefits and drawbacks to the read-option, and one that I particularly dislike is the punishment it leaves your quarterback open to if they keep the ball and take the hit. However, if you watch Wilson when he runs the ball, he very rarely takes a hit as he is brilliant at getting the yards available and getting down or out of bounds before the hit comes. In fact in general Russell Wilson’s decision making is excellent, and the Seahawks have done a brilliant job of making the most out of his skill set whilst working round his limitations, as given how tall Wilson is you could not make him a pocket passer.
The Patriots defence has been much improved this year despite losing Jerod Mayo for the year in week six and not getting a great year out of Vince Wilfork. They retooled their secondary in the off season, and have caused many teams a problem by using the newly acquired Brandon Browner and a safety to bracket the top receiver, and leaving their other free agent signing Darelle Revis to lock up the second receiver. This is the exact opposite approach to the Seahawk corners playing their sides, and one of the fascinating parts of this game will be watching how the Patriots’ secondary play. The cover two defence, was in part created to defend the read-option attack, but it is not something that the Patriots use, or many teams in the NFL these days so it will be interesting to see what Belichick and his staff come up with. One of the key players in run defence could be Jamie Collins, who runs as well as any linebacker in the league and could be used to spy Russell Wilson, and Collins actually has the athletic ability to chase him down Wilson if he does keep the ball. The problem is that the Patriots have been vulnerable to the run at times this season and this is not the team that you would want to face with that weakness, as Lynch could just keep ploughing the ball up the gut to see if the Patriots can stop it for the whole game.
I am really looking forward to this game as it should be a very competitive, and importantly well coached, that is too close to call. Whoever wins this game looks to secure a legacy with the Seahawks trying to win back to back Super Bowls, and the Patriots looking to get Belichick and Brady their fourth. Neither feat has been achieved for many years. I look forward to watching it live as a fan, and going through the coaching tape next week to write the final blog of the 2014 season.