Are you ready for the grand finale? This is a game that will pit strength against strength, power against power, brains against brains, and the old guard against the future.
Oh, and it will involve football. Actual football- and we're talking about more than just the ball. We're talking about with players on the field and everything.
We've watched a lot of tape this year and can pose some interesting takeaways and reference points:
1) The Patriots offense is the most balanced we've seen this year when comparing to opponents. Others might have more dangerous facets (the Packers deep ball, the Ravens rushing scheme, literally any other offensive line), but no unit is more complete than New England's.
2) The Patriots defense is fantastic, but they could benefit to improve with greater pass rush inside (fingers crossed for Dominique Easley). Darrelle Revis is the best cornerback in football, although watching Richard Sherman for this week gives some great respect for his ability- he's more than just a player who can cover his side of the field, even though that's all his coaches asked of him. He's just doing his job and Patriots fans can appreciate that.
3) The Seahawks offense is really good at what it does, with the power rushing and the deep throws, but if either of those are taken away their team really struggles and leans upon its defense to pick up the slack, and provide a drive or two of great field position for the offense to capitalize on.
4) The Seahawks defense is really good. Yes, they played a very soft schedule at the end of their regular season, but they also took care of business against the Packers. They're methodical and they limit their mental errors, which makes it difficult for offenses to exploit through defensive mistakes. They make offenses earn every single yard and the Patriots are hopefully up to the task.
We watched the Seahawks in the playoffs, their final couple of regular season games, their losses against the Cowboys and Chiefs, and then the 2012 match-up against the Patriots to come up with the following review.
When the Seahawks run the ball
Right guard J.R. Sweezy and center Max Unger form a powerful inside rush tandem. The Patriots will have to align the heavier Vince Wilfork and possibly Alan Branch across from these two linemen in order to prevent inside seams from opening.
The Seahawks are weaker when rushing directly behind their tackles, but they're most dangerous when the running backs can bounce to the outside. Edge contain will be so important to keep the Seattle rushing attack contained to the inside. The linebackers need to ensure they don't overcommit to the wrong rushing lane, or else Lynch will be able to attack the secondary in the open field.
Marshawn Lynch is a ferocious second half running back once defenders start to wear down (averages 5.1 yards per carry in the second half, versus 4.1 YPC in the first half). He's a favorite checkdown option out of the backfield and deserves the full attention of the Patriots linebackers.
In addition to Lynch, quarterback Russell Wilson is the best rushing quarterback in the league due to his prowess in the run-option. He has a tremendous ability to have contain players crash inside, only to hold onto the football and run by the now-vacant defensive field. Wilson loves to face linebackers one-on-one in the open field.
They will sometimes use Robert Turbin in the backfield instead of Lynch, but the same defensive principals apply.
The Seahawks offense relies heavily on their rushing attack. The Patriots should play a 3-4 front, one they featured against the Colts with a fair amount of success.
Throughout the first half, the Patriots defense aligned beefier players like Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, and Joe Vellano (and now they'll have Chris Jones back) tight inside against the Colts offensive line. These players were flanked by Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at outside linebacker. This allowed flexibility for either Jones or Ninkovich to drop into coverage, while also providing value against the run.
The traditional 3-4 Patriots front forces the defensive linemen to defend two gaps, and to allow the linebackers to clean up once the running back commits. The defensive ends will typically align outside of the tackles (5-technique), with the nose tackle expected to watch both sides of center. The middle linebackers must attack the guards. I don't think they should function in this fashion.
Instead, they must borrow from the Jets and Ravens (and what the Patriots used against the Colts). Instead of aligning the defensive ends at the 5-tech position, they should instead align them on the inside shoulders of the tackles (considered 4i-technique). This will isolate the tackles from the guards and disrupt any outside cutback lanes on runs to the inside. This also forces the guards to either support the blocking of the tackles, and open an unblocked lane for a linebacker to make a play, or to face the linebackers and allow the defensive ends to possibly make a play.
Throughout all of this, the Patriots can have Chandler Jones and Ninkovich securing the edges on the outside, or dropping into coverage based upon the play call. Contain is the most important note for this defense if they wish to slow the Seahawks rushers. Keep Wilson inside the pocket and don't let him outside. Don't give Lynch any cutback lanes.
This is likely a big Pat Chung game at strong safety, due to his strength as a run defender.
No matter how New England defends the run, it will require all hands on deck for the entire game.
When the Seahawks pass the ball
As a passer, Wilson is one-of-a-kind, in a really bizarre twist. He isn't very good when asked to throw short; his touch is off, he shows poor technique, and it's clear that he's only throwing because he has to (he'd rather take off and run). When it comes to throwing deep, he offers touch that rivals Aaron Rodgers with the ability to place it where only the receiver can catch it in stride.
This isn't to say that Wilson avoids his short passes- he loves dumping off to Lynch out of the backfield as an outlet, or throwing crossers to his tight ends on third and short- but that the Patriots would likely be better off forcing Wilson to try and dink-and-dunk his way down the field.
Wilson's biggest addition in the passing game comes on his home run shots. He picks up chunk yardage like no one else and the Patriots absolutely cannot allow him to do that. They're better off running Cover Two and allowing Lynch to pick up four or five yard a carry, than to let Wilson drop a pass over the secondary (although Devin McCourty might be good enough at free safety to deter the need).
Looking at the Seattle weapons, there are four main receiving weapons:
Doug Baldwin, the 5'10, 190-pound receiver leads the team with 98 targets, 66 catches, 825 yards, and 3 touchdowns. He's one of the most consistent "50 yards a game" players, who does a great job of playing larger than his size and fighting for the football. He's a larger, less savvy Steve Smith Sr., so placing Darrelle Revis in coverage would be a good use of resources.
Jermaine Kearse, the 6'1, 215-pound receiver is second on the team with 69 targets, 38 catches, 537 yards, and 1 touchdown (in the regular season). He's a great match-up for Brandon Browner who should also be able to limit Kearse's output. The Seahawks love to send Kearse deep, but Browner should be able to disrupt his timing and help limit his impact.
Lynch, the 5'11, 215-pound running back, is actually third on the team with 48 targets. He's a major checkdown threat and that's why the Patriots linebackers, likely Dont'a Hightower, will have to stick Lynch like glue out of the backfield.
Luke Willson is a 6'5, 250-pound tight end with 4.5 speed. He's fourth on the active team with 40 targets, catching 22 for 362 yards and 3 touchdowns. Pat Chung should be able to cover Willson as he's still in his development as a receiver.
It should be clarified when stated "on the active team"; the 4th and 6th most targeted players on the team are Paul Richardson (IR) and Percy Harvin (traded). Beyond these listed players, the Seahawks only have depth targets less involved than the Patriots 6th-option tight end Tim Wright (tight end Cooper Helfet has 24 targets).
The Patriots defense matches up extremely well with the Seahawks attack. To steal a line from Bill Belichick, if the Patriots can do their job, they should be able to slow Seattle and hold them down. These coverage match-ups can and must be won one-on-one, to allow for additional resources dedicated to stopping the Seattle backfield from scrambling.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Seahawks defensive front is pretty stifling. While they've been allowing 4.45 yards per carry during the playoffs (and closer to 4.91 yards per carry to running backs in the playoffs), they do a great job of not letting backs get to the second level. Typically a back can break through the line, but they'll be met with one one of the athletic linebackers or safeties and stopped in their tracks. Stretch plays weren't consistently successful.
If the Patriots want to establish a rushing attack to open up the play action (although it could be argued that the Patriots romp over the Colts forces any future opponent to at least respect the run), then the Patriots will need to throw themselves into the teeth of the defense.
The Seahawks are extremely thin in depth up the middle (only two viable defensive tackles in their 4-3 front), so the Patriots could eventually wear them down with a commitment to the run. Additionally, Cliff Avril and Kevin Williams, their two weakest rush defending linemen, will align next to each other on the offensive line's left, so across from Nate Solder and Dan Connolly. If the Patriots run to their left, they will likely pick up a couple extra yards before contact.
When watching the Seahawks, it's apparent their run defense benefits from hyper-aggressive reads by the linebackers. They react the second the ball is handed off and crash where they expect the runner to go. Teams that have had success running feature patient runners with the ability to read the linebackers and cut back into the open lanes. One way to manufacture space is to use fullbacks and added blockers to feign rushes in one direction, while using backside blockers to clear a cutback lane.
Upfront, this looks like a big LeGarrette Blount game. He's a brawler who can hit the pile and can demolish players at the second level. With the help of James Develin, the Patriots should be able to open up some rushing lanes on the inside.
With that said, running backs have had huge days as receivers in the games that Seattle has lost (roughly 50 yards receiving by running backs in each loss)- which is why a split between Blount and Shane Vereen makes the most sense.
When the Patriots pass the ball
Here's some light reading on how to attack the Seahawks top ranked defense.
The Seahawks don't have a great pass rush up the middle, which is probably the greatest relief for the Patriots passing attack. Instead, they feature two quality defensive ends in Michael Bennett and Avril, the former a truly elite player at the position. Bennett will match up with Sebastian Vollmer, which pits the strength of the Patriots offensive line against the top Seahawks defensive lineman- you take that match-up every time.
The Seahawks don't really like to rush their linebackers; instead they have them sit back to attack the low crossing patterns and outlet checkdowns that a lot of teams use. This way, they can elite force an incomplete pass or stop the checkdown receiver for a really short gain.
It's these linebackers (and by extension Kam Chancellor in his robber role at strong safety) that the Patriots have to exploit. More on that in a second.
The Seahawks will drop their cornerbacks in the outside zones, with a special view on the deep pockets, while free safety Earl Thomas roams the middle. Thomas has more range than Devin McCourty, so Tom Brady will have to be extra careful with the football. The nature of these zones will open up passing lanes up the seams- although with Thomas at the top, they'll likely be quick seam throws.
What's most likely are combination routes as described in the aforementioned reading. The Patriots can use their outside receivers to clear out the sideline coverage, and then use their inside receivers (Julian Edelman? Rob Gronkowski?) to press up on the linebackers in coverage, before cutting out wide open to the sidelines. This won't result in huge yardage, but it will be enough to consistently move the chains.
The Patriots top two receivers- Edelman and Gronk- look to truly take advantage of these match-ups, but don't be surprised if Gronk is more utilized as a decoy to clear receiving lanes underneath and to get Brandon LaFell or Danny Amendola involved (heck, maybe even Tim Wright). If the Patriots can move the ball into the red zone, they should be able to score as the compressed field hurts the Seahawks ability to cover (which is opposite of the Patriots defense).
New England should also try to stack receivers on one side of the field to either force the Seahawks to reveal their coverage (and then allow Brady to adjust accordingly), or force their defenders into choosing a player to defend. So long as the Patriots stack a side of the field with more receivers than Seattle has defenders (which is why Vereen leaking out of the backfield is so crucial), then someone should be able to break free.
Seattle is the #1 most penalized team in the NFL, with the Patriots coming in #2. On the flip side, the Seahawks' opponents have collectively been flagged the least in the entire league, so the officials give them zero help.
The Seahawks offensive line is really bad with penalties. They have 33 false starts and 20 offensive holdings, both of which really hinder scoring drives. Perhaps this is the game that Chandler Jones will actually draw flags for hands to the face or offensive bear hugs.
Tom Brady has an issue with focusing on targeting "his guys", like Edelman and Gronk. The Seahawks appear to be using this week to goad him into forcing throws to Gronk. He can't let that happen.
Josh Kline actually played very well this post-season. That said, hopefully Bryan Stork is healthy enough to reshuffle the line to their strongest positions.