The Seattle Seahawks are the best rushing team in the NFL. In the 2014 regular season, they rushed for a league-leading 2,762 yards and 20 touchdowns, while adding 294 yards and two more touchdowns in two postseason contests.
Marshawn Lynch, is the team's lead back, getting the majority of carries. The team's second-rated rusher is quarterback Russell Wilson – and the Patriots have to limit him on the ground if they want to win tomorrow's game.
Why is Wilson such a dangerous and dynamic presence at quarterback? Not only is he among the most athletic passers in the league, he also plays in a scheme that takes full advantage of its quarterback's abilities. The most prominent aspect of said scheme is the zone-read option.
Essentially, the option-play gives the quarterback the ability to decide whether he hands the ball off to the featured running back or he keeps it. This decision is based on an end-of-the-line player – either a defensive end or a linebacker – whom the offensive line decides not to block. If the quarterback sees the defensive player he singles out is attacking the runner, he keeps the ball; if he sees him going after the quarterback, he hands it off.
It is basically a simple concept, but it is tough to defend since it challenges the smarts and decision making of a defense. What can the Patriots therefore do to counter it?
Defenders – especially if one is purposefully left unblocked – have to be patient and not over-commit to a play. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones in particular play an important role in limiting the read-option. As the likely outside players in both the Patriots' 4-3 and 3-4 alignments, they are charged with setting the edge. Neither player can rush his decision making process or otherwise Wilson will exploit the decision that has been made.
Besides winning one-on-one battles in the trenches, Ninkovich and Jones have to play technically sound football to keep the Seahawks from potentially rushing to the outside. Their ability to properly set the edge might be a deciding factor when it comes to slowing Seattle's offense down.
The two defensive ends are not the only important pieces when it comes to stopping the Seahawks' read-option. The linebackers, led by Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, play an important part as well. On the one side, they have to limit runs from reaching the second or third levels (on either the inside or breaking to the outside); on the other side, they can be used to counter the Seahawks' attack using scrape-concepts.
Using this technique, one defender (usually a defensive end) plays the running back, while another (a linebacker) plays the quarterback. The Patriots have the personnel – Hightower and Collins; both among most the athletic and versatile linebackers in the league – to move their linebackers around to a) allow their defensive ends to focus on one task and b) complicate Wilson's decision making both pre- and post-snap. Disguising looks is a key here.
The Patriots have to play fundamentally sound football to limit the Seahawks' offensive success running the read-option. They have to wrap up when it comes to tackling. They have to react to what the offense shows them and not rush their decisions. They have to set the edge properly, to keep Wilson in the pocket and make him beat the team with his arm. They have to out-scheme their opponent.
Time and again, the Patriots have shown that they are capable of doing all those things. On Sunday, it's more important than ever.