Today, ESPN's Mike Sando wrote an article (Insider Subscription Required), in which he discusses with NFL head coaches, offensive, and defensive coordinators over the explanation of Seattle's final and ill-fated play call. Over the article, Sando describes five theories as to why the game ended up the way it did. I will try to prove or debunk each theory before stating my final opinion as to what I think happened.
So we start off after Jermaine Kearse juggling catch on the back, the Seahawks have driven to the Patriots 5 1/2 yard line. The Seahawks had 1:06 left on the clock and one timeout remaining. As Patriots fans, we all expected Marshawn Lynch to pound the ball into the end zone to give Seattle the go-ahead score. On the first and goal play, Seattle ran an inside zone to the offense's left and Lynch had a clear alley to the end zone had Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower not made a Herculean effort to free up his injured shoulder and throw it at Lynch to knock him off-balance. Akeem Ayers ends up finishing the tackle at the 1 1/2 yard line, which sets up the biggest play of the game. We all know what happened on the next play, but we're not here to talk about what the result of the play is instead of the possible mindset of why the Seahawks called what they did.
Theory #1: Seattle Outsmarted Themselves By Changing to a Pass-Oriented Personnel Grouping
I think this theory doesn't hold a lot of weight. The Patriots had struggled to contain Lynch all game, as he finished with over 100 yards and a YPC over 4.0. People were expecting Belichick to call timeout, let Lynch score, and try to give Brady as much time as possible to try to set up the Patriots for a game-tying field goal. Belichick never called the timeout and Seattle looked discombobulated when trying to figure out the next, which precious time ticking off the clock. The Seahawks then subbed out their fullback Will Tukuafu for receiver Ricardo Lockette. The Patriots countered with a 3-CB goal line package, with Malcolm Butler subbing for Ayers. I don't think it was the personnel grouping that killed them, a 3 WR grouping works against a goal-line package if you're passing the ball and call a play that actually has a chance to succeed.
Theory #2: Patriots Had Wrong Defensive Personnel, Got Lucky
I don't buy this at all. The Patriots were expecting a run play from the get-go and subbed in their heavy goal-line package. Marshawn Lynch is the best offensive weapon for the Seahawks and the Patriots will try to take that player away. They hadn't done a good job of that in the game, but in this situation the Patriots were going to sell out against the run with their defensive front. The Seahawks went from a 2-1-2 (WR-TE-RB) to a 3-1-1 personnel group and the Patriots countered with their 3 CB goal line package. The Patriots were going to do everything in their power to keep Lynch out of the end zone.
Theory #3: Seattle Made Unnecessary Risk with the Play's Route Combination
I can buy into this theory. On the play, Seattle is trying to get Jermaine Kearse to run a pick route. From the formation, that was fairly obvious to both Brandon Browner and Malcolm Butler. Both players knew that was coming, so they both were ready to defend it. As the ball is being snapped, you can see Brandon Browner is bracing himself and channeling all his might into stopping Kearse's advance and giving Butler an unobstructed path to the football. The Seahawks knew exactly what Browner's strengths and weaknesses were and they knew that Browner is one of the most physical CBs in the league and wouldn't let a smaller receiver get by him.
Also, another part of the theory that I agree with is the choice to run an in-breaking route. Why the heck you do that against a goal line package, when it was possible that the edge defender to the same side of the field could have dropped back into the passing lane and intercepted the pass himself. The Patriots edge defender (#50, Rob Ninkovich) on the play-side did not drop back on the play, but if Nink did there would be nowhere to throw the football and the charging Patriots defensive line would have either sacked Wilson for a huge loss and a possible fumble or Wilson would have had to throw the pass out of the back of the end zone.
One offensive coordinator is quoted saying, "If NE is going to be in that personnel grouping, they have to throw it, but if you want a chance to have a good play, you'd better throw a (expletive) outside-breaking route." I think he has a solid argument. The Patriots were playing 5 defenders in coverage with Hightower in the middle of the field, Chandler Jones peeling off to defend any pass play to Lynch, and all 3 corners playing man coverage. Instead of setting up a pick play to the inside, an out-breaking route would have created a more effective pick on Butler, as he would have to run around both Kearse and Browner to get to the outside. That's enough time for Lockette to get open in the front corner of the end zone for an easy score. It's much easier to isolate a receiver in 1-on-1 coverage to the outside instead of the middle of the field, where the linebackers and safeties are. Darrell Bevell's massive brain-fart cost his team a championship.
Theory #4: Kearse Gave Up on the Play
I do not buy this theory at all. I don't think Kearse gave up on the play. As I said before, Brandon Browner braced himself for the pick and put all his might into stopping Kearse's advance. Browner was in very good athletic position to transfer his weight and power forward. Realizing what the play was, Browner initiated contact and was able to get both hands on Kearse to stop his momentum. Butler was able to get a clean shot at the football and beats Lockette to the spot where the pass was supposed to go. Lockette gets knocked backwards and can only sit on knees in shame as his opponents celebrate right behind him. Kearse is a mediocre football player, but I think this was the case of Browner outmuscling him at the line of scrimmage and not Kearse quitting on the play.
Theory #5: Seattle Should Have Ran the Football with Marshawn Lynch
I can see the logic behind this, but I'm not buying this theory either. Marshawn Lynch is the Seahawks' best offensive weapon. Also at the same time, Lynch had only converted 1 of 6 opportunities at the goal-line in 2014. The Patriots were expecting the run and put in their heavy goal-line package. The Patriots stay in their goal-line package despite the Seahawks subbing out a fullback for a receiver. The Patriots sold out to stop the Seahawks running game with a eight combined defensive linemen and linebackers. Seattle countering with a pass play is not the bad decision here, it's the routes they ran that was the issue.
freeland1787's Theory: The Seahawks blew this drive, even before the Kearse catch. With 1:06, 2 timeouts, and the ball inside the Patriots 6 yard line, this should have been a cakewalk. After the catch, the Seahawks could not get lined up and had to burn their 2nd timeout. That was a dead ball timeout, the clock was not running and it was Seattle's 2nd dead ball timeout of the drive. 1:06 is still an eternity when you only need 6 yards. After handing the ball of to Lynch and Hightower and Ayers effort to bring him down, the Seahawks still had just under a minute with the ball at the 1-yard line. Everyone was expecting Bill Belichick to call timeout on the play and let Seattle score so Brady could drive the Patriots into field goal range. In the "Do Your Job" trailer, Belichick noticed that Seattle looked confused so he let the clock run down and decided that he had a better chance of winning by stopping Seattle instead of trying to force Overtime. The Seahawks did not snap the ball again until 0:26 was left, letting an extra 15 seconds go by than they should have.
Had Seattle decided to run the ball in that situation and personnel grouping, the Patriots would have had a 8-on-7 advantage in the box with one unblocked defender. The Read Option between Wilson and Lynch would likely would not have worked because the Patriots had numbers in the box and they could just have one guy crash and another play contain. By the time Wilson would have pulled the ball down or give it up, the unblocked defender could have gotten to the mesh point and who knows what would have happened next. If Seattle runs the ball and they don't score, they have to call timeout with about 20 seconds to go and are forced to pass on 3rd and 4th down because any play that doesn't stop the clock ends the game.
Back to the pass play that was called, that was a terrible play and even worse execution by the Seahawks. The Patriots' two play-side corners knew exactly what was coming their way before Wilson snapped the ball. Browner was able to slow Kearse's advance on the pick play, which enabled Butler to get a unobstructed path towards the football and make the play. An in-breaking route against a goal-line defense is dangerous because there is more traffic inside plus you have the possibility of one of the edge defenders might have the option of rushing or dropping if he can diagnose the play quickly. If Nink drops instead of rushes, he's right in the passing lane and he gets the interception instead of Butler. To sum it up, the Seahawks made a giant epic fail on their last series of downs. Instead, the Patriots will be unveiling their Super Bowl banner tonight and Malcolm Butler has turned into a fan favorite with the potential to be a future superstar player.
With that, we can close the book on 2014 and look ahead to 2015. This year embarks the Drive for Five campaign. The first stop? We're onto Pittsburgh.