Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson had no trouble dismantling the New England Patriots defense by completing 25 of 37 passes for 348 yards and 3 touchdowns. Many fans are upset with the Patriots lack of pass rush and others want to blame the soft zone coverages.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is less willing to put blame on the coverage schemes.
“I mean we were in quite a bit of man coverage tonight,” Belichick said after the game. “I’d say we probably in the end tonight had more success playing zone than we did playing man. They did a good job, especially early in the game. They had some tough man-beater matchups, formations that they do a good job of that. [Russell] Wilson made some great throws, some good catches, good receivers. They got us on a couple man-beaters, got us on some man routes. We were competitive on some and they got us on some.”
Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin echoed Belichick’s sentiments when asked about succeeding against the Patriots zone defense.
“Well, two of the three touchdowns were in man coverage,” Baldwin shrugged. “They did an excellent job of trying to mix it up and trying to catch us off guard but our guys on offense, they studied really hard. Give a lot of credit to our coaches for putting us in situations to be successful and then obviously the players executing at a high level to make it happen. But as far as their defense, again, they’re a good defense. I think they were second in scoring and that’s for a reason. Whether it was man coverage or zone coverage, we just tried to go out there and execute what we knew.”
The weakness in the Patriots secondary isn’t as simple as saying “they’re playing a soft zone”; the players are just failing to execute at a high level.
Here is CB Malcolm Butler (#21) in man coverage right before the half. He is trying to prevent the big score, but he’s offering a cushion that a high school quarterback could hit.
Malcolm Butler playing a liiiiiiiiiitle bit off his man in the 2 minute drill before the half. pic.twitter.com/DTC9ZiSYPn— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 14, 2016
Here is SS Patrick Chung (#23) in man coverage of TE Jimmy Graham and just completely losing him after getting caught watching the backfield.
Chung in man coverage of Jimmy Graham, gets caught watching RB and Graham is WIDE OPEN. pic.twitter.com/q58w7yzV3d— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 14, 2016
And here is a miscommunication in zone where CB Logan Ryan (#26) tried to pass off Doug Baldwin to Chung. Instead, Baldwin is left uncovered for an easy score before the half.
Patrick Chung did not pick up his man when Logan Ryan passed him off in zone. pic.twitter.com/OpTAh0oLCR— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) November 14, 2016
Chung allowed completions on all three targets in his direction for 47 yards and a touchdown. Chung ranks 81st out of Pro Football Focus’ 84 qualifying safeties.
Ryan allowed 6 receptions on 12 targets for 101 yards and a touchdown. He recorded one pass break-up. Ryan ranks 113th out of Pro Football Focus’ 116 qualifying cornerbacks.
Ryan is showing that last season’s success might have been an anomaly, while Chung has severely regressed from his stellar play in 2014 and 2015. The weaknesses in the secondary are linked to their drop in play.
Here is the Seahawks game-icing touchdown over Ryan in man coverage.
“We recognized the coverage,” Baldwin said. “It’s a coverage that we see far too often. Russ [Russell Wilson] made a great call, great play.”
S Duron Harmon is cheating to the near side of the field to help Chung cover TE Jimmy Graham over the top. This means that Harmon is looking away from the trips package to the far side of the field. Ryan’s responsibility as the inside corner is to make sure Baldwin does not cut to the inside because there will be no help over the top.
Baldwin easily turns Ryan at the jam, giving the Seahawks an easy target for a touchdown.
This isn’t the result of bad scheme. This isn’t the fault of man or zone. It’s just a lapse in execution by a player that needs to step up his performance if the Patriots defense is going to rebound moving forward.
In total, the coaches aren’t blameless. You can’t ask ED Chris Long to cover TE Jimmy Graham on a crucial third down and expect a stop. You don’t put a rookie linebacker in Elandon Roberts in coverage of a former wide receiver in C.J. Prosise and expect a stop. Those match-ups are on the coaching staff.
But placing the blame on the feet of the coverage schemes absolves the players of the fact that they’re simply not playing at a high enough level.