The New England Patriots may not have plenty of familiarity when it comes to going up against the Seattle Seahawks, but they surely are not strangers at game-planning for a defense like the one they will face on Sunday.
The Seahawks’ impact, after all, can be found all over the NFL since the team took the league by storm in the early 2010s: built around its legendary “Legion of Boom” secondary, the defense was able to lead Seattle to its first ever Super Bowl win in 2013 and to another championship appearance — against the Patriots — one year later. While that second game was lost, as are most of the players lining up in the secondary that day, the Seahawks’ scheme is still built around the same principles as back then.
And Seattle is not alone in this regard. The Atlanta Falcons, who the Patriots defeated in the Super Bowl two years after their win over the Seahawks, are similarly built. The same goes for the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles or Jacksonville Jaguars — all teams New England has played more or less frequently since last meeting the Seahawks in 2016.
Lessons learned from those games and the three total versus Seattle since Pete Carroll took over as head coach in 2010 will help the club prepare for Sunday night’s meeting. With that said, let’s take a look into our crystal ball to preview what the Patriots offense and coordinator Josh McDaniels might have to do to come away victoriously this week.
The Seahawks’ defense, as noted above, is still built around the same principles that were the foundation when the two teams met in 2012, 2014 and 2016: it runs a one-gap scheme up front and a Cover 3 in the backend. In order to successfully run such an aggressive defense, of course, the team needs the players capable of performing at a high level. Seattle has them, especially at the safety position.
“With the addition of Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams over the course of the past year, the Seahawks now have the level of safety play necessary for them to get back to Pete Carroll’s preferred Cover 3 style of play that made the Legion of Boom famous,” Field Gulls’ John Gilbert told Pats Pulpit earlier this week.
“That said, the holes in Cover 3 are well known — attack the seams and creases in the zone and work down the field without trying to take advantage of the big play. This is no different than in Super Bowl 49 when Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola combined for 20 receptions for 225 yards and three touchdowns. If Cam Newton can remain patient, the weapons at his disposal in Edelman and James White could cause issues for the Seattle defense.”
Being patient will be a key for the Patriots this week, and this should not be a problem. Not only have they shown a willingness to methodically drive down the field during last Sunday’s opening day win over the Miami Dolphins, Josh McDaniels also has plenty of concepts in his playbook that will put his unit in a position to attack the weaknesses of Cover 3.
Rely on some familiar concepts
As John pointed out, there are certain areas in which the Seahawks’ Cover 3 defense can be vulnerable. New England will try to attack those by running some familiar concepts. There are more of course, but for now let’s focus on three ways in which the Patriots might attack — starting with one of the team’s most famous plays.
The Hoss concept and its Hoss Y-Juke play call is a staple of the Patriots’ offense, not just since it helped the team win Super Bowl 53 versus the Los Angeles Rams. The play can be modified in various ways based on coverage and New England’s use of option routes, but in its most basic version it looks like this:
As can be seen on the biggest play of the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl appearance, the two outside options are running curl routes with the inside receivers attacking the seams. Those same seams, of course, are one of the weak-points in the Seahawks’ coverage scheme. Don’t be surprised, therefore, to see the Hoss concept return on Sunday with tight ends Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi, or wide receiver N’Keal Harry, manning the interior spots.
Another familiar play the Patriots could use is the good old screen. With Seattle’s front-line defenders aggressively attacking the gaps, New England could get opportunities in the quick passing game — just like the offense did when it last played the Seahawks four years ago. The very first offensive play of that game already showed how a screen pass could challenge an attacking defense like Seattle’s:
With the Seahawks rushing four, left guard Joe Thuney (#62) was free to get to the second level to serve as a lead blocker for James White (#28). While this is a crucial part of the play, so is Tom Brady freezing Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner (#54) in the middle of the field just long enough for the blockers to get a numbers advantage up front.
Another way to use the Seahawks’ aggressiveness against them is by running misdirection plays. One concept that found plenty of success in 2016 was a fake stretch run with a pass to a crossing receiver — in this case tight end Martellus Bennett (#88):
As can be seen, Seattle’s entire defense is reacting to the flow of the offensive line. In the process of doing so, however, it loses Bennett on the shallow crosser. The Patriots already used a similar design on a player earlier during that drive, with the veteran tight end running an orbit motion to get himself free in the flat. In general, attacking the flats and short zones will likely be a key to New England’s aerial attack on Sunday.
The Patriots have other concepts at their disposal as well — they could run high-low patterns or use post wheel routes — but the idea remains the same: find the weaknesses of Cover 3 when Seattle is in its primary coverage, and take advantage of them even if it means dinking and dunking the way down the field.
Keep an eye on Jamal Adams
Colleague Mark Schofield already broke down the Seahawks’ talented safety earlier on Friday, and the gist is spot on: find out where Jamal Adams is prior to the ball being snapped. To add to this analysis, let’s also add what Bill Belichick had to say about Adams and his impact on Seattle’s defense.
“I thought that was interesting to see what they did,” Belichick said during a media conference call on Thursday. “I’d say they ran certainly more safety blitzes than — maybe more in that game than I’d seen in the previous year. That hasn’t really been a big part of Coach Carroll’s defense, but he did it in a way that it was consistent with the philosophy of what they do defensively.
“So, it was a change and a significant one with how disruptive Adams was on those blitzes. It’s always hard to tell with a player like Adams which ones are called and what’s him just reacting to something and coming in very aggressively, especially on running plays. But, in any case, I think they modified their system a little bit to take advantage of a very explosive and disruptive player, which is really just smart coaching and good utilization of personnel.”
Adams, who was acquired via trade from the New York Jets earlier this year, proved to be a difference maker in his first game wearing a Seahawks uniform: he led the team with 12 tackles and also registered a sack. On top of it all, he was a central piece in the chess match between Seattle’s defense and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“I know Pete’s philosophy is always to play into his strengths, and he does a great job of that and clearly Jamal Adams is one of their strengths,” added Belichick. “They did something a little bit differently with him than what they’ve done in the past in terms of inserting him into the pressure part of their defense, but I’d say within the overall context of what they have done fundamentally for quite a long time.
“It’s not like they’re redesigning everything but they’re using one of their outstanding players in a very good way, and that causes problems for the offense. So, that’s kind of what I saw last week. We’ll see how it goes this week, but that’s what it appeared to be last week against Atlanta.”
No matter how Adams is used on Sunday, New England will need to keep an eye out for him.
Find favorable matchups against Seattle’s cornerbacks
The Patriots’ passing game may not have posted outstanding numbers versus the Dolphins last week, but it could get an opportunity to build some early-season momentum versus Seattle. Yes, the Seahawks’ defense is very capable of shutting offenses down, but it did have its fair share of issues against the Falcons’ wide receivers on Sunday.
Granted, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley are bona fide pass catchers, but challenging Seattle’s cornerbacks should still be on New England’s game plan. After all, the unit showed some inconsistencies versus Atlanta and had its ups and downs in coverage. As a result, Matt Ryan was able to successfully target the team’s top-three as a look at Pro Football Focus’ coverage numbers illustrates:
- CB Quinton Dunbar: 10 targets, 6 catches, 119 yards
- CB Shaquill Griffin: 8 targets, 7 catches, 92 yards, 1 touchdown
- CB Marquise Blair: 8 targets, 7 catches, 98 yards, 1 touchdown
Dunbar, Griffin and Blair are the Seahawks’ top three cornerbacks and will therefore see considerable action on Sunday. What stands out about them is that they hardly ever change their roles: Dunbar is the right-side perimeter cornerback, Griffin the left-side perimeter cornerback, and Blair guarding the slot.
With that in mind, New England could try to find some favorable matchups. Be it the savvy Julian Edelman against Blair in the slot, the speedy Damiere Byrd versus Dunbar on the outside, or the N’Keal Harry against the smaller Griffin. Josh McDaniels might get a chance to pick his matchups, and if they are successful either ride them or force the defense into some unfamiliar coverage modifications.
Test Seattle’s run defense
The Falcons had a hard time moving the football on the ground against Seattle last week, gaining just 72 yards on 21 attempts for an average of 3.4 yards per carry. Nevertheless, John Gilbert said that the Patriots might be smart to attack a run defense that has yet to prove it can consistently shut down opposing ground attacks — especially one as multi-faceted as New England’s built around quarterback Cam Newton.
“The run defense was able to slow Todd Gurley and the Atlanta ground game down in Week 1, but it remains to be seen whether that will be a true trend or if it was simply a fluke after finishing with the number 23 run defense by DVOA in 2019,” said John. “Between the Pats having a better offensive line than the Falcons and Cam obviously being more of a threat to run compared to Matt Ryan, there’s likely opportunity for New England to go after the Hawks with the ground game.”
The Falcons showed that a disciplined attack can also yield results, even though Seattle was able to adjust well to the running game later on. On just the offensive second play of the game, however, Atlanta running back Todd Gurley (#21) gained 15 yards behind his blockers winning their one-on-ones against three of the four down-linemen — leaving the far-side edge defender unblocked — and getting to the second level quickly:
The Patriots’ offensive line has proven its run blocking prowess before, and plays like this one by the Falcons appear to be more rule than exception for the unit. The question heading into Sunday, of course, will be how much Seattle invests into its run defense — and whether or not New England’s rushing attack can stay one step ahead just like it did last week.