While the Seattle Seahawks were always a run-based team under head coach Pete Carroll, they followed calls to “Let Russ cook” on opening day versus the Atlanta Falcons: Russell Wilson dropped back to pass 38 times and finished the game with a completion percentage of 88.8 percent (31 of 35) as well as 322 passing yards and four touchdowns.
It remains to be seen whether or not Wilson will again be the driving force behind the Seahawks’ attack against the New England Patriots on Sunday night, but the team has shown a willingness to put the game in its quarterback’s hands. The approach makes sense: the 31-year-old is among the best players in the NFL and a viable threat not just due to his arm but with his legs as well. The Patriots, therefore, will have to key in on Wilson if they want to stop Seattle’s attack.
What will they therefore try to come up with defensively? Let’s take a look into our crystal ball to see what head coach Bill Belichick and company will try to utilize in order to make life hard for Wilson in his third game against the Patriots.
Take away the deep ball
“Sit back with multiple deep safeties to prevent deep completions,” said John Gilbert of Pats Pulpit’s sister site Field Gulls when asked how he would attack the Seahawks’ potent offense. It makes sense to start there considering that Russell Wilson is one of the best deep-ball passers in football and has the arsenal around him to challenge defenses over the top.
The Falcons found this out during the third quarter of Sunday’s game when they were beaten for a 38-yard touchdown by Wilson (#3) and wide receiver DK Metcalf (#14):
The touchdown itself appears to be pretty straight forward. Metcalf beats his man, cornerback Isaiah Oliver (#26), deep and with no safety help over the top is able to run into the end zone pretty much uncontested. Of course, nothing in football is as easy as it may look like at first glance. The “Why?” behind the play is a bit more complicated and brings us to a familiar topic when it comes to speaking about the Seahawks: Cover 3.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator during the legendary “Legion of Boom” days in the early 2010s and brought his scheme to Atlanta when he was hired in 2015. Cover 3, basically speaking, is a three-deep zone coverage with the outside defenders and the deep safety responsible for one third of the deep field. If one of the players on the outside gets beat, as was the case on this touchdown, the deep safety has almost no time to react.
What does the Falcons’ defense have to do with the Patriots, though? Learning from another team’s mistakes.
Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense were able to succeed on this particular play and similar ones over the years, because they failed to properly take away the deep ball. New England, of course, has had its issues in this area before when going against Seattle — just think of wide receiver Chris Matthews taking Kyle Arrington’s lunch money in Super Bowl 39 — but the team has an elite secondary more than capable of eliminating the deep pass.
This is because of the Patriots’ talent at the cornerback and safety positions, but also because of scheme. New England, as opposed to Atlanta, is not a Cover 3-based defense but rather uses a variety of looks with Cover 1 as the most prominent.
Cover 1, speaking in the simplest of terms, is a man-to-man defense with a safety over the top responsible to defend anything that is coming deep regardless of the area of the field. While this is no two-deep look as the one proposed by John above, it does give the defense more flexibility when it comes to taking on the deep ball and also challenges the pass catchers at the line of scrimmage in case they are in a press-man assignment.
This is something the Falcons also failed to do as the following play shows:
On this play, which again features Metcalf versus Oliver, the defender is opening up his hips for the inside release due to the zone coverage he is in and immediately goes to a bail technique after the snap. With the wideout being able to freely get into his route, however, Seattle’s cornerback finds himself in an unfavorable situation — one the Patriots’ defensive backs could avoid due to their use of press-man defense at the line of scrimmage.
New England will not exclusively press the opposing defensive backs, but its scheme allows defenders to take a riskier approach knowing that they have one or two safeties behind them depending on the call.
Attack the weak side of Seattle’s offensive line
The Seahawks allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked three times on Sunday, and the main direction of disruption was the right side of the offensive line. As John therefore pointed out, the Patriots should try to attack the unit from this direction in order to take advantage of potential miscommunication.
“Attack Wilson with a pass rush that focuses on bringing pressure from the weaker right side of the offensive line,” he said. “The left side of the Seahawks offensive line, with Duane Brown and Mike Iupati, is highly experienced. Brown is in his 13th year as a starter in the league and Iupati is in his eleventh. On the flip side, the center and right side of the line has only 59 combined career starts.
“My guess is the we see the Patriots looking to play a lot of strong coverage on the back end, with a whole lot of stunts, twists and other blitzes coming from the offensive right side looking to exploit that inexperience.”
New England’s pass rush may have registered only one sack on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, but it did put constant pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Results could look similar against Seattle, especially considering that Russell Wilson is one of the most elusive passers in the game — and a player who could make you pay if attacked too aggressively or without proper discipline.
So while the Patriots might opt to go after the right-side starters — center Ethan Pocic, guard Damien Lewis, tackle Brandon Shell — and their relative inexperience working together, they should still try to follow a mantra that served them well against Wilson and company in the past:
Be disciplined up front
The Patriots’ defensive front-seven is in the middle of a youth movement: with Dont’a Hightower having opted out of the 2020 season and both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. deciding to leave New England in free agency, the unit will feature plenty of youth and — just like Seattle’s right-side O-line — inexperience with players such as Chase Winovich, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings and Derek Rivers projected to play prominent snaps yet again.
The edge rushers in this group are under particular pressure against the Seahawks’ offense and its outstanding quarterback: if they fail to set a firm edge and work in unison with the interior players on stunts or other short-area rushing schemes, they could be in for a long day.
Just ask Atlanta linebacker Foyesade Oluokun (#54):
As can be seen, the Seahawks are running a read-option concept, which gives quarterback two choices: either hand the football off to the running based on the movement patterns of a predetermined edge player, or keep it for himself and try to advance by foot. Wilson, on this particular play, decides against given the ball to running back Chris Carson (#32) — a smart decision considering that the Falcons have nobody available to cover the weak-side flats.
This does not just give Wilson a chance to pick up speed and eventually take the football for 28 yards, it also allows him the option of possibly pitch the football back to wide receiver Tyler Lockett (#16) — a fact that forces rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell (#24) to overrun the ball-carrier instead of tackling him relatively early into his carry. The play was therefore a breakdown across the board for the Falcons.
New England, on the other hand, will try to stay more disciplined. One way to do that is playing a so-called scrape technique: one defender (usually the edge defender) would be responsible for the running back, while another (often an inside linebacker) is playing the quarterback. This would allow the defense to take away both reads on the option play.
This disciplined approach extends beyond the scheme, however, and also includes the pass rush itself. New England’s defenders, as noted above, cannot overshoot their target or attack too aggressively — Wilson is too nimble not to take advantage. Instead, a controlled pass rush in combination with some tight coverage on the backend might do the trick. The team followed this recipe before and also used it the last time it went up against the Seahawks during the 2016 regular season:
As can be seen, the Patriots are more trying to hold their position than actually attack Wilson in the pocket. While Rob Ninkovich (#50) eventually records a sack, the other players are either rushing timidly or spying the quarterback from the second level. Investing considerable resources in one player may be a risky proposition, but it allows New England to attack where Seattle will be impacted the most: its quarterback and his ability to keep plays alive with his feet.