With 4:32 left in the fourth quarter, the prime time game between the Seattle Seahawks and the visiting New England Patriots appeared to be decided in the home team’s favor: the Seahawks had just used half of the remaining time on the clock and scored their fifth touchdown of the day to take a 35-23 lead. The Patriots, however, were not yet done and fought back by playing impressive complementary football.
First, the team marched 75 yards in just over two minutes to come within five points of their opponent. Then, the defense forced a quick three-and-out to give the offense another shot with 1:42 still available to work with. The Patriots needed all but three seconds to get from their own 19-yard line to the Seattle 1. One play would eventually decide the game.
1-1-SEA 1 (:03) (Shotgun) C.Newton left tackle to SEA 2 for -1 yards (L.Collier).
The game’s pivotal play was made by the Seahawks: quarterback Cam Newton tried to get into the end zone behind the left side of the offensive line but was stifled for a loss of a yard to end the game 35-30 in Seattle’s favor.
From New England’s perspective something had to go wrong, especially after the team had score all three of its previous offensive touchdowns using the same basic formation with four tight ends and a fullback as Newton’s supporting cast — a play design that also helped the Patriots convert a fourth down versus the Miami Dolphins just one week earlier. So, let’s take a look at the film already available on Monday morning to find out.
First, let’s start with the formation:
The Patriots are non strangers to using this 14 personnel look. As noted above, they ran it last week and also used it three times against Seattle — all of the plays resulting in touchdowns. So why was the fourth time any differently? First, all three of the plays previously ran from this formation had some variation to it.
The first saw fullback Jakob Johnson (#47) work as the lead blocker with pulling guard Shaq Mason (#69) taking the far-side strong safety. The second saw Cam Newton (#1) pass the ball to Johnson after the second-year man had slipped through the line into the end zone. The third, eventually was the exact same variation used on the doomed final play of the game as well: Johnson would kick out to take the safety, with Mason pulling around to serve as the lead blocker through the gap created between the fullback and tight end Ryan Izzo (#85).
The play had worked earlier in the quarter, with Newton waltzing into the end zone virtually untouched. When New England needed it to work the most, however, it looked like this:
There is a combination of three crucial breakdowns that led to the Seahawks winning the play, and thus the game.
The first happened when Johnson was unable to win his one-on-one matchup against Seahawks safety Lano Hill (#42). The fullback did carry out his assignment perfectly on the previous play run from the 14 personnel group, and also when New England used it last week against Miami, but this time was unable to hold his own when the defender opted to use a low block to get Johnson off his feet. This alone might not have been a problem but in combination with breakdowns number two and three led to the loss of yardage.
The second breakdown occurred on Johnson’s inside shoulder, where rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (#71) was unable to hold his position versus Seahawks frontside end L.J. Collier (#91). Collier, a former first-round draft pick, was able to penetrate the Patriot’s outside shoulder forcing him out of position — something he failed to do the previous time New England ran this play. This, in turn, allowed Seattle’s defender to get into the backfield rather quickly and have a free shot at Newton.
Even that breakdown might not have destroyed the play just yet, but the third and final one ultimately killed the Patriots’ hopes of scoring a touchdown and leaving Seattle victoriously.
As former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (#54) deserves plenty of credit for his role on the play. Wagner did not appear on the stat sheet, but he created a trickle-down effect that further magnified the breakdowns occurring with Johnson’s and Onwenu’s assignments.
Wagner, as can be seen above, originally aligned behind Seahawks nose tackle Bryan Mone (#92). The normal instinct would be to follow the ball carrier, but this created a problem for the veteran linebacker on the previous play the Patriots ran from this formation — the one with the exact same design: he did what was expected, and was sucked into traffic and eventually blocked out of the way by a pulling Shaq Mason.
Wagner is one of the game’s best defenders in the league for a reason, though, and adjusted his attack plan when he encountered the formation again with three seconds left in the game. Instead of shooting towards the D-gap between Michael Onwenu and Ryan Izzo, Wagner came through the A-gap between center David Andrews (#60) and Mason’s original alignment at right guard. This, in turn, forced Mason to take him on instead of charging forward:
Had the Patriots’ right guard been able to keep plowing his usual lane, neither of the breakdowns in front might have mattered: he probably would have taken on Collier to create a lane behind himself and Ryan Izzo’s downfield block. Even with Johnson on the ground, Newton would then likely have had the space needed to gain the necessary yard for the score. Wagner, however, messed this plan up and forced Mason to adjust which in turn made the other two breakdowns even more important.
New England’s blocking up front was not perfect, but it still had a chance to be sufficient enough. Bobby Wagner, however, had a different idea. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a great play and a great player.
The Patriots have to do just that today, which is why they are 1-1 instead of 2-0.