The Patriots and Seahawks have only played each other three times over the last decade, but every game between them is an instant classic.
All three of New England’s battles with the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson era were decided by seven points or less. From the “you mad bro” game of 2012 to Malcolm Butler’s heroics in Super Bowl 49, these two teams always deliver, making for a great matchup on Sunday Night Football.
There are a few major themes on a macro-level that will decide how this game plays out, starting with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll bucking his usual trends in Week 1 against Atlanta.
In their win over the Falcons, Seattle made some notable changes to their offensive play-calling and defensive strategy that went against Carroll’s M.O. over the years.
As pointed out by @SheilKapadia today, the Packers' alleged commitment to the run game hasn't quite happened.
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 16, 2020
Offensively, the Seahawks threw the ball on 65 percent of their plays and passed the second-most on first and second down in the NFL’s opening week, a shock to the nerds.
Seattle was dead-last in 2018 and 24th in 2019 in early-down pass frequency, deciding to “establish the run” despite having one of the best passers in the league in Wilson at QB.
In Atlanta, the Seahawks’ pass-heavy game plan led to 38 points with four touchdown passes for Wilson and the league’s highest EPA per drop-back in Week 1.
However, Carroll told reporters this week that he was unhappy with how often they passed against the Falcons, even though it worked, and should be the approach they take moving forward. Carroll likes to run the football despite what all the numbers tell him and seems determined to do so.
The question for the Patriots defense is will Carroll succumb to his stubbornness, take the game out of Wilson’s hands, and go back to a run-heavy game plan? Hopefully, if you’re Bill Belichick.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks historically are a defense that runs its system and seldom strays too far away from what they do best. In fact, Carroll said as much on Wednesday.
“I see it playing to our strengths. And if you don’t understand what your strengths are, then you’re inconsistent, you don’t know how to recover. You don’t know how to adjust and adapt,” he said.
Although Carroll likes to lean on his very successful system, he has begun adapting the scheme to his new personnel while covering up weaknesses now that the Legion of Boom is no longer.
One of the ways Carroll has adapted is by getting away from his archaic base defense to modernize his scheme by playing five or more defensive backs, at least against Atlanta.
We’ll get into the particulars below, but again, the question is, was this a one-week anomaly or something that Carroll and the Seahawks will continue to do the rest of the season?
Based on New England’s personnel, Belichick is inviting Carroll to return to his old ways by running the ball against a vulnerable front seven and going heavy to combat Cam Newton and the Pats rushing attack.
But, in many ways, it feels like Belichick is baiting teams into thinking that’s a sound strategy. Ultimately, it’ll probably end in a low-scoring loss for the opponent.
The last big-picture item is that Seattle no longer has the Legion of Boom, and their secondary, especially at cornerback, is significantly weaker than anything we’ve seen outside of newly acquired All-Pro safety Jamal Adams.
There are question marks surrounding New England’s wide receivers, but as Atlanta did last week, this is a matchup where N’Keal Harry and company should get rolling. We’ll see.
Below, we’ll get into the particulars about Seattle’s scheme on both sides of the ball and how the Patriots can exploit the weaknesses to start the season a perfect 2-0:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Before we get into their new adaptations, the Seahawks still rely heavily on their core concepts from the glory years with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and trips to back-to-back Super Bowls.
Last week, we theorized that the Patriots would run a series of power or gap run concepts against Miami’s two-gapping front to fold a defense trying to contain and flow to the ball carrier.
Cam's 17-yard run came on a gap-read concept, which is different from zone read. Its power, but with a QB read. Cam reads the EDGE defender, who stays outside, so he keeps up the middle. Good way to beat Miami's two-gapping front. Think BAL vs NE last year. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/tdgssRwIa3
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 13, 2020
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels mostly agreed, hitting the Dolphins with both power-read and straight quarterback power runs that worked perfectly against Miami.
This week, the Pats offense has a much different test, as the Seahawks are more of a one-gapping penetrating front that wants to get upfield and make splash plays against the run.
Although their defensive line is weaker than past seasons, the Seahawks still have athletic and instinctive run defenders in linebacker Bobby Wagner and new-addition Jamal Adams. Plus, their coverage rotations on the backend often insert an eighth defender in the box (usually a safety).
Expect to see fewer power concepts from Newton this week and more zone-blocking plays designed to wash down an aggressive front to create cutback lanes for the ball carrier. Although it was mostly power, the Pats incorporated a few zone-blocking schemes last Sunday as well.
The Falcons’ opening drive featured several successful runs, mostly outside zone, against the Seahawks’ 4-3 over fronts, using Seattle’s aggressiveness against them for big gains.
New England always does a little bit of everything to keep their opponents off-balance. But zone-reads, or even under-center outside zone like the play from Atlanta, is the way to go.
After a week that featured 16 read-option plays and seven designed quarterback runs, the Pats could tap into their under-center running game against the Seahawks.
We’ll probably still see Newton run the football in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but they might incorporate his mobility with a bootleg play-action series rather than option runs.
The Patriots offense was too successful with their option-based rushing attack, especially on power-reads, to go away from it completely in Week 2. The Ravens had some success last season with power-reads versus Seattle, and its possible that the Pats OL will be too much for the Seahawks defensive line too handle.
However, they’re always going to be a game-plan offense, and under-center runs might be the best way to gain yards on the ground this week.
Along with 4-3 fronts out of their base defense, the Seahawks are notoriously a heavy cover-three unit in the secondary—specifically, their cover-three “mable” call.
In cover-three mable, the backside cornerback lined up over the “X” receiver is locked in as a man coverage defender, while the rest of the defense plays out of a cover-three structure.
🔊 Audio Breakdown
Kyle Shanahan took Pete Carroll's lunch money with play designs like this 👇
Good design to beat cover 3-mable pic.twitter.com/Gc2Ym4qcYa
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) December 20, 2018
The weaknesses in “mable” coverage that the Patriots can exploit are two-fold: one, if you release three receivers upfield on one side of the formation, the MIKE linebacker is responsible for matching crossing routes. In many cases, that leaves a tight end or speedy slot receiver in a very winnable foot-race with a linebacker in coverage.
Another weakness of the coverage is what we saw the Patriots do routinely in Super Bowl 49, which is isolate the running back in the flat on the weak side linebacker. As the image above shows, the WILL linebacker is responsible for matching the running back, a mismatch for James White (or Shane Vereen in SB49).
In Super Bowl 49 and 51, Vereen and White combined for 25 receptions playing against Seattle-style coverage systems attacking linebackers dropping into underneath zones.
The Patriots coaching staff undoubtedly knows of these vulnerabilities in Seattle’s staple concepts. But the Seahawks made some adjustments defensively last week that we’ll get to next.
SEAHAWKS DEFENSIVE ADJUSTMENTS
As mentioned earlier, the Seahawks historically lean heavily on their base 4-3 defense with three true off-ball linebackers on the field at once. In other words, their base is not nickel.
In 2019, Seattle worked out of their base defense on a league-high 67 percent of their defensive snaps, and as a result, they were a very average 16th in DVOA against the pass a year ago.
However, the Seahawks had five-plus defensive backs on the field on 70 percent of their plays against Atlanta, taking the total opposite approach against a dangerous passing attack.
Furthermore, Seattle also played less cover-three and more quarters coverage versus the Falcons. In Week 1, 27 percent of their coverage snaps were in quarters, while they only played 7.2 percent of their plays in quarters coverage in 2019.
By putting more defensive backs on the field and spinning the wheel, the Seahawks survived by limiting big plays down the field in quarters structures while giving Matt Ryan different looks. Again, with a weaker secondary, Seattle has to scheme things up more now.
Plus, many of the adaptations they made resulted from them acquiring do-it-all safety Jamal Adams in a blockbuster trade with the Jets over the summer.
Adams was all over the field in his Seahawks debut attacking downhill at the line of scrimmage and jumping routes over the middle of the field. He is a freak athlete, highly instinctive, and as Belichick said, Adams is also encouraging Carroll to blitz his defensive backs more.
The #Seahawks showed a lot in terms of how they'll use Jamal Adams on Sunday. Playing on all levels of the defense.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 15, 2020
“I thought that was interesting to see what they did. I’d say they ran certainly more safety blitzes than – maybe more in that game than I’d seen in the previous year,” Belichick said. “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.”
Were these game-plan wrinkles to defeat the Falcons or a sign of things to come for Seattle? Only time will tell.
Either way, there are different things to prepare for with Adams in the mix and the coverage versatility that he brings on the backend.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had nothing but praise for quarterback Russell Wilson in his 300-plus word soliloquy on the Seahawks quarterback during his Thursday press conference.
“This guy’s a tremendous player. Honestly, I think he’s in a way maybe underrated by the media or the fans, I don’t know, but I mean I don’t really see anybody better than this player. He can do everything,” Belichick said.
Belichick is not alone in his praise for Wilson, as many, myself included, think he’s right up there with Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson as the best quarterback in the league currently.
Since 2019, Wilson leads all quarterbacks in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), completing 7.88 percent more of his passes than the model suggests he should.
Seattle plays to Wilson’s strengths as a downfield passer both in terms of player acquisition and scheme, and last week, they let Wilson air it out with tons of success versus the Falcons.
The Seahawks’ two primary pass-catchers for Wilson are both deep threats, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but his two wideouts win in very different ways as route-runners.
Metcalf is a traditional straight-line deep threat that ran go ball after go ball against Atlanta until Wilson finally hit him for a long touchdown.
As for Lockett, he’s more of a horizontal burner out of the slot, where he’s a terror on deep over routes or crossers, similarly to how the Chiefs use game-breaker Tyreek Hill.
#Patriots perfectly executes "one cross" on JC Jackson's INT. DMac is going to "cut" any crossers by #2 or #3 on the trips side, and he overtakes Hill on the over route, taking away Mahomes's first look. JJones then replaces DMac as the new "rat" allowing JC to undercut Robinson. pic.twitter.com/Hi5H9BgeiY
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 9, 2019
The coverage we expect to see from the Patriots often on Sunday night is their one-cross match coverage, which puts a safety in the middle of the field to cut Lockett’s crosser while still providing help over the top on Metcalf’s side of the field.
However, more importantly, the Patriots must keep Wilson in the pocket and avoid chasing him around the field where he can extend and create big plays down the field.
The Pats are no strangers to containing mobile quarterbacks, with Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen, among others, on their schedule last season.
In those matchups, particularly against Lamar, the Patriots’ primary focus was on closing down Jackson’s escape routes to his arm side, while spying his blindside with a defensive back.
Scrambling quarterbacks are far more dangerous when they escape to their arm side, where they can make clean throws down the field, rather than throwing across their bodies.
In the example above, the Pats use three defenders in a contained rush to prevent Jackson from escaping to his right. On the weak side, New England allows Chase Winovich to pin his ears back to apply pressure on the Ravens quarterback, while speedy DB Jon Jones spies Jackson. When Jackson goes to take off, the Pats have pre-determined where he can run, and Jones and Dont’a Hightower are there to make sure he doesn’t hurt them with his legs.
Wilson is a fantastic thrower from the pocket as well, but it’s the extended plays that usually go for consistent chunk gains while also gassing the defense chasing Wilson around.
The key for the Patriots will be collapsing on Wilson in the pocket with good coverage in the backend to give him zero outlets or forcing him to run where they want, as shown above.
1. Jonathan Jones vs. Tyler Lockett: expect a speed-on-speed matchup in the slot between Jones and Lockett. Jones does a great job tracking Hill in their matchups with Kansas City, and although Lockett isn’t the same exact player, it’s similar enough. We’ll see how much help Jones has inside on things like deep overs.
2. Stephon Gilmore vs. D.K. Metcalf: the Pats might not put Gilmore on Metcalf the entire game as Metcalf usually plays on one side of the formation and doesn’t move around much. But Metcalf’s size and explosiveness is a difficult matchup, and with Lockett as an inside receiver, it makes sense for the Pats to deploy Gilmore on D.K. rather than a third receiver like David Moore. If Gilmore can disrupt Metcalf at the line with his excellent press technique, it’ll prevent him from getting up the field with ease as he did on his touchdown last week.
3. Pats Interior OL vs. Bobby Wagner: the key against a player like Wagner is to give him different looks and avoid tipping your pitches. He’s an extremely intelligent player, so the Pats will need to confuse him with misdirection and false keys. If you give him something he recognizes, he’ll blow it up before the play even has a chance.
4. Adam Butler vs. Seattle Interior OL: the Seahawks always seem to be thin along the offensive line, and their starting interior trio struggled against the Falcons. Right guard Damien Lewis is a rookie playing in just his second NFL game, while left guard Mike Iupati is a veteran nearing the end, and center Ethan Pocic has the lowest PFF grade of any starting center since 2017. The Pats might need to contain their rushes on the edges to keep Wilson in the pocket, but Butler should get some pass-rush chances on the interior. He can take these guys to school.
5. N’Keal Harry vs. Seattle’s Outside CBs: Seattle tends to play sides in their zone coverages rather than matching their corners as shadows on particular receivers. Whether it’s Quinton Dunbar or Shaquill Griffin, Harry has a favorable matchup. If there was ever a time for him to break out, it’s Sunday night. This Seahawks secondary is vulnerable.