Monday, January 26, 2015

Prelude To A Title - Part 3: Gap Discipline Key To Patriots Limiting Seahawks' Options On Offense

Patriots' defenders Arrington (25), Chung (23) and Collins are keys to stopping Seattle's read option offense
The Seattle Seahawks rank dead last in number of passing attempts in NFL during the 2014 season - but when you have the type of ground game that the Seahawks' possess, there is really no need to air it out.  Besides, to say that the Seahawks are undermanned at the pass catching positions would be kind of an understatement anyway.

But don't mention anything like that to receiver Doug Baldwin, who is very vocal in his resolve that the Seahawks have one of the best corps in the league and is staffed with "Elite" receivers.

Known as "Angry Doug" to many, particularly after his Rodney Dangerfield-style rant after the NFC Championship about the Seahawks not receiving any respect, Baldwin is way off in his perception of the Seahawks having one of the best receiving corps in the NFL, but it suits what the team wants to do on offense - which is giving quarterback Russell Wilson perhaps a more diverse set of options than usual to move the ball downfield.

That said and true, Wilson is the heartbeat of the Seattle offense, which makes him the number one priority for the New England Patriots to defend.

Notice how that statement didn't translate to stopping Wilson from doing what he does - rather, to take away the options that Baldwin and his fellow pass catchers represent so that the Patriots' front seven can concentrate on limiting what Wilson does on the ground together with running back Marshawn Lynch, and New England may have the perfect defense to do just that...

...what with shutdown corner Darrelle Revis, physical menace Brandon Browner playing opposite him and quick-twitch slot man Kyle Arrington masterfully denying slot receivers access to the crossers and the seam, the Patriots are experiencing a surplus of quality defensive backs, meaning that they are in decent position to defend and perhaps limit what the Seahawks are able to do on the ground.

This is not to mean that Seattle's passing game should be taken lightly, as they factor in the Seahawks' overall balance, albeit run-heavy balance, but the fact remains that due to injury and attrition, Seattle's pass catching corps is far from elite - which can be a true advantage for New England so long as they defend Seattle's read option attack with gap-intensive discipline.

Similar to what the Patriots faced in the divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens, the Seahawks employ a zone blocking scheme that relies on cut blocks from the back side tackle and cut backs by the running back.  What makes Seattle's variation of the scheme more dangerous than Baltimore's is the not just the quality of the running back in Lynch, but also in the masterful execution of their read-zone attack.

Relying on the stretch run to set up their blocking zones and to create a floating pocket off the play action, quarterback Russell Wilson has the option to hand off to Lynch, keep the ball and dart through or around the line of scrimmage, or keep the ball and boot to the outside to look for his sneaky pass catchers which, if the read option is running correctly and efficiently, may have become a dangerous afterthought.

Wilson may be the best read-option quarterback in the National Football League, and can make every throw required of an elite signal caller.  He is a master of deception and as tough as they come, but he is painfully short for the position, so the way to combat Wilson's highly effective execution of the read-option is maintain gap discipline, to get hands up in the passing lanes and to keep the speedy third-year man confined to the pocket.

In the read-option, as we know, the quarterback keys on the weakside defensive end and his movements to decide what he's going to do with the football.  If the end starts to break laterally down the line of scrimmage, it usually means that he's playing the running back and the quarterback should keep the ball and run to where the end vacated, but if the end maintains the integrity of his gap and dances in unison with the movement of the quarterback, he should hand off to the back.

If going left, which the Seahawks prefer to do, the backside end will be Rob Ninkovich who is rarely caught out of position and seems to have a knack for getting to the ball - but if they go to the right, the backside end is Chandler Jones, who has been known to allow himself to be escorted out of the play whether up and around the pocket or trapped inside, and is vulnerable to the backside cut block.

Perhaps in this instance the Patriots may think about supplementing the front seven with safety Patrick Chung, or with a mixture of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas as nickle linebackers - but regardless of how they intend to defend in the box, the defensive line must control the interior linemen and not let them get to second level.

In a game where gap integrity is crucial, keeping linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins clean and unencumbered by rouge linemen allows them to flow to the ball and, perhaps even more critical, to play sideline to sideline in setting a hard edge.

One thing that could make this a little easier for the Patriots is the fact that both right guard J.R. Sweezy and right tackle Justin Britt are questionable for the game, meaning that neither will be at 100% if they play in the game as expected - and if they can't go Ninkovich and linebackers Hightower and Collins will be able to feast on their backups...

...and if the Patriots rotate their defensive tackles effectively to keep them fresh, well, the read option won't have as big an impact, given the quality of the Patriots defense overall and the limitations and injury status on the Seahawks' side.

Another element to this offense is the quick pitch to the outside, where a receiver comes in motion and crosses the face of the play just at the snap of the ball, which accomplishes two things.  First, the reaction of the cornerback assigned to the receiver off the line will tell the quarterback if the defense is in man coverage - if the corner follows the receiver laterally across the formation - or in zone coverage...

...and also gives the quarterback a pitch option in case the hole left vacated by the defensive end closes quickly and he needs to get rid of the ball.  The Seahawks ran this option many times with receiver Percy Harvin, but when Harvin was traded earlier in the season, that element of the offense suffered, though it still remains an element.

This is a weak spot for the Seahawks.  At the start of the season, Baldwin may have been accurate regarding the receiving corps being among the "Elite" in the league, what with Angry Doug, fellow undrafted wideout Jermaine Kearse, Harvin, rookie speedster Paul Richardson and tight end Zach Miller...

...but the Harvin trade and season-ending injuries to Richardson and Miller has left the cupboard mostly bare.  Names like Ricardo Lockette and tight end Luke Willson have picked up the slack somewhat, but not enough to dig the Seahawks out of their abyss in the passing game.

Does this mean that Seattle is doomed if they have to go up top?  Anyone who saw the end of either of the Seahawks' playoff victories knows that Wilson can lay a football into his receivers with the best of them, but it's no secret that to stop Lynch and Wilson from getting the ground game going is key.

The Patriots should easily be able to blanket Kearse on the outside and up the seam while slot corner Kyle Arrington takes on Baldwin.  Willson has made a few big catches in recent games and is murder in the red zone, so if his former teammate Brandon Browner gets involved and manhandles the big tight end off the line, that leaves the Patriots' linebackers and the strong safety to concentrate on preventing Lynch and Wilson from generating a running game.

Again, just as the Seahawks' defense is not without shortcomings, their offense is limited by a lack of quality depth among the pass catching options, which should translate to New England being able to concentrate on stopping the run and keeping Wilson in the pocket, where his movement is limited and his size becomes a detriment - because if he gets outside of the pocket, he is as dangerous as they come.

This is the same thing that the Denver Broncos did to defeat the Patriots in last season's AFC Title game, but it's important to remember that Seattle's offense is keyed by the running game and, even as limited as they are in depth among the pass catchers, they still aren't as bad off as New England was in that game...

...but if the Patriots remain disciplined, stay in their gaps and do their jobs that have been assigned to them, there's no reason to believe that the Seahawks will be able to exert their will on New England's defense.

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