The most talked about matchup leading up to Super Bowl XLIX will be the imposing Seattle Seahawks defense vs. the finely tuned New England Patriots offense, but the key to victory for both squads might lie in the opposite pairing.
Essentially, how does Seattle’s rush-centric offense matchup against a New England defense that ranked 13th overall (344.1 yards per game) and ninth against the run (104.3 yards per game) during the regular season?
Considering how the offense was able to shake off three-and-half quarters of dreadful play, (committing five turnovers in the process) only to outscore the high-octane Green Bay Packers 21-3 in the last three minutes of regulation and in overtime, the Seahawks should feel confident entering the matchup.
But Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell believes the Patriots and the defensive schemes of veteran head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia represent a unique challenge.
“Fronts, coverages, all different kind of things and you have to be able to anticipate some of the things that they might do and you have to be able to adjust,” Bevell said Wednesday. “During the game, there’s definitely some unscouted looks that are probably going to come up. So we just have to be ready to make those adjustments on the sideline as they come.
“I think you really have to be on your toes and really be prepared,” he added. “Like I said. almost every single guy on their secondary, you’ve seen them on tape in the games. There’s all the D-linemen, all the linebackers, they use them really all over the place. They can use them as down linemen, they can use them as linebackers, they use their safeties as corners, they’re all over the place. There’s definitely going to be some unscouted looks to come up.”
Of late, the Patriots defense has been on a tear. They’ve allowed 17 points and 327.4 yards in the last nine games, winning all but two. And the defense kept both of those losses close by an average of 6.5 points.
Turnovers, which wouldn’t have been too great of an issue during the regular season, could be most worrisome for Seattle. Overall, the Patriots defense have forced turnovers, but the squad ranked second in the league in takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.
New England forced 25 turnovers during the regular season, for an average of 1.6 per game, but in the postseason has forced five in two victories over the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. In the regular season, the Patriots finished No. 29 in forced fumbles (eight total), and No. 29 interceptions (nine total).
But how the Patriots contain the Seahawks No.1-ranked rushing attack, especially quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch, will likely be the focus of their game plan.
Comparing him to Dallas Cowboys legend and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, Belichick specifically praised Wilson’s awareness in the pocket.
"[He] has an instinctiveness; he just knows where people are. It looks like he's going to get tackled and he doesn't," Belichick said. "You think that he doesn't see them, but he sees them. He just knows they are there. He has an uncanny sense of awareness of what is around him, good or bad.
"I can't really define it. You can't really coach it. It's an awareness that all great players have it, all good players have it. I think he just has it at a higher level. It's impressive."
Somehow disrupting and confusing Wilson will likely fall to New England’s pass rush and secondary, though second-year linebacker Jamie Collins should play a pivotal role. Helping out a linebacker corps that lost star Jerod Mayo back in October, Collins led the team with 116 tackles and two interceptions recorded 4.0 sacks in the regular season.
Collins has carried his success into the postseason. In two games he’s totaled 15 combined tackles, three passes defended and one interception.
Couple the 25-year-old Collins ball and big-play instincts with the 20.0 combined sacks from linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich, and defensive end Chandler Jones, and Wilson could be in for a punishing night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Collins and Hightower, along with linebacker Akeem Ayers, will also be responsible for making sure neither Wilson nor Lynch move beyond the second level of defense for huge runs. The Seahawks were third in the NFL with 17 plays of 20 or more yards this season, and Wilson led all quarterbacks with 849 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Lynch has also made a habit of seamlessly transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs. In the last two games he’s rushed for 216 yards and one touchdown at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry. And in nine career postseason games, Lynch has gained 100 or more yards five times and scored eight touchdowns. He is a very difficult rusher to tackle at 5’11 and 215 pounds.
The play of New England’s secondary might wind up as the deciding factor. Led by veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the Patriots were only 17th against the pass. Since 2008, Revis has been among the best cornerbacks in the NFL
The Patriots defensive backs face a mixed Seahawks receiving corps, as Bevell tends to have Wilson spread the ball around. Lynch actually leads the team with four touchdown receptions, while nine other Seahawks have caught a touchdown this season. Leading receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse combined for 1,362 yards and four touchdowns, barely eclipsing the total receiving yardage of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski.
But both Baldwin and Kearse have come up big in the postseason. During last season’s Super Bowl run, Baldwin scorched San Francisco for 106 yards off six receptions in the NFC title game, and he just burned Green Bay for another 106 yards and the winning touchdown grab in overtime. And Kearse took on a streaking Panthers defense in the Divisional round and ripped off 129 yards and a touchdown.
Ultimately, the matchup may come down to who makes the biggest play, and both sides appear capable of turning the game on its head.
New England: Revis
Players to Watch For
Seattle: Luke Willson
New England: Sealver Siliga
Seattle: In 11 games this season, Russell Wilson has rushed for 30 or more yards.
New England: 26 players had 10 or more tackles this season.
Overall Edge: New England