Lion’s Den: Pick Seattle

seattle-seahawks-logo_177409The Lion has been buried with his day job lately but due to popular demand (ok NTMVW asked me), the Lion will give you his Super Bowl Pick. Let me tell you, the Lion is very excited for this game, for all the reasons you know. Great Defense v. Great QB. Legacies are on the line. A hall of fame QB has a chance to boast his resume to completely change the G.O.A.T. conversation in his favor. A dominating defense has a chance to establish itself as one of the G.O.A.T.s as well. Hmm. This sounds familiar to me. As usual, we have heard so much B.S. during this two week build up, from Deflate Gate to Marshawn Lynch not talking to the media. The Lion can’t wait to get on the field and get down to football. I also can’t wait to make my pick. First some analysis on what you should expect to see on the field once the hype ends and the game begins.

When Seattle has the ball: This sounds very obvious, but I expect Seattle to give a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch for lots of reasons. 1) Seattle is good at it; 2) NE has a great secondary but a so/so front 7 that is average against the runs; 3) Seattle is not particularly good at throwing down field because its WRs are below average; 4)Seattle’s OL is the healthiest it has been all year; and 5) It keeps Tom Brady off the field. Hmm. This last part sounds familiar. (We will get to that later). While most “experts” will stop the conversation there, the Lion is just getting warmed up. Here is the thing about Seattle pounding the run. I know they’re going to do this, you know they’re going to this; you better believe Coach Belichick knows they’re going to do this. The Pats ALWAYS stop your best play. They will not let Wilson run the read option run and will do their best to keep him in the pocket all game long, where he is only the 23rd best passer of NFL qbs according to the stat geeks. (He is 13 outside the pocket). Most of all, NE is going to sell out to stop the run. They have the secondary talent to go man to man and put extra men in the box. This means, the burden is on Marshawn.  Seattle can’t just run up the middle and off tackle in straight ahead power runs mixed with their inside and outside zone runs. To succeed, I believe Seattle will have to execute some counter-trey type runs. What do I mean by that? Well, let me explain.

A counter trey is a gap blocking scheme, featuring down blocks on the front side of the offensive line and a pulling backside guard and/or tackle or tight end to kick out the outside linebacker and lead on inside linebacker.  This is not new. It has been around forever, but made most popular by the Joe Gibbs, the Hogs and John Riggins in the 80’s. There are two reasons this play works against an aggressive run defense. The first is that the formation strength is to one side of the field, forcing the defense to set up/rotate that way with the plan to run the opposite. (This is why you hear QBs call out the Mike and why Mike’s call out the Strong Side of the formation). Then, post snap, the play works because the look it gives them is most of the line, the QB and the RB, taking a step in the direction of the formation strength. Then suddenly the RB cuts back north and south and follows the back side lead block. Having a hard time following? Picture what OSU did to Oregon in the national championship game. Urban Meyer and his offensive line basically executed this play to perfection. Check out this image.

LD1Ohio State has two WR and a TE on their left side of the formation (the defenses right). The OL, QB and the RB’s first step here is also to the Left, which causes the D to flow left. Except for the backside guard and TE, who pull right. The RB’s second or third step cuts back to receive the ball and runs almost north-south. The pulling guard kicks out the overeager DE who is attacking up field to try to chase down the play backside/and or play the QB on the read option, and the TE leads on the LB. The TE has the advantage on this block now because the LB has to change momentum and flow back toward the back while the TE is running at full speed the whole time. Football is about numbers, leverage and angles.  This play will help open things up for Marshawn.

For those of you who are ready for the Lion’s advanced class, you notice the other wrinkle in OSU’s version of the counter picture above. Anyone? Urban Meyer also threw in the look of the Jet Sweep to further get the D to flow away from the cut back. The jet sweep fake increased the defensive rotation, forcing the Ducks to use a single high safety and rotate their secondary to the side with two WR and the TE, leaving a backside secondary player as the only remaining force support. One of Coach Meyer’s (and all good coaches) strengths is his ability to use formations and motions to disguise basic plays. If only Seattle had a threat to run the Jet Sweep. Oh wait, Harvin is gone. Never the less, an unbalanced trip formation or a shift to trips pre snap might have the same affect. What do you know; the Seahawks do run well out of the unbalanced formation. In fact I discussed it last year (here). I expect the Seahawks to run this play to success on Sunday.

It also goes without saying that Seattle needs to avoid 3rd and longs and absolutely has to convert on some of their 3rd and longs. Russell Wilson will have to use his feet to extend plays so that his mediocre WRs can break free from a very good NE secondary. The problem is NE is really good at staying with WRs on broken plays while QBs scramble. Browner and Revis are outstanding. But overall the Pats are just ok 16 in the league (smack in the middle) in stopping teams from converting on 3rd down. I expect Seattle to try to establish the run, and run waggle type play action and give Wilson run/pass read options and beg him not to turn the ball over like he did against GB. I also expect a good deal of screens and short passes in an attempt to have long extended drives to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands. If they fall behind early and have to pass they will be in trouble. (More on this later)

Key matchups for you to watch on this side of the ball:

Jamie Collins v. Justin Britt. Britt is a rookie RT for the Hawks. He is healthy after some injury concerns. Britt has given up eight sacks this season, and Collins excels at rushing the passer. However, Britt is an excellent run blocker, and the Seahawks gain 5.7 ypc when they run to his side. As is often the case with athletic pass rushers, as good as Collins is he does not do well when somebody runs right at him.

Vince Wilfork v. Max Unger. Perennial Pro Bowler/All Pro NT vs. Perennial Pro Bowler/All Pros C. Best vs. Best. Watch this match up.

Brandon Browner vs. Doug Baldwin: Browner will be up for this, since he’s a former Seahawks CB. Like most Seattle Corners, Browner is a big, physical corner who is over aggressive. He was flagged 10 times for pass interference or defensive holding this season. I expect the Seahawks will try to go after him with Baldwin put on double moves. Baldwin has been hot in the playoffs, and torched the Packers in the NFC title game for six catches and 106 yards.

Dont’a Hightower vs. Marshawn Lynch: Hightower is a great MLB from Alabama. He is very aggressive and eager to play the run. He is excellent at it. We all know about Beat Mode. During New England’s game against Baltimore, the Ravens, had success running left directly at Chandler Jones and the aforementioned Collins. Hightower would over pursue to the ball and often got caught up in the blocking mess enough to open up cutbacks. Hence my call for Carroll to run the counter-trey.

Player who needs to be surprise hero for Seattle: Luke Wilson TE. Needs to block his ass off and make a 3rd down catch or 4

Player who needs to be surprise hero for NE: Patrick Chung S. Needs to be able to come up and play the run when he is in the game and not give up big plays.

WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL: This is clearly the more hyped of the two matchups. In last year’s version of Lion’s Super Bowl pick, I broke down Seattle’s Defense at length. To gloat, and to make a point. I am pasting it here.

I think the best way to illustrate my point about why Seattle’s defense is not able to be out schemed is to explain the Cover-3 for those who don’t know.  Also known as Three-Deep zone coverage, the Cover Three is a very simple fundamental defensive building block that is the equivalent of a simple 2-3 zone in basketball. The Lion has said before that almost every high school team in the country runs some version of it. In implementation it looks exactly how the name implies it should. You have three defenders drop and divide the field into three deep zones. Typically the two cornerbacks are on the outsides and the free safety has the middle. Each is responsible for being the deepest man in their third. The four other defenders drop into the 8-15 yard range to defend underneath passes as the 4 down lineman rush the QB. This coverage is sound against the pass and allows the Strong Safety to come up to stop the run. It’s also conservative, which is why veteran NFL quarterbacks tend to carve it up and why it’s no longer commonly used in the NFL on passing downs in favor of more complicated coverage schemes. I know what you are thinking. Manning is just the guy to carve up a Cover 3, especially with his increased reliance on mid-range back shoulder throws, drag routes and the crossing routes that made Belichick cry all week last week. (Bill used them himself to perfection in NE, the baby).

Well, as you may have guessed, Seattle doesn’t run your Daddy’s Cover 3. For one, Earl Thomas is as good of a FS as there is. Kam Chancellor is a menace at SS for those receivers crossing the field. Him and K.J. Wright will punish Welker or Decker in the middle. (Unless the refs flag them. For the most part the refs have let guys play in postseason, but I am wary of Manning favoritism here). Most important to Seattle’s Cover 3 though is the CB play. While normally this zone coverage has its CBs playing off the WR, Seattle’s elite (roided up) cornerbacks play tight press coverage on the outside wide receivers as long as a receiver’s initial steps are straight downfield. Take a look at this play. The way the CBs pressure the WRs off the line, it almost looks like the CBs are playing man, even though it’s the base Cover 3 zone all the way.

To help visualize it, think of Seattle’s press cover 3 as a great pressure matchup-zone in basketball, similar to John Chaney’s Temple teams. In short, Seattle’s matchup zone defense provides all of the benefits of traditional Cover Three (namely a deep middle safety and excellent run support) without conceding easy throws (the benefits of man to man or Cover 2). Carroll’s hybrid one-gap two-gap hybrid DL play and hybrid man-zone coverage defense gets the best of both types of defense while eliminating their weaknesses (like stability AND change). Speaking of weaknesses, if Manning has weaknesses, they are his inability to adjust to pressure AFTER the ball is snapped, and inability to throw the deep ball (post neck surgery).  I expect Seattle’s defense pick their spots to jump the short routes (remember how NOLA beat Indy the last time Peyton was in the SB?) They pressure the WRs off the line to throw off their timing, and will dare Denver to throw deep and beat them with throws like this one or the bombs Luck threw to TY Hilton in the Colts upset of Seattle during the regular season. I don’t know if I see Manning making that kind of throw.

 

Few quick thoughts jump out at me. 1) I did really well; you really should skim my entire piece from last year. 2). Seattle’s cover 3 is really the perfect defense to beat post neck surgery Peyton, but NOT Brady and the Pats. Here’s why. While all you idiots in the media and at home think they are playing Man coverage, Sea plays Cover 3 most of the time. While they are aggressive for a Zone defense, it’s still a zone. This means there is still a minor concession to short routes, and the cover 3 is still susceptible to the crossing stuff, which NOBODY runs better than the Pats. Amendola and Edelman are made to run these types of routes. Unlike Manning, Brady can still throw deep so the Seahawks have to respect that. Also unlike Manning, Brady CAN adjust to pressure after the snap because although he is not mobile, he is amazing at sensing and avoiding pressure. (Although once he does GET HIT, he throws a temper tantrum like a bitch, some say it’s because he is intense, I say it’s because he doesn’t like to get hit because he has low pain tolerance). Needless to say, I do not expect last year’s outcome. With that said, the Pats offense is nowhere near as talented as the Broncos offense of last season. Here is how the Pats will have to win.

The Pats must overload the Zone. This is a simple but effective concept. In a Zone, each player has an area. Put more WRs in the area than there are dbs and you have an advantage. One way to do this is to spread the field with 5 wide receivers, forcing the Seahawks to change personnel. Like I said earlier, football is a game of numbers, leverage and angles. The Broncos tried to do this early last year by doing trip formations and throwing screens. While it’s a good idea, I think the more prudent thing to run are pick plays and more intermediate crossing plays with double moves. Play Seattle’s aggressiveness against them. Denver ran slow developing screens. Seattle’s D is fast enough to recover. Pats need quicker developing screens. Also Seattle’s DBs love to come up and bust a WR bubble screen, but they aren’t as good at 5-9 yard routes over the middle of the field between “thirds” of the zone. Look for these types of plays, like the one ND ran to beat FSU that got called back. (Yes I am still salty) all day. The Pats did this with some success against Seattle back in 2012. Take a look at the play below…

LD2Notice the Pats are running 5 WR, and at the bottom of the screen, the inside WR runs to the flat, forcing the DB assigned for the flat to come up and get in the way of the outside DB from being aggressive and jumping inside. The outside WR cuts up into the space in the zone between the two deep thirds.

Another thing I expect to see is a variation of the above play to attack this area where the Cover 3 zone is weak. Belichick loves to attack weakness. The base Cover 3 is not particularly good at dealing with RBs coming out of the backfield into the flat and curl area. Think of it as a wrinkle to the play I described above only the inside WR is now a back coming out of the backfield. Instead of a slant, the outside WR runs deep, the CB is responsible for running down field with the WR leaving a LB to cover that whole area. The Broncos did not have a back that was particularly good at running those routes. The Pats have Shane Vereen. While he was hit or miss for me in fantasy this season, I expect him to have a big game. (PROP BET ALERT).

One more wrinkle to this concept. I watched tape from Seattle’s worst defeat of the season against San Diego. The Chargers had great success running trips to one side of the field, forcing the secondary to rotate over (just like I explained with Urban Meyers play calling above), and leaving Gates to run in the area of the zone that has an LB mismatch. Gronk is better than Gates. Look for NE to run trips to one side with Gronk on the other and attack KJ Wright. Gronk needs to have a big game.

Of course way to have success against Seattle’s Defense is running the ball. Jamaal Charles carried the ball 20 times for 159 yards and a pair of touchdowns when the Chiefs beat the Hawks. When Dallas beat them, Demarco Murray had a similar day. I expect to try to spread Seattle out with 4 wide and run often. No offense to the Pats, but just because Blount ran all over the Colts doesn’t mean he will have success against the Seahawks. NE literally had to give up the run in the division round against Baltimore because it had no success. Brady didn’t hand the ball off in the second half. Still, I think it’s imperative to try to stick to the run for NE to win this game. Seattle loves to get off the field on 3 and out. They are one of the best teams ever at getting 3 and outs. Converting 3rd downs and holding the ball and scoring will wear down Seattle’s D. The Pats are really good at this, as they converted 44.3 percent of their third downs this year, the sixth-best rate in the league. (More on this later). While I sort of alluded to these above, here are the matchups that are key on this side of the ball.

Shane Vereen v. KJ Wright. As we discussed, he will attack the part of the zone Wright is responsible for and try to shake him. Especially on 3rd and short for that backbreaking first down.

LaGarett Blount v. Bobby Wagner. There have been two keys to Seattle’s resurgence after a slow start. The return of Bobby Wagner is the main one. When Wagner is healthy (which he is right now), the Seahawks run defense gives up less than 100 yards a game and Wagner averages 10 tackles. Seattle has given up one rushing TD in its past eight games. Blount is a load, and has to run to get tough yards here. He will almost need to get a rushing TD for the Pats to win.

Brady v. Earl Thomas. Earl is banged up. He has the deep middle. Brady likes to throw to the middle of the field. Brady will have to look him off and otherwise fool him.

Gronk v. Kam I don’t see this so much as a match up in coverage, but a matchup of which freak makes you go WOW, and gets his team fired up and takes the momentum of physicality of this game.

Pats OL v. Sea Front 4: This sounds like a copout but it isn’t. The Pats OL was a train wreck early in the season, especially against Miami and KC. Brady got hit a lot. He whined like the diaper baby he is. Then rookie from FSU Brian Stork took over at C for them, and they figured out their positions and solidified. Stork is out again. He was out against the Colts and it didn’t seem to affect the OL much, but the Colts D sucks. Seattle is well known for getting pressure with the front four without blitzing. That also happens to be the blue print for beating Brady. Seattle’s front 4 isn’t as deep as last years. They will need to have their best game of the season.

Player who needs to be unsung hero for NE: Whoever is starting for Bryan Stork at C. He will need to deal with making the protection calls and blocking Bennett.

Player who needs to be unsung hero for Seattle: Jeremy Lane, Seattle’s slot cornerback. Lane is a critical player in this game. I expect the Pats to spread the Pats out and get their ferocious LBs off the field and try to pick on the weak link of the secondary. Just as the Patriots picked endlessly on Baltimore defensive backs Rashaan Melvin and Matt Elam in the divisional round, they’re going to go after Lane in the hopes of avoiding Sherman, Earl Thomas, and as much of Kam Chancellor as possible. First they have to get him on the field.

Speaking of blueprints now that you know what to watch for, let’s get down to predictions. The more I write this, the more I think about last year. In some ways it’s exactly like last year, in some ways it’s not.

Last year I said the Seahawks will win because of the following:

1)Great Defense almost always beats great Offense

2)There is a clear blueprint for beating the Broncos

3)There is no way for Manning to prepare for beating the Seahawks.

Number 1 is still true. Seahawks defense is still great. Pats offense is not as good personnel wise as Broncos last year.

Number 2 is true for the Pats. The Giants have shown us in the Super Bowl how to do it. In fact I used that as an example for how to beat them. In the Pats losses this year, teams have had the same blue print. For example, when they lost to Miami, the Dolphins dominated with their rushing attack, with the combination of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller carrying the ball 35 times for 193 yards and a touchdown. Most of that came in the second half, when the two ran the ball 24 times for 126 yards to help keep the Patriots off the field. The front 4 got pressure and got to Brady. Especially on 3rd down. This got Brady off the field on 3rd downs. The Chiefs did the same thing. While I do think Brady is more capable of handling Seattle’s defense than Peyton Manning, I do think it is very likely that Seattle can do what the Dolphins and Chiefs did.

Number 3 is no longer true. The blueprint for beating Seattle is clear now. It’s very similar to how you beat the Pats actually. Run the ball, like Dallas and KC. Wear out the defense by converting 3rd downs. Get up early to force Wilson to throw downfield and abandon the run. Lynch carried the ball 6 times in the loss to San Diego. The Chiefs did the same thing. (KC beating both of these teams is so weird). Win the turnover battle. Look at last week against GB. In the losses to KC and SD they egregiously lost the TO battle. St. Louis beat the Seahawks by throwing the kitchen sink at them on special teams. I don’t see the Pats doing that, but they can sustain drives and convert 3rd downs. The other trend in Seattle losses is they get called for pass interference and other such penalties. Over the years the NFL has favored the Pats heavily in the penalty department. Heavily. With deflate gate and it being the Super Bowl, I imagine they will let them play on Sunday.

I think the key stat that will determine this game will be who wins the 3rd down battle.

What terrifies me the most about this is going against Brady. He is better than Manning in these types of situations. Belichick is better than Fox. This whole deflate gate thing reminds me of spygate. This could get the Pats to do the whole nobody believes in us thing.  These two teams are actually very similar. Good defenses anchored by elite secondaries and ball control offenses. These teams are built to beat teams with QBs who throw the ball down field to great WRs. However neither of these teams have those offenses. I believe points will be scored by both teams. Turnovers and special teams will be crucial.

However, the more I thought the more I was reminded of last year. I was scared to take Seattle at first too because I was afraid of Manning. Then I remembered. QBs are overrated. The public loves them. This line opened Seattle -2, and then the public started betting. It was E on Wed when I started writing this article. On Friday, it was Pats -2. More than 70 percent of the public is betting the Pats. This is exactly what happened last year with the Broncos People love Brady. Especially casual fans who only bet the Super Bowl. People love QBs. People don’t like Seattle because they are “boring” on offense, or because they are “thugs.” I have a feeling the Sharps (like me) are going to come in late and snatch those points. If you see the line move on Sunday morning towards Seattle, you know the Lion and the sharps are cashing in. Come on you really thought this Bills fan would go with Tom Brady. I hate him. Joe Montana forever. Personal feelings aside though, I can see Seattle being able to run the ball and Wilson having a bounce back game much more than I can see Pats running the ball and have Gronk dominate. When he doesn’t, the Pats offense is much more meh. I am taking Seattle and the points all day because I believe they can win OUTRIGHT.

 

 

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