Super Bowl 49 Key Matchup: Patriots must contain Seahawks run game
Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson form the backbone of the NFL's best running game.
The Seattle Seahawks' rush offense may not have received the attention that the Dallas Cowboys' ground game did this year, but Seattle was both more prolific and efficient. The Seahawks ran for more yards (2,762) than any team in the NFL, while leading the league in yards per carry (5.3) and rushing touchdowns (20). They finished the season ranked first in both Pro Football Focus' rush offense rankings and Football Outsiders' rush DVOA. By nearly any metric available, Seattle sports the best running game in the league.
He didn't have as many rushing yards as DeMarco Murray or as many catches as Matt Forte, but Marshawn Lynch might still have been the NFL's best running back this year. He carried the football 280 times for 1,306 yards (4.7 per carry) and 13 touchdowns, adding in 37 receptions for another 367 yards and an additional four scores. He broke 101 tackles, most of any NFL running back. He accumulated 829 of those 1,306 rushing yards after contact, an average of 3.0 per carry, also highest in the NFL.
Lynch is a violent, punishing runner. His legs never stop moving and he not only invites but actively feeds off contact. You won't often see him scurrying out of bounds rather than trying to run through tacklers. That's how you wind up with plays like this:
Of course, Lynch isn't the only reason the Seattle run game is so dangerous. Quarterback Russell Wilson also happens to be the most threatening running quarterback in the game. He carried 118 times for 849 yards (7.2 per carry) and six touchdowns in 2014. If we remove his 19 kneeldowns from the equation, he ran 99 times for 829 yards, an absurd average of 8.4 yards per carry.
That 1-2 punch is nearly impossible to stop, especially when the Seahawks leverage the threat of both in the read-option package. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Seahawks ran the read-option a league-high 177 times for 983 yards this season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, even better than their league-best full-season mark. Against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks ran the read-option 17 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter as Seattle made its miraculous comeback.
Seattle's read-option game is the best in the NFL not necessarily because of Wilson's wheels -- though he does have great speed -- but because he appears to be better at the read part of the read-option than any other quarterback who runs it. It's not uncommon to see Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III make a hand-off when they should pull the ball out and take off, or vice versa. That doesn't happen quite as often when Wilson is the one making the decision. If the defensive end crashes down on Lynch's dive up the middle, Wilson pulls the ball out and runs around the edge. If the end freezes in place to contain Wilson, he hands it off and lets Lynch go to work. Make the wrong read, and the play gets blown up in the backfield. Wilson rarely does.
The best way for the Patriots to stop the read-option is by playing assignment football and winning the other 1-on-1 battles along the line of scrimmage. If the defensive end is assigned to tackle the dive (Lynch), then a linebacker or safety (most likely Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower or Patrick Chung) has to scrape over the outside to contain Wilson on the edge. If the end stays in contain to negate a Wilson run, then the defensive tackles, the end on the opposite side and the linebackers have to win their matchups to stop Lynch before he gets a full head of steam.
Read-option or not, this matchup seems like the type where the Patriots will stack the box with eight defenders fairly often. New England's secondary -- Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington are their primary pass defenders in the defensive backfield -- matches up well with the Seahawks receiving crew, so they can afford to devote an extra defender to taking away the run.
Having an extra defender close to the line of scrimmage should help New England keep both Lynch and Wilson from breaking long gains. Indeed, the Patriots allowed the fewest 20-plus yard runs this season. Throughout the season, Chung lined up "in-the-box" more often than all but three other safeties in the NFL (one of whom is his Seahawks counterpart Kam Chancellor). He played 31 of 56 snaps against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game as the Pats were not threatened at all by the Indianapolis run game. The week before, though, he played 65 of 77 snaps as New England tried to contain Justin Forsett and the Baltimore rush offense.
Independent of who lines up where, it's important to know where Seattle likes to run the ball. Culling data from Pro Football Focus, we were able to break down Seattle's designed runs (i.e. not including kneeldowns or scrambles) to show how many went to the left edge, off left tackle, off left guard, center-left, center-right, off right guard, off right tackle and to the right edge, as well as how many yards, yards after contact and touchdowns those runs managed to create. We also did the same thing for designed runs against the Patriots defense, to better identify where Seattle might try to make their hay in the rushing game on Super Bowl Sunday.
As you can see, Seattle averaged its most yards per carry running to the right edge, and that's the same place where New England was most often gashed in the run game. It's the only running lane where the Pats allowed more than 4.5 yards per carry, and the only running lane where the Seahawks ran for in excess of 6.0 yards per carry.
There are a few things to note here:
First, 21 of those runs around right edge came from Wilson, likely on read-option plays, and they generated 210 yards. Removing those carries brings Seattle's average on runs around right edge to more manageable 4.72 yards per carry. That's still an excellent mark, but not quite as lofty as if you include the Wilson's keepers. Also, Seattle right tackle Justin Britt is still dealing with an injury, and his replacement, Alvin Bailey, is not quite as strong a blocker (though he did make a couple of key blocks against Green Bay last Sunday). That could negate some of Seattle's strength running to the right side of the field if Britt sits again.
Indeed, in the NFC title game, Seattle had nine of its 29 designed runs (31.0 percent) go to the right side, and those runs produced 48 yards. That's actually a good number in terms of yards per carry (5.3), but the distribution was way off for what is typical of the Seahawks running game.
For the season, the Seahawks ran to the right more often than almost any team in the league. Approximately 41.2 percent of their designed runs during the regular season went off right guard, off right tackle or to the right edge, while 26.4 percent went up the middle and 32.5 percent went off left guard, off left tackle or to the left edge. In the NFC championship, Seattle ran up the middle on 34.5 percent of its designed carries, and the same percentage of its runs went to the left side. Those carries averaged 7.7 and 5.6 yards per, respectively.
Meanwhile, teams rarely ever ran to the right side of the field against the Patriots this season, likely because Vince Wilfork spent a lot of his time lining up to the right of the center, and he's one of the best run defenders in the league. Though opponents averaged more yards per carry (4.33 to 3.68) running to the right than they did running to the left against New England, they ran right only 30.1 percent of the time, as opposed to 35.9 percent of the time going to the left and 34.0 percent of the time up the middle.
Trying to run between left guard James Carpenter and left tackle Russell Okung proved not especially fruitful for the Seahawks this season -- they averaged fewer yards per carry in that running lane than any other, and it was the only lane where they failed to reach at least 4.4 yards per carry. Okung is a terrific lineman, but pass protection is his game more so than run blocking. Carpenter did not have an especially great season in the run game, either. Meanwhile, New England also contained that lane between the left guard and tackle very well, allowing only 3.67 yards per carry.
Where the Seahawks can likely do their most damage with the run is right up the middle behind Max Unger. Though they ran there only on 26.4 percent of their carries on the season, they did average 4.8 yards per carry on those runs, a very healthy number. New England also got gashed up the middle worse than to either the right or the left, allowing 4.4 yards per carry on runs between the center and guards. With Unger's strength as a run-blocker (he graded out as Pro Football Focus' fourth-best run-blocking center this season) and Lynch's powerful inside running, there should be ample opportunity to gain yards right up the gut.
Nearly half the rushing yards New England allowed up the middle came after contact, and again Lynch averaged more yards after contact per run than any other back in the league. Hightower and Collins are two of the best run-defending inside linebackers in the NFL -- rated fifth and sixth, respectively, by Pro Football Focus this season -- but it is hard, hard work bringing Lynch to the ground. It will have to be a group effort.
Even if they're able to contain Lynch on the between-the-tackles runs, there is still Wilson to worry about. Teams like St. Louis and Arizona that devoted a bunch of extra energy to keeping Lynch down were gashed by Wilson -- he ran for 274 yards on 29 carries in four games against those two teams, adding 122 against Washington, 109 against the Giants, 71 against the Chiefs and 48 against the Eagles. When the Packers crashed down on a Lynch dive near the goal line last week, Wilson just pulled the ball out and scampered in for a touchdown.
You can't be too careless and go all out to stop Lynch when playing the Seahawks run game, because Wilson will make the right read and make you pay. But you can't be too careful, either. Sit back and try to stop Wilson from taking off around the edge, and Lynch will run it right down the throat of the defense. It's an attack that's nearly impossible to stop. For the Pats to come away with a win, they'll have to at least contain it.
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