Still Gushing about the Defense

So, that was pretty fun, huh?

For the fourth time in as many home games Seattle's defense has held a high-octane offense well below its normal points output. This time, it was New England's vaunted fast break offense featuring Tom Brady, Wes Welker et al.

I only wish that I had a stronger desire to raise my 'photographic/video breakdown' game, like so many of the fine writers on this site. But alas, the written word will have to do for now. A couple thoughts on the New England game:

The game was, in many respects, a national coming-out party for Russell Wilson. That's not to say Wilson hasn't been in the national spotlight. He probably gained more notoriety than any 3rd round QB selection in recent memory. Add to the "Fail Mary" to the "Gruden vs. Kiper catfight" and Wilson's notoriety certainly outstrips his play to this point. But clearly, this was by far his most effective game.

I want to focus on the defense though, because it was a great performance. Here are a couple things I noticed.

1. The defensive matchup was about execution more than scheme.

Pete Carroll was adamant in the lead up press conference that Seattle would do nothing special to adjust to New England's offense, other than match its speed. This was mildly surprising at the time. Coachspeak? Sure, but what we didn't hear was how "we really have to dial up the pressure and make Brady uncomfortable..." His emphasis was clearly on matching New England's blistering pace.

What was great about the performance--and I took some heat in the game thread for describing the first half performance as great -- is that the defense did exactly that. Their coverage and the tackling at that level of stress was impressive. Seattle was remarkably disciplined versus the deep passing game after Earl got caught peeking in the first quarter, and let Welker fly right past him.

TE Daniel Fells beat Browner later for a really fantastic catch. But those are the only two times New England beat Seattle over the top that I can recall in 58 pass attempts. New England obviously got some mileage throwing short to Welker. (Even if you disregard his 40+ yard TD catch he still had a heck of a day.) But in the main, Seattle gave up yardage but managed not to give up back-breaking plays. They stiffened in the red zone, and boy did the DBs get hands on a lot of balls. They clearly saw something on film about New England's red zone offense, especially Earl. The 6.8 ypa tells a pretty impressive story.

Even without the comeback win, this would have been an impressive defensive performance. It reminds me of the regular season Rams at Patriots game in 2001-02. The Rams won, but the Pats were the first team to really slow down "The Greatest Show on Turf." I remember leaving the stadium very impressed by that feat, regardless of the game outcome. Of course, New England would go on to defeat St. Louis in the Super Bowl 36 a few months later. I felt the same way at the end of the game on Sunday. What this defense accomplished was an impressive feat on its own.

2. Schematically, they forced Brady to check down.

Although what we saw on Sunday was in most respects a simple enough defensive game plan well-executed, there were some schematic subtleties that should not go unnoticed. Every defense wants to force the ball underneath and avoid big plays. Seattle actually does it; first and foremost with excellent coverage on the back end, then by applying pressure all across the front.

Clemons is the best pass rusher, but the rush is no longer solely dependent on his play. I expected the Patriots to present an enormous challenge to the pass rushers, especially in base defense with Red Bryant and Alan Branch. Brady runs mostly shotgun. On passes he drops back 3-5 additional steps and then gets the ball out in 1.5 to 2 seconds. Because New England also runs a TON of picks against man coverage to create space underneath, his quick throws are to guys running open in space not stationary targets. All these things, done at a blistering pace that limits defensive substitutions, effectively diminishes front four pass rush if not negates it altogether.

Despite this, as early as mid-2nd quarter I felt like the pass rush was making Brady uncomfortable. They hit him once or twice early to get his attention but for the most part were held at bay without a sack or many hurries. However as the game unfolded, to the naked eye it seemed that the small throwing windows down field, combined with enough pressure for Brady to notice forced his check downs to get shorter and shorter. New England's offensive line was getting walked back closer and closer to Brady.

To wit, he completed a gaggle of two- and four-yard passes in this game. If these are like runs they are pretty unsuccessful runs. Rather than Seattle's defense breaking down as the game wore on, Brady's frustration rose. Both the Sherman and Thomas interceptions were, in my opinion, frustration throws. Deion Branch was never open on Sherman's interception. And since when is Branch a throw-it-up-and-let-him-go-get-it type of receiver anyway? What those frustration throws suggested to me is that New England couldn't run routes that took time to develop.

As the rush got closer and closer, the only things New England could consistently go to were screens to Welker or getting him matched up on a linebacker. By the last two drives, when New England had to throw to the sidelines all of Brady's throwing windows were closed. He had no time to wait for anything to develop. The diving catch out of bounds by Lloyd is one of those throws that not many guys in the NFL can even attempt, a testament to Brady's bad-assedness. But it was impossible to complete that pass in bounds.

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