Super Bowl XLVIII: Killing Them Softly

Tom Pennington

If the teams met 10 times would the Broncos win even twice?

I ask the rhetorical question in all seriousness. We witnessed a level of defensive dominance that I -- and I suspect many of us -- did not think entirely possible. Forget the score. You can imagine a similar score had Denver simply come out and made a bunch of unforced errors. The Broncos clearly did not play their best, but what happened last night was deeper than that. Even if given another shot at Seattle's defense, what would be different?

Killing Them Softly is About Winning the Mesh Points

The mesh points* are simply the places where player meets player and where player meets ball meets player. When you see any offense, much less a great one, unable to even breathe, they most likely were dominated at those mesh points. Dominating the mesh points is basically the same as one of Pete Carroll's core philosophical tenets, "outhit the opponent on all plays," To me, that's Monte Kiffen's lasting impact on Pete Carroll--far more than the 4-3 under alignment he inherited.

*That's a term I'm using in a broader sense than the typical reference to the place in a zone read where the QB puts the ball into the RBs belly.

It's easy to mistake "outhitting" or "dominating" for for macho posturing and unfocused physicality, and even this defense has had to learn the critical difference. (And whoa be unto everyone in the NFCW if St. Louis or Arizona ever figures it out.) It's also easy to miss how critical outhitting the opponent in specific places is to running the "simplistic" coverages Seattle runs.

In order for Carroll's defense to keep it schematically simple in coverage they must reduce offensive coordinators' options. When commentators see the uber-conservative cover-3 they assume that offenses have more options, not fewer. I saw no less an analyst than Trent Dilfer argue this point for weeks. (Dilfer is one of my insightful people in the game in my opinion.) Yet as we saw beautifully illustrated last night, offenses appear to have few options against this defense. Why?

My insights (such that they are) are impressionistic here, but Dilfer described it a couple days as "Seattle makes you do everything in conflict". I'll try to break that down a little further.

1. Seattle focuses their scheming on defense to dominating at the point of the block, the catch, and in the hole

Offenses win plays with pure physicality, with choreography (i.e., speed and precision), or a combination of the two. The respective prototypes are San Francisco, Denver, and New Orleans. Irrespective of their approach, though, blockers must hold the point of attack. Runners must beat defenders to the hole and defeat tacklers. Receivers must beat defenders to the spot and catch balls, even when challenged. These are the keys to any offense, whether it is a so-called "sophisticated" offense or a rudimentary one. No offense can win without doing these things.

Seattle schemes to disrupt these core elements of offense: blocking schemes, routes, and catches MORE than they seek to identify scheme-specific weaknesses. (I am oversimplifying to illustrate the point. Obviously, Seattle does opponent-specific scheming.) Offensive schemes matter, but if and only if blockers hold blocks, receivers get to their spots and catch passes, and runners hit the hole. At the level of first principles, Seattle's defensive attention is on disrupting those things. That's exactly what we hear from the defense. "It's not about them. It's about us." That's more than cocky bravado. It's a credo.

2. Seattle emphasizes consistently superior tackling technique.

In baseball, the way to deal with a groundball pitcher who doesn't give up home runs is to prolong at-bats. Get his pitch count up. As he tires, he's more likely to make a mistake. That is the offensive answer to what Seattle likes to do defensively. Dink-and-dunk down the field. Convert 3rd downs. Keep the defense on the field and wait for it to break down. Recall the Detroit loss in 2012. The Lions ran 73 plays to Seattle's 54, and averaged a full yard less per play. However, they were 12-16 on 3rd down. Matt Stafford converted 23 passes into first downs, including a number of 3rd and medium plays with a short throw and a broken tackle.

Seattle must dominate the player meets ball carrier mesh point to run this defense. Notice. While the rest of the league continues to belly ache (with substantial justification) about not being able to hit anyone, Pete Carroll's focus is, "How can we do this right?" That's not new age philosophy. That's a coach whose defense must be superior at tackling lest his approach become less viable.

Efficient drives are kryptonite. It's not just that they lead to points. They also eventually force any defense to focus on opponent-specific adjustments. Perhaps worst, they keep the defense on the field. That's a major problem for Seattle. The ability to outhit your opponent at the mesh points has a shelf life. As the number of plays gets up past the 60-65 range, like with a pitch count, breakdowns become more likely. No defense can afford explosive plays. But neither can they simply trade explosive plays for easy underneath completions, or eventually explosive plays will come anyway.

The cover-3 approach discourages long down field throws, but what about the underneath throws that are at the heart of so many modern NFL offenses? Seattle manages them by: a) disrupting route timing, b) attacking protection schemes to move the QB off his spot, and then c) putting ball carriers on the ground in ways that limit yards-after-contact (even encouraging some to make "business" decisions). Denver tried to run the same stuff as New Orleans, because really, what else is there?

So, What's Next After the Parade?

This is the most important off-season in team history. What we may find is that having one of the league's youngest rosters is more necessity than luxury. Playing the way this team plays is physically demanding, even by NFL standards. Under the best of circumstances, defenses should be replenished frequently while offense should be allowed to marinate. That may go double for Seattle.

So as fabulous as Carroll and John Schneider have been to open a championship window, keeping it open may prove to be an even greater challenge.

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