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Super Bowl XLIX: Two Trench Battles To Watch

A disruptive pass rush can make all the difference. We saw that happen in XLVIII when Peyton Manning didn't get the time to throw he prefers. Here's a look at where the QB pressure points figure to be in the all-the-marbles game coming up.

That just looks right
That just looks right
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Too many analysts, crunched for time and desperate for content, will resort to comparing the teams' units side by side as the game approaches.

Like so:

RB vs. RB: edge to SEA

TE vs. TE: edge to NE

After doing this for eight-ish position groups and maybe special teams too, a pre-game favorite is anointed. The method's popularity is mystifying. How does the superiority of the Lynch-Turbin team over Blount-Vereen concretely help the Hawks, if those four men are never on the field at the same time, fighting for yards against one another?

What just might be more useful is a more focused look at one matchup pitting rival units who will actually face off. For example, how about a look at who provides quarterback pressure: who brings it, who gives it up, and if any of those guys will be lining up directly opposite the other. Let's do that.

Surprise! The Seattle offensive line as a whole gives up tons of pressure. Three independent sites tell us as much about the Hawks' OL.

Hawks' NFL rank
Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate 24th
Advanced Football Analytics' Pass Protection -EPA 27th
Pro Football Focus' Pass Blocking Efficiency 23rd

Breaking it down down by starter:

LT R. Okung LG J. Carpenter C M. Unger et al. RG J.R. Sweezy RT J. Britt
Pressures allowed 22 18 N/A 33 49

And finally:

Hawks' NFL rank
Total pass plays 29th most
Sacks allowed 25th most
QB Hits allowed 26th most
Hurries allowed 11th most
Pressures allowed 20th most
% Plays under pressure Most most (46%)

The stats point to an obvious matchup problem for the Hawks -- on pass plays generally, and wherever Justin Britt happens to be blocking specifically. However, I'll submit that Britt's body of work will not be the determining factor on Sunday. We already know he's going to be his usual rookie self, his usual 77th-place tackle among those with 100-plus snaps; we already know Britt's going to get owned. (citation: every game of 2014.) Unless he suddenly delivers a Pro-Bowl-level performance, in which case Seattle will win going away. Veteran left end Rob Ninkovich, who will line up opposing Britt, will cause his usual carnage -- he has filled up the stat sheet this year with eight sacks, an interception, four passed defensed, and for good measure, a fumble recovery returned for a score. It's his third consecutive year with at least eight sacks. He's 14th in the league with 17 hurries. He's good.

It's the matchup on the other side that will tell us a lot more.

On the right, third-year man and first-round draft pick Chandler Jones will see a lot of Russell Okung and James Carpenter. Looking at numbers above, those two guys allowed less than half the pressures of Sweezy-Britt, so on the surface they appear okay but maybe not great.

Well, Okung has allowed only one quarterback sack and three QB hits in 462 pass plays, according to PFF. Carpenter? Zero sacks, four hits in 433 plays.

Jones is no slouch. Six, 11.5 and six sacks in his three years despite missing half of 2014. Throw in two more passes defensed and two more fumbles forced this season, and he might be a bigger force, consistently, than Ninkovich.

But when healthy, the left side of Seattle's line is better than good. And they're healthy. If they can perform at their expected level, they can shut Jones down, and a major defensive weapon of New England's is silenced.

(Note: perspicacious user Side Effects alerted me to the fact that in earlier versions of this post, I flipped Ninkovich and Jones' preferred sides. Hat tip to him or her.)

Turning things around now:

Pats' NFL rank
FO's PassPro Adjusted Sack Rate 2th
AFA Pass Protection -EPA 7th
PFF's Pass Blocking Efficiency 23rd

Well ahead of Seattle as a team in pass pro, surprising nobody. Individually speaking:

LT N. Solder LG D. Connolly C B. Stork* RG R. Wendell RT S. Vollmer
Pressures allowed 29 29 13 19 28

* questionable on final injury report

Keep in mind the Patriots' total pressures given up by starters is 118, compared to the Hawks' 122, which come from just four starting linemen, and in fewer pass plays, at that. Again, New England outclasses Seattle.

Pats' NFL Rank
Total pass plays 11th most
Sacks allowed 17th most
QB Hits allowed 2nd most
Hurries allowed 21st most
Pressures allowed 10th most
% Plays under pressure 21st most (28.7)

Despite running more pass plays that the average team, New England tends to avoid a high volume of sacks and hurries. Brady gets a clean pocket more often than most QB's but also, in a weird statistical twist, he gets hit more often.

If Michael Bennett harasses Tom Brady only once on Sunday, first I'll be shocked, and second, that would mean Tom has a terrific day. Erasing Bennett is the kind of thing that would tip the scales heavily in NE's favor. So while his matchup with the left side of the line will be crucial, I also have seen MB enough this year to know that he will be disruptive. Instead, I believe a lot hinges on whether Cliff Avril can navigate past RT Sebastian Vollmer.

Vollmer's a second-round draft pick who grew up in Germany and turned 30 this year. He's not a superstar, just a guy who's accumulated 46 AV in five seasons. Solid. He does have a few bright spots on his resume: 2nd team AP all-NFL in 2010, and two 2nd-team selections by Pro Football Focus, in '12 and '14.

Avril, on the other hand, is a star, if you trust the numbers and ignore the lack of hype around him. 52.5 sacks and 23 forced fumbles in six seasons. Fourteen QB pressures this year, same as Bennett, good for 21st in the league. And a propensity to come up with the big play at the best time.

If Vollmer keeps Avril in check, we'll get no


Both those pressures ended up being somewhat useful in the long run.

Vollmer's responsible for four sacks and seven QB hits, hardly Okung-ish numbers. The matchup is tantalizing -- either man could come out on top but Avril seems the better bet.

Go Hawks.