As I dissected the game film from the NFC Championship game two Sundays ago my lasting observation was how weird of a game it really was, particularly in the first half. Fueled by a string of Seahawk turnovers, the Packers regularly began their drives in outstanding field position. But while the Packers’ offense seemed ubiquitous in the first half, at halftime they had come away with only 16 points. Even from play-to-play the offense surged forward and backward. Eddie Lacy would pop off a run for 6 yards only to be swarmed and driven back on the next. The entire flow of the game was bizarre. As we dive in to what the film has to show us with an eye towards the Super Bowl, what we’ll find is that schematically it seems the Packers were able to find weaknesses in the Seahawks defense but was unable to win the one-on-one match-ups necessary to convert strategy into victory.
We’ll begin with the running game. While the Seahawks remain one of the best run defenses in the league, injuries up front have left the interior of the defense a little bit softer than usual. Green Bay, with a hobbled Aaron Rodgers, clearly wanted to establish the inside run game to open things up for and take pressure off of their quarterback. They attempted to accomplish this by aiming their inside run game at an area of a defense known as the “bubble.”
A bubble is an area of the defensive front where an offensive lineman is left uncovered by a defensive lineman. These are often vulnerable spots to attack with the running game because the uncovered offensive lineman can be used to double-team at the point of attack or release into the second level of the defense. The Packers are going to use the inside zone to do both.
Towards the end of the first quarter on first and ten Green Bay is in 11 personnel with the tight end Quarless aligned in the backfield as a fullback. Seattle uses their nickel package with a 4-3 over defensive alignment. Although #94 of Seattle is shaded towards Green Bay’s right guard he is responsible for the “A” gaps on either side of the center, effectively leaving #70 of Green Bay as an uncovered lineman. This right guard will help the center establish his block on #94 before releasing to the linebacker. The tight end Quarless aids the left guard in his block on #99, but the guard is unable to release onto the linebacker. Luckily for them Eddie Lacy uses his vision to bail them out. We’ll circle back to Andrew Quarless later.
Notice how Lacy knows he has two lanes to work with, the beauty of the zone run. He sucks the linebacker and nose into the cutback lane before firing out to open grass. By and large the Packers win the one-on-one battles and the result is a seven yard run on first down, opening up an array of options for the offense. Green Bay ran this play repeatedly throughout the day, nearly always targeting the defensive “bubble.” Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t all good.
Early in the second quarter on second and five Green Bay aligns in the Pistol with 11 personnel. Seattle counters with their nickel package, splits both defensive ends out in a wide alignment and shades the nose tackle in a 2 alignment directly over the right guard. This forces the center to slide all the way over and double team Michael Bennett before the left guard releases onto the middle linebacker. Quarless slides all the way across the formation to seal off Cliff Avril on the backside of the play. Although Randall Cobb is not shown in this shot he is aligned in the slot and is responsible for blocking down on Kam Chancellor.
Michael Bennett sniffs out the double-team, splits it and just manhandles the center on his way to Lacy. Asking the center to slide all the way over to block Bennett is a tall task, however he does have a double-team with the guard that is designed for him to be able to establish leverage so that the guard can release to the linebacker. Most of the other blocks are solid but the Packers are unable to win a crucial one-on-one and it costs them. Lacy can’t bounce outside because Irvin has good contain and he can’t cutback because Cliff Avril is waiting. That’s right, the Cliff Avril who was on the back end of the play. The Cliff Avril whom Andrew Quarless was supposed to take care of. Quarless totally whiffs on his block; not committing fully to cutting Avril but instead sheepishly kneeling as if discovering a rogue quarter on the turf. This allows Avril to block the cutback lane and leads us into our next section of study.
“Lo, I am become Gronk: The Destroyer of Worlds”
In today’s NFL teams are now, more than ever, looking for tight ends who both are strong blockers in the run game and have the physical prowess to win match-ups in the secondary. The usage of the tight ends in Green Bay’s offense against the Seahawks showed some interesting trends that can give us more insight as to why the Packer’s offense sputtered at times and exactly how important Rob Gronkowski will be to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. We’ll start by looking further at the run-blocking by Green Bay.
With 10:49 to go in the second quarter with the ball on their own forty-four yard line, the Packers use 11 personnel on third and two with the tight end Quarless once again aligned in the backfield. Seattle continues to counter Green Bay’s 3-wide, 1-tight end sets with their nickel package, aligning in an over front. Pre-snap motion by Cobb leaves him in the backfield just off the hip of the right tackle and draws the attention of Kam Chancellor who steps down into the box. Once again Green Bay sees the bubble in the defense on the weak side of the formation and dials up the inside zone with a small wrinkle: Quarless and the right guard will double-team Bennett initially before the guard releases onto the middle linebacker.
This shot says it all. Quarless is standing straight up and has no leverage while Bennett puts his shoulder into Quarless’ numbers and drives through his gap. Lacy stutter-steps as if he wants to cut back but plows ahead knowing he needs two yards and Bennett is going to be diving at his heels. After this point in the game Richard Rodgers got the majority of snaps at tight end. He fared better than Andrew Quarless but overall the run-blocking by the tight ends of the Packers was less than stellar in this game. The Seahawks will now face probably the best run-blocking tight end in the game right now in Rob Gronkowski. In the days leading up to the game I’m sure we’ll hear all kinds of conjecture about how the Seahawks will defend Gronk in the passing game but his run blocking might be one of the most important advantages the Patriots have over other teams who have fallen to the Seahawks. While we’re on the subject though, let’s look at how the Packers tried to create mismatches for Richard Rodgers.
In the second quarter on second and fifteen with 1:14 on the clock the Packers have trips to the right and split Richard Rodgers out wide to the left. Seattle once again sees Green Bay in 11 personnel and goes to the nickel. They align with two deep safeties, showing man coverage across the board. Instead of keeping cornerback Byron Maxwell on the outside and allowing KJ Wright to be matched up against Jordy Nelson, Wright follows Rodgers and gives him a five yard cushion.
KJ Wright is one of the best cover linebackers in the league right now and by and large played really well in this game, particularly in the middle of field. We can see Seattle’s confidence in him once the ball is snapped as both safeties shade towards the strong side of the formation, with Earl Thomas splitting the trips and Chancellor guarding the middle of the field. This leaves Wright with very little help over the top and is probably his reason for giving Rodgers a generous cushion. Aaron Rodgers sees the man coverage and hits the tight end on a quick hitch. The Packers go back to the cookie jar on the next play, with very different results.
On third and ten the Packers align in the same formation but the Seahawks respond by putting Kam Chancellor out wide on the tight end and playing press-man across the board. The Seahawks bring the blitz, leaving a deep safety in the middle of the field for help over the top shaded towards the strong side. Let’s see how Chancellor fares split out wide in this one-on-one.
Chancellor manhandles Rodgers, getting a jam immediately and disrupting the route so effectively that we can only make an educated guess as to what it was supposed to be. The Seahawks’ man coverage holds up, even with a rub on the outside, and it results in an incompletion. This sequence of plays gives us some small insight into how the Seahawks are willing to match up with tight ends aligned to the outside of the formation. Although I doubt the Seahawks would leave Gronk in single coverage with no help over the top, expect the Patriots to use Gronkowski’s alignment to create favorable match-ups for not only him but for the other receivers. For instance, if New England was to use the same formation as the Packers used it would be much more risky for the Seahawks to shade their safeties so far to the strong side. This could potentially create openings for the receivers on the other side of the formation. The Packers used these spread out trips formations a lot in this game. There is, however, a problem with spreading the receivers out like this.
This is My Jam
One of the things that makes the Seahawks so effective defensively is their ability to play relatively conservative coverages in an aggressive style. Seattle will regularly play simple zone coverage but instead of aligning the corners deep, closer to where they will drop, they will walk them in press coverage and attempt to disrupt the receiver’s timing. This also allows the cornerbacks to carry the receiver up the field, making short routes like curls and quick hitches more difficult. When Green Bay aligns in their spread looks it leaves their receivers vulnerable to the rather handsy Seattle defensive backs who can line up directly across from them.
It’s the fourth quarter, second and 7, with 11:45 left to go in the game. Green Bay splits James Starks out wide to the right and begins with Randall Cobb aligned in the backfield. Cobb motions into the left slot and the Packers end up in a spread five-wide formation. Seattle brings in their nickel package and aligns their defensive backs in press coverage. KJ Wright follows Starks and, just as with the tight end, gives a healthy cushion. Green Bay is going to run curls over the middle of the field with “9” routes on the outside and attack the flat from the left slot. Seattle will be in Cover 1 “Robber,” where a safety drops to the deep middle and a defender squats in an underneath zone while the rest of the defensive backs are in man coverage. Aaron Rodgers will scramble with no one open and the receivers will follow him across the field. For the sake of a neat diagram I didn’t draw the backyard football at the end of the play.
Once again we can see all we need to see from one shot. As soon as the receivers release into their routes the Seattle d-backs go to work disrupting the timing of Green Bay’s updated West Coast scheme. So how does an offense create space for its wide receivers against an aggressive secondary? The answer lies in the bunch formations and “stacked receivers” you always hear the announcers talking about.
A bunch formation is when three or more receivers align within five yards of each other. The threat of rubs on the defensive backs forces the defense to give the receivers more room until they stem into their routes. On third down, with just under six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Green Bay shows a bunch formation to the left with the tight end Richard Rodgers once again split out wide to the right. Seattle plays in their nickel package and KJ Wright follows the tight end while Richard Sherman swaps to the other side of the field to help with the bunch. Both Sherman and Byron Maxwell give a larger cushion to the receivers off the line of scrimmage to avoid falling victim to a rub route. The Seahawks will run the same defense here as they did on the last play we looked at: Cover 1 Robber.
Look at the room the receivers have to work with compared to when they aligned in a spread formation. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t target the bunch on this play, instead targeting KJ Wright on the outside just as he did earlier. Wright wins the match-up this time and it results in an incompletion but we can still see the difference a change in alignment can make when it comes to attacking the defense.
So what does all this mean for the Super Bowl? I would look for the Patriots to run towards the same soft spots in the defense that the Packers did. The Patriots use more of a man blocking scheme than a zone scheme so expect to see a lot of pulling guards. As far as which running backs they’ll use I believe we’ll see steady rotation of Blount and Vereen with both on the field at times so that they can motion Vereen into the slot and create a 3-wide look.
Rob Gronkowski is a huge factor in this game. I expect the Patriots to line him up all over the field; split out wide, on the inside of bunches, on the line and off the line. His ability to run block effectively is so important. If New England is able to get their running game rolling they’ll start passing off of play-action and at that point it could be a long day for the Seahawks. The return of Brian Stork to the Patriots line is also an underrated story.
I’d also expect to see a lot of bunch formations and stacked receivers from the Patriots to protect their receivers from Seattle’s press coverage. New England is notorious for their use of rub routes and these alignments are only going to make these things more effective. Look for Edelman and Amendola to work the middle of the field on digs and square-ins.
In the end, however, this game is going to come down to the individual match-ups. The Seahawks are one of the most talented and well-coached teams in football. They force a team to play their absolute best in order to beat them. What we saw in the NFC Championship was that despite a well-aimed attack the Packers were unable to consistently win one-on-one battles all over the field and, in the grimmest end, it cost them.