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Super Bowl 2015: Mike Tanier's Preview and Prediction for Seahawks-Patriots

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2015

AP Images

Super Bowl XLIX pits Tom Brady against the toughest foe of his amazing career: the young Tom Brady.

That's who Russell Wilson is: the next Tom Brady. That is who he has always been. Brady is not facing history or "legacies" or a small scandal projected into something huge like a cockroach in an IMAX documentary. He is facing one of the greatest defenses in history, but we're getting metaphorical and metaphysical here. What Brady is facing, on the deepest level, is his past and the NFL's future.

Wilson is the next Brady. You don't have to squint to see it. Wilson has had the early success, the warp-speed flight from mid-round-rookie obscurity to persistent Super Bowl glory. Like Brady, he had a lot of help from a great defense and a tightly run organization in his rise to the top; acknowledging the obvious does not take away from his accomplishments.

Brady in February 2002.
Brady in February 2002.KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press/Associated Press

Wilson and the young Brady produced large win totals but small stat totals. Wilson succeeds with timely big plays, great decisions and exceptional game generalship, like the young Brady. Both were/are easy to lazily dismiss as "products of a system," both developed nurtured diverse, superstar-caliber skill sets during the early years when the defense or running game had to fill in some of the gaps. Wilson is in the final stages of developing and nurturing his.

Wilson, like the young Brady, punctuated his greatness by leading his team to victory against Peyton Manning's team. Do you see the resemblance now?

Matt York/Associated Press

Some colleagues are casting this game as a great quarterback against a "just good" one. That's fair from "macro" standpoint (the third-year pro has not yet climbed to Brady's perch on the all-time lists) or the "micro" standpoint. (Wilson didn't look all that great against the Packers; the great-good headline is also outstanding from a quantum clickability standpoint.) But from the relativistic standpoint, when we get cosmic and non-Newtonian, Brady and Wilson are just greatness perceived from two angles. Wilson is greatness coming toward us, Brady moving away from us. Brady is "better" because we still experience bands of greatness from 2001-04, 2007 and 2011 trailing behind him. Wilson's greatness is compressed and immediate; we have not yet felt its full brunt.

The problem with being in the here-and-now is that our perspective is limited. It's hard to filter out the Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch noise to see what is right in front of our eyes. Brady and Bill Belichick are trying to win their fourth Super Bowl, yes, but Wilson, Lynch and Pete Carroll are going for their second, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis their first. These are not people who will be forgotten in four years. They are historic football personalities. These are people we will remember in 20-30 years as legends, just as we remember those who came before them 20-30 years ago.

How will we remember them?

Wilson Is Brady

See above.

Lynch Is John Riggins

Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Riggins had a successful career with the Jets, then became a superstar during a second career as the Redskins' power runner in their rise to the top, just as Lynch played well in Buffalo before becoming a public figure in Seattle. Riggins was often involved in some financial hassle, just like Lynch.

Lynch talks too little, but Riggins talked too much. Sit Lynch down next to a Supreme Court justice, and "I'm just sitting here so I don't get fined" becomes a welcome alternative to Riggins' "Come on, Sandy baby. Loosen up. You're too tight."

Gronkowski Is Shannon Sharpe 

Gronkowski arrived for the second half of a Hall of Fame quarterback's career, providing a new type of weapon and an offensive jolt. He missed his team and quarterback's first round of Super Bowl appearances; not much to miss, in the case of Sharpe's Broncos. He has been a superstar tight end on a great team that has fell a game or two short for years. Gronk is Sharpe in 1997, ready to put his emphatic stamp on the last few years of a legend's career and punctuate his own greatness in the process.

Richard Sherman Is Ronnie Lott

Joe Montana threw just 19 touchdown passes in 1981, when the 49ers won their first Super Bowl. Lott, then a rookie, had seven interceptions, two fumble recoveries and three touchdowns. Lott was a first-team All Pro; Montana had the lowest touchdown and yardage totals of the four Pro Bowl quarterbacks that year. (Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson and Steve Bartkowski were the others.)

Those of us who played sandlot football in the early 1980s know that Lott was as big a star as Montana, if not bigger, before Montana grew to symbolize the West Coast offense and a whole new style of football. That's where Sherman and Wilson are now. Seven years from now, when double-threat quarterbacks are fully embraced by most of the league and Sherman has moved to (Pro Bowl-caliber) safety, perceptions will be different.

Darrelle Revis Is Mike Haynes

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Haynes was an outstanding cornerback for a terrible Patriots organization in the 1970s. Imagine if the current Jets sometimes floated bad checks to keep the stadium plumbing working: That's about what the 1970's Patriots were like. Haynes held out after his contract expired in 1982, because back then, NFL players couldn't do things other human beings do when employment contracts expire (seek employment where they chose), because football folks thought free agency was worse than devil worship.

Anonymous/Associated Press

Haynes forced a massive trade to the Raiders, where he joined an aging dynasty trying to extend its run of success. He got the Raiders one more Super Bowl and kept them in the picture for several more seasons; he eventually reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He did not make a pit stop with the Buccaneers like Revis, but he did threaten to join the USFL, which is nearly as sad.

Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor Are Dick Anderson and Jake Scott

They were the safeties for the 1972 Dolphins; it is OK to not remember them, since they were leaders of the "No Name Defense." Anderson was a three-time Pro Bowler who also had three eight-interception seasons. Scott was easily the best safety in the NFL of the early 1970s, the Thomas of his era. He would have made the Hall of Fame if there weren't so many other 1972 Dolphins ahead of him in the queue.

Poor safeties; they only get remembered if they have some kind of vicious-hitter reputation and nickname. Thomas and Chancellor may fare better than Anderson and Scott. Then again, history might bury them behind Wilson, the enigmatic Lynch, the loquacious Sherman and the 12th Man legend.

Vince Wilfork Is Dave Butz

Uncredited/Associated Press

Wilfork is a hulking institution in the middle of the line, a bridge between eras. Butz followed the Redskins from the Over the Hill Gang to the days of Doug Williams and Mark Rypien. Wilfork plugged the defensive line for the last of the three championship Patriots teams, through Randy Moss and 40-point blowouts and into the modern era. With scandal nipping at the rest of the organization's heels at every turn, Wilfork eats up double-teams, filibusters to kill time at press conferences, then saves lives at traffic accidents.

And Brady?

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

There are only a handful of truly unique individuals in NFL history. Brady is one. Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis are two others. Jim Brown, Don Maynard, Sammy Baugh, Chuck Bednarik, Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, maybe a dozen others. They weren't just great, but incomparable; their careers and accomplishments have an unusual shape. They changed strategies, roles or expectations. Brady looked like another Troy Aikman or Bart Starr early in his career, but the years have turned him into something different, a hybrid of Aikman with Dan Marino or Starr with Johnny Unitas, something singular.

And yet Wilson is beginning to look like the next Brady. Two Super Bowl appearances in three years, plus a playing style and public persona that make people rethink their expectations and perceptions, will do that for a young quarterback.

When viewing Wilson and Brady as two angles on the same phenomenon, the results of Super Bowl XLIX become almost irrelevant. Brady has a 40-60 percent chance of winning this matchup with Wilson. Despite his stated plans to play past his current contract, Brady has about a zero percent chance of beating Wilson in 2018, just as Wilson had a zero percent chance of beating Brady in 2007.

There's no "legacy" at stake here, unless Brady takes the field gripping a football that gives like a kitchen sponge. Brady owns the past, Wilson has claimed the future, and they share the present according to their prescribed point on the path, Brady dragging both glory and the baggage of success (jealousy, suspicion, old grudges) behind him down the hill, Wilson basking in still-fresh admiration and earning acceptance behind the rope of "greatness" as he climbs.

But then, "the winner is irrelevant" makes for a pretty lousy Super Bowl prediction, doesn't it?

A More Traditional Super Bowl Preview

Enough of the satellite view; let's get granular! If you read a "Seahawks safeties versus Gronk" breakdown one more time your immortal soul will shrivel like a raisin, so let's touch on some other important trends and matchups. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Football Outsiders, some from their internal database.

When the Patriots Have the Ball

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The preferred method for beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl—the only known method, really—is to pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. That requires the defensive front to consistently win one-on-one line-of-scrimmage matchups.

Call it The Giants Method. Apply pressure with four defenders against five blockers, keep seven defenders in coverage, force some rushed throws and three-and-outs, hope for a strange sequence of fourth-quarter events, and Presto! The Lombardi Trophy is yours. The Ravens attempted something similar to The Giants Method three weeks ago, and it nearly worked, but the strange sequence of fourth-quarter events went the other way.

The Seahawks have a great defense, of course, but they are built to win matchups in the secondary, not on the defensive line. That does not mean their defensive line is ineffective (they have very good edge-rushers but, with Brandon Mebane hurt, are ordinary on the inside), just that they would rather use their outstanding secondary to create blitz opportunities than use their defensive front to create extra coverage opportunities.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

This is a subtle point that works in New England's favor: The Patriots are excellent against the blitz, while the Seattle defense is not as dominant when it rushes three or four defenders.

The Seahawks only rushed five or more defenders on 26 percent of pass plays this season, roughly the typical league average. Their blitzes were incredibly efficient, however. The table below shows that Seahawks blitzes lead not just to a higher sack rate (as you would figure), but a lower completion rate, a lower yards-per-attempt rate and greater overall pressure (hurries, knockdowns or plays where the quarterback was under clear duress to get rid of the football).

Seahawks Pass Defense: Blitz vs. Non-Blitz
Pass RushersCompletion RateYards Per attemptSack RatePressure Rate
3 or 464%6.65%21%
5 or more56%5.911%28%
Football Outsiders Game Charting Project

That extra pass-rusher, usually Bobby Wagner or K.J. Wright, is free to do his deviltry because the Seahawks secondary handles man coverage so easily. He is the player who often puts the Seahawks pass defense over the top.

But there's a problem: Blitzing Brady is almost counterproductive. Brady completes 65.0 percent of his passes and averages 7.2 yards per attempt against three- or four-man rushes. He completes 65.5 percent of his passes and averages 7.9 yards per attempt against five-to-seven-man rushes. Brady was sacked 16 times and intentionally grounded two passes against three- or four-man rushes, but was sacked just three times on blitzes.

There is some cause-and-effect feedback in Brady's anti-blitz numbers. Brady faces a lot of blitzes by opponents who have no choice—nothing else is working, so send an extra pass-rusher! Opponents like the Dolphins and Chiefs went after Brady with four defenders because they could. They had the quality manpower to approximate The Giants Method. (The Jets and Bills also fall broadly into this category.) No one wants to sit back and let an unpressured Brady beat it, but everyone wants its defensive front to find the weak links in the Patriots line.

Dec 28, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen (34) against Buffalo Bills free safety Aaron Williams (23) in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 17-9. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II
USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots offensive system makes it hard for a defense to dial up its best blitzes. Between the no-huddle, the quick-huddle and a base personnel package that could turn into a power formation or an empty-backfield spread formation at the line of scrimmage, only the most determined defensive coaches get many opportunities to use an elaborate blitz against the Patriots.

So the Seahawks want to blitz, but the Patriots only want them to blitz on Brady's terms. We all know that Gronk is going to slide all over the formation, but Shane Vereen, Tim Wright and others will be split wide or bunched in unusual combinations, forcing K.J. Wright or Wagner to either match up with them or tip their hand by showing blitz. The Seahawks are likely to limit their blitzing while playing lots of base-on-base personnel. That will create winnable underneath matchups for Brady to exploit, even if Chancellor and Thomas slow Gronk and Sherman takes away one half of the field.

This advantage for the Patriots will be narrow. The Seahawks are stingier on short passes than on long ones: Football Outsiders ranks them fourth against short passes, ninth against deep ones (15 or more yards downfield). Brady is at his weakest when trying to attack the deep sidelines, so Seahawks defenders know that the Patriots will be trying to complete passes in front of them. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril will win some battles against the Patriots offensive line without needing a blitz boost.

But the Patriots can make the Seahawks pass defense almost ordinary if they can stymie the front four, and few quarterbacks in history can pick apart a defense that is forced to blitz like Brady. Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Bryan Stork, Dan Connolly and Josh Kline can force the Seahawks to play a typical Patriots game instead of what the Seahawks want to play: a Giants Super Bowl.

When the Seahawks Have the Ball

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 07:  Tony Moeaki #88 of the Seattle Seahawks makes a catch in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 7, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Forget Gronk, Chancellor and Thomas. Just how are the Patriots going to stop Luke Willson and Tony Moeaki, anyway?

The Patriots rank 12th in the NFL in overall pass defense, according to Football Outsiders. But they rank 30th at stopping tight ends. Willson, Moeaki and Cooper Helfet are not exactly Gronk, Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, but they average more than 16 yards per catch. The Seahawks try to generate one or two big pass plays per game by using power formations and play action to slip their tight ends past the defense. The Patriots defense, meanwhile, is not very good at stopping tight ends from slipping past it.

The Patriots came by that 30th ranking against tight ends honestly. Charles Clay had eight catches for 86 yards against them in two games, including 22- and 24-yard catches. Scott Chandler had seven catches for 125 yards in two games. Travis Kelce caught eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Chiefs loss. Richard Rodgers caught a 32-yard touchdown in the Packers loss. Jeff Cumberland caught six passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns in two games. Martellus Bennett had six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, though that Bears game was a blowout after the first quarter, so it did not really matter.

These are not great numbers by great tight ends. They are surprisingly good numbers by average tight ends on teams that (in most cases) lacked exceptional downfield passing games. The Patriots stopped tight ends like Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas and the Colts tandem effectively this season, but they have some trouble with ball-control teams that use the tight end as a big-play threat. That's precisely what the Seahawks are on offense.

There are complex reasons why the Patriots have a hard time stopping tight ends, but they can be summarized as "Patrick Chung cannot cover anyone." Chung is a capable safety in run defense but a liability in coverage. If you see an opposing tight end catch a touchdown pass against the Patriots, you can probably spot Chung at the edge of the frame.

Patrick Chung tackles Richard Rodgers. Too late.
Patrick Chung tackles Richard Rodgers. Too late.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

According to Pro Football Focus, Chung allowed five touchdown catches and a 106.8 passer rating on throws to his receivers in the regular season, but that only tells part of the story. The Patriots use Duron Harmon as a nickel safety and slip Chung into underneath zones on passing downs; Chung usually trades challenging downfield coverage assignments for a role as a spy against scramblers or a speedy tackler on passes underneath.

Chung's liabilities explain the Patriots tight end problem nicely. Chung doesn't draw many assignments against the likes of Antonio Gates; Devin McCourty, Harmon or a cornerback is more likely to draw a top tight end in man coverage. Chung is more likely to get isolated against Cumberland types when opponents are in run formations that draw Chung into the box.

The figure below shows how the Jets used a simple concept to exploit Chung in man coverage in their second meeting. Cumberland (85) lines up inside Jace Amaro (88) in a two-tight-end alignment to the right. The receivers take the cornerbacks and deep safety Harmon (30) to the left. Chung (23) and McCourty (32) divvy up the tight ends, with McCourty taking the seemingly more critical outside responsibility. Play action freezes the linebackers (and Chung, briefly), and Cumberland turns the safety around with a swift inside move. The result was one of the few easy touchdowns the Jets experienced this year.

Patrick Chung gets beat.
Patrick Chung gets beat.Tanier Art Studios

(A quick note from film study: The Dolphins also used concepts like this one to get Clay open on a few occasions. The Chargers used almost the same concept shown in the diagram to free Ladarius Green down the field. He lined up inside a second tight end—Gates had briefly left the game—but ran a post against linebacker Jonathan Casillas. Philip Rivers was a split-second late finding Green, who got walloped a moment after he caught the pass. The ball fluttered into the air, and McCourty hauled it in for an interception that was really more of a fumble recovery, but whatever. The bottom line: Teams like to get those tight ends down the field against the Patriots.)

If the Patriots do not fear your running game, Belichick will get creative with his coverage patterns. Brandon Browner covered Gates a few times in the Chargers game. Revis often draws the slot assignment, and he covered Coby Fleener several times in the conference championship game. Spread the field with four receivers, and Chung will give way to Harmon and a dime package.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

The Patriots must respect both the Seahawks' running game and the option threat, which means Chung will be on the field, in the box and often facing an either-or assignment of chasing Lynch, spying Wilson or making sure that Willson or another tight end does not slip past him. If the tight ends get away for a 20-30-yard catch each, it will be a big advantage for the Seahawks, who will get both the yardage and a wary defense when the Seahawks play their option game.

The Seahawks enjoy another distinct advantage when the Patriots have their run defenders on the field. The Patriots rank last in the NFL at defending short-yardage situations, according to Football Outsiders. Opponents have had 79 opportunities to convert a first down or touchdown with one or two yards to go against the Patriots and have succeeded 55 times. Opponents average 5.7 yards per play in short-yardage situations against the Patriots, a remarkable figure inflated by several big pass plays on 3rd- or 4th-and-short by Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill and Kyle Orton.

The Seahawks will be able to convert short-yardage situations, and despite the mismatches at wide receiver, they will be able to generate a handful of long pass plays. They are very likely to generate a long pass or two in short-yardage situations. In a game where drives will be precious, using some 3rd-and-short conversions to set up the surprise tight end up the seam could give the Seahawks just enough of a cushion to let their defense do what it does best.

The Prediction

The Giants beat the Patriots 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII and 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI. Those Patriots offenses were better than this one, and those Giants defenses, while configured differently, were not nearly as tough as this Seahawks defense.

That does not mean the Seahawks will automatically beat the Patriots. It does mean that this game is going to be low-scoring, with the first team to 21 winning.

The Patriots have been held under 21 points 24 times since 2009, the year Brady returned from his knee injury (postseason games included). They are 6-18 in those games. Messy slugfests just aren't their style, and that list of 24 games includes all of their playoff losses in the last six years.

Since Wilson became the starter in 2012, the Seahawks are 11-6 in games where they score 21 points or fewer. Messy slugfests are their thing.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

These Seahawks have too much in common with the Giants and Ravens teams that have given the Patriots postseason fits for nearly a decade to ignore. Despite their shortcomings—I can't imagine them reaching 28 points on Sunday without a defensive touchdown—they have proved incredibly good at the job they are about to set out to do. They consistently defeat opponents with outstanding passing games. Their brand of field-position football effectively slows games down and tilts the field to their advantage.

The Seahawks are building their empire on the ruins of the empires they defeat. The Patriots are their toughest challenge, but also their last one. The Patriots may be the greatest American sports franchise of our generation. But in 2015, the Seahawks are the better team.

Prediction: Seahawks 22, Patriots 20.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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