What to watch for: matchup problems in Super Bowl XLIX
Football is always a game of matchups. In no particular order, here are five things that might swing this year’s Super Bowl:
The Seahawks have had a lot of trouble covering tight ends this year. Two examples in particular stand out. The first is their utter failure to contain San Diego Chargers’ tight end Antonio Gates earlier in the season. He exploded in the red zone, as he was too quick and too large a target for the Seahawks’ linebacking corps, and caught three touchdowns for the day. The second is the Seahawks’ bizarre schematic hiccup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce did not collect a ton of stats, but the Seahawks linebackers bent their zones heavily in Kelce’s direction, which opened up a ton of room for the Chiefs running game and led to a big day from Chiefs halfback Jamaal Charles. The Seahaws rank 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defensive Value Over Average) against tight ends and also struggle with passes in the seams, so New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, a player who combines Kelce’s size and strength with Gates’s athleticism, could have yet another monster day for the Pats. If the Seahawks choose to collapse on him, Patriots halfback LeGarette Blount might benefit the holes they leave.
While Patriots’ cornerback Darelle Revis has been solid on the right (from the offense’s perspective) side of the field, former Seahawk cornerback Brandon Browner has left a gaping hole in New England’s defense on the other side. The team ranks 17th in DVOA on passes to second wide receivers and 27th on defending passes to the left side. While the Seahawks are not exactly known for their illustrious wide receiver corps, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse has exploded in recent weeks, including the playoffs, and he occupies a space where the Patriots are very weak. He could have a huge impact on the outcome.
New England has a huge special teams advantage in this game, ranking fifth in DVOA to Seattle’s 19th. New England kicker Stephen Gotskowski has much more range and consistency than his Seahawks’ counterpart Stephen Hauschka. Throw in New England’s success with punt returns and the Seahawks’ extraordinary season long difficulty with them and field position could have a huge effect in this one.
The Patriots do not have a very versatile front seven. Beyond outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, everyone in their defensive front is either a run stopper who is too slow to rush the passer or a pass rusher who has trouble adjusting to run plays. This is a disaster against Seattle’s quarterback Russell Wilson, and halfback Marshawn Lynch. Wilson has an incredible ability to duck pass rushers and either throw the ball or make plays with his feet. Considering the Patriots’ trouble in coverage, this could lead to some huge gains, and Wilson will not have to do too much to avoid the Patriots pass rush. Lynch could also have a field day, as New England’s pass rush often takes itself out of run plays leaving two or three guys in the box. Lynch breaks three man tackles in his sleep. We might be in for another beast quake. There’s really nothing the Seahawks do that plays into the Patriots’ strengths.
Patriots’ wide receiver Brandon LaFell is 6’3” and 210 pounds. This is marginally larger than the giant Seahawks cornerbacks trying to cover him. Other than that, the Patriots have a tiny wide receiver corps by NFL standards. This could be an issue since it decreases the target size for Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady to something that is easily covered by the likes of Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, 6’3” and 195 pounds and 6’1” and 207 pounds respectively. Throw in Seahawks’ safeties Kam Chancellor, a man who was once described by Sherman as a “destroyer of souls,” and Earl Thomas, the best coverage safety in the league, and it could be a long day for the Patriots’ wide receivers. The factor of the deflated footballs is not to be discounted here either. A solid estimate says Brady started authorizing the deflation shortly after the Chiefs embarrassed him on national TV, a moment when his accuracy bizarrely spiked for three months. The footballs will likely not be deflated this weekend, which could cause a minor decrease in precision, further exaggerating this issue.
Either way, it should be a close and exciting game.