While this chess match is vital, the battle between the Seattle offense and the New England defense will be at least as important and could very well decide the outcome of this game.
The Patriots have made dramatic strides on the defensive side of the ball in the last three seasons. During the 2012 season, the Pats were simply awful on pass defense and couldn’t cover receivers on any kind of medium- or long-range pass pattern.
They made progress in 2013 after they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib, but there were still vulnerabilities and they were just ordinary in all phases of defense.
But Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have stepped up their game this year, and the Patriots are no longer content to let their defense hold its own while the offense gathers headlines with Brady, Rob Gronkowski and LeGarrette Blount.
The New England defense has playmakers up and down its lineup, and any one of them is capable of turning the game in the Patriots’ favor in any series.
The Patriots’ primary responsibility will be keeping Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards, 13 TDs) from going wild and putting his imprint on the Super Bowl. Lynch is probably the nastiest and most determined running back in the NFL.
He may not have had as many yards as the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray (1,845, 13 TDs), but his street fighter’s mentality puts him in a different category than any other back in the league. Go ahead and smack Lynch in the mouth in the first quarter and punish him in the second. You are not going to slow him down. He is going to come back for more – a lot more in the third and fourth quarters.
That’s what makes him so dangerous. Most teams are going to pay lip service to the importance of the running game and say how they are going to stick with it for 60 minutes. That only works if you have a running back who is dishing out the punishment and not just accepting it. That fits Lynch perfectly, and he wants to hurt anyone who tries to tackle him. He is the NFL’s most dangerous fourth-quarter running back.
The Patriots are going to ask Vince Wilfork, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich to take the primary responsibility for the laying of hands – and forearms and shoulders – on Lynch. Wilfork (47 tackles) has been the anchor of the Patriots’ interior run defense for years, and he is still a space eater who is tough to move out of position.
Collins, Hightower and Ninkovich are a sharp and athletic bunch of tacklers who are going to have to bring Lynch down once they get their hands on him. Lynch is famous for busting tackles and taking it to the second level, and once he does that he has won the battle. Safety Patrick Chung (85 tackles) is one of the surest tacklers on the Patriots, but if he has a high number of tackles Sunday, that’s not an encouraging sign.
Collins led the Patriots with 116 tackles this year and he also had four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Hightower (89 tackles, one forced fumble) is Patricia’s coach on the field from his middle linebacker spot. While he is fighting a shoulder injury, he is going to try to torment Lynch from his MLB position.
Ninkovich (62 tackles, 8.0 sacks, one fumble recovery for a TD) may be the X-factor in the battle to contain the running back. He has studied all of his tendencies and if any of the Patriots are going to be in a position to bring Lynch down behind the line of scrimmage, it’s Ninkovich.
Stopping Lynch is the Patriots’ top priority, but it’s not the entire battle. They have to keep Russell Wilson in the pocket and prevent him from making big plays with his feet. His ability to turn third downs into first downs with his ability as a runner makes him a unique weapon. The Patriots have not faced a lot of mobile quarterbacks this year, and Wilson is clearly the best of this group.
He also excels at throwing the ball on the run. Belichick has compared Wilson to Roger Staubach for his ability to stay in control once the pocket breaks down and he is forced to scramble. Once Wilson gets to the outside, he excels at launching the ball and putting it in a perfect position for Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson.
Wilson has the advantage over most teams in those pocket-breakdown situations. But the Patriots counter with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Even when they are going to be asked to stay with their men in extended cover situations, does it seem likely that the Seahawks’ pass catchers will get the best of them? Not at all.
When Wilson is throwing the ball from the pocket, he is simply not as effective. He had an awful game for 57 minutes in the NFC Championship game, and the Patriots are going to ask Wilson to try to beat them from that position. That is not his strength.
The physical battle between the New England defense and Lynch will play a huge role in deciding the outcome of this game. If the Pats can hold their own there and keep Wilson from going wild, they appear to have a solid opportunity to raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.