Film review: Defending Russell Wilson

After spending more time than any of us would like to admit discussing balls, it's time to move on to Seattle and the incredible football game Sunday figures to provide. To familiarize myself with the Seahawks, I went back and watched the film of three Hawks games: their dramatic NFC championship game win over the Packers, their Week 3 overtime triumph over Denver and the Patriots upset loss to the (at the time) upstart Seahawks in 2012. After yesterday's look at the zone blocking that dominates Seattle's offense, today I'm moving on to Russell Wilson and the challenges his game presents a defense.

Set the edge, push the pocket

The first thing that comes to mind with Wilson is his unique mobility. The damage Wilson can do with his legs on scrambles and designed QB keepers is clear, as he rushed for an impressive 814 yards and six touchdown during the regular season. That athleticism makes Wilson dangerous as a runner, but it also makes him a constant threat to extend the play, often stretching the defense to it's breaking point. Even while scrambling, Wilson always has his eyes up, looking for any potential receivers breaking open downfield. When he breaks contain, Wilson becomes a nightmare to defend; dangerous as a runner and a deadly accurate passer on the run. Keeping Wilson from escaping the pocket will surely be a key component of the game plan.

This means end-of-line players like Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and (possibly) Akeem Ayers might have the most important job on the Patriots defense come Sunday. It will be on them to set a good hard edge to keep Wilson stuck in the pocket. Keeping Wilson in the pocket will take priority over edge pressure this game, as Wilson becomes far more dangerous when he escapes the pocket and is an equal threat to throw or run.

The Pats haven't played a quarterback who can match the threat Wilson provides with his legs and ability to throw on the run this year, but the closest they've seen was likely Aaron Rodgers. Bill Belichick spoke at length in the week leading up to that Week 13 game about the stress Rodgers legs put on a defense, and the game plan he put out there on Lambeau Field reflected the level of respect Belichick had for his rushing ability.

This led me to go back and look at the game film from that Packers game to revisit their game plan, parts of which will surely be integrated into this week's plan for Wilson. While some of the schematic intricacies from Week 13 will surely be changed, the basic philosophy remains unchanged: the focus of the rush is more to keep the quarterback trapped in the pocket than to necessarily sack him.

It's a plan that might work better against Wilson than Rodgers. Plenty were critical of the Patriots strategy following that narrow Week 13 loss, saying that they allowed Rodgers too much time to process their pass defense and find holes to exploit. There might have been some merit to that criticism then; giving that much time to Rodgers and his dangerous cast of receivers can be the football equivalent of playing with fire. However, against Wilson and his largely pedestrian receiving crew? Any defense would take their chances with Wilson beating them from the pocket, rather than letting him escape and let his mobility take over.

For starters, few quarterbacks deal with pressure better or as often as Wilson. Wilson faced pressure on a whopping 44.9% of his dropbacks, the result of his tendency to extend plays combining with a leaky offensive line. Like all quarterbacks, his passing numbers took a hit while under pressure, but his legs often proved to be an effective counter. For the regular season, Wilson averaged 9.4 yards per carry on quarterback scrambles, with more than half of those scrambles coming against pressure.

Against Green Bay, the Patriots had a controlled rush, designed more to keep the pocket around Rodgers than to actually hit or sack him. There seemed to be an emphasis on keeping big bodies up the middle, likely to occupy that space and serve as an obstacle preventing Rodgers from having space to take up the middle.

This second quarter play from that Week 13 game is a good example of that strategy. Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones have created a wall in the middle of the defense, occupying three blockers to make it difficult for Rodgers to step up or scramble up the middle. Meanwhile, Akeem Ayers and Rob Ninkovich have set a good edge, getting enough push to force Rodgers to make a quick decision. With linebacker Dont'a Hightower occupying a shallow middle zone and ready to shut down any attempt to scramble, Rodgers gets the ball out to his checkdown, Randall Cobb, who is tackled for a harmless two yard completion.

It's a difficult task to balance creating pressure with maintaining the integrity of the pocket, but that's the goal for the defense here. While the Pats want to keep Rodgers in the pocket, they don't want him to have enough space and time to get comfortable. Instead the object is to compress the pocket, taking away as much of the quarterback's space as possible without necessarily forcing him to scramble. Getting bodies near the quarterback can be just as disruptive as getting a rusher free to chase him, especially when the quarterback is as good at evading would-be tacklers and making plays with his legs as Wilson is.

Getting an interior push could be extra important against Wilson because it could create situations where Wilson's much-discussed lack of height actually becomes a factor. Any interior push would have to be controlled, of course, as pushing too far up the field leaves gaps for Wilson to escape through with his legs. However, a strong but controlled interior push would take away Wilson's space, likely disrupting plays and forcing Wilson to make throws over much bigger players like Alan Branch and Vince Wilfork. Getting hands up in Wilson's passing lanes should also be a priority for Pats defenders as another way to make Wilson uncomfortable and disrupt his rhythm.

The Hawks questionable offensive line could help the Pats with that task. The Hawks line features two standouts, LT Russell Okung and C Max Unger, but also has a few week spots to exploit, particularly on the right side of the line. RG J.R. Sweezy is a bit undersized at 6'5", 298, and the third year guard got pushed around quite a bit in pass protection. However, he still fared far better than RT Justin Britt, who was abused in pass protection throughout his rookie year. Take a look at this play from the NFC championship, where Julius Peppers tosses him with one arm like a ragdoll.

Britt was beaten for three sacks in the two games I watched tape of this week, and for the season was responsible for 49 combined sacks, hits and hurries for the season, by far the highest total on the Hawks line. He'll surely be a target for the Patriots, who could occasionally flip flop Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to get their best pass rusher lined up against Seattle's weakest link up front. Jones had some success rushing from the interior in that 2012 game, using his quickness to beat LG James Carpenter for a sack, and the Pats have enough depth to repeat that strategy if they choose, with Akeem Ayers a likely candidate to slide into Jones' vacated role on the edge on such plays.

I spy

Of course, a smart defense will have someone in place to take care of Wilson if the quarterback does escape the pocket and take off. That's where having a spy in the defense comes in handy; a player whose main role in the defense is to prevent Wilson from taking off and gashing them for big gains on the ground.

The Patriots used spy techniques throughout the Green Bay game, with Rob Ninkovich often fulfilling the role. Most plays saw Ninkovich start at his customary left end role, but he'd often slide laterally towards the middle of the pocket at the snap, rather than bring a traditional rush. Using his depth and keeping both hands and feet active to stay unblocked, Ninkovich's job was then to keep track of Rodgers.

This play from the third quarter of the Green Bay game is a good illustration of how the spy technique is intended to work. As you can see, Ninkovich begins the play in his traditional, left-end alignment, and his first step is towards the tackle as if he was a pass rusher.

However, after that first step Ninkovich breaks off and heads towards the middle of the defense, where he can best read Rodgers. Vince Wilfork veers his rush off to the left and takes over Ninkovich's role as the edge setter in the formation, as you can see in the freeze-frame.

Not liking what he sees downfield, Rodgers' instincts tell him to take the seemingly available space up the middle. However, Ninkovich makes the same read, and is right there to surprise him when Rodgers attempts to take off. The always crafty Rodgers manages to make Ninkovich miss, but Chris Jones is able to clean him up in the chaotic aftermath of the play for one of the Patriots three sacks of the night, pushing the Packers into a third and long that they would not convert.

While Ninkovich was the Pats primary spy against Green Bay, he was far from the only Patriot involved in New England's game plan for Rodgers. At times, a linebacker would be the spy, like this play with Dont'a Hightower.

At times the Pats would even employ two spies, like this fourth quarter play. The Pats start the play with five defenders at the line of scrimmage, but only rush two, as Jamie Collins drops into coverage and both Hightower and Dominique Easley drop into spy roles.

The Patriots will almost certainly have spies on Wilson as part of the game plan, but will likely have schematic variations worked into the game plan, as the Seahawks offense is very different from that of the Packers. Wilson's propensity to roll out could call for more attention from more athletic second-level players, with the range and open-field tackling ability of Jamie Collins certainly being a key for a Pats defense that will be challenged to defend every area of the field.

Bombs away

One common factor that jumped out in all three Seattle games I rewatched was the importance of big plays to their passing games. Big plays on downfield throws played a major role in all three Seahawks wins, including game-winning touchdowns against the Pats and Packers.

Essentially, what Seattle does is try to lull defenses to sleep with their run-heavy, short passing dominated play calling. Seattle games typically see the opposing defense push closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, trying to better defend Lynch and the short routes that make up the majority of the Seattle offense. The more attention the defense plays to the short zones and the middle of the field, the less resources it has to defend the back-end, and Wilson will gladly take shots down the field if he has his receivers in one-on-one coverage.

As it does with any run-heavy offense, play action plays a noteworthy role in Seattle's ability to attack deep. A whopping 30.8% of Wilson's attempts came on play action (only Alex Smith utilized it more frequently), an understandable number given the attention Lynch draws from any defense. Those play action fakes often buy Wilson the extra second he needs in the pocket for his receivers to get downfield.

While Seattle doesn't take a ton of deep shots, they make the most of them. 23 teams had more deep attempts than the Seahawks 63 (including postseason), but Wilson completed 44% of those shots for 977 yards, 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. In other words, Wilson threw deep on just 12.5% of his passing attempts, but gained 24.7% of his passing yards on those throws.

The Patriots struggled to defend the deep ball in the 2012 game, as Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Sydney Rice all had big catches of 46 or more yards. However, 2012 was ages ago for a Patriots secondary that is unrecognizable today from that 2012 team. In that game, the outside corners were Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, with Tavon Wilson and Patrick Chung as the starting safeties. New England's cornerback play has obviously improved since then, with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner pushing Arrington to a more-appropriate role in the slot and McCourty's move to safety shoring up the back end. The Pats should be much better prepared to man up and takeaway those deep shots this time around, although they might want to keep safety help Browner's way in case the Hawks catch him in a quickness mismatch.

Another thing that jumped out on tape was Wilson's trust in his receivers to go up and make plays, even against tight coverage. Wilson is known by many as a conservative quarterback, but he'll play the gunslinger role when he has a receiver streaking down the field against man coverage. That strategy has it's benefits; throwing downfield obviously results in more big plays and, as "jump-ball Joe Flacco" has taught us, it also brings increased odds of drawing a big pass interference penalty. Wilson may have only been in his sixth career start the last time he played the Pats, but he was already savvy enough to use a deep ball to draw a 40 yard pass interference penalty on Patrick Chung.

However, Wilson's aggressiveness can hurt hit at times, with his interception-marred first three quarters of the NFC championship game serving as evidence. Wilson's second pick to Ha-ha Clinton-Dix was the result of his throwing a bomb to Jermaine Kearse despite the receiver being locked down in tight double coverage, and his third interception was a forced throw into good man coverage by Sam Shields. The opportunities should be there for New England's talented defensive backs to get their hands on some of those 50/50 balls that the Hawks receivers are accustomed to catching.

Aggressive on the short stuff

When Wilson isn't throwing bombs down the field, he's generally throwing shorter, high-percentage routes, most of which are designed more to efficiently gain yards and keep the offense in positive situations than to break a defense. 57.2% of Wilson's pass attempts traveled 9 yards or fewer in the air, with many of them being the basic slants, comebacks and hitches that fill up any short-passing offense's playbook.

If the Patriots decide to stick with man coverage, they could force Wilson to make those throws into very tight windows. That can be a dangerous game, and Wilson got in trouble several times during the film I watched when defenses where able to anticipate and jump those short routes. Denver's Chris Harris Jr. got a pick when Aqib Talib recognized a slant and jumped it, popping the ball in the air to set his teammate up for the easy pick. Likewise, two of Wilson's four picks in the NFC Championship game came when he tried to squeeze the ball in on slants to Kearse despite tight coverage.

The Pats are certainly capable of matching up one-on-one with the Hawks receivers, and you can bet Darrelle Revis in particular has been tirelessly studying their tendencies and looking for clues as far as when to be aggressive and when to look out for double moves. This Pats secondary is also made up of good, fundamental tacklers across the board, something that will be key against a Hawks offense that does ask it's receivers to generate yards after the catch.

On the other hand, opting to play more zone would likely leave the Pats better protected against the big play, but more vulnerable to the underneath stuff that Wilson leans on to keep the chains moving. The Pats never stick to one coverage or look for an entire game, and I would expect them to try to keep Wilson off-balance by switching up their coverages, with situational factors and personnel influencing those decisions.


Film review: Defenders must 'do their job' against Ravens-esque Seattle offense