Super Bowl XLIX Preview: OL & DL
By: Dakota Arturo
WPTS will be previewing Super Bowl XLIX by breaking down each position group in the days leading up to Sunday. The schedule is as follows:
Monday: OL & DL
Wednesday: RB & WR
Saturday: Analysis & Predictions
To begin coverage, the offensive and defensive lines will be broken down. In recent years, poor pass blocking hasn’t deterred teams from making Super Bowl runs. Both the 2011 and 2013 Super Bowl matchups featured teams that had ranked in the bottom third of football in sacks allowed (PIT-GB, BAL-SF). Even last year, Seattle, who had struggled to protect Russell Wilson all season long, clobbered Denver 43-8. Denver had entered the game leading the NFL in sacks surrendered per game. So it’s safe to say that quarterback protections hasn’t been an essential part of the Super Bowl winning formula. That can’t be said about defensive lines though. The past three Super Bowl winners (Seattle, Baltimore, New York Giants) all featured dynamic defensive fronts, a consistency that stretches to this year’s matchup.
Fortunately, these are just trends. What awaits this Sunday’s projected record audience is completely unpredictable. What we can do, though, is examine this thrilling Seattle-New England battle in hopes of finding mismatches and keys to the game.
Russell Okung (LT), James Carpenter (LG), Max Unger (C), JR Sweezy (RG), Justin Britt (RT)
New England Patriots
Nate Solder (LT), Dan Connolly (LG), Bryan Stork (C), Ryan Wendell (RG), Sebastian Vollmer (RT)
Sacks Allowed: SEA-42 (21st), NE-26 (5th)
Opponent QB Hits: SEA-91 (22nd), NE-82 (21st)
New England has had fairly consistent play out of their offensive line this campaign, specifically after their 41-14 bludgeoning at the hands of Kansas City in Week 4. Rookie 4th rounder Bryan Stork returns from a knee injury that sidelined him in the AFC Championship. Stork’s return at center allows Ryan Wendell to slide back into his natural position, right guard, where’s he’s excelled in run blocking duties. Adjacent to Wendell is RT Sebastian Vollmer, New England’s most consistent lineman to show for.
It’s no surprise that the Patriots look to run to this side of the field. On runs to the right, New England has surrendered only 8 TFL’s, good for 3rd in the NFL. In run blocking duties, the right side of the line is all this team can boast though. You can view this run-blocking unit from a statistical standpoint or an analytical one, and the same conclusion will be reached. This is a very mediocre offensive line when it comes to paving the way for
Shane Vereen Jonas Gray Brandon Bolden James White LaGarrett Blount whoever Bill Belichick throws out there on Sunday.
Seattle happens to find their o-line’s strength in this department. 2009 2nd round pick (C) Max Unger leads the way for a unit that makes RB Marshawn Lynch’s job easier. Via Pro Football Focus (PFF), Unger received a +14.0 run block grade on the season, placing him 4th among NFL centers. Russell Okung and James Carpenter, a pair of former 1st round picks, and Seattle’s LT & LG, respectively, are also viewed favorably in run blocking.
Statistically speaking, the Seahawks’ entire line has consistently opened up lanes for Lynch. Pete Carroll has the fortune of expecting positive results when dialing up run plays in any direction. On runs to the right Seattle’s front generated 61 1st downs and 35 10+ yard rushes during the regular season, both ranking 2nd in football. They also rank 2nd in 1st down rushes up the middle (43), while leading the league in 10+ yard rushes in the same direction (22) — though much of that can be credited to Marshawn Lynch.
When handing the ball off to Russell Wilson’s blind side, Seattle hasn’t been as successful in the above categories. Okung and Carpenter make up for that in short yardage situations. Nfl.com utilizes a statistic called “Rush PWR” which is summarized as, “Percentage of rushes on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on 1st-and-goal and 2nd-and-goal from the opponent’s 2-yard line or closer”. In these situations, Okung and Carpenter out-muscled those lining up opposite of them pretty much every single time. In fact Marshawn Lynch, or whoever took the carry, converted every single one of these outside runs during the 2014 season. Every single one! When these short yardage/goal line situations present themselves on Sunday, expect the Seahawks to run behind Russell Okung and James Carpenter.
Which run blocking unit holds the edge? Seattle. The preceding paragraphs should make this abundantly clear. I’m giving the clear edge to those same 5 blockers that recently manhandled Green Bay’s defensive front to the tune of 194 yards and 2 TD’s.
New England entered the 2014 season with question marks across their offensive line. The preseason trade of longtime LG Logan Mankins greased the wheels on offensive line musical chairs. Veteran RG Dan Connolly swapped sides to fill the void Mankins left. The trade allowed Bryan Stork and G Marcus Cannon to fight for a starting slot. Stork eventually won the starting C gig, pushing former starting C Ryan Wendell to RG. Unsurprisingly the o-line experienced initial struggles. The Patriots’ season opening contest, a 33-20 loss at Miami, proved just this as the division rivals brought down QB Tom Brady 4 times and collapsed the pocket repeatedly.
In hindsight those shortcomings may have been overblown. The sack total in the season premier ended up constituting nearly 1/6th of opponent sack totals on the entire season. Once this unit came together and established consistency, Tom Brady found comfort in the pocket. Sebastian Vollmer – considered the AFC East’s best RT – faces a dominant pass rushing group, but can be counted on to neutralize his assigned rushers. Protecting Brady’s blind side is former Colorado Buffalo 1st round pick LT Nate Solder. Solder’s 6’8” 320lb frame gives him the edge against bull rush-oriented ends. Solder still struggles with footwork and edge speed-rushers, so a matchup with Seattle DE Cliff Avril could spell trouble. Another mismatch could arise between RG Ryan Wendell and Seattle’s interior line. Wendell – resigned in the offseason for one year – has had “major issues” in pass protection.
This inexperienced line has seen their struggles in pass blocking duties, namely Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell, yet the unit as a whole keeps Tom Brady upright. According to PFF New England ranked 5th in the NFL in percentage of passing snaps pressured, doing so at a 28.0% rate.
Seattle hasn’t been as successful in keeping a clean pocket for Russell Wilson. In fact one could make the case that Seattle’s two consecutive Super Bowl appearances happened in spite of their pass protection. The statistical evidence actually paints for a contradicting picture. Using the above statistic, opposing defenders have pressured Russell Wilson 44.9% of the time he dropped back, next to worst in football. So why is it that Russell Wilson’s average time to throw (2.85 sec) is the LONGEST in the NFL? Many theories fit the billing here. You could propose that Wilson simply holds on to the ball too long (>2.5 sec on 54% of dropbacks). Or you could argue that Wilson’s play-extending ability may have actually suppressed those sack totals. When stat-based discrepancies arise such as this one, it’s best to view actual game film.
So what does the game film say about Seattle’s pass protection? It doesn’t paint the prettiest picture. Both starting tackles excel in run blocking but lag behind in the other department. Okung represents Seattle’s Willie Colon in that he frequently gets penalized for false starts. He’s missed chunks of the last few seasons with injuries that continue to linger. Okung may be considered, and paid like, a franchise LT, but Russell Wilson needs him to step up on Sunday. Sadly for Seattle, the tackle situation is much scarier on the other side. When Seattle’s front office used their 2014 2nd round pick on Mizzou RT Justin Britt, expectations were that he’d fulfill the duties left by 2013 RT and impending free agent, Breno Giacomini. Britt has done just that, but struggled mightily in the process. After a two game sample in which backup tackle Alvin Bailey filled adequately for the injured Russell Okung, many fans were calling for Bailey to snag Britt’s starting slot. This desire most likely stemmed from the 49 QB pressures Britt surrendered during his rookie campaign.
Which pass blocking unit holds the edge? New England. While Seattle’s interior o-line hasn’t struggled as badly as their outside counterparts, the fact remains that this group specializes in run blocking. A side by side comparison makes it evident that Tom Brady has a stronger pass blocking group protecting him.
Michael Bennett (LDE), Tony McDaniel (DT), Kevin Williams (DT), Cliff Avril (RDE)
New England Patriots
Rob Ninkovich (LDE), Vince Wilfork (DT), Sealver Siliga (DT), Chandler Jones (RDE)
Sacks: SEA-37 (20th), NE-40 (13th)
Stopping the Run
New England, headed by veteran DT Vince Wilfork, successfully limited damage against opposing backs during the 2014 season. The Pats’ 104.3 opposing rushing yards/game ranked 9th in the NFL while the 6 TD’s they surrendered on the ground slotted in at 2nd in the league. The stats tell one story, but outside circumstances certainly skew these results. 7 of New England’s 12 regular season wins came by 20+ point margins, thus teams were forced to abandon the run. There is one statistic that positively correlates with the game film. The Pats have allowed just 2 rushes of 20+ yards on the season. That league leading stat is corroborated by game film; film that shows how hard it is for offensive lineman to get to the “second level” against New England’s defense.
The inside of New England’s defensive line features DT Vince Wilfork and a plethora of other options. Bill Belichick loves to employ a hybrid type defense that gives both 3-4 and 4-3 looks, both of which will certainly include Wilfork. Though Wilfork only partook in 55% of defensive snaps in the AFC Championship, that number should settle back in the 80-85% range in what figures to actually be a close game. Wilfork is a statue in run defense, effectively handling double teams to open up tackling lanes for the linebackers. The real issue is who fills the other tackle slot. DT Sealver Siliga – promoted from the practice squad just weeks prior – is named the starter on the Pats’ depth chart, but the position is filled by committee. DT Chris Jones returns to the active roster after being sidelined against Indianapolis, while league journeymen DT Alan Branch and DT Joe Vellano figure into the discussion too. One can only guess how playing time will be distributed, but previous weeks data suggests that 3 of the 4 named DT’s – probably Siliga, Jones, and Branch – will recieve a similar workload.
On the other hand, the outside pass rushers share their duties minimally. DE’s Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones should see over 90% of defensive snaps in the Super Bowl. Ninkovich shows promise as a run stopper and is more well rounded as a defender, while Chandler Jones excels in pass rushing duties. This group faced one of footballs worst rushing attacks in the AFC Championship and handled business. Those results weren’t replicated the week prior when hosting Baltimore. New England couldn’t stop the ground game, specifically RB Justin Forsett who ran for 129 yards (5.4 YPC). What is indicative about this is the fact that 14 of Forsett’s 24 rushing attempts were designed to the left. In other words, John Harbaugh specifically plotted to run at Chandler Jones throughout the game, and succeeded in doing so.
Seattle approaches the run game in a different way. After a torn hamstring in Week 10 sidelined starting DT Brandon Mebane for the season, Seattle was forced to fill a gaping hole at DT. Alongside Tony McDaniel, Kevin Williams has stepped up in his absence, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn elected to minimize the DT’s playing time in favor of packages utilizing additional pass rushers. As a result, backup DE’s Demarcus Dobbs and O’Brien Schofield have seen the field more.
These moves haven’t had any effect on Seattle’s ability to stop the run. Seattle’s 3.4 yards allowed per rush ranks 2nd in football. They’ve also limited opponents to 81.5 rushing yards/game and just 70 rushing first downs on the season, both good for 3rd in the NFL. A lot of this success can be credited to DE Michael Bennett. Bennett is one of the leagues premier pass rushers, and he’s progressed steadily against the run. Still, Lots of the credit needs to be given to Seattle’s linebacker corps, maybe the leagues best group of tacklers.
Which run stopping unit holds the edge? Seattle. The numbers speak for themselves. The same defensive front that held Eddie Lacy to 3.5 YPC should give fits to a questionable New England run game.
Rushing the Passer
Seattle is coming off a Championship game in which Aaron Rodgers was sacked just once. Fortunately, their secondary happens to be so stellar that the leagues best QB totaled just 178 yards and 2 INT’s. New England badly needs to hold Seattle’s pass rush in check if they wish to compete. Though Seattle totaled a meager 37 sacks on the year, their 322 QB pressures rank among the leagues best. An astounding 76.1% of those pressures were created by the Seahawks’ front 4. Even more astounding is the fact that Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril’s combined 156 pressures constituted just nearly half of the teams total pressures. That stats paint a simple picture; stop Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and you basically neutralize Seattle’s pass rush.
It’s easier said than done though. According to PFF Michael Bennett graded out to +26.4 on the season in pass rushing duties. This number factors in more than just his 8.5 sack total — it more accurately portray a player who’s turned into one of the NFL’s premier 4-3 DE’s. DC Dan Quinn also has the luxury of lining Bennett up inside, something he’s done much of, and a look you’re destined to see on Sunday. Opposite of Bennett is DE Cliff Avril. Fresh off a 4 year/$28.5mil contract extension in December, Avril continues to prove his worth. Avril is primarily known for his speed moves on tackles (swim move & dip). New England may employ 2-TE sets throughout the game to assist the tackles in blocking Bennett and Avril.
New England may not have the star power that Seattle’s defensive front boasts, but the unit shouldn’t be taken lightly. DE Rob Ninkovich’s 8 sacks led the entire defense, yet it’s his starting counterpart, DE Chandler Jones, that Seattle needs to account for. Injuries limited the former 1st round pick out of Syracuse to 10 games, 8 of which he started. In his limited appearances Jones still collected 6 sacks and 19 QB hurries. PFF awarded him with a +10.5 pass rush grade on the season, higher than Ninkovich who started every contest.
Behind Jones and Ninkovich no other DE received any snaps in the AFC Championship. If Seattle is to move the ball through the air successfully, they need to offset Chandler Jones. Baltimore was unable to do so, and his 10 QB hurries likely enabled New England to squeeze by in the Divisional round.
Which pass rushing unit holds the edge? Seattle. Chandler Jones is one of footballs up and coming pass rushers, but his presence doesn’t create mismatches quite like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril do. Seattle has the best secondary in football so Pats OC Josh McDaniel has some tough decision to make. Work with more 2-TE sets to neutralize Seattle’s pass rush or give Brady additional receiving options while leaving tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer on an island with Bennett and Avril. The mismatches created by Seattle’s premier pass rushing duo give them the clear edge over New England.
How do these unit match up in the trenches?
New England O-Line vs. Seattle D-Line
New England’s front 5 did a superb job of protecting Tom Brady over the past two playoff games. Holding Baltimore’s dominant front seven to just 2 sacks and completely subduing Indy should give New England the edge here, but it doesn’t. The Pats simply haven’t encountered a defensive line as strong as Seattle’s in the playoffs. Look for Cliff Avril to lineup outside Nate Solder on most snaps, taking advantage of Solder’s 6’8” frame and pass blocking weaknesses. I’d expect Michael Bennett to get looks all over the line, especially inside where giant mismatches can be created with Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell.
EDGE (PASS RUSH): Seattle D-Line
KEY MATCHUP: Nate Solder vs. Cliff Avril
It’s also hard to see the Pats getting anything going on the ground. One area that Seattle flourishes in is forcing fumbles. Seattle’s 10 forced fumbles against the run place them 4th in football. During 2014 New England backs rarely fumbled the ball. Now many are concluding that deflated footballs may have enabled this. I highly doubt that (insert scapegoat) will deflate anything during pregame, so expect Seattle to be seeking strips throughout the game.
EDGE (RUN GAME): Seattle D-Line
KEY MATCHUP: Michael Bennett vs. Pats O-Line
Seattle O-Line vs. New England D-Line
In the NFC Championship game Green Bay was able to sack Russell Wilson 5 times. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers’ 3.5 combined sacks go to show how ineffective Russell Okung and Justin Britt can be at times. Even if New England struggles to pressure Wilson, their dynamic secondary should pick up the slack. That was the case against Indianapolis. Chandler Jones was held to just 1 tackle and 2 QB hurries while the team combined for a sole sack. For Seattle, Russell Wilson’s 54.6% completion percentage against the blitz is his poorest among defensive formations faced. When New England dials up the blitz, Jones and Ninkovich need to get to Wilson. In the end it’s Seattle’s pass blocking weaknesses, rather than the Pats’ rushing strength that give New England the edge. Chandler Jones is undoubtedly the D-line’s biggest threat, but keying in on him would create a huge mismatch between veteran Rob Ninkovich and the struggling Justin Britt.
EDGE (PASS RUSH): New England D-Line
KEY MATCHUP: Justin Britt vs. Rob Ninkovich
If not for Vince Wilfork this would be the easiest decision to make. Wilfork’s interior presence and ability to command double teams is the only thing keeping Marshawn Lynch from going off. I expect Seattle to target Chandler Jones and run off tackle behind Russell Okung and James Carpenter with continual success. Yet Marshawn’s strengths remain between the tackles. It’s hard to see New England holding Lynch to under 100 yards, but Vince Wilfork must close inside lanes if they have any chance of upending Seattle. Even with Wilfork, the matchup between these position groups may be more lopsided than any other.
EDGE (RUN GAME): Seattle O-Line
KEY MATCHUP: Max Unger vs. Vince Wilfork