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Defenses have taken a wide variety of responses to the rise of 11 personnel. Is any one system better than another? And how has the rise of the "moneybacker" changed defensive philosophy?

22 Jan 2015

Film Room: New England Linebackers

by Cian Fahey

The Seattle Seahawks had one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL during the regular season this year.

Unsurprisingly, the Seahawks were led by their running prowess, as Marshawn Lynch enjoyed another outstanding season and Russell Wilson relied on his running ability to mask some of his regression as a passer. The Seahawks ranked fifth overall in both DVOA and Weighted DVOA for the regular season. Their top-ranked running game was dramatically more effective than its closest challenger, while their passing game remained efficient as the 10th overall ranked unit in the NFL.

What makes the Seahawks running game so effective is not just the sheer individual brilliance of its quarterback and running back, but rather that individual brilliance combined with smart scheming and perfect congruence. Lynch is a powerhouse back with the explosiveness and versatility to work no matter how they use him, but he is at his best running between the tackles, while Wilson threatens the edges. The Seahawks' passing game is often an extension of the running game, as they build their shots downfield off of play action and give Wilson options to throw and scramble in space.

The Seahawks' approach to the running game can be broken down into greater specifics, but it is ultimately about stretching the defense past its limits to create space.

In preparation for the Super Bowl, shutting down the Seahawks' space in the running game is going to be a primary focal point for the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick aggressively alters his defense to best match up with his opponent. When he faces Peyton Manning, he keeps both safeties deep and forces the offense to run the ball or throw into tight windows. The opposite will likely be the case in this game. Because stopping the running game becomes more important, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins will be forced into the spotlight.

Jamie Collins is a linebacker. He weighs 250 pounds and is 6-foot-3. Before reading ahead to find out, look at the following image and try to identify him based on the alignment and movement on the defensive players.

Is he the edge rusher who pressures Luck from the top of the screen by athletically exploding around the corner? Is he the linebacker dropping into space over the middle of the field? Does he fight Coby Fleener off of the line to disrupt his route, before covering the other tight end who finds his way into his space?

Those are all natural assignments for your typical linebackers, but Collins isn't doing any of those things. Instead, Collins is covering running back Dan Herron at the top of the screen. This is not atypical of coverage linebackers, but it's not the assignment that is significant here, it's the execution. Collins shows perfect technique to force Herron to the boundary before smoothly running on his shoulder down the sideline. Herron may be a running back, but he is no slouch in space, and the linebacker is able to turn with him before comfortably tracking him while turning to locate any potential pass.

Collins played this as well as any cornerback would have ben expected to and showed off the incredible athleticism that has allowed him to excel in the NFL.

If Collins is the explosive space player in this duo, Hightower is definitely the robust, between-the-tackles powerhouse. Earlier in his career, Hightower appeared destined to be just a run-stuffing strongside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. However, his athleticism and overall ability in coverage has improved since then so that he can be on the field more often in passing situations. That athleticism has also made him a more versatile and effective run defender. He has good recognition skills and discipline that allow him to pursue ball carriers aggressively to meet them at the earliest possible point. He can not only blow through the chests of potential blockers, he can also run past them or shuffle sideways to get around them in space.

While Collins is more likely to move wide of the offensive line and take on tougher coverage assignments, Hightower will likely spend most of his time playing between the tackles in the Super Bowl.

Hightower and Collins will have the difficult assignments of recognizing where the football is while still being aggressive against Lynch on the Seahawks' typical running plays. The Patriots play in a division with two teams who run similar concepts to what the Seahawks do in their running game, so there is plenty of tape on Hightower and Collins working in these situations. It must be noted, though, that neither the Miami Dolphins nor the New York Jets have the same caliber of talent or consistent execution that the Seahawks boast in these situations.

On this play against the Jets, Collins and Hightower line up as inside backers in a nickel formation with a wide four-man front. Collins initially lines up in line with Hightower, but when he recognizes Geno Smith's hand signal he is able to time out the snap and attack the Jets' left guard as soon as the ball is snapped. Collins is aggressively fighting his way through the line of scrimmage to try and penetrate the point where you would expect the running back to be going based on how they lined up. Hightower hangs back, waiting for the play to develop.

Smith appears to be reading the edge defender, whom the Jets leave unblocked. The defender stays outside as the tight end runs across his face, so Smith plants the ball in Chris Johnson's chest to let the running back attack the middle of the defensive front. As Johnson gets the ball, he has an obvious running lane to his right, but Hightower is waiting there with another defender just past the line of scrimmage. Johnson has no choice but to go in that direction regardless because of Collins' penetration.

Collins has shown outstanding tenacity and strength to bully his way into the backfield and take away any potential movement to his side of the field.

In the pocket of space that Johnson finds to his right, Hightower awaits. The running back attempts to cut back infield, but Hightower is able to mirror his movements before showing good tackling technique at the point of contact. Hightower didn't aggressively attack Johnson, and that may have been a mistake because he allowed Johnson to finish the play with forward momentum, even though the Jets player wasn't able to break the tackle completely.

Collins and Hightower were both effective on this play even though teammates around them were struggling to carry out their assignments with any great impact.

In their games against the Jets and the Dolphins, the Patriots proved to be very inconsistent against these kinds of plays. Although we can never be certain from the outside looking in whether the quarterback actually has the option or if he is just going through the motions to hold the defender, it's possible to make educated guesses on how plays develop. Against the Dolphins in Week 1, quarterback Ryan Tannehill never carried the ball. Instead, he repeatedly gave the ball to the running back in read-option situations. On 11 such carries, Dolphins running backs gained 54 rushing yards. That was a good number, but it must be noted that Hightower was playing on the edge for much of that game because Jerod Mayo was still healthy at inside linebacker.

In the Patriots' other three games against the Jets and Dolphins during the regular season, they gave up 95 yards on 23 carries. That's not an awful average, but a quarterback only kept the ball twice, and Tannehill gained 21 yards on those carries.

The longer of those two runs gained 15 yards. It came about because of poor discipline from the Patriots. Chris Jones (94) and Hightower, who is lined up to the right side of the defense, both have their eyes on running back Damien Williams from the very beginning of the play. This means that they both follow Williams for an extra step before realizing that Tannehill has the football. This gives Tannehill enough space to turn the corner and get downfield for 15 yards. Hightower is able to recover and drag Tannehill down to contain his yardage, but that may not be the case with the more elusive and athletic Russell Wilson.

Teams that run a lot of read-option plays from similar formations wear teams down mentally. This leads to more breaks in discipline that can be taken advantage of like this.

For Tannehill's long run, it was easy to see how the lack of continuity between the first-level and second-level defenders created a big play. A lack of discipline in the other direction can also lead to big plays, but the minor mistakes will also allow the offense to consistently turn short runs into decent gains. On this play, Collins and Chandler Jones, the right edge defender, both stay outside watching the quarterback. This allows running back Chris Ivory to gain 3 yards even though he ran into his own blocker at the line of scrimmage.

This is largely why the Seahawks are often a better team in the second half of games. Stopping Lynch and Wilson on the read-option is possible, but doing it repeatedly throughout the game is mentally taxing.

A primary reason for the Seahawks' first touchdown in the fourth quarter last week was a mental error by Mike Neal. Neal (96) should have been in position to make a tackle on Wilson in the open field away from the goal line if he had played his assignment on correctly. As the second free defender through the backside of the play, he must account for Wilson keeping the football while the inside defender chases down Lynch. Instead of focusing on Wilson, Neal allowed his eyes to focus on Lynch from the beginning of the play. After Wilson pulled the ball back, Neal continued moving infield with Lynch.

That took him out of the play and allowed Wilson to run into the end zone essentially unchallenged.

On the following drive, Lynch scored on a long touchdown run that gave the Seahawks a late lead. The Packers appeared to be beaten on this play from the snap as they lined up incorrectly. Lynch lined up to Wilson's right, so he was always likely to run to the center's left side on this play. Yet the Packers came out with four second-level defenders to the right side of the center and just three defenders total to the left. A.J. Hawk seemingly recognized this before the snap, but his gesturing and calling to his teammates went unnoticed. Ultimately, Lynch took the ball off left tackle and immediately found space because four Packers defenders were trapped on the wrong side of the play focusing on Wilson.

An emphasis on containing Wilson is a must against the Seahawks. The Patriots can't expect him to play as poorly as he did for the first 55 minutes of the NFC Championship Game again. Containing him on these types of plays is important, but it's just as important to contain him when he drops back in the pocket.

The Patriots could ask Collins to spy Wilson, which will push the linebacker further into the spotlight for this game. While that could be a smart move, it doesn't seem like the most prudent strategy. Moving Collins into that role limits what else he can do as a pass rusher and in coverage. He is too valuable in other areas to simply be tasked with containing Wilson every time the quarterback drops back into the pocket. Instead of doing that, Belichick will likely implore his pass rush to show the kind of discipline that the Packers' unit showed last week and drop a safety into underneath zone coverage as often as possible to close on the quarterback once he begins to scramble.

Blitzing Wilson typically isn't a good idea. He recognizes the blitz quickly and understands how to find his hot read in a hurry. Blitzing also creates running lanes for him because the pass rush is often imbalanced and aggressive. Instead of doing this, the Packers primarily only sent four defenders after Wilson last week while focusing on the coverage on the back end. On this play late in the second quarter, Wilson was in a situation where he likely had to pass the ball to put his team in scoring range. Yet, the Packers defensive line still focused on containing him rather than catching him.

When the Packers drop a safety into coverage underneath, Wilson panics. His right guard was driven infield, so he steps to his right where there is space. As Wilson enters that space and comes out of his throwing stance, the Packers right defensive tackle and left defensive end begin to move laterally and backwards so they can cover the running lane in front of him. Wilson wouldn't have had an opportunity to gain many yards, but they had obviously been stressed on the importance of containing any scrambles.

As Wilson turns back to run towards the opposite sideline, the right defensive tackle, Mike Neal, turns with him and runs laterally rather than chase him behind the line of scrimmage. Neal puts himself in position to confront Wilson when he cuts upfield. Wilson cut upfield because Clay Matthews on the other side of the field prioritized setting the edge over trying to beat his blocker to get to Wilson.

Neal was in a great position to tackle Wilson, but as you'd expect, the diminutive quarterback was able to make the bigger defensive lineman miss in space. Neal did enough to slow Wilson down, though, so with good effort his teammates could crowd around him before he could even cross the line of scrimmage. The Packers made a lot of mistakes last week -- that's ultimately why they lost the game -- but their approach on the whole against the Seahawks offense was very smart. Execution late in the game was a bigger problem, but the mental fatigue of everything that had occurred to that point must be taken into account.

The Patriots can't plan for how their team reacts to adversity in key moments. They can replicate the Packers' game plan and rely on their talent at linebacker to try and contain the Seahawks' rushing attack.

By DVOA, the Patriots had an average run defense in the regular season. They ranked 14th against the run and 11th overall. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens compiled 136 rushing yards on 28 carries. The Ravens' offensive line was able to consistently overpower the Patriots' defensive line while getting players to the second level who could push the linebackers away from the football. It's hard to take much from that game in terms of looking forward to the Super Bowl because the Ravens simply run the ball in a very different way from the Seahawks. For similar reasons, we can't take anything from the AFC Championship Game when the Indianapolis Colts ran the ball against the Patriots.

Stopping the Seahawks' running game isn't as simple as dropping an extra defender in the box and swarming to the football. They stress discipline and force every player to execute consistently while standing up to the physicality of Marshawn Lynch.

It may not look as pretty as a Peyton Manning pass attack, but it can be just as complex and is definitely just as tiresome to defend.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 22 Jan 2015

11 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2017, 7:40am by dytto123


by Anonymouse :: Thu, 01/22/2015 - 2:15pm

Is something screwy with this article? The first picture is a sideline shot missing Collins entirely, other pictures have multiple "copies" of a particular player or position group (what's the point of showing the Packers d-line starting spots?)

by jacobk :: Thu, 01/22/2015 - 2:45pm

The instant animation on the many many gifs is also annoying. If they could be set to start on mouseover I think most people's browsers would be better off for it.

by reiniroosh :: Thu, 01/22/2015 - 4:09pm

The first sideline shot does have Collins. He is aligned in the typical CB position, since the RB is split out wide.

I liked showing the "shadows" of the players. It shows how the play developed, and is easier to see than the gifs. The gifs seem way too choppy...

by Anonymouse :: Fri, 01/23/2015 - 11:10am

My computer didn't read it as a GIF, and it was showing only the final frame, where Collins is out of the picture. Reading the article today, I see the entire play. Weird.

by johncornorr21 :: Sat, 09/03/2016 - 3:06am

I enjoyed demonstrating the "shadows" of the players.looking for someone to do my assignment or indicates how the play created, and is less demanding to see than the gifs. The gifs appear to be much excessively uneven. Impressive amusement I truly like it at whatever point my companions have time we play it in our general vicinity park. Please Visit Our Website For More Details: http://www.customassignment.com/do-my-assignment.html

by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/22/2015 - 2:48pm

The mirror of the thrust of this piece is that the o-line performance by the Seahawks is critical, and if that unit doesn't play any better than they did against the Packers (considering they were playing at home, I thought they were pretty poor), they are going to lose, it seems to me. It is this matchup that makes be favor the Patriots by a very small margin.

by ansum :: Sat, 01/24/2015 - 11:59pm

"The mirror of the thrust"? I don't know what's more peculiar. That term or the fact that it makes sense.

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by suzi02 :: Sat, 12/17/2016 - 2:48am
by dytto123 :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 7:40am