Feb 202015

Super Bowl XLIX featured vintage Bill Belichick game planning – identify your opponent’s comparative weakness, and attack it repeatedly. Belichick is not unique in this strategy, but few teams have shown the ability to so successfully reinvent themselves schematically over and over again from week to week while maintaining excellent levels of execution. As noted here, however, it was unclear how the Patriots would attempt to attack a Seahawks defense with no clear weaknesses.

Belichick’s answer was obvious from the start: the underneath passing game. This makes sense, from both a personnel and schematic standpoint.

From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks defense is filled with tall, rangy pass defenders; each of their top four cornerbacks are at least 6′ tall. While height has many advantages, a taller player with longer legs will have a harder time changing directions in small spaces than will a shorter player with shorter legs. Of course, some tall cornerbacks are special enough to match such short area quickness (Richard Sherman is one), but, in general, a quick footed short receiver has an advantage in tight spaces over a longer striding defender.

The Patriots under Belichick have a strong tradition of utilizing this lack of height as an asset – from Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch (5’9”) to prolific Wes Welker (5’9”) to current players Danny Amendola (5’11”) and Super Bowl XLIX star Julian Edelman (5’10”). Running back Shane Vereen (5’10”) also figured heavily into the passing attack during the game, catching 11 pass while only rushing 4 times. Amendola, Edelman, and Vereen combined in the game to catch 25 (!!) passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. As evidenced by the 8.84 yard per catch average, these receptions were largely of the underneath, move the chains variety.

From a schematic standpoint, the Seahawks are primarily a cover 3 team. They are, in some ways, the anti-Belichick team – they win because they are great at what they do, and they dare you to beat them at it (rather than making drastic schematic changes from week to week). There was no mystery to Belichick regarding the Seahawks defense. Their cover 3 defense would primarily feature 4 pass rushers, 4 underneath pass defenders, and 3 deep pass defenders. In theory, Belichick could gain a mathematic advantage with his 5 receivers in either the underneath zones (5 on 4) or the deep zones (5 on 3). The skill of the Seahawks, however, complicates theoretical discussions. The cornerbacks align in press coverage while matching patterns and being responsible for deep zones. Because they take away quick, short throws in the flat with this press alignment, and are talented enough to turn and run with receivers to the deep zones (Sherman being the prototype for such a technique), they almost function as if running a 463 zone. When combined with the fact that Earl Thomas is one of the fastest/best free safety “centerfielders” in NFL history – seemingly covering the ground of two safeties -, the defense can feel like a 464 to the opposition, explaining why they are among the all time great units to play the game.

The advantage for the Patriots would come underneath, in the middle of the field. It is there where Belichick could get his speedy trio of short receivers – Edelman, Vereen, and Amendola – matched up (often with option routes) on taller, rangier defenders, where their shorter legs would give them a quickness advantage and allow Brady to release the ball quickly, thus negating the ferocious Seahawks pass rush while avoiding the top Seahawks pass defenders. Belichick would then also work matchups, scoring one touchdown by taking advantage of a Rob Gronkowski versus linebacker matchup on the outside, and, as explained below, by isolating Edelman on a taller cornerback on the game’s decisive score.

First, we see the alignment. The Patriots align with a 3 receiver passing strength to their right. They have a good idea that this will leave Edelman lined up across from 6’3” Tharold Simon, with plenty of space to operate. They know this because the Seahawks rarely swap cornerbacks – there is a high degree of certainty that putting Edelman alone on the left would give him a one on one matchup with a tall cornerback not named Richard Sherman, and this is the matchup they wanted to exploit.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

At the snap, Edelman breaks to the inside as if running a slant. Note the space to the inside of the field. Simon has no help – he MUST respect the threat of the slant and defend it with urgency.

No help and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

No help, and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

Now, from a closer angle, we see Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment. Like a great crossover dribble in basketball, the whip route (in which the receiver starts on a slant before pivoting to the outside) forces the defender’s momentum to one side, and then uses that momentum against the defender as the offensive player changes directions. And, as with Jordan’s NBA Finals winning crossover against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz in 1998, Edelman uses his left arm to help usher the defender to the inside.

Simon's momentum is to the inside; Edelman's left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6'3'' Simon can't keep up.

Simon’s momentum is to the inside; Edelman’s left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6’3” Simon can’t keep up.

We see the separation as Brady releases the ball. Simon’s long legs cannot match the short area change of direction of Edelman, and Edelman (for the second time on the route in the game) only needs an accurate throw to complete the go ahead score.

Simon's momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

Simon’s momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

Compare Edelman’s whip route to Jordan’s game winning shot:


There were many stars of Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady earned his third Super Bowl MVP with a surgical 4th quarter comeback into the teeth of one of the best defenses of all time. But Belichick’s ability to take advantage of his players’ abilities (in this case, the asset of short receivers) while attacking his oppositions’ weaknesses (in this case, the liability of tall pass defenders) paved the way for success, with Julian Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment as a fitting end to the scoring.

Apr 052014

The Seattle Seahawks defense and the Michigan State Spartans defense were the darlings of the NFL and NCAA, respectively, in 2013.  Despite some schematic differences, these defenses shared important similarities.  Both were simple in comparison to their peers, executing their base defense to perfection, allowing their defenders to “play fast” because they had no doubt about their assignments.  The defenses were also each led by a breakout performer at cornerback – Richard Sherman for the Seahawks, and Darqueze Dennard for the Spartans.

Contrary to popular belief, neither cornerback is a man to man bump and run player.  The Seahawks and Spartans are both zone teams (the Seahawks primarily cover 3, the Spartans primarily cover 4), with the cornerbacks aligned in a press position.  They appear to be in man coverage because, if the receiver runs a pattern deeper than 10 yards (approximately), the cornerback stays locked on that receiver in man coverage.  If the receiver runs a short pattern, the cornerback is often in position to take this pattern away once the ball is in the air by their pre-snap alignment, which adds to the man to man illusion.  But the short patterns are not their responsibility.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but it pays major dividends.  Instead of needing to worry about every pattern the receiver might run, the cornerback can focus on re-routing the receiver (helping out all aspects of the defense) and turning and running to take away deep patterns.  This is a perfect defense for fast, physical corners such as Sherman and Dennard.

Take Sherman.  A tall, lanky track star at cornerback, his theoretical weakness would be against double moves and short, quick patterns. This is because a taller player at cornerback with longer legs has a comparative disadvantage when making quick, fast cuts and redirections.

The Seahawks defense means, however, that Sherman merely needs to use his length to throw the receiver off his pattern, and his speed to turn and run if the receiver runs a deep pattern.  His 6’3”, spidery frame, track jump background, and intelligence make him the ideal athlete for this technique.

He also illustrates the Seahawks’ rise to prominence.  Much like the Oakland Athletics who Michael Lewis chronicled in Moneyball, the Seahawks found undervalued athletes late in the draft who fit their system to perfection.  In Moneyball it was specifically about finding players who had patience at the plate; in Seattle it was about finding tall, physical defensive backs late in the draft who could execute Seattle’s defense.  Richard Sherman was a number one overall pick in terms of fit for the Seahawks, though in reality he was picked in the 5th round.

Denard, too, was an underrated prospect who rose to prominence due to a perfect mesh of scheme and athleticism.

No example of this technique is better than Sherman’s game clinching play against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship game.

In diagram one (below), we see Sherman lined up in press on Michael Crabtree to the bottom of the screen.  On the opposite side, of the field, Byron Maxwell (Seattle’s other big, physical cornerback) is lined up in press on Quinton Patton.  Also note that Seattle is in a two high safety alignment, which differs from their base cover 3 look, but is similar to Michigan State’s base alignment.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 1

At the snap of the ball (below), Sherman gets a hand on Crabtree and turns to run with him.  It looks like man coverage.  But look to the top of the screen.  Maxwell is also bailing deep on the play, as if he is covering Patton deep.  Patton, unlike Crabtree, stands still at the line of scrimmage.  Sherman – while appearing to be in man coverage – knows that if Crabtree stops short, Sherman can continue deep, because linebacker Malcolm Smith is underneath Crabtree’s pattern.  Therefore, Sherman can focus all of his attention on sprinting downfield in defense of any deep Crabtree pattern.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 2

The television broadcast camera made it appear that Crabtree had a step on Sherman. This was never the case.  As we see below, Sherman was a step ahead of Crabtree the entire play.  He has positioned himself perfectly – he will beat Crabtree to the spot should Crabtree continue on a fade (as is the case) and has inside leverage to undercut any deep in breaking pattern (such as a post or dig) that Crabtree might run.  His ability to “sell out” on these deep patterns is made possible by the zone principles that let him play without hesitation.  We can see Smith – who will catch the interception – dropping in the underneath zone, ready to pounce on a short pattern.  He was not occupied on the play by any other receiving threat, allowing him to drift farther back and eventually gather the Sherman’s deflection.

Also note that Maxwell has continued to bail deep (he is actually deeper than Sherman) and is now 14 yards away from Patton, who remained at the line of scrimmage.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 3

Below, we see the moment when Sherman reaches the ball at its highest point, deflecting it to Smith for the game sealing interception.  For the television camera, it appeared that Crabtree was behind Sherman.  In reality, Sherman found the ball, slowed, and leaped to tip it, creating the illusion that Crabtree was behind him.  Make no mistake, Sherman was not beaten on the play.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 4

Cover 3 and Cover 4 press, pattern matching teams require a specific athlete at the cornerback position.  The cornerback must be physical and skilled enough to jam a receiver at the line, and fast enough to run with that receiver on all deep patterns.  The cornerback does not need the same short legged quickness that is required to guard fast twitch receivers in the short or slot game.  This simplified role has allowed Mark Dantonio at Michigan State to build the top defense in the country with many lower tier recruits (Dennard, for example, was a 2 star recruit with no other BCS offers from a tiny high school in Georgia), and for Pete Carroll to build one of the greatest defensive backfields in the history of the NFL out of largely late round and free agent prospects.  The ability to play fast breeds confidence, and has helped two elite yet overlooked athletes climb to the top of their game, bringing the rest of their respective defenses with them.