Last week, prior to the Patriots' thrilling (or agonizing, depending on your perspective) Super Bowl victory, I wrote a column with the thesis that was among the least novel in modern history: "It's hard to defend New England."
I said at the time that I realized this isn't a nuanced piece of analysis, but it was, and remains, true. The Patriots demonstrated again that they're among the most difficult teams to defend in the world by putting up 28 points on arguably the best defense in the NFL. This offensive performance helped win it all, and the things they did to execute weren't exotic or particularly surprising. They lined up and dictated matchups that they wanted to exploit, then exploited them. Pure and simple.
So, instead of using six-offensive-lineman formations, strange tackle-eligible plays or double-throws that had been the talk of the town in the weeks prior, in order to beat Seattle, they simply utilized their personnel in ways they could be effective against a disciplined and talented defense. Tom Brady then executed on the highest level.
Brady threw four touchdowns against a team that hadn't allowed more than two since Week 2, and in doing that, cemented his legacy as the greatest quarterback of his era ,and probably of all time, by winning his fourth Super Bowl. Let's review some of the situations that got him there.
2-9-SEA 11 (9:51 2ND Q) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to B.LaFell for 11 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Second quarter, the ball game is still knotted at zero, and following an interception, Seahawks nickel cornerback Jeremy Lane has left the game with a gruesome compound fracture of his wrist. With backup nickel corner Marcus Burley among the inactives (Kam Chancellor's knee was a big question mark -- it was later revealed he was playing with a torn MCL, meaning the Hawks activated backup safety Steven Terrell instead), the Seahawks put Tharold Simon on the outside and rely on normal outside corner Byron Maxwell in the slot. This was a normal switch-up for Seattle.
With the second-year corner in Simon playing outside, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels recognize a weak spot and immediately attack it.
Here's their route combination against Seattle's typical Cover-3 look.
Simon shows that he's bailing before the ball is snapped so Brady doesn't have to worry much about timing. Brandon LeFell will have a free release, and all he has to do is carry Simon upfield long enough to create space for the slant. As Danny Amendola carries Byron Maxwell outside, LaFell runs his slant underneath Simon, who gives too much cushion over the top and doesn't break on the ball quickly enough.
It's really a simple play. The play-action element is designed to keep Bobby Wagner up in the box and out of the passing lane for the slant. It works well enough. Wagner hesitates ever so slightly to make sure that Brady isn't handing off, and he's just short of dropping into the passing lane as he looks for his landmark in coverage. Earl Thomas is late to arrive, too.
This is a common, basic route combo, but it's executed perfectly. Why did the Patriots install it into their game plan? Well, take a look at Seattle's divisional round matchup with the Panthers for your answer.
Carolina scores from seven yards out as compared to 11 for the Pats, so the field is slightly compressed. But New England likely saw that Simon is susceptible to giving up the slant. Really, this is probably the most exploitable route against Seattle's Cover-3 because corners know they can't give up the sideline and deep area.
In both cases, inside defenders (linebackers and safeties) are harried for too long worrying about runs up the gut, and the slant is essentially an island.
2-5-SEA 22 (:36 2ND Q) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep right to R.Gronkowski for 22 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Late second-quarter, with the game again knotted, but this time at seven apiece. Then, Gronk happens from 22 yards out.
Gronk good. Gronk very good.
That said, the Patriots set this play up so they could get the matchup they wanted, and when Seattle responded to their personnel grouping and formation with man coverage and only one safety over the top, Brady knew immediately that he was in business.
With Shane Vereen split to his right, Brady is fairly certain that Kam is the deep safety and that Earl Thomas will be in coverage on the running back out of the backfield. That means, Brady almost surely knows before the snap that he can just lob the ball up for Gronk in the endzone.
Gronk runs a double move -- a hesitation route that eats Wright up - and easily catches the perfectly lofted football for the go-ahead score.
2-4-SEA 4 (8:00 4TH Q) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to D.Amendola for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, however, this was a very different game. Seattle had run out to a 24-14 lead and appeared to have New England on the ropes. The Pats would respond with a flurry of haymakers that got them back into the fight.
The comeback started with eight minutes remaining. After getting down to the Seattle 4-yard line, the Patriots line up in the same three-receiver personnel grouping and nearly the same formation, but this time they put Gronk in-line on the right instead of splitting him out. Seattle is in a different defensive look this time, and Sherman is lined up outside Gronk and Earl Thomas is shaded to the defensive left in response to this. The mere presence of Gronk on the field affects this play.
Bottom line? Brady knows the Seahawks are in zone, so he'll be expecting zone drops rather than man coverage.
As Julian Edelman runs a crosser (meant to draw Earl Thomas' attention), Danny Amendola runs a route right up the field, settling into a soft spot behind Chancellor and Maxwell, and to the outside of Thomas.
Brady, for his part, throws a dart, right past and through the outstretched hands of three (!!) Seahawk defenders, and hits Amendola for the score.
Just like that, New England is back in this game, 24-21. And, after forcing a Seattle three-and-out on the subsequent series, they've got a chance to take the lead.
2-3-SEA 3 (2:06) T.Brady pass short left to J.Edelman for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The Patriots had tried this exact play on the previous drive, one play before the Amendola touchdown catch. They go back to the well. Edelman runs a precise route, and Brady hits him in stride, even though Seattle was expecting the play and had warned Tharold Simon of the impending whip route (per Inside the NFL).
New England capitalizes on the situation they've put the Seahawks in by isolating Seattle's fourth-string cornerback against one of their shiftiest and most productive receivers.
That would be the game-winner.
Formations, players, and plays, as Seattle and college football commentator Brock Huard always says in his analysis. New England utilized its formations to get specific players into matchups they wanted, then ran the plays they thought would work against those matchups. And the Pats won a Super Bowl doing that simple, time-tested concept.