In Defense of Darrell Bevell
GLENDALE, ARIZ. — It’s easy to question the play-calling after a goal-line interception. But if Russell Wilson had completed the quick-slant to Ricardo Lockette, people would have lauded Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for having the guts to throw when everyone was expecting run.
Keep in mind, Bevell has limited resources. None of Seattle’s wide receivers can consistently separate from man coverage, and their quarterback, great as he is on extended plays, can’t make many throws from the pocket. That makes things tough on an offensive coordinator.
New England’s suffocating man coverage exposed Seattle’s offense. But Bevell & Co. had the brilliant idea to play unknown 25-year-old journeyman Chris Matthews in extra-receiver packages. In the limited sample we’ve seen of Matthews, it appears he’s another Hawks receiver who can’t separate. But being 6-foot-5 and lanky, he doesn’t have to. He’ll always be open three feet above his head, which is where Russell Wilson placed the ball on Matthews’s 44-and 45-yard receptions. Cornerback Kyle Arrington had good position on both those plays; Arrington’s problem was that he’s only 5-10.
After the 45-yarder, which came three plays into the second half, Brandon Browner went to safeties coach Brian Flores and asked to cover Matthews. Browner, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, has the size and innate physicality to negate big receivers. Flores went to cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer. “The corners coach didn’t want to do it,” Browner said. “We begged for it: Please let me get the big guy.” Boyer signed off on the move. According to Browner, neither Bill Belichick nor defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had input on this personnel switch, which ultimately decided the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX. “[Belichick and Patricia] do a good job of letting the corners coach and safeties coach do their job,” said Browner.
Matthews was blanked by Browner, who defeated him with jams off the line of scrimmage.
Along with switching Browner to Matthews, the Patriots brought in Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie who flashed in a handful of appearances during the regular this season. Which brings us back to the interception that wasn’t Bevell’s fault.
“If I was an offensive guy, that’s the play I want drawn up,” said Browner.
“It’s man-to-man, you stack receivers like this,” he said, putting one fist in front of the other. “And boom!, you try to pick the guy. They had a good play, but we knew them, we watched them for two weeks.”
Butler had seen the stacked-receiver look in practice, where he’d been beaten on the play by Josh Boyce. “I didn’t let it happen again,” he said.
So what tipped Butler off on a quick slant in a situation where everyone was expecting run?
“They called goal-line three receivers; goal-line usually has two receivers,” he said. “You still could pass either way, but three receivers? That’s kind of letting you know something. I’m a pass defender first, and I just jumped the route.
“I don’t even remember who I was on. 83? I just knew it was stack and I jumped the route and that was the ball game.”
The interception was not Butler’s only contribution. He was sensational in several iso-man-to-man situations. Besides the passes that he prevented from even being attempted, Butler had a breakup against Kearse on the Seahawks’ staple slot wheel route that we highlighted earlier this week, and he broke up a pass intended for Kearse on first-and-10 early on the final drive.
But it was his interception that will be remembered, which is good news for Belichick. The interception overshadowed what was actually the biggest coaching blunder of the night: Belichick’s decision to not call timeout prior to second down on the 1-yard-line. Immediately after Jermaine Kearse’s improbable—and really, flat-out lucky—33-yard catch down to the 5-yard-line, the Seahawks called timeout. They wanted to gather themselves, but that timeout actually helped New England, as it ensured well over a minute remaining for another Tom Brady drive in the event that Seattle scored on the next play.
Belichick said after the game that he would have called timeout had the interception play been a run stop. But that’s exactly what he should have done after the previous play, a Marshawn Lynch four-yard run. Instead he let 40 seconds tick off the clock. Had the Seahawks scored on the pass to Lockette, the Patriots would have had 0:26 to come back, rather than 1:06.
But unfortunately, because hindsight is everyone’s favorite perspective, it’s Bevell being cited for a coaching blunder.
Noting Brady’s Notes
I snuck a peek at Tom Brady’s locker after the game. In it was a picture of his family at the beach, a Ganesh elephant statue, a Gatorade recovery shake (which Brady chugged shortly after his postgame arrival) and various index cards with handwritten notes about aspects of quarterbacking.
Written on the first card:
More on toes
Looser on torso
Stay behind the ball
The second card:
Bend knees more on dip
Be on toes
Another card contained these same phrases plus “stay on back foot.”
Brady did all of those things with considerable aplomb Sunday night; his pocket movement in the second half highlighted one of the greatest quarterback performances in Super Bowl history.
Man coverage was the story in this one. The Patriots played it dominantly throughout the contest, particularly Darrelle Revis, who silenced Doug Baldwin. (Baldwin’s only catch, a three-yard touchdown, was aided by the back judge, who inadvertently picked Revis.)
The Seahawks, like they did in the second half two weeks ago against Green Bay, played more man coverage than usual in the first half of this contest. Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took advantage, using a series of picks and motion-to-stack release concepts to complete passes in the flats. Brady was 20-for-27 for 177 yards in the first half. Towards the end of the half, after seeing that Seattle against the hurry-up was playing man-to-man with both safeties deep (a coverage known as “2-man”), the Patriots split Rob Gronkowski out as a lone receiver. That created a one-on-one matchup for Gronk against linebacker K.J. Wright, which resulted in a relatively easy 22-yard touchdown.
When the Seahawks were playing man coverage out of their usual single-high look, strong safety Kam Chancellor took Gronkowski, which has been their man coverage formula all year against tight ends. Gronkowski beat Chancellor multiple times, including on his 20-yard crossfield catch late in the game.
The Patriots also had a great man-beater design in the first half to get Edelman a 24-yard catch on third-and-10. I’ll break that play down graphically when the film comes out later this week.
Taking the Option Away
Leading up to the game, talk amongst analysts here in Phoenix was that the Seahawks would hurt the Patriots with the read-option. With it being the last game, Seattle did not have to worry so much about Russell Wilson getting pounded, plus the Patriots had not been particularly sharp when they saw the read-option from Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins earlier this year.
But something people forget about the read-option: The defense can take the option out of it. If they keep a front defender wide, the quarterback is forced to hand off. That’s what New England did. Marshawn Lynch still put up good rushing numbers—102 yards on 24 carries, many of them read-options—but Russell Wilson did not beat them on designed runs.
Many, myself included, thought the uber-athletic linebacker would spy Wilson. But on many snaps, Collins was in coverage, defending either tight end Luke Willson or running back Marshawn Lynch. Collins held up well, save for Lynch’s 31-yard fade late in the fourth quarter. That play shouldn’t have come as a surprise; Collins’s main weakness this season has been iso-man coverage outside the numbers, which is where Lynch aligned in Seattle’s empty set.
More Film Study Coming
I’ll tweet my notes while breaking down this game’s coaches film later this week. You can see those notes by following @Andy_Benoit.