Tom Brady. Rob Gronkowski. Julian Edelman. LeGarrette Blount.
The Seattle Seahawks’ top-ranked defense says it doesn’t care who will be carrying the ball for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 49 on Sunday.
Even immortals are fair game.
“If it was Jesus running, we’ll tackle him,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said.
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“If it was my mom, I’d tackle her.”
It sounds as simple as the footballs being properly inflated. But a primary key to Seattle beating New England and becoming the eighth team to win consecutive Super Bowls is tackling.
The Seahawks defense is faster than any the Patriots have played this season. Bennett, either at end on early downs or when he moves inside as a zooming tackle, is so quick off the ball officials have been fooled into calling offside penalties on him when he’s been in the opposing backfield at the snap.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is an All-Pro because he is faster than many wide receivers and flies to meet running backs stunned he’s beaten them to the hole.
Their athleticism is a big reason why Seattle often completely takes away opposing run games, forcing foes to pass. That is why the Seahawks are the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the league in fewest points allowed for three consecutive regular seasons.
A year ago the Seahawks throttled Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ most prolific offense in league history by punishing receivers after short, quick passes by Manning.
Brady, playing in his sixth Super Bowl and going for his fourth win, is going to throw quickly and often to the elusive Edelman. A clone of what Wes Welker was before him in New England, Edelman had 92 catches lining up wide at times and inside as a slot wide receiver at others. Gronkowski had 82 receptions, 12 for touchdowns, by simply overpowering defenders with his 6-foot-6, 265-pound wrecking-ball body.
“He’s big. Fast. I mean, he’s Gronk,” Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said Thursday. “He’s an All-Pro, (6-6) guy. He can run. We’ve told y’all everything that we can tell y’all. It’s Gronkowski. What else do you want me to tell you? He likes to party.”
But most defenses don’t have an All-Pro free safety and a running, thudding Pro Bowl strong safety to defend Gronk. Seattle’s does, with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
“We tend to stop people,” Wagner said. “We just need to hit them very hard.”
The corollary to this Seahawks key is Bennett, fellow end Cliff Avril and the Seahawks’ four defensive linemen affecting Brady if not sacking him, like they did in Super Bowl 48 to Manning. The Patriots often go into three- and four-wide-receiver sets. That means Seattle could spend half the game in five defensive-back, “nickel” alignments with Jeremy Lane as the extra cover guy.
When in nickel, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn moves Bennett inside. He becomes perhaps the fastest defensive tackle in the league. Bennett will be lined up, or standing up, opposite rookie center Bryan Stork, whose been limited in practices this week by a knee injury he got three weeks ago, and recently struggling and injured guard Dan Connolly.
“Yeah, pressure is probably the biggest thing. We have to make sure we’re in his space,” Wagner said of Brady. “We have to make sure somebody is tackling him and making it uneasy in that pocket.”
Asked Thursday what he’s seen studying Stork, Bennett said: “I think he has a nice beard.”
If Bennett is dominating inside up front, New England may have to counter with more runs inside by Blount. He is coming off a 148-yard rushing day in the AFC title game. But the game before that, in the divisional round, he had three carries for one yard.
New England isn’t used to having to rely on the run game. It was 13th in the league in rushing attempts and didn’t have a rusher this regular season with more than the 412 yards of Jonas Gray. He isn’t a starter anymore.
“We are ready for whatever,” said Thomas, whose separated shoulder has healed so rapidly since the NFC title game Jan. 18 it’s surprised him — and prompted the NFL to test him Thursday morning for human-growth hormone.
If the Seahawks’ front four can get to Brady quickly, all that’s going on downfield with New England’s varied concepts becomes moot. He will have to throw the ball, called routes be damned.
“We got to stop the run and get pressure on Brady,” Wagner said, “because if we don’t he’ll make us pay.”
If all that goes according to Seahawks’ defensive plans, their offense needs to do one thing first — and last: establish Marshawn Lynch’s punishing presence in the running game.
Lynch has 1,522 yards and an NFL-best 18 total touchdowns in 18 games. He has rushed for more yards than any back New England has faced this season.
The key to Lynch getting free up the middle is two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger combining with run-plowing former defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy when Lynch runs right, or fellow guard James Carpenter when they run left to control Vince Wilfork. The Patriots’ 325-pound defensive tackle is the best of a changing, athletic defensive front.
How good is Wilfork? The Patriots gave their 33-year old a $22.5 million contract before this season. That’s big change for an interior linemen entering his mid-30s.
Lynch running early sets up Russell Wilson’s read-option runs, a prime source for his career high 849 yards rushing this regular season.
“The best running back in the National Football League, they have to pay attention to Marshawn,” Wilson said. “Ninety-nine percent of my goal is to hand the ball off to Marshawn. If nobody’s there, then I’ll take it.”
Another source for all those rushing yards was Wilson often having to run for his life immediately into dropbacks behind an offensive line that’s struggled for two seasons in pass protection. That’s happened most often when Lynch hasn’t romped early in games.
When they get Lynch going early, the Seahawks control the game. In the NFC title game, the Green Bay Packers held Lynch to 37 yards in the first half, and Seattle trailed 16-0. In the second half, Lynch gained 120 yards, and the Seahawks outscored the Packers 28-6 to get here.
Running Sunday would slow down the Patriots pass rush. The Seahawks threw less than any other team this season, but when they have thrown Wilson has gotten his biggest plays to receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson when he’s had time to wait for them to run downfield.
“Our goal every game is to make Marshawn the MVP of the game,” Baldwin said.
Now that would be a trick. Sixteen writers — only one from the Seattle market — and four fan votes decide who is the Super Bowl’s most valuable player. With how angry the media outside Seattle’s is about Lynch not saying much of anything here this week, he’d have to have some game to be MVP.
That’s the Seahawks’ plan.
“We know the formula that we have put in place is if Marshawn wins the MVP then we have done our job on offense,” Baldwin said. “We have handled it the way we wanted to handle it and we were effective in the passing game on third down.
“It all correlates. That’s how we play football.”