How Russell Wilson and the Zone Read Can Be Key to Seattle’s Offense in Super Bowl XLIX
The Seattle Seahawks are very good at running the football.
That statement certainly isn’t breaking any new ground, and being a reader at numberFire, you’re accustomed to harder hitting analysis. But still, the Seattle Seahawks are very good at running the football. The statement, no matter how obvious, can’t really be overstated.
In terms of Net Expected Points (NEP), Seattle had the best rushing offense in the NFL this season, and it wasn’t close, finishing with an Adjusted Rush NEP of 93.50. No other team finished above 24.99.
In our database dating back to 2000, that ranks as the highest total schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP by any team in a single season, and only the 2011 Carolina Panthers had a higher Rushing NEP per attempt, by .01.
While most of the focus in Seattle -- and rightfully so -- is on Marshawn Lynch, the key to Seattle’s rushing offense often comes down to the legs of Russell Wilson and the efficiency of the zone read.
During the regular season, no player added more value on the ground than Wilson. He finished first among all players with 60.50 Rushing NEP, well above the 38.74 Rushing NEP of the second-place Cam Newton on the same amount of rushing attempts. Wilson’s ability to effectively scramble has been well documented, but the use of zone read principles is where Wilson and the Seahawks thrive.
When The Going Gets Tough
In the NFC Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers made a conscious effort to keep Wilson in the pocket, both on pass plays and on the read option. For the early part of the game, it proved very effective. Wilson was unable to make plays on the run, which led to forced passes and turnovers.
After going back and watching the game, through the first three quarters, there were only seven zone read plays run by Seattle. Wilson only came close to keeping one of those first seven, a play that resulted in a fumble at the exchange.
When Seattle needed to start moving the ball in the fourth quarter, they moved exclusively to the zone read on running plays. For all 10 running plays spanning from Seattle’s first rushing attempt in the fourth quarter with about nine-and-a-half minutes remaining through overtime, the zone read was involved.
Even though Wilson is dangerous with his own legs, his strength on the zone read is his ability to read the play. Early in the game, Wilson was content handing the ball to Lynch because there was routinely a defender waiting on Wilson, either as the designed read defender or a spying linebacker, which Wilson was also able to identify. It’s also not like handing the ball off is an inferior option. Four of Lynch’s six runs off the zone read in the fourth quarter went for at least 10 yards. The threat of Wilson’s legs and his ability to read the defense helps create an advantage for a running back that doesn’t need many extra advantages.
Wilson’s first keeper didn’t come until there was 2:13 left in the fourth quarter on the one-yard line. The play resulted in a one-yard touchdown. For the first play the next drive -- five seconds of game time later -- Wilson had a keeper for a 15-yard gain.
On to the Next One
The Patriots have been known to spend time on defense preparing to stop the opposing offense’s strength. New England can prepare all they want, but the numbers show the Patriots have not been an effective run defense this season. The Patriots ranked 17th during the regular season in Adjusted Defensive Rush NEP while seeing the 19th most rushing attempts of any defense. New England’s run defense did improve over the second half of the regular season, but they also give up 4.36 yards per attempt on the ground to the Indianapolis Colts (28th in Adjusted Rush NEP) during the AFC Championship Game. The week prior, New England allowed Justin Forsett to run 24 times for 129 yards.
During the regular season, the Patriots didn't face a team with the read option as a significant part of the offense. While we can assume New England won’t pull a full Dom Capers against the zone read, we don’t have many recent examples to see how the Patriots will go about defending it.
The closest New England has come to facing a team with a legitimate option threat came in Week 11 of 2013 against the Panthers. While Cam Newton was able to rush seven times for 62 yards, much of that was on scrambles instead of option plays. However, during the Monday night game, Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden did have a conversation about the struggle of the read option league wide, so that was nice.
New England can afford to overcommit to stopping the run thanks to their fourth-ranked pass defense by Adjusted NEP. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner covering Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, the Patriots can risk playing with an extra man in the box to help in the run game.
Where Seattle can take advantage is if the New England defense focuses too much on trying to stop Lynch, leaving room for Wilson to run around. Not only will that allow Wilson to gain yards on the ground when needed, but it can allow him more time to move around more on pass plays where Wilson is one of the best throwers in the NFL outside the pocket.
Wilson doesn’t have to turn into a peak Michael Vick for his legs to be a big factor in the game. We currently have him projected with 34 rushing yards for this weekend. His ability to move when needed, knowing when its needed and his effectiveness when doing so can be the catalyst for every other part of the Seattle offense.