This Sunday, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks meet in Super Bowl XLIX. Going by some of the numbers, this game has all the makings of being one of the most evenly-matched NFL championship games in years.
History shows that the Patriots will try to go at Seattle with a pass-heavy attack, and looking back at their Super Bowl wins and losses, the figure that sticks out is the balance between pass and run. In a rudimentary statistical search of their five Super Bowl games under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have favored the pass, throwing on 57.2 percent of drop-backs and running 42.8 percent of the time.
Despite all games being closely contested, the Patriots have trended toward a pass-heavy approach as the millennium has progressed, and in their two losses, the ratio tips heavily in favor of the pass, with throws on 71.8 percent of drop-backs. If the Patriots become overly one-dimensional in Sunday's Super Bowl, they could struggle again.
However, this is a Patriots team built for balance, one whose offensive line protected Brady all season and also created holes for its running backs. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots' offensive line ranked top five in value over average in both run and pass blocking. For context, no other team’s offensive line ranked top 10 in both categories.
Running the ball, the offensive line generated 4.11 running back yards and 4.22 after adjusting for how those yards were earned, with weights placed on how far the running back advanced up the field. Their 4.22 adjusted running back yards were fourth best in the league. More telling, the Patriots' running backs ranked 23rd in open field yards, and the positive differential between adjusted yards and normal running back yards is an indication that the offensive line, and not the running backs, is the catalyst for their productive running game. While this may have been clear when we watch backs like Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have career-best performances, the numbers also back it up.
Tom Brady has also been afforded more time and space than he has had in recent years to operate the Patriot passing attack. Brady was sacked 26 times this year, and the offensive line’s adjusted sack percentage, which takes into account down, distance and opponent, was only 4.4% on dropbacks. The 26 sacks were good for fourth best in the league, but because of how and when the sacks were conceded, the utility of the protection was actually good for second in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Seattle is the foil that can stop both the pass and the run effectively, and this season it was much of what made them successful last year that is back again. The Seahawks finished first in passing yards allowed and third in rushing, top three in both categories by Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA) which factors in when and how yards were accumulated. The secondary play was a big factor in both, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 78.8 quarterback rating in the pass and allowing only 0.92 yards at the second level in the running game, which was fourth overall. These two metrics together indicates that the secondary is consistently able to defend both run and pass plays.
The difference maker for this contest will be Seattle’s ability to run the ball with consistency, allowing them to control the clock and keep the defense fresh. Marshawn Lynch was fantastic again this year, finishing fourth in the league with 1,306 yards. Per ESPN Stats and Info, the Seahawks are 24 games over .500 when Lynch gets 20 carries, and 24 games over .500 when Lynch breaks a 20 yard run. But where the Seahawks run, not how, will be key.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks can run effectively through just about any gap, only struggling at the left tackle and guard, running there 17% of the time. The team runs right 55% of the time and generates 6.45 yards per carry when they stretch it wide right. The consistency across all gaps allows Seattle to distribute their running game and keep defenses guessing, while their ability to generate more than 5.8 yards wide of both offensive tackles shows that Lynch likes to break it outside for his 20 yard runs.
If the Seahawks can run anywhere fairly effectively, then where should they run? Pro Football Focus says up the gut, where teams have tried to attack the Patriots this season. 33.9% of all runs New England has seen have come up the middle where they give up 4.4 yards per carry. Seattle is strong running there too, generating 4.82 yards. Look for Seattle to try and exploit New England for big plays over the far right, where the Patriots give up 5.08 yard per carry, the worst of their gaps.
The Patriots' defense in the middle has been stout in the past. New England is 10-0 when they limit the opposition rush attack to less than 40 yards up the middle, according to ESPN Stats and Info. If you are not already watching Marshawn Lynch, pay attention to Seattle’s run tendencies and where they go. If the holes are big up the middle, the stats say Seattle will win their second of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. If Patriot defensive tackle Vince Wilfork throws his weight around and the Patriots can keep Lynch under 40, Brady and Belichick may be celebrating a fourth time.
Follow Jake Gofman on Twitter at @jakegofman.