Defense Wins Championships: A Playoff Breakdown

It’s Championship Weekend. The Final Four. And even though we’ve entered a new era where NFL offenses are putting up video game numbers, the Seahawks proved in Super Bowl XLVIII that defense still wins championships.

I’ve played against Tom Brady in an AFC Championship Game. As an outside linebacker, I’ve defended a read-option like the Seahawks’. In the playoffs, when the season is on the line, it’s all about who’s gonna make the big stop. Who’s gonna make the big play. So in my first article for The Players’ Tribune, I’ll take a look at what the four remaining defenses must do to carry their team to Super Bowl XLIX.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks defense is designed to neutralize explosive passing offenses like the Packers’ (and like the Broncos offense, which they shut down in the Super Bowl last year). They take away the big play.

Seattle plays a style of Cover 3 that allows them to be aggressive up to the ball because they keep everything in front of them. Because of the athleticism of safety Earl Thomas—probably the best safety in the game—and the speed of their linebackers, the Seahawks can avoid the big play by setting up the 3-deep zone and playing everything underneath. The numbers back up this up: The Seahawks allowed the fewest passing plays in the league this year over 20 yards (32) and the third-fewest over 40 yards (6).

This defense is also the reason you see so many big hits and big plays from their secondary, such as Kam Chancellor’s pick-6 that sealed the win over the Panthers last week.

You can see how Kam is able to keep everything in front of him and play up to the ball, putting him in perfect position to jump the route and take it to the house.

In Week 1, when the Seahawks beat the Packers 36-16 in Seattle, a big reason they were successful was because they were able to contain guys like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and keep them from breaking off big plays down the field. Repeating that performance will be crucial if they want to win.

Key to the Game: Get Rodgers on the Run

The Seahawks are built to stop this offense, but it’s really all about Aaron Rodgers’ calf.

Any time you have Rodgers under center, you always have an opportunity to win the game. He plays big in big games. He came back out last week against the Cowboys after he was hobbling around in the first half and lit them up in the second half, bad calf and all. You can’t count him out, even if he’s not 100 percent.

But the Seahawks have to put Rodgers in a position to throw on the run. I’ve had that partially torn calf Rodgers is dealing with, and that thing can pop on you at any given second. Expect to see blitzes and D-line stunts to get pressure coming up the middle to get Rodgers running. Those edge rushers are going to be doing their thing to get him off his spot, but pressure up the middle is what will get him rolling out of the pocket.

The Seahawks need to dare Rodgers to test that calf.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers were 23rd in the league against the run in 2014 and the Seahawks were the best in the league at running the ball. So you can bet that shoring up the run defense will be the Packers’ focus going into this game.

Seattle runs the read-option, and if you don’t stay in your lanes against the read-option, you’re in trouble. For example, if that outside linebacker (which is Clay Matthews or Julius Peppers) has QB responsibility, he has to get the QB. Same goes for the RB, because Russell Wilson is reading the OLB. If the OLB goes down and tries to take Marshawn, Russ is gonna take it and run it. If the OLB cheats up the field to get Russell, he’ll hand it off.

That’s the Seahawks’ bread and butter. It’s what gave them the league’s best running game. It sounds simple—be disciplined in your assignment—but it’s not that easy. The offensive line will try to bait you into abandoning your assignment. If you’re the OLB with QB responsibility, the offensive line will open a lane for you to the RB. If you take it, the QB—the one you were responsible for—will keep it and take off. And you don’t even have to really take the bait. All you have to do is hesitate, and they got you. The game is so fast. They invite you to get yourself out of position, and one misstep—that one half-second hesitation—is all they need to open the running lane.

It also ripples through the rest of the defensive assignments. If one guy falls out of his lane, the defense can’t do what we call “flowing over top” of you. The other linebackers can’t do their assignments and the DT can’t do his assignment, so everybody’s out of whack because of that half-second that you hesitated to make a decision.

Staying disciplined is not as easy as it sounds when the game’s moving a mile a minute.

Key to the Game: Stop Beast Mode

It’s more important to stop Marshawn Lynch than anyone else on the Seahawks offense. Even though Russell can beat you with his legs, you’d rather have him beat you on the ground than Marshawn.

But what you really want is for Russell to have to beat you through the air.

The best way to stop the read-option is to put hits on the QB. So if you stop Marshawn and force Russell to keep it, that opens Russell up to hits—but you have to hit him and make him pay, otherwise he’ll just run all day. You have to force the Seahawks to abandon the read-option to protect their quarterback, and that starts with taking Marshawn out of the play. If the Packers can take Marshawn out of the game—some way, somehow—and make the Seahawks one-dimensional, they’ll force Russell to beat them through the air with average receivers. That’s how they can win, because everything Seattle does is built off the running game.

Prediction: Seahawks 28, Packers 20

At first I thought about picking the Packers, but with Rodgers’ calf injury against a fast, physical defense that’s gonna make him run, there’s no way. I’ve had that calf injury that he has. There’s no way he’s going to be able to function under the kind of pressure the Seahawks can bring. If he was hobbling last week against the Cowboys defense, he’s gonna be hobbling this week. And it only takes one wrong push-off or one tweak.

A healthy Aaron Rodgers with a full offseason of rest still lost 36-16 to the Seahawks in Week 1. In that game, he threw for fewer than 200 yards and got sacked three times. I don’t see Aaron Rodgers hobbling out of Seattle with a win.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts might have the most straightforward game plan this weekend. The Patriots haven’t been able to run the ball recently, so they’re coming into this game already looking one-dimensional.

The bad news is, you still got Rob Gronkowski, who’s a nightmare to defend.

Double him. They have to make someone else beat them. The motto has to be ABG—anybody but Gronk. If you lose because Brandon LaFell or Julian Edelman beat you, you can live with that. But you can’t let Brady and Gronk get in a rhythm. Everything about the Pats’ system is check option 1, check option 2, get rid of the ball. And if Brady gets into that rhythm, it’s clockwork. Very seldom does Brady make bad decisions unless it’s forced. If he has time, he’s going to make the right read, and he’s going to make the right decision.

The player to watch for the Colts is middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. He was sixth in the league this year with 140 combined tackles and already has 17 in the playoffs. But it’s not what he does between the whistles that’ll make him the most important player on the Colts D in this game. It’s what he’ll have to do pre-snap. He’s the quarterback of that defense.

D’Qwell is going to have to be the biggest communicator on the field to get guys in the proper position and lined back up when the Pats go into hurry-up mode. If someone’s out of position, you better believe Brady will see it and exploit it.

Key to the Game: Stop the Run Game Early

While stopping Gronk is big, the real key for the Colts is to not let the Patriots find any kind of balance on offense.

The Pats will try to get the running game going early since they’ve had so much trouble running the ball lately. If Indy can stop the run game and force Tom Brady to throw the ball 50 times, like he did against the Ravens, that’ll be their best shot at the upset. Jonas Gray blew up for 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts earlier this season, but recently—no matter who the Pats have had in the backfield—their running game has been almost non-existent.

It sounds crazy to prefer Tom Brady throwing the ball to beat you, but at least you know what’s coming.

New England Patriots

After the Seahawks, the Patriots have the best secondary in the playoffs. Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis are physical cornerbacks and Patrick Chung is playing out of his mind right now at safety.

The Colts have no real threat running the ball. They got only 19 yards rushing when they played the Pats earlier this year, and 15 of those came from Andrew Luck. So it’s going to come down to the pass defense.

And with Browner, Revis and Chung back there, I like their chances.

Key to the Game: Be Physical with the WRs

Colts receivers have a tough task vs. Browner and Revis. They have to find a way to get open and be physical at the line of scrimmage. If they can’t get off the line against the physical Revis and big-bodied Browner, it’ll be a long day for Andrew Luck.

Steve Smith Sr. was able to get off the line for the Ravens against Revis last week, and even though he had just three catches for 44 yards, he did have a touchdown and he frustrated Revis enough to bait him into holding and pass interference penalties. That’s not typical for Revis at all.

Unlike the Pats, it’s not as important for the Colts to be balanced. The Pats should focus on shutting down the pass first because that’s where all of Indy’s weapons are. T.Y. Hilton is a big deep threat. Reggie Wayne is getting older, but he’s still an efficient receiver, and with Hakeem Nicks and the young guy, Donte Moncrief, and the two tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, you can count on the Colts throwing a lot.

But they can’t make plays if they can’t get off the ball.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Colts 17

The Pats have been here before. They won’t beat themselves. That’s their upper hand. A lot of teams that’ve never been here before have trouble getting over that hump, and the Colts are the least experienced team left in the playoffs.

I’ll use my San Diego team as an example. In the AFC Championship Game in 2008 (when we faced the Patriots), we had guys getting penalties at crucial points because they let their emotions get the best of them. Pushing people after play, yelling at the refs, or just doing uncharacteristic things because they didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment.

You’ll never see that out of the Pats. They’ve done this before.

Andrew Luck is going to be a great quarterback in this league, but I don’t think the Colts will be able to open up their passing attack against physical corners like Browner and Revis.

Lights Out.