Richard Sherman might be the most vocal player in Seattle's hard-hitting, receiver-eating secondary known as the Legion of Boom, but he's far from the only key contributor. In fact, depending on his elbow's condition, Sherman might not even play a major part in the Hawks' gameplan.
Here's the thing: Even with two functioning arms, is Sherman going to cover Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski? Probably not. So where does Sherman go? The Patriots' closest thing to an X receiver is Brandon LaFell, but is Sherman going to be squandered on him? And since Sherman only plays his side of the field, will the Patriots even line LaFell up on that half? The point is, regardless of health, Sherman might actually be the least crucial part of the Seahawks' secondary this Sunday. Legion of Boomers—legionaries? Whatever—safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, along with occasional help from the linebackers, are going to be necessary in shutting down Gronkowski, the biggest threat in Tom Brady's passing game.
Obviously, Gronk vs. Kam and Earl Thomas (being so good that your full name begins to have the ring of a cool nickname, like Ed Reed, is a peculiar thing that seems to happen mainly to safeties) is a great matchup. But how should we handicap it? For most of the regular season Seattle has been outstanding defensively, but there are a couple of cracks in exactly the wrong places. Take a look at the last two columns, per Football Outsiders:
The Seahawks' corners are pretty damn good against wide receivers, naturally, but when it comes to covering pass-catching tight ends and running backs, they're a bit below average in the league. The Patriots have Gronkowski, and a hybrid back in Shane Vereen. Hm.
Still, we can't glean too much from specific personnel matchups, because the teams haven't played each other recently. The only relevant game between these two teams happened in 2012. New England had Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Gronkowski as significant options. Sherman mostly stuck on Lloyd and Branch, and Chancellor kept on Gronkowski, while linebacker Bobby Wagner contributed coverage. Gronk finished the game with six catches for 61 yards on eight targets. Meanwhile, Welker led the team with 138 receiving yards and a touchdown on 10 catches. (The Seahawks won, 24-23.) This time around, Edelman will be in Welker's role; Byron Maxwell will likely hover around him. But in this game, the tight end coverage will be key.
Let's look at a game in which the Seahawks screwed up covering a tight end. It's good to learn from mistakes. Antonio Gates had quite a day in Week 2, catching all seven of his targets for 96 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers won, 30-21. Gates survived against Seattle's safeties and linebackers by using his big frame—did you know he played basketball???—to his advantage in the red zone.
Gates's first score came again Chancellor. When the safety doesn't have a head-start, he can't charge in and knock the ball loose. Through the game, Chancellor played close to the line at the snap, and pressed the tight end:
Gates won the hand-fighting portion and cruised by as he caught the touchdown:
Gates basically ran the same play on his second touchdown, a corner route right. This time, linebacker Malcolm Smith covered him:
Again, Gates's move worked.
You get the idea at this point, but on Gates's third and final score, he beat K.J. Wright and still held on in the end zone after Chancellor tried to knock the ball loose:
On Gates's catches that didn't go for touchdowns, he turned his defender around or got separations. All seven of his catches were easy for him, relatively speaking. And even after he burned the Seahawks, they didn't adjust their plan for him. Multiple defenders were helpless to the tight end.
The Seahawks secondary excels at taking away a lot of the underneath stuff that powers the Patriots' offense, but even with its two all-world safeties, covering the tight end has been a problem area. Gronk is a couple of inches taller than Gates, and in the red zone, the Patriots tend to bring in tight end Tim Wright to complement him. Sherman isn't going to be the one challenged on Sunday.
Top photo: AP