PHOENIX — Unlike so many other quarterbacks the Patriots have faced this season, Russell Wilson presents more than one challenge. Three, at least. He can make plays with his arm, with his feet, and with his eyes.
That last part could give the Patriots the most trouble on Sunday when the teams meet in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium, because it’s what Wilson sees when the Seahawks call for a read option that could leave the Patriots vulnerable to a big play.
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Using the read option puts the ball, for the most part, in the hands of Wilson or running back Marshawn Lynch. Both options are appealing for the Seahawks, since Lynch (1,306) and Wilson (849) combined for more rushing yardage than 27 of the 32 teams in the NFL. They averaged a combined 5.4 yards per carry in the regular season, and scored 19 rushing touchdowns. They were the two biggest pieces to the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense.
Now it’s the Patriots’ job to slow them down. Seattle’s read option will test them physically, mentally, and schematically.
“We’ve seen this offense, we’ve seen a lot of it throughout the season, and so it’s not brand new. But it will obviously be different because of the skill players and the way they do it,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “Our guys just have to go out and they have to execute. They have to do their job with what we say and execute at a high level and be able to perform. I’m confident that our guys will be able to go out and get that done.”
The read option works like this: Wilson will line up in the shotgun, with a running back (typically Lynch) to the quarterback’s left or right, maybe a step behind. After taking the snap, Wilson will fake a handoff to the running back and keep it himself, or complete the handoff. It all depends on what Wilson sees from the defense, what read the Patriots give him.
Sounds simple, but it’s proven to be an extremely effective rushing weapon. It’s not identical to the option offense run in college by schools such as Army, Navy, and Georgia Tech, but there is uncertainty over which player will carry the ball, so the defense will need to have all bases covered.
It helps that Wilson is so mobile; his 849 yards were the fifth most by a quarterback in NFL history.
“We’ve played a few zone-read teams. And we’ve played a few athletic quarterbacks. We’ve had Ryan Tannehill, we’ve had Andrew Luck, we’ve had Geno Smith. I’m not comparing those guys, but comparing them to a point where they can run the ball,” said Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones. “I feel like as a defense, if everyone’s in their right spot, if everyone plays assignment football, we should be fine.”
Assignment football. That’s the relevant phrase in defending Seattle’s read option. The key, say the Patriots, in having success against it is specific players being responsible for specific spaces when the Seahawks go read option. One misstep can open the kind of hole that quickly puts Lynch or Wilson past the first line of defense, sprinting into the secondary.
“It’s all about reading your keys and doing your job. If your job is to be on the quarterback, then you’ve got to read your keys and do just that,” said Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “Again, on that particular play, people get in trouble when they become overly aggressive and try and go for the dive when that’s not their responsibility, and the quarterback pulls it and makes a play.”
Ends such as Jones and Ninkovich, and linebackers such as Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, will need to be on point against the read option. If Wilson keeps it, he’ll likely be running outside, so those on the end must make sure there’s no clear path.
But Wilson is only half of the puzzle. He could simply give the ball to Lynch, a battering ram of a back who runs with power and is one of the toughest backs to tackle. Focus too much on Wilson running, and the Patriots could leave themselves exposed against Lynch. In fact, that’s what Wilson prefers.
“They have to bring attention to Marshawn. Obviously being the best running back in the National Football League, they’ve got to pay attention to him, so I try to hand him off the football,” Wilson said. “Really, like I said [Wednesday], 99 percent of my goal is to hand the ball off to Marshawn. If nobody’s over there, then I’ll take it.”
Either proposition is scary for the defense. Picking your poison is a gamble, but the Patriots might be able to choose where the ball goes, depending on how they line up defensively.
“You can certainly assign guys to force the ball into a particular player’s hands, and that’s something you want to try and do to keep it moving on the offense so the reads are more difficult,” Patricia said. “I think it really depends on who the skill players are. It’s very rare that you get probably the best running back and one of the best quarterbacks at the same time. You’re usually going to have one guy that’s probably a little bit more dangerous than the other.
“This is a unique situation where you’re looking at it and going, ‘I really don’t want either guy carrying the ball,’ and you have to defend both. That’s where it really becomes difficult.”
The Patriots have had two weeks to get ready for the read option. How well they fare against it could go a long way toward determining winning and losing.
“You have a quarterback who can run a little bit. Most teams don’t have a quarterback that can run,” said Patriots safety Patrick Chung. “The read zone works for them, they run it well. We just have to trust our eyes.”
Wilson will be doing the same.Michael Whitmer can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter@GlobeWhitmer.