Marshawn Lynch led the league in yards after contact in 2014.
He’s built to do so. But what the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Seattle Seahawks running back has done without contact is what makes him a threat to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.
Lynch’s size, burst and power have carved him a place in the Seahawks’ offense with one cut, and they’ve also carved him a lane through defenses long before he arrived there in 2010. With a subtle squaring of the shoulder, a subtle lean of his hips, Lynch sets up the portrait the way he sees fit. And from there, he drives back outside as defensive fronts buy into what he’s selling on the inside.
Much of that cannot be taught or limited. It can only be prepared for.
“He is very, very, very tough,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork told reporters his press conference Friday. “I remember playing him when he was in Buffalo as a rookie, and I went up to him at the end of the game and I said, ‘You have something special. You’re a hell of a ball player.’ I said, ‘I have to give my hats off to you,’ and he kind of smiled and was like, ‘Thank you.'”
Now 28, the former California Golden Bear and Buffalo Bill still moves laterally as well as he moves downhill, and he uses that agility to create angles as soon as he takes the handoff from quarterback Russell Wilson.
It’s been about beating him to the point of attack thenceforth.
“I think it’s going to be so important for us to have more than one defender tackling him because he’s shown over the years what he [can] do,” Wilfork added. “He’ll make some defenses and he’ll make some players look stupid on the football field. I don’t want that feeling, I’ll tell you that. It’s going to be a lot of running for us trying to get to him because he demands that. He’s just a great back.”
The Patriots had some some success staying ahead of Lynch when the two sides last encountered one another in October of 2012. The back was contained to the tune of 41 yards on 15 carries then, as the Patriots countered the former Buffalo Bills first-round pick by limiting the available surface area at the line of scrimmage.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich stood up off the edges, while three defensive linemen – including Wilfork – put their hands on the turf of CenturyLink Field in a string of 3-4 sets.
But the defense New England deployed two seasons ago is not the same one head coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia will deploy next Sunday. Many of the focal points within it have changed, and many of the focal points in Seattle’s offense have as well.
Lynch has remained.
The way he has been able to do so was displayed as recently as the NFC Championship Game versus the Green Bay Packers. It was a game which saw No. 24 take 25 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown in the Seahawks’ comeback win.
He took those carries inside and out, through tackles and beyond tackles. And while that was most memorably exhibited on his game-tying 24-yard scamper with 1:33 left in the fourth, all the same principles were exhibited on his 14-yard run with 7:07 left in the second.
It was then, down 16-0, that the Seahawks stood in “11” personnel with tight end Luke Willson motioning ahead of Lynch off the right wing. The six-time 1,000-yard rusher stood there, flanked next to the quarterback in shotgun as the Packers dropped down safety Morgan Burnett in a front composed of two outside linebackers – in title – and two defensive ends.
Lynch would have two choices behind the combination blocks of center Max Unger and left guard James Carpenter. He could wait until the last second to make his decision.
But he also may have had it in mind all along.
Wilson handled the snap and exchanged the football off to Lynch, who secured with both hands and evened his shoulders to the A-gaps.
The center and guard pinned 6-foot-3, 285-pound Packers defensive lineman Mike Neal ahead of him in result. Yet Seattle knew that if the Packers flushed to the inside lanes, there would be an open lane on the outside.
The chess match worked the way it was designed to. Neal and Julius Peppers squeezed the interior, all while inside linebacker Sam Barrington and Burnett marched down the same trail. And the Seahawks’ offensive line welcomed them to chase the car.
Lynch would not let them chase him from the backfield any longer, however.
The ball-carrier dipped low just as it looked like he’d hit the eye of the Green Bay front. And as he did so, the guard and center in front of him dipped sideways into the Packers looming as the biggest threat to the running back.
Lynch bounced. The Packers were caught against the grain. And there were no reinforcements left on the second level to contain where he was heading.
Left tackle Russell Okung had set five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews behind the line, establishing a clear path for the back to slice through.
He did. Fast.
Lynch kept his shoulders down and eyes up, bypassing five Packers as he made his way into the secondary. He made his way past the 50-yard line before cornerback Sam Shields pushed him out of bounds.
It wasn’t Lynch’s longest run of the conference title game, not was it his most physical. There was no score, no broken tackles at the end of it. But it in that 14-yard gain, there were the little things.
The setup blocks, the bends and the burst added up to the sum.
It’s now the Patriots’ task to prevent that sum from being the difference.