Churchill: A Weak Link In Denver’s ‘D’
While some analysts, beat reporters and columnists across the country attempt to explain why the Denver Broncos will win the Super Bowl simply because it’s “Peyton Manning’s moment,” or because “great defense beats a great offense every time,” I’m sticking to real life. That means I’m considering only tangible reasons why one team may have an advantage over the other. There are some possibilities — Manning’s greatness is one advantage for the AFC Champions — and there’s one weak link I believe the Seattle Seahawks can exploit when they have the ball, and despite the fact that Pete Carroll’s team is very much about running the ball and playing defense, the ‘Hawks will have to throw the football to take advantage.
The Broncos ranked No. 19 in total defense this season at 356 yards per game, No. 22 in scoring defense at 24.9 per contest and No. 27 in pass defense at 254 yards per week. But those numbers are deceiving and not the reason I see an opportunity for the Seahawks’ offense to score some points and get big yards in the passing game.
The Broncos were often ahead by two or more scores early in the game — sometimes by the end of the first quarter or first half — forcing the opposition to abandon their game plan and throw more often, thus the raw, per-game statistics don’t tell the story.
Denver allowed 7.1 yards per pass attempt against them, however — which ranks No. 15 in the league — and while their outside linebackers cover just fine, even without star Von Miller who is out for the season, their middle linebacker, Wesley Woodyard, is merely adequate, the safeties as a group have struggled, and without Chris Harris, 15-year veteran Champ Bailey will be asked to do more and, frankly, he’s a shell of his former All-Pro self.
Among the specific areas where the Broncos have been gauged in 2013 is versus tight ends. In 18 games including the postseason, Denver has allowed 82 receptions to tight ends, the sixth-most in the NFL, and the 1,043 yards are the third-most allowed. Furthermore, opposing tight ends have averaged 12.8 yards per reception — second-worst in football — and quarterbacks have a 98.9 rating throwing to the tight end versus the Broncos, also the second-worst mark in the NFL.
And it wasn’t just the star tight ends doing damage versus the middle of the Denver defense, and at times multiple tight ends in the same game hurt them. We can forgive the Broncos for allowing seven catches for 121 yards against Jason Witten, he’s one of the best tight ends in football and one of Tony Romo’s favorite targets. But The Eagles’ trio of tight ends combined for five catches and 107 yards and the Giants’ three topped that with 11 catches for 119 yards.
Anthony Fasano and Sean McGrath went for six catches and 77 yards in the Chiefs’ first matchup with Denver and Washington rookie Jordan Reed went for eight receptions and 90 yards. The Broncos did do a fine job versus Chargers tight end Antonio Gates in the final two games against San Diego, allowing four catches for just 33 yards, but Gates did get them for 62 yards on four catches in the first game between the two teams. Opposing tight ends were a significant factor in almost every game the Broncos have played this season. FootballOutsiders ranks Denver No. 18 of 32 in defending the tight end, based on a vast formula and multi-level analysis, and much of that ranking was earned with a healthy defense.
These issues didn’t lead to many Broncos losses, but those teams aren’t the Seattle Seahawks. None of them possess the No. 1 defense and only two ranked in the top 10 overall or versus the pass.
Another area where Denver has struggled is against the third receiver in a three-receiver set and versus any additional receivers. This means the slot receiver has done convincing damage, and for the Broncos that means Bailey, Quentin Jammer and Kayvon Webster, two of which received below-average grades from Pro Football Focus, with Webster sitting well below-average. Before the Harris injury, there was more depth, allowing the Broncos to use Jammer in the slot.
The Broncos also lost starting safety Rahim Moore for the year earlier this month, thrusting Duke Ihenacho and Mike Adams into full-time duty on passing downs. Neither is strong in pass coverage with Ihenacho grading out very poorly versus the pass. In fact, Ihenacho ranks No. 57 in the NFL in pass coverage among safeties who played at least half its team’s snaps in 2013. He allowed a 93.7 QB rating, No. 44 among qualified safeties. Adams ranks No. 36 overall and No. 42 with a 92.9 QB rating allowed. To contrast, Seattle’s Earl Thomas ranks No. 4 and Kam Chancellor No. 13. Both Seahawks safeties allowed QB ratings in the mid-60s.
So what does this mean for the Seahawks? It may mean Zach Miller and Luke Willson will be significant factors, particularly on third down, and that the presence of Percy Harvin could create real havoc for the Denver defense. If the Broncos move Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie around to cover Harvin, Golden Tate, Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin will draw the weaker of the defensive backs in coverage. If the Broncos leave Rodgers-Cromartie on his side and choose to roll over a safety to help a corner on Harvin, the Broncos will be left covering Miller and Wilson — and at least one of Tate, Baldwin or Kearse, in one-on-one coverage.
The Broncos do play a lot of zone defense, and may play even more in the Super Bowl due to the injuries to their secondary, but that gives the Seahawks a decided advantage with the types of receivers they employ and the strengths of quarterback Russell Wilson, who is accurate on slants and roll-outs and is adept at the seam and hook route to Willson or Miller.
Having Harvin available gives Seattle a stronger look versus zones, since he can stretch the flats and open up lanes for the other three receivers to run slants and for backs to gain some room to run or catch and executive screen passes, suggesting Robert Turbin and Lynch can be more of a factor in the passing game than they were in the NFC title game.
The Seahawks haven’t scored a lot of points of late and haven’t excelled prolifically in the passing game much this season, but the Broncos bring in the worst defense Seattle has played since Week 11 versus Minnesota and the Seahawks have faced only four teams in 18 games this season with a worse defensive ranking than Denver.
The Seahawks have played a top-8 defense in each their last seven games, including four games versus top-10 run defenses. They won five of those seven games and the two losses were by a combined nine points. To be fair, Denver did play seven of 18 games versus top-10 offenses, winning five of seven, but all five of those victories were with a healthy Moore and Harris.
With no Miller, Moore or Harris, plus a healthy Harvin for Seattle, the opportunities will be there for the Seahawks to put up some points and move the ball through the air, perhaps closer to the level they did versus the New Orleans Saints December 2 when Wilson tossed for 310 yards and three scores on 22 of 30 passing.
The Broncos, despite the Seahawks’ No. 1 pass defense and No. 1 overall defense, are bound to score points, and keeping Manning off the field as much as possible suggests the ‘Hawks will do anything but abandon the running game, and may even go to it more often than ever. The Broncos, however, are very solid in run defense and could, at times, force the Seahawks to look to the air to do some damage and keep the defense from loading up on Marshawn Lynch.
If Wilson is on his game and the offensive line protects him against an average-at-best Denver pass-rush, the Seahawks shouldn’t have any problems lighting up the Broncos’ defense. If this plays out Sunday in East Rutherford, I’ll see you at the parade next week.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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