Earlier this week we discussed one significant weak link in the defense of the Denver Broncos. The Seattle Seahawks don’t have a defensive weakness, per se, but the AFC Champions are as close to flawless as it gets in football in terms of offensive efficiency, which may be a significant problem for the ‘Hawks come Sunday.
There isn’t an obvious attacking point for Peyton Manning and his bevy of options in the passing game. The Seahawks rushing defense is also very solid and played very well versus one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL two weeks ago, holding Frank Gore to 14 yards on 11 carries. Colin Kaepernick did tally 130 yards on the ground, but Manning can’t hurt Seattle with his legs. He can, however, hurt the game’s best defense with his legendary and meticulous efficiency.
The Seahawks play a lot of Cover 3, which means they defend the run with a 7+1 philosophy — four defensive linemen, three linebackers and strong safety Kam Chancellor lining up within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage eyeing a run play. This leaves the two cornerbacks and free safety Earl Thomas to cover two wide receivers. Obviously this exact alignment does not work against three and four receiver sets.
The Broncos employ tons of sets with more than two wide receivers, and often go with two tight ends. Manning throws to the backs a lot, too, which is generally the responsibility of the linebackers. The Seahawks thrive on forcing turnovers and making it difficult for teams to complete passes, specifically down the field. Denver is more of a nickel-and-dime passing offense, however, which means a lot of slants and quick outs. In other words, they are going to complete a lot of passes underneath, out on the flats to running back Knowshon Moreno and to the tight ends. Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme.
In three receiver formations, Seattle matches up well with Byron Maxwell, Richard Sherman and nickel back Walter Thurmond. Jeremy Lane is the dime back, and he’s come a long ways as a corner and is a good tackler. He has struggled in coverage at times, and if he finds himself matched up against Eric Decker or Wes Welker, Manning is sure to attack him.
Lane has but 194 snaps from scrimmage this year, but has a QB-rating-against of 79.7 and has allowed nearly eight yards after-the-catch, per completion allowed. To contrast, Thurmond has a 4.5 YAC average, Sherman is at 3.73 YAC and Maxwell boasts an amazing 1.74 YAC average.
The Seahawks have found ways to defend that fourth wide receiver very well this season. Part of that is the lack of quality No. 4 wide outs, but Chancellor, Thomas and the linebackers have done a very good job helping out in coverage, too. The Broncos No. 4 receiver is often be tight end Julius Thomas and occasionally Andre Caldwell. If Lane needs help, that can cause problems, and Manning’s audibles could create havoc in terms of which receiver is lined up where. In essence, Lane or Thurmond could end up across from Demaryius Thomas, Decker or Welker, which is a mismatch in the eyes of the Broncos.
And they will take a few shots to Demaryius Thomas beyond 20 yards, too, even if Sherman is lined up across from him. This is why it’s important for Earl Thomas and Chancellor, and the outside linebackers K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith, to remain disciplined and available to help in coverage.
Manning isn’t likely to make a lot of mistakes, and that’s what Seattle lives on defensively. They led the league in turnover margin, interceptions and they pressured the quarterback as well as any team in the league, tallying the most sacks, hits and hurries combined. They’ll do it without blitzing much, if at all, Sunday in Super Bowl 48, and they may have play even more press coverage to force Manning beyond his first reads and perhaps allowing a four-man pass rush to hurry him, or even hit or sack him.
But what if Manning doesn’t make the same mistakes Kaepernick did two weeks ago? What if The Broncos’ offensive line keeps Manning upright and the receivers avoid key drops? The Indianapolis Colts did this Week 5 and scored 34 points. The Saints were able to do it for a quarter and a half in the divisional and Drew Brees piled up more than 300 yards passing.
It’s true that the Broncos have not faced a defense as good as the one Seattle brings to the table every week. In fact, the Seahawks defense is so far and away better than any group Denver faced this season that the record-breaking statistics by Manning and the Denver offense are as meaningless as who will be performing at halftime.
There is a flip side, however. Seattle has not faced an offense as efficient and loaded with weapons in the passing game, nor a quarterback as averse to mistakes. It’s unclear which gap is bigger — Seattle’s best offensive foes or Denver’s best defensive opponents. Sunday’s game may very well boil down to two basic factors: The discipline of the Seahawks’ linebackers and whether or not defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can find a way to disrupt Manning’s timing. Without both, even Seattle is susceptible to long drives that result in points, clock control and tiring out that elite defense.
The Seahawks must render the Broncos’ running backs nearly irrelevant, both in the running game and as receivers, and Manning cannot be allowed to sit back and pick apart the defense with short passes. It seems too simple to be true, but teams that have harassed Manning have beaten him, and those that have not were often at the mercy of the five-time MVP’s rhythm and focus, which is almost always on point.
The more the Broncos’ short passing game and running game succeeds Sunday, the more pressure is bestowed upon the shoulders of Russell Wilson. And while there’s reason to believe Seattle can do serious damage against the Denver defense, expecting Wilson to win a shootout is unwise, and ultimately a losing venture.
The unsophisticated defensive recipe for victory: No penalties on third down, tackle well, defend the running backs in the passing game, limit the effectiveness of the running game and occasionally force Manning to throw the ball away or get rid of it earlier than he’d like. It’s a lot to ask, but then again, it’s the Super Bowl. If the task at hand was easy, it wouldn’t mean much once accomplished.
And since when have the Seattle Seahawks taken the easy route?
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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