Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

The unstoppable force meets the immovable object is a paradox that has been studied for centuries and can be traced back to a 3rd century BC philosophical book, Han Feizi.

Between the Denver offense and the Seattle defense, we have our own modern day version of this paradox.

The Denver offense, led by wobbly-dart throwing Peyton Manning, hung an unimaginable 606 points on defenses this year – the first to ever crack the 600 point mark. They were quite the unstoppable force.

The Seattle defense, led more by its pressure-generating defensive line than its headline-generating All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, didn’t record any historical numbers but proved to be the best in the NFL this season by allowing a mere 14.6 points per game – nearly a point lower than the next best team. The were quite the immovable object.

What happens when the two opposing forces meet? The difference in Super Bowl 48 is likely to be found in the chess match played on the field by these teams and coaching staffs rather than the violent collisions of the forces.

“We don’t vary or disguise coverage on anybody. We play a pretty simple defense; for the most part you know what we are going to do every play. And you got to line up and play it and I think that is how we have been all season. This is the last game of the season — there is no time to change it now. No new wrinkles for us.” – Richard Sherman

Sherman is correct. The Seahawks are a very basic team when it comes to how they play their coverages. That doesn’t mean that they’re any less effective than other teams who use multiplicity in their defensive secondary to confuse and bait quarterbacks into throwing into trouble. In fact, the composition and scheme of the Seattle secondary is a terrific fit to stop Peyton Manning and his plethora of talented receivers.

Every team in the league knows that blitzing Peyton Manning is only giving him a larger window to throw into. He is too good at deciphering a defense in the pre-snap phase and then executing in the post-snap phase with precision and concision. Peyton is a model of efficiency with the football and defenses know it. What stands out to me on film when watching Peyton is his pace through his progressions. He can get through 4 or 5 reads faster than most quarterbacks can take their eyes off their primary target. This allows him to make quick decisions with the football and exploit favorable matchups with minimal risk.

The Jaguars blitzed twice against Manning in week 6, and even though they were thumped 35-19, that game was close late in the 3rd quarter until Denver’s overwhelming talent advantage took over. Rex Ryan talked about using nothing but “seven-man spacing” on Mike & Mike this week, meaning he was able to play 2-deep safeties and not have to blitz excessively – something Ryan is known for.

The idea of not blitzing Manning comes from multiple advantages: The ability to drop seven men into coverage making the windows tighter for Manning and it invites the run which takes the ball out of Manning’s hands – always a good thing for a defense. Blitzes are also often used in the NFL to confuse quarterbacks, something that Manning is unorthodoxly immune to. Manning will decode where the blitz is coming from and his chemistry with his receivers allows them to “go hot” or break off their routes to find the open space and generate big gains.

This idea is the main reason that I’ve championed a “static” pre-snap look on defense against Manning. This naturally creates other issues for a defense like an inability to get to their man or spot in coverage, but it eliminates Peyton being able to win in the pre-snap phase. If he has nothing to read, he has no advantage to gain. Aligning in a basic cover 2, or for the Seahawks a cover 3, shell, means that all of Manning’s keys come in the post-snap phase. Even that half-second of hesitation on his part can allow a defender to get in place or for the pass rush to get to him and cause a sack or a tough throw.

Dropping seven men into coverage means that a defense is only rushing four. This is something the Seahawks are comfortable with because of the pressure generated by their defensive line. The addition of Michael Bennett was likely the biggest move of the offseason as he generated the 3rd highest pass rush productivity of 4-3 defensive ends this season, per Pro Football Focus, trailing behind Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake.

The Seattle defense may be unvarying on the back end, but they love to mix up their front four with good frequency. Bennett will rush from both the outside and inside at times and they will use a rotation of Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Tony McDaniel to keep offenses guessing and adjusting protection schemes. Seattle will find a matchup advantage they like along the line of scrimmage and will consistently try to exploit it in multiple ways to help proliferate pressure.

Denver’s offensive line will be tasked with maintaining inside leverage and keeping the pressure out of Manning’s face. Manning is nearly impervious to edge pressure because his manipulation of the pocket and ability to climb the ladder are extraordinary. If the guards and center can anchor inside then Manning will stand tall and be able to deliver the ball. Everyone knows that Manning isn’t a threat to run the ball as scouts could time his 40 with a desk calendar, so the Seahawks will give little thought of trying to play contain on the edges when rushing.

Manning will see a lot of cover 1 and cover 3 zone from the Seahawks. Earl Thomas is the rangiest and most instinctive free safety I have ever seen play and he’s really the lynchpin that allows this defense to cover in the manner that it does. Thomas plays centerfield as the single-high safety while Kam Chancellor often plays in the box and helps defend the run. The spin that the Seahawks put on their coverages is that they’ll play cover 3 much like they play cover 1 in how the corners will align as if they’re in man coverage. Many teams will play press-bail, where the corners align in press but drop into off-coverage just before the snap, when in cover 3. The Seahawks will maintain their press alignment and be physical at the line of scrimmage, knowing that Thomas is likely to be able to get to ball if it’s thrown deep down the sidelines. It also helps that the corners for Seattle are so tall and lengthy and are able to swat down balls that other corners couldn’t touch.

In terms of personnel packages, the Broncos play predominantly out of their 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers). Seattle will want to match up in their base 4-3 personnel, but with Wes Welker and Julius Thomas such receiving threats, they may have to go to their nickel packages more than they’d prefer. Sherman may move around and shadow Demaryius Thomas at times, but I don’t think he’ll align that way exclusively. Seattle will blitz selectively – especially when Bruce Irvin is in the game – and will do so in certain areas of the field or down and distances.

On the opposite side of the ball, no starting quarterback threw fewer times per game this season than Russell Wilson. This offense is built on a physical run game and the passing game plays off of that. Marshawn Lynch will finally be able to stop not-talking and be all about that action, boss. Lynch will see a heavy workload while Robert Turbin may garner a few carries, depending on how the game goes.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Seahawks come out with a very conservative gameplan earlier on. Turnovers are killers in any game, but against Peyton Manning they’re death sentences. Plus, with every second that Manning is on the sideline, that’s another second he’s unable to put points on the board. The offense can’t give points to the Broncos or else they’ll never be able to keep up.

A little like Seattle, Denver’s strengths lie in their defensive line and cornerbacks. The biggest difference is that the Denver safeties can be exploited fairly easily. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has been a penetrating force on the interior in both collapsing the pocket in the pass game and disrupting the run. Robert Ayers flashes the ability to rush the quarterback but he’s inconsistent. How Ayers plays could dictate a lot of how this game goes for the Seahawks on offense.

Russell Wilson has looked frenetic and confused lately. He’s faced a murderer’s row of defenses lately, and Denver’s defense is a slight step down from those, but Wilson needs to find the poise that was his hallmark since he started in this league. He seems hurried recently and it’s led to unreliable reads and inaccurate passes. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league at throwing on the run and will make a “wow” throw or 2 on Sunday.

The Seattle receivers aren’t imposing or dominating, but they’re slippery. It’s hard for defenders to get a good jam at the line of scrimmage because they’re quick and it’s hard to get hands on them. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are deceptively quick and sort of oddly get over top of cornerbacks with consistency even though neither are burners. My favorite receiver to watch on film is Jermaine Kearse who is a blast in the run game, both figuratively and literally. Kearse is one of the best blocking receivers in the league and will wall off defenders with ease, or blow them up when he cracks down on them. He also has some big-play capability in his game and if they Seahawks can get him matched up on a safety, he’s likely to hit for a big gain.

There are a couple of keys to the game that I believe will turn this game in favor of one team or another. I’m omitting turnovers from the discussion because they’re always a key to the game. Instead, I believe that physicality and interior line play will determine the outcome of the game on Sunday.

The Seahawks are the most physical team that the Broncos will have faced all year because, well, they’re the most physical team in the league. The Seattle secondary isn’t dubbed the Legion of Boom for nothing. How the Denver receivers handle that physicality is going to drive how effective they can be. Welker has shown that he doesn’t like getting knocked around. Decker and Demaryius Thomas aren’t afraid to get physical but I’m interested to see how they respond after getting hammered by Chancellor or Thomas one good time. If they can take the hit and keep going after the ball in the air with no regard to life or limb, they’ve got a shot.

Interior line play is important because of the effect is has on quarterbacks, especially immobile quarterbacks like Peyton Manning. But the real key here is how well the front seven of Seattle can stop Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball without help from the secondary. I actually anticipate that the Seahawks will play more 2-deep coverage this game than normal, but will still stick to their base cover 1 or 3 defenses. Cover 2 means there is less help against the run and more space for running backs to roam. If the Seattle interior line can stuff the run without much help, then it turns Denver into a one-dimensional football team and lets the pass rushers tee it up against Manning.

Interior line play for the Broncos is going to be important in keeping Lynch & Co. from getting to the second level and using his Skittles-fueled burst to run through and over smaller players. Knighton has played tremendously well of late and I don’t expect him to have much problem with the guards of Seattle. It will be interesting to see if offensive line coach Tom Cable decides to double team Knighton for most of the game. If the Broncos can force Wilson to throw more than he’s used to, I believe they’ll have shots at turnovers, and that’s the only way I see Denver winning this game.

It’s hard to factor in the “Peyton Manning effect” in terms of how impactful he can really be, but I think the Seahawks are a better team all-around than the Broncos are. The problem is that the Broncos are better at the one spot that truly matters: quarterback. The highly-touted matchup is the Denver offense versus the Seattle defense, and it’s fun to discuss, but the difference in level of play there isn’t vast. Where I think the greater gap in talent/matchup differential is the Seattle offense versus the Denver defense. I think that Seattle has the chance to keep Manning at bay with the physicality and scheme of the defense, while the Denver defense doesn’t have the best matchups against the Seattle offense.

Final verdict: If Russell Wilson takes care of the ball, Seattle should win this game. The immovable object gets moved, but still halts the unstoppable object.

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