SB Analysis Notebook: Where Denver Attacks
The book on Peyton Manning used to be that you needed to confuse him to have a chance. You had to be able to show one thing and play another, to bait him into making poor decisions and mistakes, to get inside his head.
The Seahawks don’t do things that way. As Richard Sherman said when asked about it, “You can’t get in Peyton’s head, if you get in his head you’ll get lost”. The Seahawks aren’t going to try and confuse him, to outsmart him or to use smoke and mirrors to disguise what they’re trying to do. They’re going to do what they always do – line up in the way they play D and dare you to be better than they are.
You’ve got to respect that attitude.
No Disguise Needed
This season the Seahawks have showed and played the same look pre- and post-snap on 87.7% of plays. They run with a single-high safety in a ‘middle of the field closed’ look 78% of the time, and that includes all of the situations that practically dictate they won’t run with just one high safety. In the open field you can practically guarantee you’ll be looking at one deep safety. When Peyton Manning lines up across from the Seahawks’ defense he knows exactly what he is going to see – a simple Cover-3 or Cover-1 look, with Earl Thomas sitting in the middle of the field.
He’ll be staring at something that looks like this:
The Seahawks run more or less the same coverage most of the time simply because they can. They have better players in their secondary than most teams so they don’t have to overthink things. Earl Thomas is one of just a few safeties in the game with the range to make playing a single-high defense viable and have an impact while doing so. Richard Sherman is a lockdown corner on one side and, since coming into the lineup on the other side, Byron Maxwell has almost identically matched Sherman’s coverage numbers.
In the middle, Kam Chancellor gives them a physical, big-hitting presence of an additional linebacker and when they go to nickel or dime formations they have talented defensive backs to bring in.
They can afford to line up and have an offense know roughly what they’re looking at.
Obviously they can still play different coverages from the same shell. They can and will still play man or zone on the outside and underneath depending on the personnel and formation they face, and they’ll certainly try and disguise a few things to throw Manning off, but being able to eliminate much of a defensive playbook with a simple glance is big for an offense.
The Seahawks would seem to be tailor-made to disrupt the Denver passing attack in a number of ways, but the Broncos have a few traits themselves that are perfectly suited to attacking this Seattle defense. Denver already runs plays that essentially target the gaps in this defense. Against Cover-3 one of the biggest go-to routes for an offense is a hook or curl, and Denver runs plenty of these. Take this play against the Titans in week 14:
Tennessee showed a pretty loose Cover-3 look and Denver sent all five receivers on various hook or curl patterns across the formation in front of the coverage. The Seahawks are incredibly tough to beat deep on the outside, especially against corners playing deep thirds, but they can be beaten by curl routes underneath and that’s what the Broncos will likely feature.
As futile as it seems to be against this defense, it’s unlikely that Denver will abandon the deep ball entirely when they find what looks like a favorable matchup on the outside. The Seahawks will often line their corners up in press coverage on the outside with a single-high safety, isolating that corner on an island down the sideline – ordinarily an invitation to an NFL quarterback to go deep. As Colin Kaepernick found out with that final pass, however, it isn’t always wise to accept that invitation. Teams have completed just two passes deep against Seattle’s corners in press alignment this season – 2 of 24 attempts – for one touchdown and 58 yards against five interceptions.
Demaryius Thomas is one of the most heavily targeted receivers on deep balls this season and is even higher on the list when looking just at fly patterns down the sideline. Thomas has been thrown at 27 times when running ‘Go’ routes and has come down with nine catches for 366 yards. That is the fourth-most targets of any receiver on Go’s and his success rate is a little better than average.
Against Sherman this is a pretty risky move. He has been beaten only once all season on a Go and that was from off coverage. When he has been up in press-man he has allowed just one catch behind him this year – a 27-yard pass to Anquan Boldin on a double move. Byron Maxwell, on the other side, is the player more likely to be targeted in this manner, chiefly because the Broncos will prefer the matchup of him vs. Demaryius Thomas.
When Manning sees the a corner come down to press alignment it’s likely he’ll take a shot – and that battle on deep passes could be one of the keys to this game.
The Seahawks often run a combination of man on the outside and zone across the middle, and the Broncos will use a series of plays that look to flood those zones and stretch specific areas of the defense.
Across the middle the combination of Welker and Julius Thomas will likely be huge. The pair can run a combination of high-low drag or crossing patterns that put the linebackers in a bind. Denver will likely also create this combination using a running back coming out of the backfield to achieve the same effect. They are looking to pressure the underneath coverage from both sides, and together with those hook and curl routes on the outside, stress one side of the defense until it cracks and provides one of the receivers with a window.
Welker in particular has caught all six passes thrown his way when he has been targeted on those intermediate depth crossing routes and will be a real danger against this formation. The interesting matchup here is whether Earl Thomas will key on this route from his center-field position and use his closing speed to lay a big hit on the smaller receiver at some point.
The Seahawks’ defense is good enough to be able to play D the way they want to and still be better than the offense they’re facing. Ordinarily that’s winning football, but giving Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for something he’ll be able to see coming is a risky proposition. I think the Seahawks have the ability to disrupt the Broncos’ passing attack from multiple spots, but Denver also has some weapons in its arsenal and two weeks to find the pressure points in this Seattle defense.
Saddle up boys; it’s going to be a hell of a matchup.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam