Super Bowl XLVIII was a strange mix of by the book and major surprise. The Seahawks were always uniquely capable of shutting down the Denver offense and turning the game into a battle of the other two phases of the game, but from the first snap things went from bad to worse for the Broncos.
The ball sailing over Manning’s head and into the end zone for a safety on the first play was a bad omen in hindsight, and things just snowballed as the game went on. Every time Manning and the Broncos got something going it was derailed by a big turnover or play from Seattle and the gap between the two sides just kept growing wider.
The last two Denver drives before the half were more or less how I expected the Super Bowl to play out when I was doing my preview work during the week. The Seahawks’ defense made Denver work for every gain, but there was yardage to be had, and slowly and steadily they were able to work the ball down the field.
Moving the chains would need to be slow, methodical and painful – and ultimately the demand to execute that well on every snap was always likely to produce a big negative play or a turnover. I always expected the Seahawks to be able to limit Denver to a low score, I just didn’t anticipate every major play falling their way too.
Marshall Faulk put it perfectly after the game by saying that “sometimes the ball bounces the way of the other team and sometimes they make it bounce their way – both things happened in this game.”
Of course, it wasn’t just one turnover, it was turnover after turnover and big play after big play.
But how did they derail one of the greatest offenses that has ever taken the field?
Peyton Manning set a series of single-season records this year and the Broncos scored more points than any team in NFL history, so with his reputation the only logical explanation is that he choked on the big stage, right?
Manning didn’t play well, but he was facing a defense that just happened to be perfectly tailored to throttling the Denver offense.
They may be an all-time great defense anyway, but their specific strengths only magnify their potency when it comes to this Denver offense. While you would fancy their chances of limiting any offense in the league at the moment, their effect on this Broncos unit was more akin to handing them a big bag of Kryptonite. They completely neutralized them.
Recipe for Pressure
As we wrote about in the PFF Super Bowl Preview Week, the Seahawks can bring pressure with the best teams in the league, but they have the ability on the back end to disrupt Manning’s timing in such a way to make it count.
Without that aggressive, physical coverage Manning is able to get rid of the ball and render even the best pass rushes pretty toothless. He was pressured on a league-low 22.7% of his passing snaps this season, and it sure wasn’t because the Denver offensive line is the best unit in football. He knows exactly where to go with the ball when he feels pressure developing and can put it in the air without thinking. The Seahawks were aggressive enough and physical enough in coverage to introduce a hesitance to that sequence of events, buying their pass rush more time to actually affect Manning and force negative plays.
Manning was sacked on just 11% of the plays he was pressured on this season – another league low figure – but the Seahawks got to him with a strip-sack in this game. They also forced the pick-6 with pressure coming from both sides hitting him as he released the ball. In total, his passer rating when he was kept clean was 99.0 but when the Seahawks pressured him it dropped to just 33.1, and they pressured him 147% more than his average game this season without needing to bring the blitz.
All quarterbacks suffer under pressure and Manning is no different, but the problem gets magnified when a team finds a way to get to him because we are so used to seeing him mitigate a pass rush and make his blocking look better than it is. Can’t manage it in this game? Then he must be at fault.
The Denver offense is all about timing, and Peyton Manning is the master of it in the passing game, but he ran into a team with all the tools to disrupt that timing from every angle possible, and he couldn’t overcome that all on his own.
That’s not to say that he didn’t get anything done in the game. The team only scored eight points and that didn’t come until late in the third quarter, but Manning moved the ball reasonably effectively for stretches of the game.
As we showed in this article, the Seattle defense does have soft spots, and Manning hit some of them during the game. The biggest gains the Broncos had all came using those intermediate crossing patterns that put stress on the area between the linebackers and safeties. Julius Thomas, Welker and even Demaryius Thomas once had success on those patterns, but every time Denver put a drive together something happened to torpedo it – a pick-6, a strip-sack, a fumble on a run after the catch play.
This game was the second time in the last twenty years that the two No. 1 seeds met in the Super Bowl, and the first time in twenty years that the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense squared off. It was supposed to be the classic matchup of the immovable object against the irresistible force. As it turned out the immovable object flattened the irresistible force, pounding it into submission and leaving it as a smear in the dust.
Peyton Manning was average at best in the game, and he made some major mistakes and bad plays, but he was leading his offense into the teeth of a perfect storm in the shape of this Seattle defense, and in the end there was never any way out.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam