Setting the Edge: Denver "O" vs. Seattle "D"
If the Seattle offense vs the Denver defense is an under-rated undercard then the matchup of the Denver offense vs the Seattle defense is the main event that everyone is trying to overhype.
In reality you probably can’t overhype this encounter.
It’s the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense. A matchup between the game’s premier quarterback in a historic season and the defense best setup to stop his charge.
Concluding our look at who has the edge in Super Bowl XLVIII here’s our breakdown of the matchup between a record-setting Denver offense and a Seattle defense that reveals very few weaknesses. This matchup may not decide the destiny of the Vince Lombardi Trophy by itself but it will certainly go a long way toward doing so.
The running game for the Broncos is all about maintaining balance and using pre-snap reads to make sure they are running the ball in favorable situations and against favorable fronts. In terms of yards per carry they are an average inside rush offense, but their success rate (50.4%) is in the league’s Top 10 and those pre-snap adjustments keep them out of bad plays. Only 13.6% of their inside carries resulted in a loss or tackle for no gain, only five teams had a lower percentage of their inside runs shutdown at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Their offensive line and pre-snap adjustments will need to be at their best against one of the best inside run defenses in the entire league. Teams tended to stay away from the Seahawks’ inside run defense for good reason with Seattle surrendering just 3.4 yards per carry on rushes aimed between the tackles (fourth lowest in the league).
The Seahawks get to ball-carriers quickly and don’t miss many tackles or let up yards after contact. In one of many matchups of strength on strength the Seahawks are one of the league’s best at making tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage with nearly a quarter of the inside runs they face resulting in no gain or a loss for the opposing offense.
Key Player – Manuel Ramirez: A pleasant surprise at center this season Ramirez has, however, been prone to Jekyll-and-Hyde performances as a run blocker. That has continued into the playoffs and up against Brandon Mebane Denver needs him to perform more as he did against San Diego (+3.7) rather than against New England (-2.5).
The Broncos pick their moments to run the ball and they do so with particular effect when looking to run outside. Only 37.9% of their rushes are aimed outside of the tackles but their 4.6 yards per carry average is among the league’s best with the work they do before contact (2.5 yards per carry) of particular importance.
As with their running inside, the work their backs do after contact and in terms of breaking tackle is nothing special, so making their blocks to the edge and controlling opposing defenders is pivotal. Again pre-snap adjustments see them stay out of bad plays with less than one in five outside carries resulting in no gain or worse, just outside the league’s Top 10.
Running to the edge is one area that teams can and have had success against a Seattle defense that, in terms of yards per carry and success rate allowed, is outside of the league’s Top 20 defenses. While their inside run defense will be strength on strength in terms of trying to get stops around the line of scrimmage, Seattle isn’t quite as strong to the edge.
One run concept that has caused the Seahawks some trouble in the regular season has been when teams pull an offensive lineman from the playside to lead a run to the outside (5.8 yards per carry allowed). Whether with a pitch or a handoff, the Seahawks haven’t fared well against a concept that the Broncos run often (29.2% of outside carries) and to good effect themselves (5.5 yards per carry).
Key Player – Red Bryant: Running outside, especially when pulling linemen around, means getting a good seal on the likes of Bryant on the edge. If the Broncos can do that, they can have success. If Bryant disrupts the edge and delays pulling linemen, Denver will have trouble running anywhere.
Pass Rush vs Pass Protection
Another mouthwatering matchup of strength on strength as one of the league’s best and most varied pass rushes squares off with one of the league’s top pass protecting units. However, this could be a merely hypothetical matchup if Peyton Manning’s speedy release, even when going against press coverage, is able to render the Seahawks’ pass rush a non-factor.
Only two teams (Jacksonville and the Giants) have forced Peyton to hold the ball on average 2.5 seconds or more before releasing a pass this season. On the other side of the matchup only Arizona (across two games) averaged a release time of less than 2.5 seconds against the Seahawks’ defense. Preseason is rarely a great indicator of anything, but on 16 attempts Manning averaged a release time of 2.9 seconds against the Seahawks (2.6 if you remove one long-developing throw away).
If they can keep the ball in Manning’s hands long enough to get the pass rush going, they’ll still have another uphill battle against the likes of Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin on the right side who have surrendered just 46 pressures between them all season. Going up against the duo of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril who create space for each other to wreak havoc in the quarterback’s face figures to be one of the most interesting battles (again, if we get to see it develop) in this game.
On the opposite side, Chris Clark and Zane Beadles aren’t up to the same level, though up against an out of sorts Chris Clemons you’d expect Clark to hold his own as he has all season in place of Ryan Clady. Beadles may be the pressure point that Seattle looks to exploit (possibly by flipping Bennett over to that side on occasion) having surrendered a team-high 44 pressures this season.
Key Player – Michael Bennett: If the defense can keep the ball in Manning’s hands, Bennett will get the chance to shine. A devastating threat inside and outside, Bennett creates pressure for the defense and space for the likes of Avril to their own damage.
Click to Page 2 to see how the Denver passing game matches up with Seattle’s pass D…
Possibly the decisive battle ground in the entire game. The Broncos establish their offensive rhythm through their short passing game and the Seahawks are probably the best defense in the league at shutting it down, whether they’re in press or off coverage. The stats you can reel off about the Broncos’ short passing game are endlessly impressive. 80.2% completion percentage, third best in the league. 6.9 yards per attempt, third best in the league. 36 touchdown passes, best in the league. 65.0% of passes leading to an offensive success, second best in the league. Only three interceptions on 485 targets, best rate in the league.
The Broncos’ offensive rhythm is predicated around their short passing game so what can Seattle do to knock them out of it? Well, press coverage certainly has a big effect on the Broncos’ short game and you know Seattle does that well. Denver’s completion percentage on short passes drops 15% when they’re throwing into press coverage and all three of their interceptions were against press.
Just throwing press at them and expecting success won’t work, though, as the Chiefs found out across two games (17-of-25, 178 yards, three touchdowns) and you’ll do well to have success against Wes Welker when you press him — he’s as good or better on short passes against press as he is against off coverage, so he suddenly becomes crucial on the inside.
The No. 1 defense versus the No. 1 offense. They’re very good both statistically and against the eye ball test. This is all about execution on the day.
Key Player – Wes Welker: Press coverage against Welker delays the ball getting to him (opening the door for the Seattle pass rush perhaps) by around half a second, but if Manning can find Welker he’s deadly against off or press and with Demaryius Thomas (Manning’s other key short-target receiver) more affected by press on the outside, Welker looks likely to have a decisive role out of the slot.
Much like the Seattle offense we looked at yesterday this is not the most targeted area of the field for the Denver offense, though in a similar way they are effective when they do look for intermediate targets. As you’d expect from an offense that threw touchdowns for fun, their scoring rate (11 touchdowns on 156 attempts) is right up there with the league’s best and, critically against a Seattle defense that feasts on intermediate targets (10 interceptions), Manning and the Broncos look after the ball (three interceptions) in this part of the field.
The Broncos’ key target on intermediate routes is Eric Decker (24-of-49, 425 yards) but like Demaryius Thomas on shorter routes he is adversely affected by press coverage on the outside catching only nine of 23 intermediate targets when playing against a press. This opens the door again for Welker on drag routes and Denver’s other Thomas (Julius) to step forward and make telling contributions. The latter led the Broncos with five touchdowns on intermediate targets and the combination of Welker and Thomas over the middle could be decisive in unlocking the Seattle defense.
The Seahawks’ enforcer over the middle is Kam Chancellor and, while the stars in the secondary take much of the credit on the outside, he will have a key role to play inside and has recently been in excellent form. For the season Chancellor was targeted 11 times on intermediate routes letting up just four catches for 68 yards. Throwing outside on this Seattle defense might be tough, but it doesn’t get any easier inside.
Key Player – Julius Thomas: With so many options at wide receiver it’s easy to forget about Thomas on the inside and as dangerous as he is it’s tough to dedicate resource to him to keep him quiet. If the Seahawks’ linebackers and safeties lose track of him at any point he could make a telling impact.
Most teams are smart enough not to go deep on the Seattle Seahawks and though the Broncos take their shots and are efficient with it, it’s not a massive part of their offense. Only three teams were targeted deep less often than a Seattle defense that let up just 9.9 yards per attempt this season.
The positive for the Broncos’ offense, though, is that when you do get the better of the Seahawks down the field it is as likely to be for a touchdown as it is simply a first down. The Seahawks gave up nine touchdowns on deep balls this season with only the Buccaneers surrendering more in relation to the number of times they were targeted deep.
The key for the Broncos will be to pick their moments and most likely to stay well away from targeting receivers deep in press coverage. Against off coverage this season the Seahawks were targeted deep 31 times surrendering 16 completions and eight touchdowns. When they press and a team looks deep on them (24 times) the Seahawks surrendered only two completions and intercepted five passes, allowing just 2.4 yards per attempt. The old adage goes that when you throw the football three things can happen and two of them are bad; going deep on the Seahawks those odds seem stacked even more heavily against you.
Key Player – Richard Sherman: Teams went deep on Sherman 16 times this season, eleven of them when he was in press coverage. Only beaten three times (just once in press), the Seahawks netted six interceptions off of those targets, twice as many as the offense caught. Life doesn’t get much easier on the other side. Byron Maxwell has surrendered two completions on 11 deep shots this season. The Legion of Boom or a no fly zone?
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