Setting the Edge: Seattle Offense vs. Denver Defense
On the heels of Neil Hornsby’s look at how the special teams advantages shake out, it’s time to see who has the edge when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense take to the field on Sunday night.
Seen by some as the under card to the matchup between the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense, this matchup is an intriguing and physical battle in its own right. The Seahawks’ offense has its reluctant star in the shape of Marshawn Lynch who has torn a path to the Super Bowl right through opposing defenses. He faces off with an underrated defensive unit that will look to match what the Seattle defense is able to do and ensure that it doesn’t give up any signature plays that could prove decisive in a close fight.
Aiming 60% of their runs between the tackles, the Seattle Seahawks are a persistent if not efficient offense when it comes to running the ball inside. Their 4.06 yards per carry average on inside runs (18th in the NFL during the regular season) is in line with the league average but is boosted by Marshawn Lynch’s work after contact and ability to break tackles.
Seattle backs broke a tackle almost once every five carries between the tackles, a mark bettered by only the Packers and the Colts during the regular season. During the playoffs the Seahawks’ yards before contact average between the tackles has actually gone down from their regular season mark (1.58 per carry down from 1.72) with Lynch further picking up the slack when it counts.
Facing off with Lynch & Co. is one of the leagues’ better interior run defenses and the form run defender on either team entering this game. During the regular season the Broncos surrendered little more than 3.5 yards per carry on rushes between the tackles and are among the leagues’ best at finishing first-up tackles and limiting yards after contact on the inside.
In Terrance Knighton, Denver has the Super Bowl’s form run defender having earned a run defense grade of +14.9 from Week 15 onward, and a lowest single-game grade of +1.3 in that five-game spell. The Broncos are able to shut down runs up the middle without spilling them outside at the risk of bigger gains allowing a back to freelance as Lynch can do so dangerously. They simply clamp down on those interior lanes and finish tackles for minimal yardage.
Key Player – Max Unger: Not in the best form as a run blocker entering this game (-6.0 in his last four games), Unger needs to turn things around in order to subdue Knighton and allow his guards to release to the second level on time to ensure Lynch has lanes to hit between the tackles.
What’s your statistic of choice? If you’re a yards per carry kind of person then you have an average outside rushing attack (4.11 yards per carry, 15th in the league) going against an average outside run defense (3.90 yards per carry, 14th in the league). If you prefer to look instead at how an offense is doing on each play relative to the down and distance then you have a matchup between two of the leagues’ strongest units.
Running to the outside, the Seahawks registered an offensive success on 54% of their carries, fourth-best in the league, while the Denver defense allowed an offensive success on just 42% of the outside carries they faced. The key area for the Seahawks to potentially exploit, though, is the Broncos’ tackling.
While the Seahawks (read Lynch) broke a tackle better than once every four outside carries (second best in the league behind Detroit, 3.4) the Broncos missed a tackle on more than one in five carries, fourth-worst in the league. That they were able to have such a high stop rate and keep the yards per carry so low shows how well they rally to the ball, but they won’t want to give Lynch a chance on Sunday by missing on the first shot.
Lynch has forced 13 missed tackles on 22 outside carries in the playoffs to rise above the standard of blocking he is receiving from his supporting cast. Though the Seahawks’ success rate has dipped below 50% on 24 postseason carries, Lynch’s ability to break tackles and extend plays has seen their yards per carry average rise to 5.3 as he extends plays and minimizes losses.
Key Player – Marshawn Lynch: The Broncos must make their first-up tackles to win this battle on the edge. The Seahawks’ success rate may stay low in this game as it has all playoffs, but Lynch might only need to break one run to make the difference.
Pass Rush vs. Pass Protection
During the regular season only two quarterbacks (Terrelle Pryor and Case Keenum) were pressured on a higher percentage of their drop-backs than Russell Wilson, so immediately you have to give an advantage to the Denver pass rush here.
The Seahawks’ offensive line has been beaten up and shuffled around all year, but ever since Russell Okung has returned to left tackle the unit has looked a little better. Though he hasn’t hit the heights he is capable of due to injury, he isn’t the glaring weakness that Paul McQuistan was in his stead. Opposite Okung, Breno Giacomini has been consistently solid since his return in Week 11 and in the playoffs so far he has only let up three hurries.
That solid form will be tested against a Denver pass rush, typified by Shaun Phillips, which has done well at converting the pressure that they get into hits and sacks. Over the course of the season, Phillips’ 51 total pressures on 499 pass rushes isn’t overwhelming but his 33.3% conversion rate is good and that will be key in this game.
Few quarterbacks hold the ball as long as Wilson so Phillips off one edge and Robert Ayers off the other will get their chances and plenty of time to make plays. Wilson also has a habit of taking pressure himself on rollouts and scrambles so staying disciplined to those plays and making the most of unblocked opportunities should be another area that the Broncos look to exploit on Sunday.
Key Player – Robert Ayers: In his last four games Ayers has notched 23 of his 52 total pressures for the season and three of his six sacks. Ayers will be looking to maintain this form and ensure that the absence of Von Miller isn’t a key talking point on Monday morning.
Click to Page 2 to see how the Seattle passing game matches up with Denver’s pass D…
While the Seahawks’ focus may be their running game and big plays down the field, their short passing game is far from an incompetent, under developed part of their offense. They don’t run it to Denver levels of efficiency but they complete a decent percentage of attempts, are among the league’s best at scoring touchdowns off of short passes (11 touchdowns on 272 targets), and crucially don’t let a lot of their short passes hit the ground (fifth-best catch rate in the league on short targets).
The Seahawks’ key receiver in the short passing game has been Golden Tate, one of the league’s most creative receivers with ball in hand. His 7.9 yards after the catch per reception is among the league’s best marking out his ability to convert short passes into intermediate and longer gains.
Matching up to the Seahawks is a Denver pass defense that saw less of the short passing game than any other unit in the league, in part thanks to all the points their offense put up. The big question for the Broncos is how do they replace Chris Harris?
Lost in the divisional round to a torn ACL, Harris was the Broncos’ best defender on short targets surrendering 3.1 yards after the catch per reception and an offensive success on only 37% of his 54 short targets. Taking up that mantle, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is strong as well on short throws (4.5 YAC per reception and 45.4% success rate allowed but Champ Bailey (5.8 YAC, 68.4% success rate) isn’t quite up to the same level in defending the short passing game.
Key Player – Percy Harvin: An absolute wildcard in this encounter, Harvin is a devastating receiver on short targets and offers a big upgrade on Doug Baldwin in this area. A healthy and firing Harvin paired with Tate will test the Broncos’ corners and linebackers underneath.
An under-used but efficient part of the Seahawks offense (20% of their targets) faces off with the leagues’ most tested intermediate pass defense. The Seahawks gain nearly 11 yards every time they attempt an intermediate pass collecting more yards after the catch (5.4 per reception) than any team other than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Having just spoken about Seattle’s potential to upgrade on Doug Baldwin on short targets, this is an area in which he shines as Seattle’s pivotal receiver. While the short-area star Tate isn’t that efficient (5-of-16) on intermediate targets, Baldwin snags in excess of 70% of his targets (13-of-18) and gains nearly 20 yards per completion.
Again key to their efficiency in the passing game is not putting balls on the ground. Only two drops all season on intermediate targets earn Seattle the best catch rate in the league.
The Denver defense is seasoned against the intermediate pass, though not universally successful in defending it, where the loss off Chris Harris again leaves a hole to be filled. Their best defender of intermediate targets is Rodgers-Cromartie, surrendering just nine completions on 21 targets and letting up just 7 yards per attempt.
Denver’s other corners have been less efficient defending intermediate passes, though the return of Bailey should help. In addition, their safeties aren’t a tremendous deterrent either, letting up the sort of YAC that would allow Baldwin to make his presence felt.
Key Player – Champ Bailey: Rodgers-Cromartie should do his job well on one side, but the onus will be on Bailey to step up on the other where the likes of Quentin Jammer, Kayvon Webster and Tony Carter have struggled to matchup at times.
Neither unit is in the least bit unfamiliar with the deep passing game with only one offense (Philadelphia) using it as a larger part of their attack and Denver (thanks to the scoreboard pressure from their offense) among the 10 most tested teams on deep passes this season.
The Seahawks boast a league-best 46.4% completion percentage on deep passes with their receivers shining once more, logging only two drops (fourth in the league as a rate) all season long. Their 11 touchdowns are right up there with the NFL’s best and, in fact, only in terms of interceptions do the Seahawks fall into the bottom half of the league. With Baldwin (12-of-18, 399 yards, 2 TDs) and Jermaine Kearse (5-of-13, 176 yards, 4 TDs) standing out, the Seattle passing game has a varied core of receivers who can all contribute to the offense’s success.
The Denver secondary will not be over-awed, however, even by one of the league’s best deep passing teams. Only three teams surrendered completions at a lower rate on deep balls than Denver (30.3%) and, crucially against the touchdown-happy deep ball of the Seahawks, they don’t often surrender scores (fourth-lowest scoring rate in the league).
Key to their success will again be Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey on the outside. Teams have gone after Rodgers-Cromartie deep and though when he gets beat it tends to be for a lot of yardage (four completions for 205 yards), that isn’t too often in relation to his 18 targets.
The deep passing game the Broncos are coming up against isn’t exactly complex either. Seattle is very good at executing go routes (14-of-32, 530 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs) which Denver just happens to be excellent at defending (9-of-42, 366 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs).
Key Player – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Though the Broncos have benefited from more deep drops than any other defense in the league (nine), if it just comes down to a battle of tracking and competing for deep passes you’d back Rodgers-Cromartie to lead the way in limiting the potent Seahawks’ long ball.
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