Setting the Edge: Third Phase
Our work on special teams this year has allowed us to go deeper into this facet of play than anyone has ever done outside of the teams themselves. We’ve collected data on who was in for each special teams play, what position they played and how well they did it.
Here’s a top level view of how the two Super Bowl teams match up.
Denver Kickoffs vs. Seattle Returns
On the face of it there really isn’t much to tell regarding Denver’s kickoff team. The strong-legged Matt Prater kicks the ball out of the back of the end zone on a series of plays that are usually the most boring in football. Remarkably, however, even assisted by the rarefied “Mile-High” air, his 71% touchback number doesn’t lead the NFL. That honor rests with the Panther’s Graham Gano, who managed an incredible 79% touchback rate during 2013. So, good as Prater is, when kicking away from home, his average yardage on deep kicks is still only eighth in the NFL.
However, let’s assume though that there is something to return. Who will have the advantage? Well without the threat of Percy Harvin (whose only return in 2013 netted 58 yards) it’s difficult to judge. They don’t have the best set of kickoff blockers – Lemuel Jeanpierre and J.R. Sweezy grade out as the best of a mediocre bunch – but neither is Denver’s coverage unit one of the best (although Nate Irving is a decent L3). Perhaps the x-factor is Doug Baldwin who’s done the best job in relief of all the Seahawks’ other returners but only had six returns.
EDGE: If Harvin returns kickoffs – SEAHAWKS, Otherwise EVEN
Seattle Kickoffs vs. Denver Returns
One of the guys with a better kickoff distance away from home than Prater is Steven Hauschka (he rated sixth), so in East Rutherford I would expect them to cancel each other out in terms of distance.
Denver has their own electrifying return man in Trindon Holiday, but his fumbling problems can mean either feast or famine (or “feast or fumble” according to the Colorado Springs Gazette’s, Paul Klee) for Broncos fans. Additionally, the Seahawks have one of the better coverage units in football and, in Heath Farwell, probably the best force guy around. They’re not averse to filling the contain positions with integral members of the “Legion of Boom” either. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are the regulars at L1 and R1.
It should be an interesting confrontation, though, because while David Bruton sometimes looks out of place in coverage (I think he’d be better playing further out than L5) his work blocking for returns is much better and in that regard he’s joined by Mitch Unrein and Virgil Green.
EDGE: Just SEAHAWKS, but watch out for “good” Holiday
Denver Punting vs. Seattle Returns
The Broncos have a fine punter in Britton Colquitt, but that isn’t always enough. So much of the return game is predicated in what happens on the outside – the confrontation between the gunners and vice – that sometimes only a perfect punt will suffice.
For much of the year the best jammer in football was Richard Sherman, but then he was removed and the job was given to others. In the Conference Championship he was back and I’m guessing that will be the order of the day again on Sunday. Omar Bolden and Tony Carter are distinctly average gunners and no match for Sherman – if he’s used, that is.
The other factor weighing in Seattle’s favor is that they have the best punt returner in football with Golden Tate who is a missed tackle machine. He regularly fielding balls other would eschew and secures decent field position for his team that others would not.
EDGE: SEAHAWKS, significantly
Seattle Punting vs. Denver Returns
As we mentioned in the previous section, the punter is often a function of the unit he plays on and in that regard Jon Ryan, a much lesser punter than Colquitt, has much to thank his unit for. A mere 82 return yards owes as much to the skill of his gunners (Jeremy Lane in particular) as to his placement. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Kayvon Webster are both good vices, but don’t expect them to hold up for long against this group.
So the burning question is this: do the Broncos play it safe with the best punt coverage unit in the NFL bearing down on their returner and go for Eric Decker once more or do they chance the speedy but slippery-handed Holiday?
EDGE: Once more it’s the SEAHAWKS
Follow Neil on Twitter: @PFF_Neil