Setting the Edge: Seattle Offense vs. Denver Defense
In this edition, Ben Stockwell lines up each facet of the Seahawks' offensive attack against what they'll face from Denver and shows which has the advantage at each step.
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…
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.