It’s a dream matchup. The number-1 offense in the league vs the number-1 defense. It hasn’t happened often in the Super Bowl, but most of the time when it has, the defense has ended up coming out on top. But history is just that – history. Just because the defense won the last time this type of matchup occurred (Super Bowl XXV) doesn’t mean the same thing will happen this year. Stats and history in football are more reflections of the past than indicators of the future. Football is all about matchups, and this game will feature quite a few interesting ones.
All postseason, we’ve heard that defenses can’t make Peyton Manning’s job easy. They have to move late, disguise coverages, not tip their hand, and do whatever they can to delay his decision-making. However, Seattle doesn’t use much disguise.
The Seahawks have an execution-style defense that mostly plays some variation of single-high (one safety deep in the middle of the field). Often times, their corners will play off their receivers. Sometimes they’ll press and jam at the line. Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are quick at reacting to the ball in the air. As a whole, the secondary reacts quickly and limits yards after the catch.
Furthermore, Seattle’s linebackers are very quick. Because of this, as well as the fact that the Seahawks play a lot of zone, they don’t always feel the need to go with more than 5 defensive backs to matchup with opposing passing games. That means they can keep their bigger personnel on the field so they aren’t completely overpowered against the run.
So what can the Broncos do to attack the Seahawks defense? Most importantly, they need to vary their personnel alignment. Richard Sherman, the best cornerback in the NFL, is normally not given the task of following one receiver around the field all game. He mostly lines up on the left side, and when the Seahawks do play man coverage, they play man to the alignment instead of the player. This is why you only saw Richard Sherman on Michael Crabtree a few times in the NFC Championship.
The Broncos will likely move their best receiver, Demaryius Thomas, around the formation. They’ll let him work outside and inside. He’s sure to get some matchups on linebackers and safeties if that’s the case. That is a mismatch in Denver’s favor, even though it might be less of one because of the speed and athleticism of Seattle’s linebackers and safeties.
We expect to see a good amount of “Trips” formation from the Broncos. They’ve used this quite a few times throughout the playoffs, often aligning all 3 wide receivers to one side while tight end Julius Thomas lines up alone on the other side. This alignment helps define the defense. If Seattle sends a linebacker or safety out to cover Thomas, the coverage is normally man, and then Peyton Manning can find his best matchup and attack it. If a corner stays aligned over Julius Thomas, the coverage is likely some form of zone. That means at least one receiver on the other side will have a matchup in the middle of the field on a linebacker. This is where we anticipate the Broncos attacking – the middle of the field. Because of the weather and because the Seahawks strength in coverage is on the outside, look for Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to be big factors in this game.
But will Peyton Manning stay away from Richard Sherman? It’s a question that’s been asked all week. In all likelihood, Manning won’t be picking on Sherman. Manning is the type of quarterback that finds the best matchup on every single play and tries to go after it. That likely won’t be Richard Sherman very often.
However, if there is any area where Sherman can be beaten it’s on quick-hitting horizontal routes. Against the Colts in Week 5, three different receivers beat him on slants. They took their initial steps outside then cut back across his face (Similar to Demaryius Thomas’s touchdown route in the AFC Championship). The long and physical Sherman wasn’t able to get his hands on them, and they turned him around each time. The only issue was that Andrew Luck wasn’t always looking in this direction. This is often the case with quarterbacks who play against Richard Sherman.
The other big matchups to watch will be Broncos tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin against Seattle’s pass rush. Peyton Manning was the least-sacked quarterback in the NFL this season despite throwing the most passes. Sorry folks, that’s not because the Broncos just happened to find the best back-up center and back-up left tackle in the game after their starters went down early in the year. It’s because Peyton Manning gets the ball out of his hands so quickly.
But if Manning can’t get the ball out of his hands as early as he normally does because of the Seahawks’ ability to cover, Chris Clark, Orlando Franklin, and the rest of Denver’s O-line won’t be able to hold out very long against Seattle’s rotating group of fast outside and inside pass rushers (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril & Chris Clemons).
Don’t expect a 30-point performance by Denver in this one. Their offense has been rolling on all cylinders during the postseason, but it’s been a different style of attack – more ball control than explosive big plays. They’ve only scored 24 and 26 points respectively despite operating at an extremely high level. With that being the case, Denver will likely only score in the low-to-mid 20’s again, even if they’re at their best. This is why the winner of this game will likely be determined on the other side of the ball.