Super Bowl XLVIII: How Seattle’s Defense Shut Down the Broncos

The Seattle Seahawks left little doubt as to which team is the best in the NFL. They dominated on Sunday in every phase of the game. The Broncos, on the other hand, certainly didn’t play their best game of the year. Actually, they played their absolute worst. The media has already made this into a Peyton Manning legacy game. That was predictable regardless of the result. But to lay this loss at Peyton’s feet would be wrong. The Broncos got dominated as a team on Sunday. They lost in every phase. More so, the Seahawks won this game. To try and take anything away from their performance would be “insulting,” as Manning would put it. Still, the question on everyone’s mind is, how did the Seahawks shut down the most prolific offense in NFL history?

Last week, we wrote that the Broncos had somewhat transitioned into a ball-control offense during the playoffs. They were methodical, as they had been all season, and they executed at an extremely high level in the Divisional and Conference Championship rounds. However, they still only scored 24 and 26 points respectively. Even if they executed at a high level vs Seattle, they likely wouldn’t have scored higher than in the mid-twenties yet again.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, they didn’t play at a high level. They were sloppy and made tons of mistakes. They looked unfocused and unprepared.

It started on the very first offensive play – actually, it started before that on special teams, when Trindon Holliday decided to return the opening kickoff from 8 yards deep in the end zone. He ended up only getting to the 14-yard line, and the Broncos started with poor field position.

Now backed up towards their own end zone, where noise is more of a factor, center Manny Ramirez couldn’t hear Manning’s snap count or feel that he had moved up to the line to change the play. He snapped the ball past Manning, and the Seahawks started the game with an easy two points.

The Broncos got the ball back down 5-0. After a small gain on first down and a massive hit by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor on Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos faced 3rd and 5. On this play, the Seahawks dropped 8. They had 3 defenders in the middle of the field to cover 2 crossers, 2 defenders on 1 receiver on both sidelines, and a safety overtop of Wes Welker, who ran a deep-in route.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Welker may have been open for a split second on this play. The only issue was that Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril had bull-rushed right tackle Orlando Franklin and immediately drove him back into Manning’s lap.
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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
If Manning wanted to go to Welker, he couldn’t. He ended up moving in the pocket and finding Julius Thomas for a short gain, which led to a punt.

On 3rd down of their next drive, with the Broncos down 8-0, Cliff Avril struck again. He beat Franklin with a speed rush this time, getting immediate pressure on Manning.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
Peyton stepped up right at the top of his drop to evade Avril, rushed his motion, and made a bad throw behind an open Julius Thomas, resulting in an interception by Kam Chancellor. Manning threw the ball earlier than he wanted to, and that made it more difficult for him to anticipate where Thomas’ route vs man coverage would take him.

The next time the Broncos got the ball back, they finally converted on some 3rd downs. But the Seahawks made Denver work for every single on of them. The Broncos got 4 first downs on this drive, and it took them 3 plays to get those 10 yards every single time.

Eventually, Denver got down to Seattle’s 35 yard-line and faced a 3rd-and-13. On this play, Cliff Avril struck yet again vs Orlando Franklin. He went back to the bull-rush and drove Franklin back easily like he was on roller skates. Manning had Franklin in his lap at the top of his drop again.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass
On the other side, Broncos left tackle Chris Clark was having similar issues with defensive end Chris Clemons. The Seahawks pass rush pushed the pocket inward, leaving no room for Manning to step up into the middle. Manning tried to get the ball off (his receiver had a step on his man downfield), but his arm was hit as he threw. The ball fluttered in the air and landed in the hands of the eventual Super Bowl MVP, Malcolm Smith, who returned it for 6. The rest is history. 22-0 Seahawks, and the Super Bowl was over before halftime.

So what did the Seahawks do to stop the Broncos? The answer is they got to Peyton Manning. The pass rush absolutely dominated. And while they only had 1 sack at the end of the game to show for it, there was no greater reason for the Seahawks’ dominant defensive performance.

Cliff Avril was the most influential player on 3 straight drives when the game was still in the balance (sort of). He was the root cause of 2 interceptions. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the stats to show it. Not that it truly matters because their were many deserving candidates, but Cliff Avril should have been named Super Bowl MVP.

The Broncos tried to use screens to slow down Seattle’s pass rush. The Seahawks were so fast, though, that they chased the screens down after nearly getting to Manning, stopping the plays for minimal gains and rendering them ineffective.

The Broncos also couldn’t generate anything on the ground to neutralize Seattle’s pass rush. We wrote last week that Montee Ball could be a huge factor in the game. We should have written that he “needed” to be a huge factor in the game because his speed is a better match against Seattle. Ultimately though, Denver was unable to generate any running lanes up front. Walter Payton wouldn’t have made a difference in this one.

It didn’t help matters for the Broncos that the Seahawks also have the best secondary in the league. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and the rest of Seattle’s defensive backs passed off Broncos receivers with expertise, not buying anything Denver was selling. When Manning did have time to get a pass off, his receivers were swarmed by defenders immediately. The Seahawks keyed on Denver’s short crossing routes, and the Broncos couldn’t get any yards after the catch as a result.

We said before the game that the Seahawks are an execution defense. They react to the ball in the air quicker than any secondary or defensive unit in the league. As a result, the Broncos might have been able to complete passes, but that’s all they were able to do. There would be no catches and runs for big plays.

The Seahawks were ready for Denver’s route concepts (as they’ve claimed since Super Bowl XLVIII ended). It didn’t hurt that getting to the quarterback with 3 or 4 rushers consistently leaves plenty of defenders to drop back in coverage. Still, the Seahawks weren’t caught off guard by anything the Broncos did. When Denver used trips, Seattle’s underneath coverage shifted to that side and dropped to take away many of those underneath routes. They didn’t give up easy yards in the middle of the field. When there were completions, there were defenders right there to make the hard tackle.

The Seahawks were more physical, more aggressive, and quicker to react than Denver all day. They got Manning off his spot, often forcing him to move within the pocket, or to move to one side of the field, cutting off a lot of the options away from his movement. Manning’s ability to adjust and get his team into good looks wasn’t enough to overcome Seattle’s physical talent and execution.

Still, Denver could have helped their cause with less sloppy play. It’s tough enough to win when you’re playing a great defense. When you shoot yourself in the foot, it’s nearly impossible.

There was the opening kickoff and the bad snap to start, which we addressed. On their 3rd drive, Knowshon Moreno ran for 3 to 4 yards on 2nd-and-5. This would have set up a 3rd and short, but Moreno fumbled at the end of the play. And while Denver recovered, 3rd-and-under 2 yards became 3rd-and-7. Manning threw an interception on the next play.

On the following drive, down 15-0, the Broncos finally started moving the ball. That was until a silly tripping penalty on 1st down set the Broncos back 10 yards, thwarting their momentum. A few plays later, it was 3rd down and a very long 13 yards. Then it was 22-0.

On their next drive, the Broncos once again got the ball deep into Seahawks territory. Facing a 3rd-and-4 from Seattle’s 21, the Broncos committed a false start, moving them back 5 yards. They then picked up 7 yards, making it 4th and 2. Manning’s next pass was tipped at the line for an incompletion.

The damage continued in the 2nd half. After driving once again in the 2nd half, a great pitch and catch by Manning and Demaryius Thomas resulted in a fumble. A sack-fumble on 4th down in the final quarter all but finished off Denver’s miserable day.

Peyton Manning ended up completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. He threw for a Super Bowl record 34 completions. However, it was for only 280 yards. The Seahawks were at another level all night, tackling receivers immediately. On the few opportunities downfield that the Broncos did have, Manning was either hit early, forced to move, or didn’t have time to get it downfield.

It takes a team to win and it takes a team to lose. As cliché as that sounds, it’s the truth. This game was somewhat about the failures of the Broncos, but more so, it was about how good the Seahawks were. They deserved to win, and with that young roster, they could stay on top for a while.

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