Seattle’s Offense Outwitted and Outplayed Denver’s Defense

While the Seahawks’ defense and special teams may have made the most noise in Super Bowl XLVIII, their offense defeated the Broncos just as decisively.

Denver clearly set out to stop Marshawn Lynch from the get-go. This was the smart move. After all, Lynch and the Seahawks’ running game had been the most consistent element of Seattle’s offense all season, especially in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was his usual dominant self for Denver on Super Sunday, penetrating past one-on-one matchups and holding up double teams. Broncos linebackers filled lanes and kept their discipline when Marshawn Lynch was given the ball. The Broncos did end up stopping Marshawn Lynch. Unfortunately for Denver, this was the only thing they did well.

The Broncos defense looked completely caught off guard by the presence of Percy Harvin. This was clearly evident on Harvin’s first touch, an end-around on the Seahawks’ 2nd offensive play of the game, which ended up going for 30 yards. No one on Denver’s defense reacted to Harvin’s motion before the snap. It wasn’t until he was beyond the line of scrimmage that anyone did seem to notice. The Seahawks ran another end-around to Harvin later in the quarter, this time for 15 yards. How the Broncos appeared so unprepared is a mystery, especially considering Harvin has been used on this exact type of play frequently throughout his career in the NFL.

Both of Harvin’s runs were to the side of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. This was not a coincidence. Rodgers-Cromartie is a cover-corner, and on these two plays he was driven back easily, offering very little resistance and doing almost nothing to try to get off his blocker. Just compare his physicality to that of the Seahawks’ corners, and you get a microcosm of what this entire game was all about.

One of Denver’s biggest issues all night was third down, where the Seahawks converted on 7 of their first 10 attempts. The Broncos just could not get off the field.

On 3rd-and-9 on their very first drive, the Seahawks went with 4 WRs, 1 TE, and an empty backfield, spreading out Denver’s defense. The Broncos played single high, blitzed 5 and ended up with 5 one-on-one matchups in coverage – all of which were soft coverage. Russell Wilson picked the matchup he liked, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse on safety Mike Adams in the slot. With none of his receivers disrupted off the line, it was an easy pitch and catch on what should have been a more difficult conversion attempt.

On their next drive, the Seahawks faced a 3rd-and-7. The Broncos dropped 8 defenders into coverage this time, 5 of which dropped several yards beyond the first down marker. Again, this was soft zone coverage. Wilson scrambled out of the pocket to try and make a play and was able to find Golden Tate along the sideline. He hit him with a great throw on the run. Again, with Broncos defenders playing so soft, this wasn’t as difficult of a conversion as it should have been. With 5 players dropping 5-10 yards beyond the first down markers and only 3 defenders rushing, Denver seemed more concerned with preventing the big play than getting off the field. This was the type of defense you normally see on 3rd-and-20, not 3rd-and-7.

A few plays later, on 3rd-and-3, the Broncos played man free. The Seahawks stacked Doug Baldwin behind tight end Luke Willson in the slot. Champ Bailey was matched on Baldwin, but was forced to let Willson clear before attacking Baldwin. This is one of the purposes of a stacked formation – it’s difficult for defenders to jam receivers at the line, making this a great man-coverage beater. By the time Willson cleared past Bailey, Baldwin had the ball in his hands for an easy 3rd-down conversion. This was an excellent design by Seattle.

Later on the drive, on 3rd-and-5, the Broncos played man free again, and again, Champ Bailey was matched up on Baldwin one-on-one in the slot. Golden Tate, aligned outside of Baldwin, ran his route towards Bailey. Baldwin ran a wheel route to the outside around Tate. Bailey, forced to avoid Tate, ran a circuitous route to chase Baldwin, who was now several yards beyond him and made even more wide open as a result of Bailey’s path. The result was a big 37-yard gain for Seattle.

There were two constants on all of these 3rd downs. One, Broncos defensive backs did not get their hands on Seattle’s receivers at all. They didn’t impede their routes in any way. Seattle’s route concepts were able to work just as they were drawn up on the meeting-room chalkboards as a result. This type of defensive strategy in the biggest game of the year is questionable at best. It’s a passive approach, designed to take away big plays. Yet what did it do? It enabled the Seahawks to control the first quarter. And the Seahawks still had no problem picking up large chunks of yards. In today’s NFL, playing it safe is not always a recipe for preventing big plays.

The other constant on these 3rd downs, as well as throughout the entire game, was the complete absence of a pass rush by Denver. Russell Wilson had tons of time to scan the field and make decisive throws. When he did scramble, it was of his own volition, not because pressure forced him out of the pocket.

It’s amazing how much of an impact a pass rush can have on a game. Getting to, and protecting the quarterback is still the name of the game. And this Super Bowl provided a glimpse at both ends of the pass-rush spectrum.

The Broncos, arguably the best offense of all time, were unable to get anything going because of a dominant Seahawks pass rush. The Seahawks, who had an inconsistent passing game all season, operated with precision and controlled the game when they had the ball.

In the end, Seattle was the aggressor on offense, able to dictate their gameplan to the defense. The Broncos were passive schematically and passive with their execution. They were outplayed in the trenches when Seattle threw the ball. Their secondary was unable to handle the Seahawks’ younger, albeit unheralded, receiving corps. Furthermore, Seattle’s coaching staff put their offense in a better position to succeed than Denver’s did.

You could make the argument that Jack Del Rio didn’t have much to play with in this one. His defense lost several key players throughout the season: 2 on the defensive line (Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe); one at linebacker (Von Miller, their best pass rusher); and 3 in the secondary (Chris Harris, Rahim Moore, and you have to count Champ Bailey, who was not himself all season). It’s fair to say that he couldn’t be as aggressive as he was earlier in the season because of the depleted talent level. After all, the Broncos offense had used a ball-control approach to eat up clock and keep their own defense off the field throughout the playoffs. When they weren’t able to control the game vs Seattle, the defense became exposed. Still, as a defensive coordinator, it’s your job to put your players in the best possible position to succeed. Del Rio did little in this one to make up for his defense’s deficiencies.

The Seahawks offense might not have dominated the Broncos as much as their defense and special teams did, but they did win decisively. In fact, in all 3 phases of the game, it was an active approach by Seattle that helped earn them a championship.