Has there ever been a pre-Super Bowl media hype-machine that you’ve been so sick of; you just wish the game would commence?
It feels like the media is doing a severe disservice to this match-up, by concentrating on aspects like the weather and Richard Sherman’s mouth – which has remained relatively tame since his WWE-style promo a few weeks ago. Luckily, we have a segment of analysts, albeit small, that recognize the schematic and strategic ramifications of this match-up, which is one for the ages.
So a day before the big game, let’s put aside all the nonsense regarding the mercury level of the thermometer, what each player is saying about the other, and let’s concentrate on the 12 inch oblong football that will be tossed in the parameters of a 120 yard field in Metlife stadium, deal? Deal!
Peyton Manning vs the Seahawks Cover 3 Scheme
I’m glad the Seahawks made the Super Bowl because it will be the perfect platform to display to many that this is not a straight up man-to-man type of defense. Seattle runs a Cover 3 scheme, which for most teams, would be an absolutely pregnable defense.
Within that Cover 3 scheme, there is a particular importance placed on the Legion of Boom. We know how good Sherman is. He has an understanding of how receivers run routes and a recognition of which patterns they will run. His 16 interceptions have led the league in the last two season. But Byron Maxwell has been a pleasant surprise as well, replacing the suspended Brandon Browner. Walter Thurmond has proven to be quite versatile, with the ability to play inside or outside.
The essential components of the Cover 3 for Seattle are its corners and free safety. The corners, line-up near their opposing wide receivers, adding the physical element of the ‘bump and run’. It allows the likes of Sherman or Byron Maxwell to provide a ‘jam’ at the line of scrimmage then run with them. Sherman and Maxwell are supposed to have the deep third of the field (Photo courtesy of Mile High Report). If the receiver runs a 9 (go-route), the corner must follow. Essentially, the corner is responsible for routes that a receiver runs within their area of coverage, such as a hook route and an out route (both effective patterns to run against the cover three, as the deep safety is completely away from the play). If they run a slant or an in-route, the speedy Seattle linebackers, of K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, will have coverage in those zones. Both players are the forgotten men in the defense, but their roles are critical in the Cover 3.
Cover 3 has existed since the advent of the forward pass. What the Seahawks do with it now, versus the basic principles of the scheme have some differences.
Traditional Cover 3 is meant to cover the deep third of the field as mentioned, which is what the Seahawks are doing when they deploy it.
Traditional Cover 3 will also mean that the three defensive backs who have to cover the aforementioned deep third, will shoot up right after the snap to cover their zones. Not the Seahawks. That man-to-man concept I mentioned earlier, well, the Seahawks do mix in some of that with this Cover 3 scheme.
Traditional Cover 3 schemes do not have a safety with the talent that Earl Thomas possesses. This is entirely true as he combines a mixtures of speed, quickness, tenacity and incredible smarts.
Thomas is the great equalizer of this unit. The holes within this defensive scheme are in the area just above the middle linebacker (the deep-middle), which can be susceptible to the post route, as well as the seams where the receiver lines up and can run the 9 route (between the numbers and the sideline). Thomas must defend these routes for this scheme to be successful and that he does. The former Texas Longhorn has the type of speed and instincts that make him perfect for this defense. He can cover for any mistakes that are made and lay precise hits to separate man from ball. According to Danny Kelly of SB Nation, there were 15 pass attempts to the deep-middle of the field against the Seahawks in 2012 and that number dropped to 8 in 2013. That can easily be attributed to Thomas’ impact on that portion of the field.
So, how do the Broncos combat that? Their patented ‘rub’ routes with Wes Welker and the wide-out nearest to him, will be perfect to counter the Cover 3 because generally the linebackers are in zone coverage. It will be key for the linebackers to diagnose that play early and attack the ‘picker’, or it will be a long day for the slot corner, Walter Thurmond, who figures to play mostly man coverage on Welker. Richard Sherman does play the slot corner position in spurts so that could be a very interest matchup, if he ends up being on Welker for a few plays.
Many of the deep crossing routes over the Seahawks linebackers will be what the Broncos use to get free room. K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are an athletic a linebacker duo, but it will still be a daunting task covering the likes of Eric Decker and Wes Welker on digs and crosses, areas that Thomas is too far away to cover.
The key in this offense against the Cover 3 is the tight end against the strong safety.
We saw how Kam Chancellor completely neutralized Vernon Davis during the NFC Championship game. He will need to provide the same coverage against ‘Orange Julius’ tomorrow. The tight end can be absolutely lethal against this scheme because of the holes that the defense creates within the defense, as the space between Earl Thomas and his corners can easily be exploited. Chancellor will either mostly be in man coverage or play a flat-zone where he can defend the tight end or short crosses if needed. What I love about the former college quarterback from Virginia Tech is his ability to play as another man in the box and he also displayed an ability to man up on a tight end. This was one of his few weaknesses, but he proved that he could lock-down on a receiver, as was the case against Davis. Even if he is not making plays, his presence must be accounted for by receivers coming across the middle of the field. We saw Davis and Michael Crabtree, showing an unwillingness to catch passes in the middle of the field due to Chancellor’s battering ram ability to lay the wood.
Ultimately, you figure to see Sherman on Demayrius Thomas for the vast majority of the game and Byron Maxwell on Decker. As mentioned, Thurmond will be playing the slot against Welker, likely in many man-to-man scenarios. No doubt, if Julius Thomas goes off, it dramatically decreases the chances of the Seahawks prevailing.
Of course, when you have number 18 on your side, the likelihood that you will run a coverage he has never seen before is very low. Peyton Manning will not make bone-headed throws into double coverage, nor will he make the wrong read. The credit that the Seahawks secondary gets, while completely merited, would not be possible without their athletic and versatile defensive line. They can rotate three and at times four defensive ends, in Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irwin – who was converted to outside linebacker this season. Their defensive tackles in Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane are adept at playing a one-gap defense (i.e. a lineman will solely focus on the gap between the left tackle and left guard), but two-gaps as well (i.e. they have jurisdiction on the gap between the LT and LG and the gap between the LG and center). It sounds mundane, but it is imperative to have a team that can play both schemes on the defensive line and not overplay their lanes and allow big holes against the run. As terrific as this top-ranked passing defense is, they need the defensive line to provide enough of a rush to disrupt an offense that is as timing-based as they come. Manning knows where he is going in his pre-snap reads better than anyone, so it will be up to Seattle to provide enough of an initial rush, and for the defensive backs to stay true to their reads. When Manning gets happy feet, that’s when the ducks he throws tend to wobble and he is liable to be intercepted. Like many quarterbacks, when they cannot set their feet or step into their throws, incompletions becoming much more likely.
Despite the strength of their defensive line, the Seahawks, at times, have been vulnerable against the running game. Their struggles were early in the season against quicker backs such as Mike James and Zach Stacy. Tomorrow, they’ll be trying to tackle the likes of Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball, more bruising, one-cut backs whom the Broncos have been relying heavily on. I mentioned in my AFC Championship game review, that the running game was an easy outlet for Denver when the Patriots played two-deep safety coverage, with six or seven men in the box. Luckily for Seattle, the aforementioned Chancellor plays quite a bit of his time in the box. And the Seahawks still have that Thomas dude who, by the way, is also a tremendous tackler that can plug running lanes by ranging towards the line of scrimmage, sideline to sideline. Denver will have a hard time getting easy rushing yards, but they cannot give up on it.
For the Seahawks, offensively, the key match-up I will be looking at is Terrence Knighton a.k.a. Pot Roast, against James Carpenter, Max Unger and J.R. Sweezy, from left to right, the interior offensive line of the Seahawks. Knighton has been tremendous in the post-season so far and it is no surprise that his outstanding play, whether it was against the run or the pass, has affected the opposing offenses Denver has faced. Neither the Chargers nor the Patriots were able to muster any type of running game against Denver and that was in large part due to Knighton. I will be looking for Carpenter, Unger and Sweezy to double-team Knighton at the line of scrimmage, which may free up tackling opportunities for Shaun Phillips, or rookie Sylvester Williams. The man known as Pot Roast has been a revelation over the past month and is a load to bring down.
Containing him will lead to a direct correlation on the success of Marshawn Lynch. Lynch as we know, is one of the best post-season running backs, let alone overall rushers in the league and is approaching all-time status as his great performances keep mounting. It will be imperative for him to get his 6th 100-yard rushing game for the Seahawks to claim Super Bowl XLVIII. Amidst the talk of Manning, Wilson, Richard Sherman and the bevy of Thomas’ that will have an impact on the game, Lynch has as good a chance as anyone at being a factor and coming away with the Super Bowl MVP trophy. His runs, like no other running back, fuel the team when he literally puts the team and opposing defenders on his back, churning his legs and grinding to get every last yard that he can. Seattle will pound the rock and ensure that Manning cannot establish his ball -control offense by keeping him off the field. Beast mode will reign supreme in Super Bowl XLVIII and the Seahawks offensive line is good enough to contain Pot Roast.
From a passing standpoint, Russell Wilson will be getting Percy Harvin back. The man who was traded from Minnesota for a first round pick and given over $25 million in guaranteed money, has contributed one catch for 17 yards this season.
Hip surgery and a concussion have derailed a season of hell for the former Florida Gators standout. Thankfully for Seattle, Harvin will be all systems go and deployed like he normally would. I would not be surprised to see him run a few ‘gadget’ plays, return kick and punt returns as well as line up at his usual slot position. His talent is unquestioned and his ability to change the game from a passing, rushing and special teams aspect are crucial for Russell Wilson. Regardless of the return of Harvin, Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin have made enough plays in key games throughout the season, and I would expect nothing less from a receiving corps that consistently feels slighted because of their diminutive stature and the fact that the national media is not totally up to speed on them. Adding Harvin just makes this unit that much more dangerous.
I mentioned Wilson briefly, but he must have a better game than he did against San Francisco. His scrambling creates plays on broken routes, but it puts the team in precarious situations when he gets called for an intentional grounding call because he’s running with his head cut off like a chicken. Wilson will need to let go of the football and make key throws inside the pocket in order to preserve drives and he must be equally judicious when trying to extend plays to create for himself or his receivers. Denver’s pass rush without Von Miller, has stayed intact in large part due to the resurgence of Shaun Phillips. Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers together are making up for the loss of Miller, creating enough pressure to make an average secondary look good. Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, had great games against New England, but you never know what to expect from them. They can play man-coverage, but you have to roll safeties to Bailey’s side with his skills diminishing. This will mean one-on-one opportunities for other receivers and we know that the Seahawks wide-outs can get the ball at its highest-point when needed. If Wilson breaks containment, which he was barely able to do against San Francisco, it will be a very long evening for Denver. How do you achieve that? Don’t allow Wilson to step up in the pocket, by ensuring defensive lineman stick to their lanes. Outside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Nick Irving will need to pounce quickly if he starts to run on the outside and of course, Philips, Jackson and Ayers will need to force the play to the inside.
We’re really going to see if the old adage of defense winning championships is still prevalent. How Russell Wilson does compared to how his defense plays against the best offense in the history of the league will be one aspect I will key in on. The weather shouldn’t be a factor, despite being hyped up all week. I get the sense that Seattle still feels slighted and those players, many of whom are 3rd to 6th rounders, play with massive chips on all of their shoulders. Ultimately, who will scheme better and deploy their respective game plans will be the telling factor in the winner of Super Bowl XLVIII. I know the destiny angle for Peyton Manning and his marvelous career are what everyone wants to see, as well as good-guy Champ Bailey finally appearing in the big game, but Seattle is on such a high defensively that I can’t see them not taking this one back to the 12th man in the pacific northwest. Seattle offers a level of depth at the defensive line that Denver has not dealt with yet. Additionally, the Seattle secondary is truly as good as advertised and they simply do not beat themselves. While it may still be a relatively high-scoring affair, Seattle ultimately makes the key plays defensive to come out on top.
Seattle 34 Denver 31.
Super Bowl MVP: Percy Harvin