Before Super Bowl XLVIII, I thought one of the biggest potential mismatches was Seattle's nickel defensive line vs. the Broncos' offensive line.
I couldn't be certain the Seahawks could get quick pressure, because Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly. But they did, and it was perhaps the biggest factor in Seattle's dominating win.
Denver had some receivers open, especially early on before the game got out of hand. But the Seattle pass rush wouldn't let Manning get to them.
The Broncos had three potential big plays in their first two series, and didn't hit any of them. The first one, Manning might have misread the coverage. The Seahawks played "man free lurk" on second-and-7 on their second possession, with safety Kam Chancellor as the lurk defender. Eric Decker easily beat Richard Sherman on an in-breaking route but Manning never looked to him, perhaps because the Seahawks were in a coverage they usually don't run. Seattle obviously game-planned this look for the Broncos to take away their crossing routes, with Chancellor in the position of enforcer. Any crosser, he's waiting there. And he hit Demaryius Thomas hard after he caught the shallow cross.
On the next play, Seattle's pass rush started to take over. On third-and-5 the Seahawks rushed just three and dropped eight in "Cover 3" zone. That coverage took away Demaryius Thomas on a wheel route. Safety Earl Thomas jumped the underneath crossing route by Knowshon Moreno. But Wes Welker was open on a crossing route in front of Chancellor. Manning never saw him because Seattle end Cliff Avril drove right tackle Orlando Franklin back into him, creating some quick pressure. Manning threw to Julius Thomas, who was tackled 2 yards short of the first down.
On Denver's next possession, one of Seattle's five blitzes in the Super Bowl (yes, they blitzed just five times on more than 50 dropbacks, and still got a lot of pressure) led to a huge turnover.
Because of the blitz, Franklin looked inside. Avril flew in off the edge past Franklin. Manning had to move to his left. That took his vision away from a wide-open Welker running a shallow crossing route to Manning's right. Welker was free, and he'd still be running if Manning got him the ball. Instead, Manning threw a ball to Julius Thomas without great definition, it was inaccurate and picked off by Chancellor. It's one of those things that shows how a little thing here or there can change a game. The score was 8-0 at this point. What if Franklin reacts quicker and gets his arm out to redirect Avril and Manning sees Welker?
There's one other play that showed the Broncos had some plays available, but the Seattle pass rush took them away. It was Malcolm Smith's 69-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The Broncos lined up in a three-by-one set with Demaryius Thomas as the "X iso" to Manning's right, matched on Sherman. Earl Thomas, the deep safety, cheated inside to the three-receiver side. Earl Thomas did that all season against three-by-one sets. The Broncos knew that. There was no over-the-top defender to help Sherman, and Demaryius Thomas beat him to the post. The Broncos got exactly what they wanted. But Avril drove Franklin right into Manning, and on the other side Chris Clemons beat left tackle Chris Clark.
So instead of Manning throwing deep to Thomas, in a play the Broncos set up beautifully because they understood the Seahawks' coverage concept against that set, Avril hit Manning, Smith picked the pass off and returned it for a touchdown. That gave Seattle a 22-0 lead, and the game was practically over at that point.
Not only did the defensive line dominate the game by pressuring Manning, the linemen were also key in stopping Denver's receiver screens because of their athleticism. The linemen were the ones making the tackles on those plays. You never expect the defensive line to make those tackles. You don’t account for that. That’s why you get a few offensive linemen out in front to block, because you don’t expect a defensive tackle to get out there and make the play.
The thing to note about Seattle's pass rush against Denver is it wasn't complicated. The Seahawks barely blitzed. There were not many stunts by the linemen. I think they felt they were better than the Broncos and could line up and play. And they were right.
Seattle's defense was quicker and faster, with great recognition of what the Broncos wanted to do, especially in their route concepts. The Seahawks did a phenomenal job of playing their zone concepts. They’re really, really good at the details of their defense and nuances of what they do.
I think they got to Manning early. He rushed some throws in which he had a chance for some big plays. He wasn’t comfortable right from the start (and I have no idea how the first play, the botched snap for a safety, affected him). The Seahawks got him doing everything faster than he wanted to. The goal become to get the ball out of his hands, and you can’t play quarterback that way.
There’s no question Manning didn’t play well. There were reasons for that. The biggest reason was the Broncos found themselves playing against a better team.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.
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