We’ve already heard a lot about the stars of the Super Bowl, but I want to point out one player from each team who will be a huge factor on Sunday and isn’t talked about a lot. One player is a relative unknown that doesn't get enough credit. The other is a very recognizable name, but his specific role on the field hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.
Let’s start with Seattle.
SEAHAWKS: CORNERBACK BYRON MAXWELL
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman gets all the attention but Byron Maxwell, the corner on the other side, is really good as well.
Maxwell is a big corner and he’s capable of playing press coverage, which he plays well. He’s also capable of playing off. He’s a good cornerback and nobody talks about him. The Seahawks lost starting cornerback Brandon Browner to injury and suspension, and people thought that would affect the defense. Maxwell has played a significantly higher level than Browner. He has upgraded that position. He is an excellent player.
Maxwell’s size fits coach Pete Carroll’s view of that position. With later picks you see how teams think. Maxwell wasn’t a big-time prospect coming out but Carroll and the Seahawks’ front office wants big corners. So Seattle took him in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. The Seahawks aren't taking a flier on a 5-9, 180-pound corner. That’s how a guy like Maxwell gets there.
The Seahawks rarely move their corners. Sherman will mostly stay on the left side and Maxwell will be on the right. If it’s a third-and-5 and they want to match up with a certain receiver they’ll put Sherman on him, but that’s rare. That means the Broncos should be able to dictate which receiver gets matched up against Maxwell, and Maxwell will see Demaryius Thomas plenty on Sunday. And Manning will throw it that way. But it’s not a gimme for Denver.
You can’t just go after Maxwell. We’ve seen teams go with three-by-one sets to get a certain receiver against Maxwell. Those passes get caught occasionally, but he wins his share too. Manning will throw it to Thomas when he’s on Maxwell, but it’s not automatic it will be a completion for a big gain, like it was when the Broncos got specific matchups against Chiefs cornerback Marcus Cooper earlier this year.
And, even though Seattle obviously didn't draft Maxwell with this game in mind, as it turns out Maxwell is one of the corners in the league with the size to match up with Thomas.
BRONCOS: CORNERBACK CHAMP BAILEY
Bailey isn’t like Maxwell, because he gets more than his share of attention. But he has a specific role that makes his matchup crucial for the Super Bowl.
Bailey moves into the slot in the nickel defense, and he’ll be matched up against Seattle’s Doug Baldwin, who is a better slot receiver than people give him credit for. This matchup might only happen a dozen times in the game, but it will come on third downs and critical plays.
In his prime, Bailey was one of the great press “mirror” corners the game has ever seen. He didn’t try to jam guys and stop them at the line. He would mirror the receiver across from him. He was incredibly quick and fluid. He’s not quite that guy anymore at age 35. But he’s not a liability either.
I don’t think he’s as good as a press guy anymore. I think he has to back off a little now. I don’t think he’s quite as smooth and quick in his transition out of the press position. So he has to play off a little more so he doesn’t get beat at the line. None of that is a knock on Bailey – he’s 35 years old. But that’s how he plays now. And playing the slot is a new role for Bailey. He rarely did that in his career unless he was matched up against a certain receiver, like he did with San Diego tight end Antonio Gates at times earlier in his career.
The reason the Bailey-Baldwin matchup is important is the Seahawks are very scheme-based when they go against man coverage on third down. They like to run a rub element – the completion to Baldwin on a big third-and-3 against the Saints in the divisional round was a natural rub element. That’s a staple concept for them. They run a wheel route from the slot, and the outside receiver will pick off Baldwin’s man. Defending it comes down to recognition and how you choose to play it defensively. You could be the best cornerback in the league, but if a guy runs into you you’re not getting there.
In the NFL there are situations that could happen 10 times, could happen five times, but those few times could be the difference in the game. If one of those Bailey-Baldwin matchups results in a 40-yard gain for Baldwin, that could swing the game in Seattle's favor. That makes Bailey a big factor on Sunday.
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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.