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Greg Cosell’s Super Bowl Preview: Seattle’s top defense vs. Denver’s top offense

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Many people say preseason doesn’t matter, but before this Super Bowl it’s worth taking a look back on the Seahawks-Broncos preseason matchup to see if there are any clues on how the much-anticipated matchup between Seattle’s top defense and Denver’s top defense will shake out.

And we can find that in that game, which was the second preseason game for both teams, Seattle played a lot differently on defense than we’re used to seeing.

The Seahawks prefer to run zone coverage, in particular “Cover 3” zone with two cornerbacks and a free safety each responsible for a deep third of the field. They also don’t blitz much. Seattle had the third fewest blitzes in the NFL, in terms of sending five or more rushers on pass plays.

So what did Seattle do against Denver in that preseason game? The Seahawks played a lot of man coverage and blitzed more than they usually do. Now you have to try to decipher, did the Seahawks do that because it was a preseason game and they were trying out things, or do they believe this is the best way to match up against the Broncos?

The problem with repeating that approach is, despite a final score that was 40-10 in favor of Seattle, the Broncos went up and down the field when Peyton Manning was in the game (he was 11-of-16 for 163 yards and a touchdown). Manning was very patient in that game, and that’s important for this matchup on Sunday.

If you give Manning the 5-yard completion, he’ll take it. Will the Seahawks essentially take the approach that they'll give you 12, 13, 14 plays on a drive and see if Denver can execute all the way down the field against their defense? It takes only one bad play like a penalty, being tackled for a loss or a turnover to ruin the drive. In my opinion, that could be Seattle's approach on Sunday.

If you’re Seattle, the lower scoring the game is, the better it is for them. If Denver holds the ball it isn't necessarily a bad thing, because time is being taken off the clock and the game is shorter. The red zone will be important, and both Denver’s offense and Seattle’s defense play very well in the red zone. Let’s say Denver gets the ball first, has a seven-minute drive and scores just three points. I think Seattle would look at that as a win, not as a bad thing.

One reason the Seahawks might not be so aggressive on defense and let the Broncos take some short plays is that their pass rush, a strength of the defense, might not be a huge factor anyway. Denver up to this point has played three-receiver sets in about seven of every 10 snaps, so the Seahawks will play a lot of nickel. Seattle likes its nickel defense pass rush, when Michael Bennett goes inside and Cliff Avril is in, but Manning normally gets rid of the ball quickly. Seattle’s pass rush could become a factor if Denver gets into too many long-yardage situation. But not so much if the Broncos stay on schedule. We’ve charted games in which Manning gets rid of the ball in an average of two seconds. If you get rid of it in two seconds, your offense line can take a vacation.

Another thing to keep in mind: To win this matchup, I think Denver has to have some success running the ball. They don’t need “X” number of runs or yards to be successful, but Manning is going to hand it off when the defense doesn’t stack the box. They have to have success with Knowshon Moreno running it. Success could mean just 4-yard runs, not necessarily 20-yard runs. If Denver plays their game, and Moreno has 17 carries for 72 yards or something like that, it will help Denver. That means Seattle will have to defend the whole field against their offense.

The fact is, when you give two good coaching staffs two weeks to prepare, we have no idea what wrinkles they will throw at each other. Because of that, this game is really hard to handicap. I don’t feel strongly one way or another. When I’ve been asked on some radio shows this week I have picked Denver to win, but I’m not saying that with any conviction. There are so many different ways this game could go. That's part of why it's a great matchup.

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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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