In the shadow of the NFL's biggest game, the Broncos defensive and Seahawks offensive players must feel like the forgotten stepchildren of Super Bowl hype. Outside of Seattle super-rusher Marshawn Lynch, impressive young QB Russell Wilson, Denver's new sensation DT Terrance Knighton and veteran Broncos CB Champ Bailey, many of these players are not well known. That is about to change.
The Seattle offense's stats may pale in comparison to Denver's record-breaking numbers, with a mere 26.1 points per game in the playoffs. Yet, here they are in New York and the score is 0-0. The unit has averaged 339 total yards per game: 202.2 passing yards and136.8 rushing yards. The offense has achieved only 27 first downs compared to opponents 41, but the 'Hawks have a +3 turnover count. Denver's TO ratio is -2.* Hmmm.
The rather maligned Denver D's playoff numbers include 24.9 points per game. Resurrecting themselves after multiple starter injuries, this squad gave up a total of 129 rushing yards in the two postseason contests. Tom Brady and Philip Rivers combined for only 450 passing yards against them.
Quite a few of the Broncos defenders were either lower-round draft picks (sixth-round LB Danny Trevathan and fifth-round DE Malik Jackson) or undrafted free agents (LB Wesley Woodyard and S Duke Ihenacho). As starters were lost, these young men seized their opportunity to shine and will be trying to earn their place in the Broncos championship constellation on Super Bowl Sunday.
Seattle Run Game
For those who only watch football once per annum, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has a tendency to take over games and run over opponents. He and his teammates refer to this phenomenon as "Beast Mode." For once, referring to an athlete as "a force of nature" isn't an exaggeration. At least twice, crowd reaction to a Lynch run has registered on the Richter scale. You can look it up.
Famed for his power and the patience with which he weaves behind a dominant set of run blockers, the physically imposing Lynch has unexpected agility and speed. He's averaged 5 yards per carry in January. Lynch and alternate rusher Robert Turbin have accounted for 47 percent of the Seattle Seahawks offense.
Until the AFC Championship game, Denver's run defense was a perceived cause for concern in the Rockies, despite ranking in the middle of the league in rushing yards allowed. However, thanks in part to DT Knighton (who arrived with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio from Jacksonville) opposing rushers have gained only 2.84 yards up the middle.^
In the title match, the Broncos defenders completely eliminated Patriots power RB LeGarrette Blount from contention and have given up only one rushing score in the postseason. To that spectacular rushing talent--Tom Brady. This week, they'll have a chance to prove that they can shut down the best power rusher in the NFL. Perhaps containing him would be a better goal.
Denver's D has to keep fighting for all four quarters: they have had a tendency to fade in the fourth. Marshawn Lynch, like many great runners, seems to get stronger as the game wears on. On Showtime's Inside the NFL, Marcus Allen summed up the Seattle strategy, "The running game is the only thing that makes your opponent surrender."
Seattle Passing Game
Like the Denver defenders, Seattle's WRs may well be better than advertised. While Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jeremy Kearse and TE Zach Miller sometimes have difficulty separating from defenders, they are nevertheless a very efficient group. As a unit, they have averaged 9.3 yards per target with a 62.6 percent catch rate. Further, 15.2 percent of targets resulted in a play of more than 20 yards.
Second-year quarterback Russell Wilson may be one of the most impressive 25-year-olds in America. He's calm, confident, gracious, intelligent and talented. After losing his top two WRs this season, many have criticized the young passer for his less-than-stellar statistics. His passer ratings, based on math Galileo wouldn't understand, are low for a Super Bowl starter. However, he completed 63.1 percent of his passes with an average of 8.25 yards per throw. Seriously, it could be much worse.
The Denver secondary has had its challenges in 2013. Future Hall of Fame CB Champ Bailey was injured for most of the season, returning on cue to work primarily at the demanding slot corner position. Bailey may have lost the proverbial step, but he is as savvy a defender as exists in the league.
Starting CB Chris Harris tore his ACL prior to the playoff push and has been replaced by a combination of veteran Tony Carter (probable to play after a significant shoulder injury in the AFC game+), rookie Kayvon Webster and the venerable Quentin Jammer. While not an impressive set of corners on paper, they held Patriots WR Danny Amendola without a single catch in the conference championship and kept "energizer bunny" Julian Edelman from reaching 100 receiving yards.
Safeties Duke Ihenacho and Mike Adams are generally considered to be second-tier DBs, but Ihenacho has recently been showing some moments of defensive panache. Adams may not be flashy, but he's dependable. Adams' journey to the NFL was honored this week with a personal Super Bowl pep rally at his Paterson New Jersey high school.
Both DBs occasionally gamble unsuccessfully in coverage, particularly in play action situations. One of these young men will probably be assigned to "spy" on Seattle QB Wilson in the event that the diminutive dynamo decides to make a play with his legs instead of his arm. Good luck with that.
The most unpredictable, dynamic and potentially game-changing player in the Super Bowl is 'Hawks WR Percy Harvin. After missing almost all of the 2013 season due to multiple injuries, Harvin is reportedly healed from the concussion that cut short his brief return to the field a few weeks ago.
Denver's defensive coaches undoubtedly spent the first Super Bowl prep week sifting through footage of Harvin's performance under OC Darrell Bevell when both were with the Vikings a few years ago. In their last year together in Minnesota, Harvin averaged 11.1 yards per reception, with six touchdowns and 14 plays of more than 20 yards. He accomplished this with Christian Ponder at quarterback. Just saying.
However, Harvin's most valuable contribution may be as a kick return specialist. In 2011 he averaged over 32 yards per return.
Russell Wilson and the Denver Front Seven
The Seattle Seahawk's 5'10" quarterback ran a 4.55 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. His scrambling talent has prolonged many a play, culminating in a big pass or a first-down run.
The last time the Denver Broncos saw a mobile quarterback was December 1st, when they squared off against Kansas City's Alex Smith. He ran four times and broke off one 46-yard rush before the defense could contain him. Prior to that, they faced the Colts Andrew Luck in an October loss in Indy. Luck scored a rushing touchdown.
Denver's D-line is anchored by Pro Bowler Shaun Phillips and features rookies Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. Fifth-year DE Robert Ayers is having the best year of his professional career with 5.5 regular season sacks.
The D-line's breakout star has proven to be the aforementioned Terrance Knighton, affectionately known as "Pot Roast." The nickname was born when the large Mr. Knighton energetically responded to a flight attendant offering a choice of entrees. It's a good thing he isn't a vegetarian: the alternative was "Shrimp Alfredo."
Denver's line effectively harassed Tom Brady throughout the Championship game, but Tom Terrific doesn't exactly pose an imminent rushing threat. Success in the Super Bowl may well hinge on this line's ability to maintain defenders on the edges that can prevent Wilson's escape from the pocket. The San Francisco 49ers had some success containing Wilson with the blitz, which may be a better plan than expecting 300 lb linemen to chase him around--though possibly not as entertaining.
Wilson's rushing ability demands "back side" defense--away from the rest of the play. This takes a defender out of run or pass defense. Again, the 49ers were onto a good idea as they played uncharacteristically back from the ball, giving themselves a buffered space away from the Seahawks blockers so that they had room to react to the play and run cleanly at the rusher.
Ultimately, to paraphrase coach Denny Green: "They are who we [think] they are." Seattle is going to line up and pound the rock into the teeth of Denver's defense. And they will dare Denver to stop them.
NBCSports' Rodney Harrison wrapped up the Denver defensive strategy on ProFootballTalk, "Why are we making this difficult? Stack an eight man box, leave the safety back there in case he gets free and make him try to beat you--he's not Peyton Manning back there."
If only it were that easy.
For the other half of this Super Bowl Preview see Part 1: Denver Offense versus Seattle Defense.
For a detailed look at Super Bowl XLVIII's Special Teams, Offensive Lines, Coaching Tendencies and Intangibles see my article on TheSportsDaily.Net.
*regular season and playoff statistics from nfl.com
+injury information from cbssports.com
^statistic featured on NBC's NFL Turning Point
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