Saturday, February 1, 2014
Super Bowl XLVIII matchups to watch
By Jeff Legwold
NEW YORK -- Denver Broncos coach John Fox is fond of saying the NFL is a "bigger, faster, stronger" league, where the matchups decide the issue.
A league where those who hide, or exploit, their weaknesses the best usually will find a way to win.
In that light, here are a few matchups, beyond the Broncos' no-duh need to keep quarterback Peyton Manning upright with room to throw, to watch in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII:
WRs vs. DBs:
It is the marquee positional matchup. The Seattle Seahawks' defensive backs are the foundation of the league's No. 1 defense and play with a physical edge that often overwhelms receivers. The Broncos' receivers are the league's highest-scoring group with four players with at least 10 receiving touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas leads the way with 92 catches, 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns.
And, given that flags routinely stay in the officials' pockets in the title game -- see last year's Super Bowl if you have any doubt -- the Broncos' wideouts have to find a way to keep the Seahawks' physical defensive backs from altering their routes or disrupting the timing of the Denver offense.
If Denver's receivers don't get their expected releases off the line of scrimmage, that often forces Manning to hold the ball a bit longer and the dominoes start to fall because the Seahawks' defensive front, especially the players on the edge, will have the time to get to Manning that rushers don't usually have.
A look at the video shows the Seahawks prefer to play man-to-man on the underneath routes and play zone coverages down the field for the most part, often with three deep defenders. That type of alignment makes the inside receivers -- for the Broncos, that's players such as tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Wes Welker -- important pieces of the puzzle.
Those are the pressure points for those coverage looks, so Manning will be looking there for the seam routes. Julius Thomas and Welker will have to perform well in those high-traffic, high-contact areas.
And, when it comes to the matchup people want to see -- Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman against Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas -- the Broncos figure to move Thomas all over the field, but Sherman usually remains in the left cornerback spot.
So, unless the Seahawks are willing to break from their usual plan, Demaryius Thomas will line up across from Sherman only when Thomas is on the offensive right, on the outside. Look for the Broncos to bunch the receivers, as well, to back the Seahawks' defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage a bit. Defenses routinely attack the point of the bunch, or the receiver who is closest to the line of scrimmage, so the Broncos could tuck Thomas behind a bit to give him slightly more room to work.
Broncos DT Terrance Knighton vs. Seattle C Max Unger:
Knighton, who will shade over toward the guard at times, has been the key in the Broncos' improved run defense down the stretch. And, although the Broncos simply can't afford to miss a tackle against Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, Knighton has to consistently win at the point of attack for the Broncos' plan to work.
For all of their defensive troubles this season, the Broncos have played better against the offenses that chose to attack them with heavier formations. It allowed the Broncos to play bigger, something they've done with more consistency and production than they have in some of their other personnel groupings.
The Broncos surrendered a league-low 2.84 yards on rushing attempts over the opposing center this season, surrendered a league-low 1.88 yards per attempt over the right guard and 2.74 yards per carry over the left guard. The Seahawks gained 4.8 yards per carry on runs behind Unger.
The Broncos do expect the Seahawks to go to a three-wide look more often with Percy Harvin in the lineup, so, as a result, Denver will be forced to defend the run a little more out of its nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages.
Broncos special teams vs. Seahawks special teams:
There is a school of thought in the league that, in the end, the league-leading Denver offense and the league-leading Seattle defense will cancel each other out in some fashion.
Those same folks also will say they believe the Seahawks' special teams are more consistent than the Broncos' special teams, especially down the stretch of the regular season and especially with Seattle set to have Harvin returning kickoffs. Harvin, who has played just 38 snaps on offense this season because of a hip injury as well as a concussion, returned one kickoff this year -- for 58 yards.
For the Broncos, Trindon Holliday has to be more consistent handling the ball, as few things turn a playoff game -- especially a title game -- as drastically as a special-teams bobble. Overall, the Seahawks have not surrendered a yard on punt returns in two postseason games and opponents averaged just 3.9 yards per punt return in the regular season.
Jack Del Rio vs. Darrell Bevell:
These two coach the "other" units, the ones folks aren't really zeroed in on, and the one who has come up with the best plan and gets his guys to carry it out the most efficiently certainly could decide this game.
Del Rio's Denver defense certainly has had moments of struggle this season, but it has been better down the stretch. The Broncos figure to show more of a 3-4 look against the Seahawks' power formations. Overall, Denver has to keep Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson tucked in the pocket; the Broncos can't let him break their containment and can't get washed out of the play in the Seahawks' zone-run attack.
Harvin's appearance in the Seahawks' offense is a wrinkle the Broncos will have to adjust to quickly in the game. And Del Rio will need an answer when the Broncos go to some of the specialty packages on defense if Wilson decides to pick on cornerback Tony Carter.