NFL Nation: Cliff Avril
In fact, Orakpo said he never viewed rookie Trent Murphy as anything other than a guy who could help now. He said he did not wonder if Murphy was drafted to be his eventual replacement.
Orakpo said Murphy's addition was necessary. So, too, was outside linebackers coach Brian Baker's. And Orakpo said both can help him -- and Ryan Kerrigan -- have more of an impact this season.
First, Baker. Here's the list of pass rushers he's worked with in the past: Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware and La'Roi Glover. How much did he mold their games? Tough to say, but clearly Baker can pass along tips he picked up working with those players onto the Redskins' linebackers.
"Just pass-rush concepts, man," Orakpo said. "Not just being an athlete. All kinds of different stuff he learned coaching guys throughout his years. Hand usage. Hand placement. I'm a momentum type of pass rusher. Now he's trying to teach a guy like myself proper hand placement and not being so wild at times when I'm rushing.
"We've been doing a lot of techniques. Any time we got a break, me and Baker are going at it doing different techniques, working different hand placements, working half of the offensive tackle or the tight end. Just trying to get better."
"I haven't done this before," Orakpo said. "This is brand new for me. I'm excited. It will get all of us better and get all of us to another level. It comes with years of experience, always trying to incorporate something new in your game. I'm excited Baker is here and also that [Kirk Olivadotti] is here because he's teaching the inside linebackers a lot of new things as well that we were accustomed to my first year. Those guys are huge assets."
That's how Orakpo views Murphy, chosen in the second round last month. Orakpo said one word came to mind when they picked him: Depth.
While many will debate whether Murphy was the right choice, the bottom line is the Redskins needed another pass rusher. Just adding Jason Hatcher in the offseason would not provide enough of a boost, or depth, in this area.
"It's all about getting another guy to come in and create havoc," Orakpo said. "Depth is huge. You need three or four pass rushers that can go. This team has relied on me and Ryan doing the dirty work. But every other team has three to four guys ready to rock and roll. You saw what Seattle did bringing three or four guys, moving my boy Michael Bennett around. Cliff Avril on one side, Chris Clemons one side. Just moving guys all over the place. ... We finally got the big picture and got someone in here."
It's no secret what the Redskins want to do: tap into the three linebackers' versatility. That's evident in practice as each of them has lined up all over the place. The goal: pressure with four or, at most, five. You can be aggressive without always having to blitz. Washington blitzed more in 2012 in part because it lost Orakpo and Adam Carriker to injuries. But it left a weak secondary susceptible.
"If you pressure with four guys, you have a much better chance," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "You saw the success Seattle had -- they very seldom blitz. We have the ability with four, five guys that we have being able to rush the passer, keeping them fresh -- that we can get pressure."
If that's the case, then Orakpo likely would receive the sort of long-term contract he desires from Washington. He made it clear a long time ago he'd still like a long-term deal and that not having one wouldn't impact his approach, or desire to attend workouts. He'd still like one before the season, but Gruden said long ago he's fine with letting him play the season out on the franchise tag. Other members of the organization said it's conceivable the Redskins will keep all three pass rushers beyond this season.
For now, Orakpo's concern is 2014.
"Don't look into the one-year-left-rookie-drafted [storyline]," Orakpo said. "We have to look at this year and trying to get to that Super Bowl. Forget about the future. That's just business. Business will take care of itself. We're trying to make noise this year."
Re-signing Bennett was important for the Seahawks as they attempt to sustain their championship success. The four-year contract agreement they reached with him Monday gave Seattle its first key victory of the 2014 offseason.
The new deal for Bennett, which pays him $10 million the first year and $6 million in the second, contains $16 million in guarantees and should fit nicely into the contractual void created when the Seahawks parted with starting defensive end Red Bryant last week. Seattle got good value from Bryant over the years, but he was a two-down player set to turn 30 years old in April, and injuries had limited him significantly in 2012. Bryant’s salary was scheduled to reach $8.5 million this coming season even as he was becoming less valuable within a deepening rotation.
With Bryant gone and the 28-year-old Bennett back in the fold, the Seahawks are in position to pursue a plan that will include rewarding other key players. First, however, Seattle figures to pare back in other areas while diving into the market.
Here’s a look at what should come next for the defending Super Bowl champion
A few highlights from Wednesday's call, with a Patriots-based twist:
Impact of the rising salary cap: With the salary cap rising by $10 million, and projected to grow even more in the next few years, Polian opined that it could mean better deals for players in the so-called “middle class.” He used defensive end Cliff Avril as an example from 2013, as Avril settled on a short-term deal at “relatively mediocre money.” For the Patriots, my thought was that it could most help receiver Julian Edelman and possibly linebacker Brandon Spikes if that’s the way it unfolds.
Valuing free agents at a price: Polian was complimentary of the Ravens for their work in free agency, specifically how they value their own players at a certain price and don’t budge when the market moves to a level they aren’t comfortable going. One could say New England takes a similar approach. “Free agency, in and of itself, is an over-payment situation,” said Polian, who typically wasn’t a big player in the market when he was with the Colts.
Keeping free agency in perspective: One point kept coming up in the call, with Polian stressing “system fit” and how one player might look good with one team but can have a tough time transitioning to a new scheme/team. Polian also touched on how the best free-agent decisions can be a club retaining its own players. “Free agency is not free. It costs two things you never get back -- time and money,” he said. “When you have a good team and you have a good personnel department that drafts well, it behooves you to be restrained in free agency.” When this topic came up, it sparked the thought that the Patriots haven’t received as much bang for their buck in free agency in recent years.
Position: Defensive tackle
2013 salary: $2 million
Why keep him: Hatcher was their best defensive lineman last year and it makes good sense to keep your better players, even those on a unit that finished last in the NFL in 2013. The three-technique is a major force in the 4-3 scheme and the Cowboys do not have an in-house replacement.
Why let him go: Cost. In a perfect world the Cowboys would have been able to put the franchise tag on Hatcher, which would pay him more than $9 million, but they are not in a perfect world because of their salary-cap situation. Hatcher also turns 32 in July, and it’s rarely good business to commit big-time money to an older player.
Best guess: Hatcher has put himself in position to cash in and he has said he will take the best deal. The best deal almost assuredly will come from another team. If the Cowboys want to remain in the mix to keep Hatcher, they have to hope the defensive line market is as soft this year as it was last year where somebody like Cliff Avril received two years for $15 million from the Seattle Seahawks. Hatcher could see the benefit of remaining with the Cowboys, even on a shorter deal, when all factors are considered.
And we're not talking about questionable fashion decisions.
Now, they sit more than 1,900 miles apart, competitors, not colleagues. Yet as Thompson faces one of the most important offseasons since he took over the Packers' personnel department in 2005, there are things he could learn from the man who put together a Super Bowl-winning roster.
Not that Thompson doesn't know how to do that; he built much of the roster that won Super Bowl XVL. But since the Packers' last championship, they have won just one playoff game -- against the Minnesota Vikings, who were forced to start backup quarterback Joe Webb at the last minute.
If there's a common denominator in their playoff exits, it's that their defenses failed them.
With salary-cap space to use and holes to be filled, Thompson might want to examine how Schneider built the Seahawks' top-ranked defense.
Although Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said shortly after the Super Bowl that it would be unrealistic to expect the Packers -- or any other NFL team -- to play at the same level as the Seahawks did last season and in their 43-8 destruction of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, there are some things Thompson might be able to do to help bridge the gap between the Seahawks' dominating defense and the Packers' half-broken unit that slipped to 25th last season.
"If you're able to acquire players that can run fast and are big and are good-looking, then you've got a shot," Schneider said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine.
The Schneider formula for acquiring speed and size on defense goes like this:
- Make your early-round draft picks count -- see outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (2012 first round), inside linebacker Bobby Wagner (2012 second round) and safety Earl Thomas (2010 first round).
- Find gems in the middle and late rounds -- see cornerback Richard Sherman (2011 fifth round) and safety Kam Chancellor (2010 fifth round).
- Retain key players before they hit free agency -- see defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, a third-round pick by the previous administration who in 2011 signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension.
- Dip into the free-agent market but don't break the bank -- see defensive ends Michael Bennett, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract, and Cliff Avril, who signed a two-year, $13 million deal.
- Work some trades -- see defensive end Chris Clemons, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Thompson has tried to employ some of those strategies. He used his first six draft picks in 2012 on defensive players with only minimal success. He signed safety Morgan Burnett to a four-year, $24.75 million contract last offseason only to see Burnett fail to come up with a single interception last season. But he hasn't touched free agency in any significant way since 2006, when he signed Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett.
With the 21st pick in this year's draft, Thompson could be looking at defensive players again. Given the copycat nature of the NFL, it's worth wondering if another team, say the Packers, could duplicate what Schneider and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll have done on that side of the ball.
"It wouldn't be very hard, I don't think," Schneider said. "Just [get] more speed. It's just about having guys that are willing to teach and play young players, and [the Packers] have that. They have a young team. They have good teachers."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit "is going to change some" and that he would "set the vision for the defense and Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out."
To do so, Thompson might have to take more aggressive measures to rebuild a defense that in the Super Bowl season of 2010 ranked fifth in the NFL and ranked second in 2009.
Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, along with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and receiver Jermaine Kearse, are in Bristol, Conn., for the ESPN Car Wash, as we call it, making the rounds all day on the campus.
But having four guys fresh off a Super Bowl victory is being called the Mega Car Wash.
"I don't know how rare this is, or if anything like this has even happened before at ESPN," said ESPN's Shaun Wyman, the lead booker for the NFL players. "This Seahawks team is full of guys on the verge of becoming stars.
"To have this opportunity to welcome four players to Bristol and feature them in-studio on our programs just days after their Super Bowl victory is an opportunity we couldn't pass up. Their agents, publicists and Seahawks PR are all great to work with and we couldn't do this without their support."
The four players flew back to the East Coast on Thursday following Wednesday's Super Bowl victory parade in downtown Seattle with more than 700,000 fans lining the streets.
Kearse, who turned 24 on Thursday, said he can't wait for the day to start. He caught four passes for 65 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown pass, in the 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos.
"I can't imagine a better birthday week," Kearse said. "I'm pumped for the opportunity and can't wait to spend the day on ESPN's campus with a few of my teammates."
The foursome will appear together on Friday's editions of SportsCenter at 6, 8 and 10 a.m. PT, along with 3 p.m. show.
Here's the list of other radio and TV programs that will feature the Seahawks (all times Pacific):
- Mike and Mike (3 a.m. on ESPN Radio, simulcast on ESPN2)
- First Take (7 a.m. on ESPN2)
- The Herd with Colin Cowherd (7 a.m. on ESPN Radio, simulcast on ESPNU)
- Numbers Never Lie (9 a.m. on ESPN2)
- SVP & Russillo (10 a.m. on ESPN Radio, simulcast on ESPNEWS)
- NFL Live (1 p.m. on ESPN).
- Highly Questionable (1 p.m. on ESPN2)
Plus from a Dallas Cowboys’ perspective, they have already allocated their cornerback resources in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick. So scratch that possible remodel.
Where the Cowboys can attempt to emulate the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks is with their defensive line.
Seattle’s defensive line accounted for 33.5 sacks from eight players. The Cowboys defensive line had 28 sacks from six players.
Michael Bennett led the Seahawks with 8.5 sacks. Fellow free-agent pickup, Cliff Avril, was second with eight. Clinton McDonald had 5.5, and Chris Clemons had 4.5
Jason Hatcher led the Cowboys with 11, followed by George Selvie with seven and DeMarcus Ware with six. Kyle Wilber had two sacks from his defensive end spot before he was switched to outside linebacker later in the season. Everette Brown and and Jarius Wynn each had one sack.
The Cowboys want to rotate defensive linemen as much as possible to keep them fresh. That is a great approach when you have players worthy of being in the rotation. In the Super Bowl win against the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks had four linemen take at least 41 of 69 snaps, led by Bennett, who played 47. In the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, they had four linemen take at least 31 of 55 snaps. In the divisional-round win against the New Orleans Saints, they had five linemen take at least 43 snaps.
That rotation kept opposing quarterbacks Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees under pressure. The pressure could come from the inside or the outside. And it would come with mostly just four rushers, which allowed that back seven to be even more aggressive.
For far too long the Cowboys’ pass rush has been Ware and nobody else. This past season it was Hatcher, and sometimes Selvie and Ware. The Cowboys hope Tyrone Crawford can develop after missing last season with an Achilles injury, but the defensive line needs a ton of help.
For the Cowboys to make a jump in the defensive rankings -- forget being a top-five or 10 unit -- they need a better pass rush. For a better pass rush, they need better players. To get better players in free agency they need to hope the defensive line market is as slow as it was in 2013 when Bennett received a one-year, $5 million deal, and Avril received two years and $15 million from the Seahawks. That could allow Dallas to either keep Hatcher (unlikely), or get lucky with some other prove-it type deals. The easier way to get better players is the draft, but will the right players be available at the right time?
If the Cowboys get a better pass rush, their secondary will look a lot better.
It was as good as it had to be. Russell Wilson's passer rating was 123.1, eight different players caught his passes and he wasn't sacked or intercepted. Seattle raced out to a huge first-half lead, so Wilson didn't need to put up gaudy stats to win. But he was 4-of-5 for 64 yards on third-down plays in the first quarter, when the game was still in doubt, and he was still flinging it around in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks padded their lead.
Marshawn Lynch struggled to find room against Terrance Knighton and a Broncos defensive front focused on stopping the run. But Seattle's yards-per-carry average got a boost from Percy Harvin's 15-yard and 30-yard runs on jet sweep plays, and Lynch was able to muscle into the end zone on second down from the 1-yard line after a pass interference penalty in the end zone set up the game's first touchdown.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning won his fifth MVP award for a season in which he threw a record 55 touchdown passes. But he was a mess all night against Seattle's pass rush, throwing two interceptions. Led by Cliff Avril, Seattle's line moved Manning off his spot all night and batted down some key passes while the big, physical defensive backs made life miserable for Broncos receivers before and after the catch. The "Legion of Boom" lived up to its name, outmuscling the top-scoring offense in NFL history.
Total domination. And yeah, the Broncos had to get away from the run because they were down 15-0 before they had a chance to run their offense. But Seattle's front bottled up Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, holding Denver to 27 yards rushing on 14 carries, forcing a fumble (that Denver recovered) and stripping the Broncos of any chance to maintain any level of balance on offense.
Harvin barely played all season. Finally healthy, he was a difference-maker in the biggest game of his career. Seattle's 22-0 halftime lead looked tough to overcome, but the 29-0 lead they had 12 seconds into the half after Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown looked impossible. Seattle's kick coverage team held electric Denver return man Trindon Holliday in check.
Give Pete Carroll the grade for the full year, as every move he made seemed to pay off. He had enough faith in his defense to let Manning start the game with the ball after he won the coin toss and to kick a first-quarter field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-short inside the Denver 10. He also stayed aggressive even as his team was rolling early, calling timeout on a Denver fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 19 with 1:06 left in the first half. Seattle didn't even try to move the ball in the final minute after stopping the Broncos and taking possession, but it showed a coach in control of the game. You also have to hand Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the victory over Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in the matchup of hot head-coaching candidates.
Here are five things the Seattle Seahawks must do well to defeat the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium:
1. Pressure Peyton Manning: It’s a mammoth task against a quarterback who gets rid of the football so quickly, but it isn’t so much about getting sacks as it is putting enough pressure on Manning to take him out of his comfort zone.
Everyone knows Manning is a classic pocket passer. He likes to step up in the pocket to make his throws. That will make it difficult for a talented edge-rusher like Cliff Avril to get to Manning.
"There’s no certain way to get to Manning," Bennett said. "It comes down to doing what we do and beating your man."
2. Let the quiet Beast loudly rumble: It’s been a strange and somewhat stressful week for Marshawn Lynch, having to do media sessions on three consecutive days. Not his cup of tea, and a distraction the Seahawks could have lived without, but that is all behind them now.
When asked what his biggest concern was regarding the Denver defense, Lynch didn’t hesitate. "Pot Roast," he said, which is Knighton’s nickname. "He’s a big boy."
The Seahawks might use a third tackle with Alvin Bailey, as they did against the 49ers, to line up with tight end Zach Miller and use a muscle push to run Lynch off the edge of the line and hope he goes Beast Mode.
3. Keep the Broncos guessing with Harvin: The Seahawks need to make the most of their X factor in receiver Percy Harvin. The Denver defense can’t know exactly how to account for a guy who played only six quarters this season, but they know he’s faster than a cheetah with its tail on fire.
"We’re excited to have Percy back, because he brings more to the table," Tate said. "He's going to open it up for other guys more."
4. Punish the Broncos on crossing routes: The Seattle defense can’t allow Manning and his receivers to nickel-and-dime them to death with short passes over the middle and quick slants.
"We are a physical bunch," Chancellor said. "We like to be physical. We like to be hands-on. We like to make you feel our presence. That’s how we operate."
5. Play with poise: This is the most important point. Seattle is the more talented team overall, but the Seahawks must play smart and not get over-amped in the biggest game of their lives. Careless personal fouls and false starts can be the difference in the game, and too much emotion can cause a player to make a mistake he wouldn’t normally make.
The same is true in the Super Bowl. Play your game and don’t give the Broncos a freebie. Do what you did to get here.
"Respect the journey," said Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. "But at the same time, enjoy the moment. Take it all in. It is real. Just be poised and respect the process. I’m going to play with a smile on my face and just go for it."
Good advice. If the Seahawks follow it, that should be enough.
In evaluating the decline of the team in Andy Reid's final years, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman have said the big mistake was thinking the team was always one move away from a championship. In trying to make that one decisive win-now move, the Eagles instead made mistakes that weakened their infrastructure.
The goal should be simple: Keep adding talent around those core players until the Eagles are at the elite level of the teams that will play in the Super Bowl Sunday. That means using every tool available, including spending money on free agents when it is warranted.
The Denver Broncos weren't exactly thinking about a five-year plan when they signed Peyton Manning two years ago. The Seattle Seahawks splurged on a quarterback in free agency that same offseason. They signed Green Bay's Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract.
Manning had one of the great seasons ever and will start for the Broncos Sunday. Flynn is back in Green Bay as a backup. Russell Wilson became Seattle's starter and quickly emerged as one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL.
If the Broncos had ruled out high-priced, quick-fix free agents, the Patriots would be in the Super Bowl. If the Seahawks had avoided drafting a quarterback that high after signing Flynn, San Francisco or New Orleans would be preparing for Tom Brady.
This isn't to say the Eagles should go crazy and throw big money at every flavor-of-the-month free agent on the market. But they also shouldn't rule out the occasional bold move. Yes, they were burned by Nnamdi Asomugha a few years back, but Reid's era of success was made possible partly by acquisitions like Hugh Douglas (in a trade, with a new contract included), Jon Runyan and, well, let's just admit it, Terrell Owens.
Roseman has said repeatedly that the Eagles will avoid huge free-agent deals. That would seem to rule out difference-making players like Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo and safeties Jairus Byrd of Buffalo and T.J. Ward of Cleveland.
And that's fine, provided the Eagles are able to obtain high-quality players in other ways. Seattle got 16-1/2 sacks in the 2013 season from free-agent pickups Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) and Michael Bennett (one year, $5 million). Smart shopping is the key, whatever the price tag.
The key point is that the Eagles didn't make a mistake by signing marquee free agents. They made mistakes in player evaluation in both free agency and the draft. You don't stop drafting because you selected Danny Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett, so you shouldn't rule out free agency because you signed Asomugha and Vince Young.
The Eagles made huge strides in one year because Kelly made excellent use of the considerable offensive talent he inherited, and because his overall approach in all phases reinvigorated a stale franchise. To make those next steps toward a championship-caliber team will require better players in a few key spots.
If Byrd, Orakpo or some other elite player can further that process, the Eagles shouldn't hesitate to go after him. There is no rebuilding, only building, and that process should be constant. The well-run organizations of the last decade understand that. The Eagles should know -- a few missteps aside, they're one of them.
There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.
From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.
The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.
It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:
Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?
Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.
Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?
Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.
Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.
For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?
Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.
Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.
Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?
Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.
Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?
Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.
Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?
Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.
In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?
Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.
Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?
Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.
They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.
Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?
Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.
Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?
Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.
- The Seahawks had two first-round picks in 2010 while the Redskins had two picks in the first four rounds. Seattle landed two excellent starters in tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas. Washington took tackle Trent Williams and linebacker Perry Riley. Williams is a Pro Bowler and Riley is a starter, good in some areas but who struggles in others.
- The Seahawks hit on lower-round picks in 2010, selecting cornerback Walter Thurmond in the fourth round and safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth. Chancellor’s physical style sets a tone in the box, and Thurmond is an excellent slot corner and might as well be considered a starter. Seattle also took starting receiver Golden Tate in the second round. The Redskins whiffed on the rest of their 2010 class, none of whom were on the roster this past season.
- In 2011, the Seahawks had nine picks (the Redskins had 12). Seattle found three more starters in guard James Carpenter (drafted as a tackle in the first round); corner Richard Sherman (fifth round); corner Byron Maxwell (sixth round; a replacement for the suspended Brandon Browner) and outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (seventh round). Eight of the nine remain on the roster.
- Meanwhile, the Redskins drafted 12 players, finding one good starter in linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and another starter in end Jarvis Jenkins. It wasn’t a bad draft, but it wasn’t a game-changer either. Nine of the 12 remained on the roster in 2013.
- WilsonBoth teams found quarterbacks in 2012, with Seattle getting Russell Wilson in the third round and the Redskins trading two future first-rounders and a second-rounder to swap positions with St. Louis to get Robert Griffin III. I agreed with the move, so I’m not going to second-guess it; besides, it’s not as if Ryan Tannehill, a player they liked, has torn it up in Miami (though, yes, they would have had more picks). There is no way Seattle could have anticipated what Wilson has become, and the Seahawks had also traded for Matt Flynn. But they quickly saw what they had in Wilson.Griffin
- Both quarterbacks obviously made tremendous impacts as rookies. Griffin’s knee injury and other issues led to stumbles in 2013. But when he struggled, so, too, did the Redskins. When Wilson struggled, he could rely on the run game and defense to win. Big difference when you don’t have to carry a team -- and that’s because of how both were built.
- Seattle drafted 10 players in 2012 -- eight played defense; three are starters (end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and J.R. Sweezy, an end in college but now a starting offensive guard). The Redskins also hit on running back Alfred Morris in that same draft, and quarterback Kirk Cousins looks like a good backup who might yield a draft pick in return some day. But aside from them and Griffin? So far, nothing.
- This past season, of the Redskins' top five defensive backs (including No. 3 corner David Amerson), four were picked in the first two rounds of their respective drafts. Of Seattle’s eight defensive backs, only one was drafted before the fourth round.
- In the 2013 draft, Seattle added no starters, but that’s not a surprise given the Seahawks’ talent level. The Redskins added Amerson, who was their No. 3 corner. But nobody else provided any help. Even on special teams.
- All totaled, of the starters listed on Seattle’s current depth chart, 16 were drafted by them or signed as an undrafted free agent. That includes nine defensive starters, and the lone two who weren’t drafted by them were acquired in trades, including end Chris Clemons. Of the four offensive players not drafted by Seattle, one was signed off a practice squad; another was acquired in a trade (running back Marshawn Lynch) and only one was considered a bigger free agent signing (tight end Zach Miller).
- Seattle built a team that could withstand the loss of receiver Percy Harvin, who has caught one pass this season after being acquired in a trade. He might play in the Super Bowl. They signed pass-rush specialist Cliff Avril, who recorded eight sacks, but was not a starter.
- Seattle is just more proof that you can succeed without having to spend big money. And the Redskins are proof as to what happens when you don’t successfully draft and develop.
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril needs two sacks to get to 10 on the season and collect $350,000.
Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett needs 2.5 sacks to get to 10 on the season and collect $200,000.
Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby receives $800,000 if he makes 85 percent of his regular-season field goals. Heading into Sunday's game in Chicago, he sits at 88.6 percent.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil needs 2.5 sacks to get to 12 and earn an additional $1 million.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn needs six receptions to get to 40 this season and earn a $100,000 bonus.
Denver Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips already has earned an $800,000 bonus for 10 sacks; if he gets two more Sunday, the bonus will jump to $1.2 million, and if he gets four sacks Sunday, the bonus will be $2 million.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith needs to throw for 187 yards on Sunday to reach 3,500 for the season and achieve a $500,000 bonus. If he throws two touchdown passes on Sunday to get to 25 for the season, he’ll also earn another $500,000.
Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles needs 113 rushing yards Sunday to increase his salary by $300,000 for next season. He already earned a $300,000 increase because the Chiefs have qualified for the playoffs. But he can raise his bonus money to $600,000 by raising his season total to 1,400 rushing yards against the Chargers.
SEATTLE -- A few thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 34-7 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night at CenturyLink Field:
What it means: The Seahawks proved they are the best of the best in the NFC with a convincing victory over the Saints, which gives Seattle a two-game advantage in the race to have home-field advantage in the playoffs. But in reality, it’s more than two games because the Seahawks have defeated both the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans, which gives Seattle the tiebreaker over both teams that are two games behind them with four games to play, and the Saints and Panthers have to play each other twice.
Stock watch: In MVP considerations, Russell Wilson has moved ahead of Drew Brees by clearly outplaying his idol Monday night. Wilson was sensational in the first half, completing 14 of 19 passes for 226 yards and two TDs. And the Seattle defense destroyed the potent New Orleans passing game, including a 22-yard touchdown for defensive linemen Michael Bennett after defensive end Cliff Avril knocked the ball out of Brees' hand and Bennett caught the deflection.
Miller a tough tight end, too: This game was supposed to be about the Seahawks defense against New Orleans star tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Saints had a tough time covering Seattle tight end Zach Miller, who had a 2-yard TD catch after a 60-yard catch in the first quarter.
Maxwell and Lane up to the task: Fears of Brees lighting up the Seattle backups in the secondary were unfounded. All the distractions this week surrounding the suspension of Walter Thurmond and possibly Brandon Browner, who is out with a groin injury, didn’t hurt the Seahawks at all. Byron Maxwell played well as the starter, and Jeremy Lane also did a good job in the slot on the nickel packages.
What's next: The Seahawks fly south to play their archrivals, the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. This was expected to be a game that might decide the NFC West, but Seattle has a three-game lead with four to play, so it isn’t the game it might have been, but it is important to San Francisco’s playoff hopes.
Here are a few players who don't receive that type of praise but who have contributed to the 10-1 record:
Best rookie: Tight end Luke Willson was a steal as a late fifth-round pick. Few people had heard of the 6-5, 250-pound Canadian who played college ball at Rice -- another example of GM John Schneider's ability to find quality players other teams overlook.
He started two games when Zach Miller was out with a hamstring injury, but officially, Willson has started seven games because the Seahawks opened with a two-tight end set, showing their confidence in Willson.
He is an all-around athlete who played, hockey, soccer and baseball in high school, including a stint on the Canadian Junior National Team, along with football. But he also is a brainiac (typical of Rice grads) who had a 4.0 GPA.
Best new position: It's Bruce Irvin moving from defensive end to outside linebacker. After missing the first four games due to a PED suspension, Irvin stepped into his new spot and made an immediate impact with a sack in his first game back.
Irvin has 28 tackles (20 solo), two sacks, five quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. Irvin loves playing linebacker and believes he can do more things without constantly taking on huge offensive tackles.
Most underrated player: This one will surprise you. I'm going with punter Jon Ryan, the other Canadian on the Seahawks. Ryan doesn't rank among the league leaders in yards per punt, which is a misleading stat in regard to a punter's value.
Ryan's success comes from how high he kicks the ball. Returners appear to wait forever for the ball to come down, so they don't get many opportunities to gain any yards after the catch.
Only 11 of his 44 punts have been returned. But here's the eye-popping numbers. The 11 returns totaled a measly 15 yards. And one of those was 10 yards, so the other 10 totaled only 5 yards.
Eighteen punts were downed inside the 20. Ryan completely shut down the best punt returner in the league -- Marcus Sherels -- last week against Minnesota. All Sherels could muster was three fair catches. On the other two Ryan punts, one was downed at the 7 and the other went out of bounds at the 20.
Ryan is a major field-position asset for the Seahawks.
Best offseason acquisition: Now this is a tough one because Seattle has three new players -- Cliff Avril, Tony McDaniel and Michael Bennett -- who have made a big difference on the defensive front line, but I'll go with Bennett at defensive end.
Avril missed the first game of the season with an injury and feels like he's just starting to find his rhythm. He has three forced fumbles, including one on a sack in the Minnesota game.
But McDaniel also is a good pick from his defensive tackle spot. He has 44 tackles, including tying his season-high with seven against Minnesota when coach Pete Carroll singled him out as having his best game.
Honestly, I'm good with picking any of these three guys. They have dramatically improved the defensive front for Seattle, which was one of the team's top priorities after last season.
And, of course, I haven't even mentioned receiver Percy Harvin, who could win this category by the end of the season.
Best return: Some would say defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, whom I listed earlier this week as the most pleasant surprise on defense this season since he came back in Week 2 after being released at the end of preseason.
But my pick here is fullback Michael Robinson. He has helped throw some key blocks for Marshawn Lynch in the last three games, but maybe just as important is his leadership in the locker room and the respect he has from all his teammates.
As this young team heads toward a possible Super Bowl run, having a veteran leader like Robinson is a big asset to keep everyone pointing in the right direction.
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