NFL Nation: Terrance Knighton
And in his latest effort -- a two-round mock -- McShay again has the Broncos opening their draft with a defensive player
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The NFL released its list of compensatory draft picks Monday -- 13 teams were awarded 32 picks in all -- and the Broncos didn’t make the complicated mathematical cut. This year’s compensatory picks were awarded based on signings and losses in free agency before the 2013 season.
Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were among the players signed by the Broncos a year ago with Vasquez having been named an All-Pro this past season and all five going on to be starters. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who went on to be a 16-game starter for the Oakland Raiders, and safety Jim Leonhard were among the team’s biggest free agency losses.
The team's biggest departure was defensive end Elvis Dumervil, but since he was under contract when he was released by the Broncos following the well-publicized fax fiasco, he does not count as a loss in free agency. Players whose contracts have expired are considered in the math.
At the moment the Broncos have seven draft picks, one in each of the seven rounds.
So he knows the value a productive, respected, proven veteran player can bring to a team, on the field and in the locker room.
But as an executive charged with spending Pat Bowlen’s money wisely and keeping the Broncos relevant in the Super Bowl chase every season, Elway has been particular about handing out the team’s biggest checks in free agency to the over-30 crowd.
“I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders," Elway said.
In 2011, Elway’s first year in his role as the team’s chief football decision-maker, the Broncos only dabbled in free agency, sticking with short-term deals for the likes of Marcus Thomas, Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario.
In 2012, the Broncos dove in for Manning for a $96 million deal that included a pile of guaranteed money when Manning was ready to turn 36 following four neck surgeries. That has worked out with back-to-back 13-3 seasons and back-to-back division titles with some NFL single-season records tossed in.
The rest of the deals in 2012 were largely short-term, low-impact contracts. Tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen received three-year deals. Tamme turned 27 just after signing his deal, and Dreessen was 29 when he signed. The 30-and-over crowd of Keith Brooking, Jim Leonhard, Dan Koppen and Brandon Stokley received one-year deals.
Safety Mike Adams was 30 when he signed and received a two-year deal. Adams, however, had played in at least 15 games in five of the previous six seasons before arriving in Denver. The rest, players such as Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer, both 30 or older, received one-year deals without signing bonuses.
In 2013, the Broncos’ biggest contract in free agency (four years, $23.5 million) went to guard Louis Vasquez, who was 25 when he signed his deal and went on to be named All-Pro. Terrance Knighton received a two-year deal, as did Wes Welker.
This past week, the Broncos were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, but they still largely stuck to the younger-is-better plan when the big money was in play. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward are 27 (Sanders turned 27 this week), and cornerback Aqib Talib is 28.
“It’s not [win] for now. We want young football players who are going to be here for a long time," Elway said. “... The age thing is big."
But in Ware, the Broncos saw a durable, high character player with 117 career sacks who has been a team captain and performed over the long haul. Ware, who soon will be 32, received a three-year, $30 million deal from the Broncos.
For that deal not to sting the salary cap, however, Ware simply has to play at least two of those seasons and be a major contributor. But the Broncos like that Ware’s preparation is unquestioned and that he has missed just three games in his career -- all in 2013.
“With 117 sacks, yeah, we feel like he’s got a lot of football ahead of him," Elway said. " ... We think he's going to perform at a high level, and with the way he practices, prepares and his knowledge of the game, he's going to help us on a lot of levels."
Elway the player made a career of taking risks with the ball and often turning those opportunities into history. Elway the executive has been more prudent -- a guy looking down the road, avoiding the franchise-crushing confines created by a we'll-worry-about-it-later approach to the salary cap.
“You have your wish list," Elway said. “We’re fortunate enough on our wish list we were able to X off a lot of guys on our wish list and [they] were able to come here. ... We want to plug in the right guys, the guys that make sense for us as an organization and guys who can be here and help us win for a long, long time."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When John Elway said "everything in my power," he meant everything.
Everything as in Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen’s checkbook and incessant desire to win. Everything as in Elway’s legacy as a Hall of Fame player. Everything as in a presumptive Hall of Famer currently at quarterback, and everything as in one of the most favorable salary-cap positions among the 2013 playoff teams.
Yes, the Broncos, still bruised in many ways from a 35-point Super Bowl loss last month, have rampaged through the opening hours of free agency with some specific goals in mind. They wanted to get nasty, wanted to have the elusive Plan "B" for when their next-level offense doesn’t have the kind of day it’s used to.
And the result has been a 24-hour defensive binge that now includes defensive end DeMarcus Ware (three years, $30 million, $20 million guaranteed); cornerback Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed); and safety T.J. Ward (four years, $23 million, $14 million guaranteed).
"That’s why me, Talib and Ware were brought in, three physical players. ... It’s going to help this defense, it’s going to help this team," Ward said in his first appearance at the Broncos' complex.
But Elway made Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning a promise as he recruited him in the days that followed his release from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. When Manning arrived at the Broncos’ complex for a visit, he was still stunned the Colts had actually released him, still reeling with all of the uncertainty in front of him.
But at that time, Elway’s pitch was a promise that Elway, as Bowlen’s chief football decision-maker, would "do everything in my power" to make sure Manning retired from the NFL as Elway did, with Super Bowl titles in those final seasons.
The Broncos made history on the way to last season’s 13-3 finish, set scoring records and raced into Super Bowl XLVIII using the fastest of fast lanes. Then the Seattle Seahawks pushed Denver down, and the Broncos simply never got up in one of the worst title-game losses of the Super Bowl era.
Manning didn’t play well, the receivers didn’t play well, the linemen didn’t block well and a defense that was the biggest question mark heading into the Super Bowl actually answered the bell until the game got out of hand.
But Elway has since talked of creating "the mindset" to win a championship, has talked of being more physical on both sides of the ball and has talked about if they saw the opportunity to sign any player the team believed could be better than the ones they had, the Broncos would do it.
They also had managed their salary cap well enough to have $28.7 million or so of cap space last Thursday morning. They then released cornerback Champ Bailey that day and guard Chris Kuper retired Monday. With those two events the Broncos gained roughly another $14 million in cap space, and with that cap space and the bulk of a roster good enough to have finished 13-3 in back-to-back seasons, the Broncos went to work.
Ware, who will turn 32 in July, is now in the fold, but the Broncos can still project a potential starting lineup with 15 players 28 years old or younger, and seven players 25 years or younger. The team isn’t really in as big an “all-in" mode as their monetary festivus would seem to indicate.
Certainly, Manning is still the centerpiece of all this -- so much so that when Talib was asked Wednesday why he chose Denver, he quickly pointed to the 37-year-old quarterback.
"We just kind of looked at the best package," Talib said. "I do have a family, I have kids, I have a wife that I got to take care of and it was Peyton Manning, you know? It was just the total package. Denver was the best place."
Elway has been a no-nonsense, grassroots executive right from the start. He grinds the video on draft prospects, he goes to the Senior Bowl, he has made the pro day rounds and he makes decisions based on the long term "because my job is to be two steps ahead."
But after three trips through the opening of free agency, he has to be considered one of the league’s best closers as well, and closers get the coffee and former Pro Bowl selections, it seems -- Manning, Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton, Talib, Ward and now Ware.
So it seems the Broncos really didn’t just go all-in this year. They’ve just kind of had that mindset all along.
Dropping $57 million in somebody’s lap means never having to say you're sorry.
So while New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick may have thought receiver Wes Welker's collision with cornerback Aqib Talib in the Denver Broncos win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last January was “one of the worst plays I've seen," apparently, with a couple months to think about it, Talib had no such hard feelings.
But a blockbuster, perhaps THE blockbuster, deal as the first day of NFL free agency drew to a close will provide a rather tidy balm. Talib was the Broncos’ big catch Tuesday with a six-year, $57 million deal that had folks raising eyebrows all over the league.
Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway once again flashed a little of his wild side, the side that could gain 98 yards with a playoff game on the line as a quarterback, that rears its head from time to time in Elway the executive. Talib just turned 28 last month, so he fits the age profile Elway likes in free agency.
But the general consensus late last night among the folks with the checkbooks in hand around the league is any player you sign on free agency’s first day is getting overpaid. Talib got more from the Broncos than many in the league expected he would from any team.
To put that into perspective in 2011 the Broncos signed Champ Bailey to a four-year, $42.5 million deal when Bailey already had been named to 11 Pro Bowls. Certainly times change and so do salary caps, but the Broncos were aggressive with this one as they gave their secondary a major makeover before free agency was even 12 hours old.
The Broncos had six defensive backs from last year’s roster who were either unrestricted or restricted free agents and then they released Bailey last week. Ward is the physical, versatile safety the Broncos wanted, tough enough to play down toward the line of scrimmage in the run game with the athleticism to play in space as well.
Ward is also just 27 and won’t turn 28 until December, so he too fits the age profile Elway has tried to keep in free agency in his tenure.
To make potential reality, to turn risk into reward, the Broncos need Ward and Talib to stay healthy and to be on the field. That is always the crux of the high-priced opening week of free agency, it's always the difference between the deal gone bad and one that gives an equal return for the investment.
The Broncos did better on Ward’s contract than many in the league said his asking price was when free agency opened. Talib’s deal, however, has almost as much guaranteed money as the total deal for Alterraun Verner ($26.5 million), who was also one of the top cornerbacks on the market and is heading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Talib has not started 16 games in any season. He had 13 starts in 2013 for New England and nine games combined for the Patriots and Buccaneers in 2012. The closest he has come to a 16-game season was 2009 when the started 15 games in his second season in the league.
Last month, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was asked during a radio appearance why Talib wasn’t slated to get a big contract from the Patriots. Kraft said “he wasn’t on the field a lot of the time since he’s been with us." Ward, too, has had some injuries. He missed the last two games of the 2012 season because of a bone bruise on his knee and missed the last games of the 2011 season with a foot injury.
But Ward is coming off a 112-tackle season in 2013 to go with an interception for a touchdown. And that’s the kind of presence the Broncos are paying for right now.
Still, when Elway took the job with the Broncos, two of the league’s general managers he consulted were Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers and Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens. Both have built Super Bowl winners by emphasizing the draft and largely sitting out free agency, especially Thompson. And Elway, too, has consistently declared the draft the most important part of building the Broncos’ depth chart, but it seems he likes to throw long ball in his executive role as well.
He dove in to the tune of $96 million on an MRI and prayer for Peyton Manning in 2012 and that resulted in back-to-back division titles to go with a Super Bowl trip. Last year he went early in free agency for Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton.
Vasquez went onto an All-Pro season, Welker had a career-best 10 touchdowns and Knighton was the Broncos’ best defensive lineman down the stretch.
So, if Elway is right on Ward and Talib, the Broncos are in the hunt once again. If not, the salary cap pinch will follow at some point.
But with DeMarcus Ware, owner of 117 career sacks, now scheduled to visit the Broncos in the coming days, Elway likely has enough cap room -- they opened free agency with just less than $32 million to spend after Chris Kuper's retirement -- to sell Ware on a chance at a Super Bowl. And Elway will have to be at his closing best to do that for the soon-to-be 32-year-old Ware.
Elway, the guy who once consistently showed he knew the art of the comeback, is getting it done with the art of the deal as well. When he said earlier this year “if we can find somebody better than we have, we have to find them, and if they’re out there then we’ll sign them" he meant it.
Well, history has rolled around to repeat itself once again.
The Broncos' decision-makers, poised on the edge of free agency, are once again seeing the team's name floated plenty on players they are indeed interested in, but are also not prepared to bid the highest on.
Or, as executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said just over a month ago, when discussing his take on contracts and pending free agents:
"It's a matter of how many people are out there and how many buyers. Are there six teams chasing him or five, or one team or teams? Plus it comes down to the thing that it's been my goal to really continue what [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen created in the fact that people want to play here. So players will come here late in their career when they know they have a chance to win a world championship and they know the reputation of the Denver Broncos since Pat Bowlen has been here that it's a good place to play. That's why, to me, if you find a veteran guy and that's what matters to him, you're finding the right veteran guy. That's just as important as money. If money is the No. 1 thing, we're really not on the same page if it's all about money in my mind."
So, sure the Broncos have discussed the likes of pursuing safety T.J. Ward and defensive end Jared Allen. But to say the Broncos lead the way with either of those players, as some have said already, is simply not realistic.
At this point the Broncos are a negotiating tool for those two players as well as those who represent them. For either to end up in Denver it would likely require a willingness to trade dollars for playoff potential. And leaving dollars on the table is not often the business of those hired to negotiate contracts on commission.
The Broncos will be aggressive when free agency opens Tuesday; they will likely sign a player or two or even three in the opening days. That's been their profile with Elway on the job, and then they wait to add another veteran player or two in April or May.
Last year they signed Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton early and then Shaun Phillips, who led the team in sacks last season with 10, on the draft weekend and Quentin Jammer in May.
So, the Broncos are poised to spend some of Bowlen's money this week -- it just won't always be on the players who were said to be "locks" to end up in Denver.
Some with the team said this week that representatives for defensive tackle Terrance Knighton have approached the Broncos about the possibility of a new contract, an item that got things buzzing on the Front Range.
So much so that Knighton took to Twitter Tuesday to post: “I don't know why people are mad at me. All I do is play football. The business part is controlled by my agent.’’
Knighton, who signed a two-year deal last March, was one of the Broncos’ best performers on defense this season, particularly down the stretch after Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve with a hip injury in late November. Knighton’s deal, which included a $500,000 signing bonus, called for him to earn a $1 million base salary in the 2013 season to go with a $1.5 million base salary in ’14.
Knighton does have a $1 million roster bonus due in March.
And in the end, players, or in reality their agents, can certainly ask for a new deal. That’s how it works, the business of football. After all, when a team is done with a player, the executives don’t suddenly stop before typing the guy’s name on the waiver wire and say, “Oh wait, he’s got three years left on the deal -- we should honor that.’’
That said, don’t expect Knighton or his representatives to have much success with this one. With John Elway calling the football shots, the Broncos have chosen short-term deals for most of their free-agent signees just for this scenario. Elway ran a lot of businesses before Pat Bowlen hired him to be the team's top football executive and thus far Elway has picked his spots in free agency and hasn't made a habit of tearing up old deals to make new ones.
Knighton’s impact was clear on the team’s defense and he, and linebacker Danny Trevathan, may have been the most consistent performers all season.
But right now his $2.75 million salary-cap figure is slated as the third-highest on the defense for 2014, behind only Champ Bailey ($10 million) and linebacker Von Miller ($6.682 million). The Broncos are expected to at least broach the topic of a cap adjustment, possibly even a salary cut like Chris Kuper had last August, with Bailey in the coming weeks and months.
So, the Broncos will, unless there is an unexpected and shocking shift in their feelings on the topic, simply let Knighton play out the 2014 season and re-visit it next year at this time when Knighton will be approaching free agency.
In addition the Broncos will have an eye on the salary-cap horizon as well with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Orlando Franklin and Miller all slated to be unrestricted free agents following the 2014 season.
Their coaches and players are concentrating on the moment, getting ready for the title game and all of the trappings that go with it. But the personnel departments are, by necessity of the compressed time frame playing into February creates, on to the draft and free agency.
The scouts make the rounds to the college all-star games -- Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway made an appearance at the Senior Bowl -- as things get pointed toward the draft. Elway usually refers to the change from the in-season business of trying to win games week to week to the offseason business of the draft and free agency as “shifting gears.’’ And the Broncos shifted their first significant gear this week.
They signed defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to a new two-year deal and it was a good call on both sides. Del Rio is good for the Broncos' defense and the Broncos are good for Del Rio.
No team puts up 606 points on offense in a season and needs to be scraped to the foundation. Overall, the Broncos need a little more physicality and more speed across the roster, especially on special teams.
And overall, because of injuries and the free-agency status of the players on the depth chart, the Broncos' defense will need more big-picture attention in the offseason than the offense. And one of the biggest impediments to the Broncos fielding any sort of consistent defense late in Mike Shanahan’s tenure, throughout most of Josh McDaniels’ brief tenure and even at the start of John Fox’s tenure, was the constant turnover at defensive coordinator.
When Fox hired Del Rio in early 2012, Del Rio was the seventh person in the job in a seven-season stretch. And over that span the Broncos changed the alignment of their base defense. They went big across the board, then went for speed across the board and often lived with inconsistent results because they had difficulty matching personnel to the constant changes in schemes each new defensive playcaller brought with him.
Del Rio’s new contract means the Broncos will have the same defensive coordinator in three consecutive seasons for the first time since the final three years of Larry Coyer’s time on the job in 2004-06. If the plan is good, if the right decisions are made on the depth chart, then that kind of continuity can mean something.
The Broncos, because of injuries throughout the year -- five defensive starters closed out the season on injured reserve -- as well as linebacker Von Miller's suspension for the first six games of the season, the Broncos were never able to find the level of play this past season they had for most of 2012.
But one mark of a defense's potential is being able to take away what an offense wants to do and make them do something else. And camouflaged somewhat by the amount of Super Bowl wreckage is the fact the Broncos did that. The Broncos held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 39 yards rushing on 15 carries -- 2.6 yards per carry -- in the game and held Robert Turbin to 25 yards rushing on nine carries in the game.
No, they didn’t tackle particularly well in the game -- something that was an issue throughout the season -- and they didn’t consistently pressure Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. But they did make it difficult for the Seahawks to do what they most wanted to do offensively.
The Broncos will need to dive into the draft to fill in spots in the secondary and at linebacker. The return of Quanterus Smith, a fifth-round draft pick who spent the season on injured reserve because of a torn ACL he suffered in his senior year at Western Kentucky, should help the pass rush.
They found out Danny Trevathan could well be one of the build-around players on defense, and that Terrance Knighton was just what they hoped at defensive tackle, and a guy like Malik Jackson (fifth-round pick in ’12) is just the kind of homegrown contributor the Broncos need to add to the depth chart.
“[Knighton and Jackson], and I would say Danny Trevathan is the other one, that are young players, kind of below-the-radar kind of players, not considered stars by any means, but they played a very big role for us,’’ Del Rio said last week. “They played well all year. Malik in particular, he got his chance … and really blossomed. Terrance we brought over hoping we could resurrect his career and get him back on track, had him previously in Jacksonville. And Danny is a young player, he’s in his second year now with us and he’s really starting to blossom.’’
And with Del Rio back, the Broncos can push for progress in a system that’s in place instead of installing yet another playbook and hoping for the best.
Final Power Ranking: 2
Preseason Power Ranking: 3
Biggest surprise: It took 19 games, a pile of league records and a few slices of history along the way, but by far the biggest shock for an organization that believed it had the moxie to win a title was its Super Bowl meltdown. Broncos head coach John Fox had said his team was “calloused" by all it had to overcome this season, including linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, five defensive starters eventually landing on injured reserve and Fox's open-heart surgery. But on the biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line, the Broncos had a night when they didn't respond to any of the adversity they faced.
Biggest disappointment: Other than losing in the title game -- “I'm not sure you ever get over that," said quarterback Peyton Manning -- it would have to be the way Miller's season dissolved. After his 18.5-sack season in 2012, the Broncos expected even more this time around. Instead, he was out for the first six games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He came back heavier after the suspension and often looked less explosive according to many personnel executives in the league. He then suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in December. He won't be ready for training camp and may not be full speed by the start of the regular season.
Biggest need: In their past three playoff losses, the Broncos have had a combined one sack against Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Miller has played in two of those games, albeit with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb to close out the 2011 season against the New England Patriots. They have used their opening pick in each of John Elway's three drafts as the team's top football executive on a pass-rusher -- Miller, Derek Wolfe and Sylvester Williams. It still needs some attention, as does the team's secondary; the Broncos will need to address cornerback and safety as well.
Team MVP: Manning, with 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards passing for an offense that set an NFL record with 606 points, was the league MVP and was the Broncos' as well. Manning's drive, preparation and no-nonsense approach pushed the team past every bump it faced during the regular season, and he powered the franchise into its seventh Super Bowl. But cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and linebacker Danny Trevathan deserve special mention for being the defense's most versatile and productive players outside the glare of the team's offensive fireworks in the regular season. Trevathan and Harris were consistently the guys asked to do more in Jack Del Rio's defense.
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.
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.
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The most prominent storyline of Super Bowl XLVIII, at least beyond what Richard Sherman said, what Marshawn Lynch didn't say and just how much wobble is in the average Peyton Manning touchdown pass, has been the Denver Broncos' No. 1 offense and the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense.
It has been the classic matchup of league best on league best and the first of its kind since Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the league's No. 1 defense, defeated the Oakland Raiders (the No. 1 offense) to close out the 2002 season.
But how a Broncos defense battered by injuries throughout the season responds against Seattle's power offense with Lynch at running back, the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback and wide receiver Percy Harvin playing in just his third game of the season, will have a lot to say about how things go for the Broncos. In fact, it may have everything to say about whether or not the Broncos get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
"We feel like we need to be the defense we know we can be," linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We've been better as the season has gone on, we've adjusted some, overcome some and now we feel like we're ready to play our best football."
The Broncos have four defensive starters on injured reserve -- cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Von Miller -- and they have not always played with the consistency defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio would have liked because of it. But after holding opponents to fewer than 17 points only once in 14 games, the Broncos have held opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive games. The total includes both of their playoff wins -- 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers and 26-16 over the New England Patriots.
"In spite of all the things that could have derailed us, we stayed on point, stayed on message, continued to grind, continued to believe," Del Rio said.
Del Rio has used a variety of lineup combinations until settling on the current one that includes Woodyard, an every-down player for much of the season, now playing in the specialty packages. Del Rio also has put Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in the base defense to go with Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving at the other two linebacker spots.
The combination gives the Broncos a little more bulk against opposing run games, especially one such as the Seahawks'.
The return of Champ Bailey, who played just five games in the regular season because of a left foot injury, has given Del Rio more options of late in the coverages the team can play and stabilized things, even with Harris Jr. having torn an ACL against the Chargers in the divisional round. After initially returning to the lineup, playing in the slot as part of the nickel defense (five defensive backs), Bailey will likely start on the outside against the Seahawks and then move inside to the slot if Seattle goes to a three-wide receiver look. In the nickel, Bailey would likely face Harvin or Doug Baldwin.
"We think we can play the way we need to, we know we have to if we're going to win this game," Bailey said. "We don't think too much about the injuries. We would love to have those guys because you always want your best out there. But [Del Rio] isn't going to let you talk about that anyway and we wouldn't want to."
Said Del Rio: "I don't even want to hear it, I don't want to hear it from our staff, I don't want to hear a reason that we can't. I want to talk about how we're going to get it done. I don't spend a lot of time entertaining how we can't. I understand that we can and want to figure out exactly how we can get it done. It's a little bit of scheme, it's a little bit of technique, there's a little of mentality you've got to build. It can be pretty good if you put it all together and everybody buys in."
While the Broncos' record-setting offense and the Seahawks' bone-rattling defense have parked themselves in the headlines this week, Sunday's game may well be decided by what Seattle's offense does against Del Rio's defense.
"We feel underrated a little bit, but we've got to expect that," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "I probably would say the same thing because we had a slow start as a defense early in the season. But one thing we did: We finished the season strong and we carried it on to the playoffs, and we're trying to continue that streak that we're on."
He's absorbed as much as he can from players like defensive end Shaun Phillips and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.
"I think I have more experience," he said. “I've seen more football. I'm surrounded by veterans that have seen a lot of football.
"With me, I'm like a sponge. When I'm around veterans and guys that have played some ball, I just try to soak in as much knowledge as I can."
The 6-foot-3, 335-pound Knighton has played perhaps his best football this season. He has 31 tackles and three sacks and has been a force in the middle of the Broncos' defensive front. Denver finished the regular-season tied for seventh in the NFL in rush defense (101.6 yards per game) and the Broncos held San Diego and New England to 65 and 64 yards rushing, respectively, in the postseason.
Knighton had three tackles against the Chargers and four tackles and a sack against the Patriots.
They got plenty of help from defensive end Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 10 sacks, as well as a variety of personnel groupings to generate the pressure they believe they need.
But to get to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the Broncos know they not only have to be aggressive, physical and careful not to allow the mobile Wilson an escape route, but to also not give him the room to move around to reset and a throw.
"His tendency is that he is a right-handed quarterback; he wants to get out to his right and throw," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "He's more successful that way. So we've got to do a good job of keeping him in the pocket and force him out of his comfort zone. When he's moving left he'll tend to run it more and when he's moving right he wants to pass it more. We just have to do a good job of containing him. He'll get out and he'll make his plays during the game, but we'll just have to limit them."
Wilson was sacked 44 times in the regular season – only Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco were sacked more. But not all sacks are created equal.
The Broncos don't consider Wilson a quarterback who was trapped in the pocket behind a leaky offensive line. No, they see a guy who has taken his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons who will hold the ball because he believes he can, and often does, make a play if he can simply buy a little more time.
"Some mobile quarterbacks use their legs to just take off and run and some use their legs to create opportunities to throw the ball,'' Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon said. "I think he does a little bit of both. You see him avoid pressure, create time, throw the ball down the field and sometimes he does keep the ball and move the chains himself. He's a difficult guy to deal with, but you have to have a plan.''
The Broncos, who dropped the read-option offense on the NFL in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback, have defended offenses with that element in the playbook well this season. The Broncos limited Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III to 139 total yards this season and sacked Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor five times combined in two meetings.
Neither Pryor nor Griffin III had the season Wilson did this year, but the Broncos did have success against both the Redskins and the Raiders with a more 3-4 look on defense. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has talked about the importance of not leaving the Seahawks receivers to try to tackle Wilson once Wilson is on the move, because Wilson routinely finds those players for big plays.
"Have a plan to try to not allow him to have that extra time,'' Lenon said. "If he does have that extra time, you have to find a receiver and you blast him in that situation because those guys are uncovered and they can make big plays."
They see the back-to-the-basics equation that every broken tackle by the running back in Super Bowl XLVIII will be a chance for the Broncos to have a broken heart.
"With such a strong back a quick back and somebody his size, you have to gang tackle," Broncos safety David Bruton said. "You can't just leave it up to one guy. We have to try to get 11 hats to the ball all the time."
But Lynch runs heavily, and when it comes to adding the force and acceleration to his mass, he is one of football's best finishers. Bigger players slide off or are shoved aside.
And it isn't a confetti run every time he touches the ball. Sometimes, it's a 3-yard run after several 3-yard runs, before Lynch drops his shoulder on a defender who doesn't finish the job. His earthquake run in the 2010 wild-card game, when he stiff-armed former Broncos and New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter on the way to a 67-yard touchdown run when eight New Orleans defenders had a chance to tackle him brought cheers loud enough to have formally registered as seismic activity.
"You have to gang tackle a guy like that," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "You try not to have so much pride as a defensive player and want to go out there and make the plays yourself. Especially with me being a D-lineman. Obviously, I think I can go out there and handle it all by myself, but we have to gang tackle him. I haven't seen on film any guys really taking him down by themselves or knocking him back. We'll have to do a good job containing him and not allow him to break big runs."
Since the start of the 2011 season, Lynch leads the NFL with 39 total touchdowns, two more than Adrian Peterson and three more than Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
And for the most part, the Broncos know where Lynch plans to get to work. In the NFC Championship Game win over the San Francisco 49ers, 107 of Lynch's 109 rushing yards came between the tackles. The Seahawks use plenty of two-back looks as well to help clear the way. The Broncos have often this season answered heavy-run formations with more of a 3-4 look on defense without outside linebackers standing up on the line of scrimmage with three down linemen, especially on early downs.
But a lot of how things go against Lynch will be how the Broncos fare in those initial one-on-one moments, defender and running back. And the Broncos will have to either get him down on their own or at least slow him long enough until the help arrives.
“Every week has been a challenge," Knighton said. "We stepped up to the challenge last week stopping New England's run game. San Diego had success running the ball in the regular season and we stepped up to that challenge in the playoffs. It just gets worse and worse each week. Going against a back like this -- we obviously have to stop him and can't allow him to get going. A guy like that who builds momentum and has confidence that he can run the ball just makes it worse for us."
"A guy like Marshawn Lynch, he requires us to do some extra film study and do some extra hitting," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "He is that kind of player."