Alright, since no Broncos fans have graced us with their presence yet, let me go ahead and get things kicked off with a very brief preview on the Seahawks and what you're likely going to see.
If I'm a Broncos fan, honestly I come in to this game a bit worried about the Seahawks. And I don't say that as a homer. I say that as someone who has followed the Broncos some this year and what they like to do. From a match-up standpoint, I could very easily see the Seahawks being problematic. From what I understand, the formula that has worked to some extent on how to beat the Broncos this year is basically:
1) Do not blitz Peyton Manning (he'll generally torch teams that dial that up).
2) Be physical with the Broncos WR's and drop a lot of good cover guys back in to pass coverage.
3) Keep Peyton Manning off the field by establishing the run.
Well, I can virtually promise you that the game plan for the Seattle Seahawks will be to basically try to do all of that ... because those are the real strengths of this football team.
I’ll start by expounding on points 1 and 2 ...
On Defense, the Seattle Seahawks DON'T tend to blitz all that much for the simple fact that they don't have to. Last season, a major reason that the Seahawks lost to the Falcons in the playoffs was their inability to generate any kind of pass rush in that game. That was a big problem down the stretch -- and especially become a real issue once Chris Clemons went down in the Redskins playoff game. This past offseason, GM John Schneider made a concerted effort to address that -- and boy did he ever. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have really transformed Seattle's Front 4 in to a pretty scary beast. Neither are starters (Seattle tends to rotate guys through periodically and according to situation), but both cause a heck of a lot of problems when they're in there. Avril has a tendency to create a lot of strip sacks (where he causes the QB to fumble as he sacks him). That's a skill he's had ever since he was in Detroit and he did it yet again this past game against Kaepernick. Michael Bennett is a guy I was extremely excited to get, as he's someone who's unique in that he can play both interior lineman or out wide at either defensive end spot. He generates a lot of pressure as well. Both Bennett and Avril were among Pro Football Focus's top 10 defensive lineman in terms of generating pressure. And the Seahawks pass rush doesn't stop there. DT's Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel were not only two of the top run stuffers in the game (2nd and 4th best according to PFF) ... they were also two of the NFL's best pass rushing interior lineman as well. Seattle was one of the best pressure inducing teams in the NFL WITHOUT having to blitz much.
Because of that, Seattle has a major advantage when it comes to pass coverage. They will often drop their LB's in to coverage and those guys are very good at it. Most times, putting a linebacker on a tight end is the kiss of death for a defense -- especially against really good TE's. But Seattle's linebacking corps is a whole different breed of animal. They are big, fast, and aggressive. K.J. Wright has been kind of like a secret weapon when it comes to opposing TE's. He's a big, long (6'4" 246 pounds) and can run. His backup (who'll rotate in there too), Malcolm Smith, is in the words of LB's coach Ken Norton Jr. "weapon's grade fast" -- he runs a legitimate 4.4 and always seems to be around the ball. Both of those guys helped to really shut out guys like Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis -- two of the best TE's in the game. Last season, Luke Kuechly in Carolina walked away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Well let me tell you, though not much attention was paid to him, MLB Bobby Wagner absolutely deserved to be in that DROY discussion. He's fast (runs about a 4.46 IIRC), hard hitting, and very instinctual -- he always seems to be around the ball. Though Kuechly is going to continue to get his recongition nationally as being the best MLB in the game ... Bobby Wagner is right there with him. Last year, Bruce Irvin led all NFL rookies in sacks (8.0) from the LEO position (a hybrid pass rusher that Carroll employs in his defenses). This year, he was moved to LB to take advantage of his overall speed there. Though I was extremely skeptical at first, Irvin has been very solid both in terms of run and pass coverage.
When healthy, San Francisco's linebacking corps is the best in the league I'd say bar none. However, I'd honestly have to honestly put Seattle's in the top 3 or 4 in the NFL -- they're that good.
There is no such debate when it comes to Seattle's secondary though. Without a doubt, fans throughout the nation are going to be seeing Peyton Manning facing the best in the league come February 2nd. Their nickname, Legion of Boom, really says it all about these guys and what they are all about. They are all big, fast, and nasty defenders. Richard Sherman has gotten a whole lot of attention with his self promotion of "I'm the best corner in the game" kind of thing. But in all honesty, he's completely right (Sherman is the brutally honest type who will call a spade a spade, regardless of who it offends). Sherman, a one time 5th round draft choice out of Stanford, played WR in college. That experience has really translated well to the NFL for him. He studies film like crazy and because of that can often run the route as well as the receiver he is facing. He is not only quick, but often positions himself so incredibly well in a way that only he can make the play. Sherman not only led the league in interceptions (8) -- he had a passer rating against of only 47.3 (best in the NFL). Opposite Sherman, Broncos fans will see a very underrated Byron Maxwell. There was a lot of hand wringing when Brandon Browner went down first with a groin injury and then was lost due to his drug suspension for the remainder of the season. However, the secondary has actually performed even BETTER since Byron Maxwell has been in there. Maxwell is big, very physical corner as well. Since taking over as a starter, Maxwell has 4 interceptions and has been a shut down corner in his own right. He had a passer rating against of 47.8 (2nd in the NFL) in limited duty. The matchup that’s going to be particularly interesting in this game is going to be in the slot -- how Walter Thurmond does against Wes Welker. Thurmond has been a very good nickel corner this season, as he has a passer rating against of just 67.4 (13th in the NFL -- that was better than either Dominque Rogers-Cromartie or the Patriot’s Aqib Talib). And Seattle has good depth all the way down in terms of its DB’s, as Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead are very much in that same mold. Both are capable corners that you’ll undoubtedly be seeing more of next year.
Seattle safeties are also elite. What really makes the Seahawks secondary click is the play of FS Earl Thomas. Thomas has sideline to sideline speed -- blazing fast (runs a 4.43). He is also a very physical, punishing hitter with great instincts and a nose for the football. Teams think twice about throwing deep often because Earl is back there. He changes the game, as he plays center field and does a phenomenal job of it. Thomas is an All Pro that Manning is going to have to be cognizant of where he is at on the football field t all times. At the Strong Safety position is enforcer Kam Chancellor. Chancellor (who has the nickname “Bam-Bam”), is as big as a linebacker (6’3 232 Lbs), has good speed (4.6), and hits like a Mack Truck. If you like big hits, that shot that he put on Vernon Davis in the NFCCG was a thing of beauty. He is also very good in coverage and was a big reason why TE’s Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis got shut down for the most part. He’s a 2 time Pro Bowler himself and was named All Pro this year as well.
Seattle has been very good at shutting down even elite quarterbacks this year. Back in Week 13 when the Seahawks faced the Saints up in Seattle, Drew Brees had a ton of problems. At a few points in that game, you could see him trying to go through his progressions … and he couldn’t find anyone open.
The Seahawks secondary as a whole is very physical. They will jam receivers off the line of scrimmage and tend to play a lot of man to man coverage. Now here is where the Broncos may have a bit of an edge, as they may be forced to play some zone -- where they are not as adept. In terms of the WR/DB play, this will be a knock down, drag out fight. I’ve seen a lot of defenses throughout the years and I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to put these guys right up there with defenses like the 2000 Ravens or the 1985 Bears. It’ll be very interesting to see how one of the best OFFENSES we’ve seen in a long, long time does against these guys.
Now in terms of Point 3 (Keep Peyton Manning off the field), it’s no secret that’s going to be the game plan for Carroll and the rest of the coaching staff. And that starts with trying to slow down Beast Mode -- Marshawn Lynch.
Here is how the numbers for the Seahawks offense broke down this year ...
2013 Seahawks (Regular Season Stats)...
Rushing Attempts …509 (54.8% of Offense)
Passing Attempts … 420 (45.2% of Offense)
Total Attempts … 929
Don’t let those numbers fool you though -- Russell Wilson is an extremely good playmaker and a heck of a passer. He had 320 yards passing back in Week 1 … and 385 yards passing and 2 TD’s against the Falcons last year in the playoffs. So, he is the kind of quarterback that CAN put a team on his back and carry them to victory if necessary. Anyone who saw that Seahawks-Bears game last year has no doubt about that one.
No, Seattle makes running the ball its #1 priority simply because Pete Carroll firmly believes that the running game (first and foremost) and good, tough, hard physical defense is what makes championships. Ball control, limiting turnovers on offense, and controlling the time of possession is what Carroll is all about.
In horrible conditions at Century Link Field (40 mile an hour winds and driving rain that made passing very difficult) against the Saints in the Divisional Round, Marshawn Lynch virtually willed
the Seattle Seahawks to victory, running for 140 yards on 28 carries (5.0 yards/carry) and 2 touchdowns. Lynch broke an amazing 13 tackles in that game. In fact, on the season, Lynch has broken 99 tackles -- which was 22 more than the 2nd running back on the list, LeSean McCoy. To put it in perspective of how dominant Lynch has been this season, from 2008-2012, the most missed tackles that any running back had was 64.
The 49ers (one of the best run defenses in all of the league) made no bones about it that stopping Lynch was going to be priority #1. The Seahawks responded by making a commitment to the run and Lynch went off, rumbling for 109 yards (5.0 yards/carry) and a key touchdown. And Seattle won the time of possession in the process (31:28 to 28:32). In this game especially, with how potent Denver’s offense is, I see Carroll and the Seahawks committing to the run more than ever.
So, all of that said, here are a few questions that I would have for Broncos fans ...
1) How do you envision Peyton Manning and the Broncos attacking Seattle's defense in this game?
2) On defense, what do you envision being Denver's game plan against the Seahawks ... and how effective do you believe they can be at shutting down Marshawn Lynch?
3) Related question to #2 -- given the overall health of Denver's defense at this point of the season, do the Broncos have the horses to be able to effectively slow down Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the Seattle Offense?