The Super Bowl XLVIII matchup between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks pits the NFL's No. 1 offense against the league's top defense. Denver has steamrolled over elite defenses throughout the season, but the Seahawks' D presents a unique challenge with the depth and talent of its personnel.
Coordinator Adam Gase and the Broncos' offensive coaching staff will take the full two weeks crafting an ideal scheme to exploit any potential weaknesses of Seattle's unit. With that in mind, I took a look at the All-22 Coaches Film of both teams' games. (I'll examine the keys to a Seattle Seahawks victory next week.)
Here are four ideas Denver should consider in game planning:
1) The Broncos should play at a faster tempo.
Any time Peyton Manning is directing an offense, the unit is going to operate at a breakneck pace to take advantage of the wily veteran's ability to control the game at the line of scrimmage. Manning is one of the few quarterbacks in the NFL capable of calling his own plays; he is masterful at deciphering coverage at the line and checking to the ideal play to exploit the vulnerable area of the scheme. Manning manipulates tempo to keep the defense in personnel packages that favor the Broncos while eliminating defensive substitutions/rotations and wearing down the opponent's front seven. The warp-speed pace also threatens defensive communication, thus limiting the calls available to the opposing coordinator. With physical fatigue and spotty communication spawning defensive breakdowns at every level, the Broncos scored the most points in NFL history during the regular season.
Against the Seahawks, the Broncos would be wise to operate at a frenetic pace to keep Pete Carroll from effectively playing matchup football, particularly along the defensive front. The Seahawks feature one of the NFL's deepest and most athletic D-lines, with a host of big, sturdy run stuffers (Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane) flanked by a stable of explosive pass rushers (Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Clinton McDonald) adept at wreaking havoc on the pocket on obvious throwing downs. Carroll cleverly tweaks his ideal defensive personnel, based on circumstance, to put his unit in the best position to defend each play.
Here are a few examples of how Carroll shuffles personnel up front:
In the screengrab below, taken from Seattle's Week 17 win over the St. Louis Rams, the Seahawks have Bryant, McDaniel and Mebane on the field, anticipating a run on first down. This defense is an "under" front, which presents a five-man line at the point of attack:
With three big-bodied defenders who are nearly impossible to move off the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks tied for seventh in run defense during the regular season.
The following screengrab comes from Seattle's very next defensive series in that Rams game, but it showcases the Seahawks' NASCAR personnel group. The unit features the team's mmost athletic set of pass rushers in Avril, Bennett, McDonald and Clemons. Seattle deploys this look with the Rams facing third-and-7:
With four athletic rushers on the field to harass the passer, the Seahawks consistently knock down the quarterback or force quicker throws, which plays right into the hands of the "Legion of Boom" secondary and allows Seattle to field the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. On the above third-down play -- as detailed in this full video clip -- Rams QB Kellen Clemens quickly uncorks a deep ball to a well-covered receiver, with the pass predictably falling incomplete.
To keep Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn from putting their ideal personnel on the field in key situations, Manning must keep his foot on the gas. By drastically reducing the time between plays, Peyton can exploit the weaknesses of the defensive personnel on the field while also bringing fatigue into play. This is the premise of every hurry-up offense, and it's something the Broncos should utilize to keep the Seahawks' defense from wreaking havoc in MetLife Stadium.
2) Stick with pick plays and crossing routes from bunch formations.
The Seahawks are one of the few teams in the NFL that employs press-man defense on the majority of downs. The "Legion of Boom" features a set of long, rangy defenders capable of mugging receivers at the line of scrimmage, essentially nullifying the passing game outside the numbers. To combat this, the Broncos will turn to their extensive package of pick plays and crossing routes from bunch/tight formations. These concepts create free releases for receivers at the line of scrimmage, as the tightly aligned formations open up pick and rub possibilities. Additionally, crossing routes force defenders to avoid moving picks and/or communicate potential switches on the fly. With any mistake on the back end resulting in a receiver running free across the field, this is an effective way for the Broncos to create big-play possibilities against the Seahawks' aggressive secondary.
In Denver's Championship Sunday win over the New England Patriots, one particular crossing route took out Pats CB Aqib Talib and drew the ire of Bill Belichick. Don't expect the Broncos to stray from this tactic. Let's look at some of the pick and rub concepts that the Broncos have employed throughout the season.
On the snap, Thomas breaks inside and runs into Welker's man, allowing Welker to bust open underneath:
The result is an easy touchdown gallop for Welker.
In the screengrab below, taken from Denver's thrilling 51-48 OT win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5, Welker is in a stack alignment behind Eric Decker. Welker's running a return route against man coverage to take advantage of a possible switch by the two Dallas defenders:
When the corner jumps outside to take away a flat route, Welker plants hard and reverse-pivots to get into the open void:
Once again, Manning hits Welker for six.
In the next screengrab, taken from the Broncos' Week 11 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the team rolls out three pass catchers to the right, with Decker positioned alone on the left. Denver is running a double-shallow-cross concept, with Decker and Welker crossing at 5 yards and tight end Joel Dreessen running a dig over top:
The Chiefs are in man coverage, but the various crossing routes create confusion among defenders, leaving Decker wide open running across the middle of the field:
This catch-and-run effort nets 33 yards for the Broncos.
As the various examples illustrate, the Broncos' pick-play package routinely exploits man coverage all over the field. It's tough for defenders to fight through the picks or clearly communicate switches, leading to big plays on the perimeter. With the Seahawks intent on heavily incorporating press-man, these plays loom large. How well Seattle defends these concepts could be the biggest key to the game.
3) Peyton Manning must be willing to take a "dink and dunk" approach.
For all of the attention paid to the Seahawks' man-coverage scheme, the Broncos will also face Cover 3. At times, the Seahawks fall back into a three-deep, four-underneath zone scheme designed to take away the deep ball on the perimeter. Although the use of four verticals is a viable solution against the coverage, the Seahawks' willingness to press the outside receivers reduces the threat of the deep ball to the outside part of the field. Now, that doesn't mean Manning shouldn't attempt to take his shots down the field, but the veteran must display the poise and patience to make underneath throws against umbrella coverage.
Looking at several of the Seahawks' games, the defense feasts off quarterbacks who attempt to fit the ball into tight windows against their suffocating zone. Seattle's linebackers in particular are adept at making terrific breaks on the ball from their assigned spots. Part of their success comes from keeping sight of the quarterback throughout their drops and accurately reading the patterns of the offense. Consequently, the Seahawks' linebackers fly to the football to log interceptions, break up passes or deliver big hits on receivers.
In response, Manning must quickly and decisively take the open underneath receiver when his primary option is unavailable. Although this strategy will not stretch the Seahawks' coverage vertically, it will force Seattle to defend the entire field. The Broncos would be wise to work in various spread and empty formations that can create huge passing lanes for Manning on quick-rhythm routes. By using wide-open formations, Denver can help Manning identify possible mismatches on the perimeter, giving him high-percentage throws to lean on against a fierce pass rush.
Additionally, the quick-rhythm passing game allows the Broncos to get the ball into the hands of their most explosive playmakers in space. With a pair of physically imposing wideouts (Thomas and Decker) and a slot man who possesses extraordinary short-area quickness (Welker), Denver has the ammunition to execute an assortment of catch-and-run plays that produce positive gains before the defense can close on the ball. Most importantly, these plays will allow the Broncos to pick up first downs and wear down Seattle with extended drives -- just like they've been doing to defenses all postseason.
4) Denver can't ignore the running game.
The passing game is obviously the strength of the Broncos' offensive attack, but Manning can't fall into the trap of keeping to a one-dimensional game plan. Staying within a 55:45 pass-run ratio is critical in this matchup, because it will prevent the Seahawks from extensively using their NASCAR package to load up the pass rush. As I mentioned before, Seattle is a matchup football team intent on rotating personnel to exploit advantageous circumstances. So, it is important to mix it up and keep Carroll from getting a feel for what's coming down the pike.
Now, I certainly understand the challenges of running against a formidable defense, but the attempts are more valuable than the actual production in this game. The Seahawks are big and physical at the line of scrimmage; it is hard to move Mebane and Bryant off the ball on power runs. Additionally, the speed and quickness of the Seahawks' linebackers makes it nearly impossible to turn the corner on perimeter runs. However, I've watched the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals craft winning game plans around run-heavy strategies against Seattle, relentlessly pounding the ball up the middle despite minimal gains. Persistent ground-and-pound tactics allowed those teams to control the tempo and wear down the Seahawks' imposing front line by the fourth quarter. If the Broncos take those results to heart and muster 25-plus carries on Super Sunday, it is quite possible that Manning and Co. will hoist the Lombardi Trophy at day's end.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.