The storyline heading into Super Bowl XLVIII is the NFL's No. 1 offense battling the No. 1 defense for the Lombardi Trophy. While that matchup certainly looms large, I believe the game likely will be decided by the other showdown: the Seattle Seahawks' offense vs. the Denver Broncos' defense.
Seattle's offense has looked pedestrian at times this season, but an extra week of preparation could allow the unit to roll on the biggest stage. After spending a few days breaking down the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with four keys to the Seahawks' game plan for Super Sunday:
1) Marshawn Lynch must be the focal point of the game plan.
The Seahawks used an old-school offensive formula to pound their way to Super Bowl XLVIII. Seattle was one of just two teams (along with the archrival 49ers) to run the ball more than 50 percent of the time during the regular season. The bevy of rushing attempts allowed the 'Hawks to dictate the tempo of the game and wear down opposing defenses. Lynch thrived as the feature back, rushing for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most importantly, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and kept the offense in manageable situations by consistently churning out positive gains between the tackles.
Lynch topped the 100-yard mark in each of the Seahawks' two postseason wins, over New Orleans and San Francisco. That yardage is obviously important, but the fact that Lynch carried the ball 50 times over those games stood out to me when I glanced at the stat sheet. Lynch finished with 20-plus carries seven times during the regular season, with the Seahawks posting a 6-1 record in those games. Although he surpassed the 100-yard mark just twice in those contests, the persistent approach set the table for the Seahawks' game plan by forcing opponents to account for Lynch's whereabouts on every play.
Against the Broncos, the Seahawks would be wise to attack the middle of an injury-ravaged defensive front. Sure, the Broncos have held five of their past six opponents under 100 rushing yards, but the unit allowed 100-plus yards in six straight games prior to Week 14. Denver also surrendered 13 runs of 20-plus yards -- 11th most in the NFL. The Seahawks must challenge the heart of the Broncos' defense, to see if they've truly solved their woes against the run.
After reviewing the film of Lynch's top runs, I believe the Seahawks will feature a number of inside and outside zones to test the gap integrity of Denver's front seven. In a zone-based scheme, the offensive line initially steps in unison to take on any defender appearing in its designated track. Coaches will instruct offensive linemen to lock on to the defender and simply run him in the direction of his original pursuit. When these plays are blocked correctly, the running back will find plenty of cutback creases available at the point of attack.
In the video clip to the right, taken from the NFC Championship Game, Lynch receives the handoff heading to the right, then makes an immediate cut to the left because he sees the flow of the defense pursuing hard to the front side. Lynch shoots through the crease and breaks multiple tackles en route to a 40-yard score.
Lynch is one of the best cutback runners in the NFL; he has the vision, balance and body control to slither through seams at the point of attack. Additionally, he is a powerful runner capable of blowing through contact in the hole. This combination of skills makes him nearly impossible to slow down, particularly when the Seahawks incorporate the zone-read to slow pursuit in Lynch's direction.
In the set of screengrabs below, taken from Seattle's divisional-round triumph over New Orleans, the Seahawks are running a zone-read play. Russell Wilson will read the reactions of the defensive end and cornerback, to determine whether to give the ball to Lynch or execute a quarterback keeper:
Wilson reads the defense perfectly, handing the ball to Lynch on the inside zone based on the cornerback's hard pursuit up the field:
Lynch makes a hard cut and scoots through the secondary for a 15-yard score.
The threat that Wilson will run the ball forces defenders to hesitate before attacking Lynch, buying the dangerous back just enough time to explode through a crease. The Seahawks will test the gap discipline of Denver's front seven by running a variety of zone and zone-read plays early in the game.
Now, the presence of Terrance Knighton on the Broncos' interior could prompt Seattle to feature more outside runs, thus neutralizing the big-bodied defender's effectiveness at the point of attack. By forcing Knighton to run sideline to sideline, the Seahawks can wear down "Pot Roast," putting Lynch in prime position to attack a suspect tackling secondary on the perimeter.
In the next screengrab, taken from a Week 10 trouncing of the Atlanta Falcons, notice how the Seahawks are set up in a spread I-formation out of "20" personnel (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR). By using a slot receiver instead of a tight end, Seattle can remove a defender from the box or force the Broncos to insert a nickel cornerback into the game, weakening run support at the point of attack:
As you can see in the full video clip of that play, this formation allows Seattle to attack the outside with great success.
Given Lynch's effectiveness as a power runner in the postseason, the Seahawks should give their workhorse 20-plus carries in Super Bowl XLVIII as part of a game plan designed to wear down the Broncos by the fourth quarter.
2) Put Russell Wilson on the move in the passing game.
The Seahawks' much-maligned passing game has been underwhelming down the stretch, but Wilson remains a dangerous playmaker from the pocket due to his sneaky athleticism and superior arm talent. The second-year pro capably makes every throw in the book with zip and velocity while also showing pinpoint accuracy and ball placement, particularly on throws outside the numbers. Additionally, Wilson is a nifty runner with the speed to make plays on impromptu scrambles or designed quarterback runs.
Given the variety of skills Wilson brings to the table, I would expect Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to feature a movement-based passing game on Sunday. By getting Wilson on the perimeter with run-pass options, the Seahawks can create big-play opportunities for their mobile playmaker. Keeping Wilson on the move alters the launch spot, making it harder for the Broncos to sack or harass the quarterback in the pocket.
I believe we will see a handful of bootleg passes from shotgun formations. With Wilson adept at executing the zone-read, the fake handoff is likely to elicit a strong response from the second level of Denver's defense. This misdirection should allow Wilson to get to the corner with the option to run or throw.
In the screengrabbed play that follows, taken from the Seahawks' Week 5 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle is aligned in a dubs formation, with receiver Doug Baldwin positioned in the slot. Wilson will execute a play fake before rolling to his right:
With Indy's linebackers lured to the line of scrimmage by the fake and the threat that Wilson will flee the pocket, Baldwin runs free across the field:
The result is an easy pitch and catch for a 27-yard gain.
With the conventional bootleg pass creating confusion on the second level, the Seahawks could also add a throwback wrinkle to catch the defense off guard. In next set of screengrabs, taken from Seattle's Week 6 victory over the Tennessee Titans, the Seahawks break the huddle in a dubs formation. The plan is to run a bootleg pass, with Lynch instructed to carry out a fake before sneaking into the flat:
Wilson fakes the handoff to Lynch (who's heading left) before rolling to his right and searching for a receiver. The Titans are locked up in man coverage, but the linebackers overreact to the play fake and bootleg by Wilson to the right:
Consequently, Lynch is left all alone in the flat:
Wilson makes a spectacular throw across the field to spawn a 55-yard pickup.
The previous examples of the Seahawks' movement passing game featured Wilson operating from the shotgun and spread formations, but some of the most effective bootleg plays occur when Wilson starts under center in run-heavy sets. The threat of Lynch running downhill in a tight formation lures linebackers and safeties to the line of scrimmage, creating explosive opportunities down the field. Additionally, the misdirection slows down speedy pass rushers off the edge.
In the next set of pictures, taken from Seattle's Week 13 rout of the Saints, the Seahawks are originally aligned in a tight I-formation, but Luke Willson motions from his fullback position to create a tight trips formation. The Seahawks are utilizing a banana route concept:
With Lewis flying up to the line of scrimmage to attack the back in the flat, Wilson lobs the ball to tight end Zach Miller:
Miller catches the ball with nobody around him and rumbles for a 60-yard gain.
In the next play, the Seahawks are aligned in a double-wing formation, with Wilson executing a half-roll to his right off play action and Baldwin running an underneath crossing route to the left:
With the linebackers and defensive backs flowing in the direction of Wilson's drop, Baldwin sneaks across the field without resistance:
Wilson spots his primary receiver alone in the front of the end zone:
With Wilson adept at throwing the ball on the move and making spectacular improvisational plays, as evidenced by this highlight from the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks should give their young signal-caller plenty of opportunities to deliver big plays on the perimeter.
3) Use Percy Harvin as a wild card.
The most explosive offenses in the NFL find ways to create and exploit matchups on the perimeter. Savvy offensive coordinators deploy their most dynamic offensive weapon in various locations to get him the ball in favorable situations while also dictating terms to the defense. Although Harvin has basically missed the entire season due to various injuries, he is still regarded as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the game. In limited action with the 'Hawks, Harvin has flashed explosive potential. More importantly, his mere presence on the field creates better opportunities for Golden Tate and Baldwin in the passing game; it also leads to fewer eight-man fronts for Lynch.
Looking at the film of Harvin's brief action with the Seahawks, it's obvious that Bevell strives to get the ball to his dynamic playmaker in space.
In the screengrab below, taken from the divisional round, Harvin is aligned on the outside of an empty formation. Prior to the snap, he motions into the backfield on a fly-sweep play:
After taking the handoff, Harvin heads to the corner, with multiple blockers leading the way:
Then he turns upfield and splits the seam:
The clever running play nets 9 yards for Seattle.
In the passing game, Harvin is the Seahawks' most explosive weapon. He has the ability to blow past defenders on vertical routes, but he's at his best on catch-and-run plays over the middle. Harvin has the ability to turn a short pass into a big gain whenever he touches the ball, routinely making defenders miss in the open field. Bevell recognizes that ability and regularly attempts to get the ball to Harvin on the move.
In the set of pictures that follows, Harvin is aligned in the slot at the No. 3 position. He is instructed to run a crossing route to the opposite hash. With the Saints showing blitz, Harvin will be Wilson's primary read:
Harvin slips past the defender on the snap and creates enough separation for Wilson to lob the throw over the top of the defense:
Harvin high-points the ball for a 16-yard gain.
The Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl despite missing the services of one of their top offensive players for almost the entire season. But with Harvin back in the fold, Seattle should script a handful of plays designed to make him a major factor in the game plan. And don't be surprised if Harvin sees some special teams action; he's very capable of generating a field-flipping return.
4) Shorten the game to limit Peyton Manning's opportunities.
Yes, the Seahawks boast the No. 1 defense in the NFL, but the Broncos' offense presents a significant challenge to any opponent. Manning is a maestro in the pocket, directing Denver with superb precision and rhythm. Although Pete Carroll's understandably confident in his defense, he can really help the unit by employing a slow-down strategy when the Seahawks have the ball. Stifle the Broncos' fast-paced attack by keeping it off the field in the first place. Seattle has the right combination of personnel and scheme to pull off this tactic in Super Bowl XLVIII.
As I mentioned above, the Seahawks should pound the ball early, to establish a methodical tempo. Lynch grinding out 4 to 5 yards a pop will help the Seahawks stay ahead of the chains while also chewing up the clock on long drives. In addition, Wilson should make a habit of taking the play clock below the five-second mark, to reduce the overall number of possessions in the game. This type of strategy is regularly employed by defensive-minded coaches in matchups against offensive juggernauts (see: Super Bowl XXV). In fact, it is an approach that current Broncos coach John Fox used when he guided the Carolina Panthers to a surprising win over the St. Louis Rams in the 2003 divisional round. Fox entered that game with the goal of shortening it to 12 total possessions, effectively disrupting the rhythm of the Rams' offense by keeping the unit on the sideline for extended periods. The game saw more possessions than that, thanks in part to two overtimes, but the Panthers prevailed 29-23.
If Carroll's team successfully employs a slow-burning offensive scheme, the Seahawks could walk out of MetLife Stadium with an impressive triumph over the most explosive offense in football.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.