Defense wins championships.
That's what coaches have been preaching for decades, but the transformation of the NFL into a passing league has led many observers to speculate that championships are won on the strength of a quarterback directing a high-powered offensive attack to the winner's circle.
However, the Seattle Seahawks' resounding, 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII will not only change the fantasy-football mentality that's emerged around pro football, but it could spark a seismic shift in the philosophical thinking of executives and coaches looking to build a legitimate contender in today's game.
To dig deeper, I delved into the All-22 Coaches Film from Super Sunday. Here are three keys that stood out to me -- plus, an explanation of how this stunning result could impact the rest of the NFL:
1) Seattle's defensive size, speed and athleticism overwhelmed Denver.
From the moment the participants in Super Bowl XLVIII stepped onto the field for the first play from scrimmage, the Seahawks' defense just looked like the side with superior athletes in every area. And once the action began, it certainly played out that way. Red Bryant (6-foot-4, 323 pounds) and Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311) owned the point of attack between the offensive guards, while the combination of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons overwhelmed the Broncos' offensive tackles with speed and quickness. On the second level, Malcolm Smith, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner raced from sideline to sideline, delivering punishing hits on Denver running backs and wide receivers. And then, of course, there was the "Legion of Boom": While Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor acted as enforcers over the middle, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell bullied opposing receivers with their physical tactics on the perimeter.
Simply put, the speed and explosiveness of Seattle's defense rendered the NFL's most explosive offense punchless.
Denver's Super Bowl run was fueled by a record-breaking offense driven by catch-and-run passes to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Not coincidentally, the Broncos finished second in the NFL with 68 passing plays of 20-plus yards during the regular season. However, on Sunday, the Seahawks' collective speed limited the yards after the catch on short throws while also preventing quarterback Peyton Manning from taking shots over the top. Additionally, the Seahawks won the physical battle by pummeling Broncos running backs and receivers at every opportunity, including the tone-setting hit by Chancellor on Demaryius Thomas that changed the way receivers ventured over the middle.
Now, every defensive coach preaches these tenets at every turn, but the fact that the Seahawks were able to eliminate the big play in an aggressive manner is a testament to their collective speed, athleticism and hustle. The Seahawks were able to intimidate and overwhelm an offense that ran roughshod over the rest of the league all season.
2) A simple defensive plan allowed the Seahawks to play fast and free.
Heading into Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle defenders boldly told observers that they would stick with their simplistic approach. At the time, I couldn't envision a defense using a conventional game plan to shut down Manning. The veteran quarterback is one of the few signal-callers in the game given complete freedom to check and adjust plays at the line of scrimmage based on his exquisite pre-snap reads; I thought a static coverage would allow him to routinely get the Broncos into ideal play calls and exploit favorable matchups. Most importantly, I thought a straightforward approach would leave the Seahawks' D vulnerable to big plays in the passing game after Manning got a feel for his opponent in the first few possessions.
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To their credit, the Seahawks' coaches understood that a simple game plan would reduce the clutter in their players' minds, allowing them to play faster and without hesitation. Consequently, Seattle could spend more time focusing on the Broncos' formational tendencies by down and distance rather than worrying about various checks and adjustments out of multiple coverages. This approach minimized the risk of mental breakdowns, which typically result in big plays surrendered by the defense. It also gave Seahawks defenders a chance to master the Broncos' favorite concepts and anticipate those plays in the pre-snap phase.
Looking at the All-22 film, I discovered that the Seahawks remained in single-high-safety coverage (Cover 1-Robber and Cover 3) the majority of the night, with the team employing more zone tactics than man coverage throughout the game. Although defensive coordinator Dan Quinn sprinkled in a handful of pressures from multiple fronts, the Seahawks didn't tweak or adjust their approach from the regular season. In fact, Seattle used a game plan that was very similar to the one from a 40-10 win over the Broncos in Week 2 of the preseason (a game that featured three first-half turnovers with the first-stringers in the game). Of course, neither team openly game-planned for that preseason affair, but the Seahawks certainly walked away with a feel for the Broncos' personnel, concepts and tempo.
Although the Seahawks frequently use the package on obvious passing downs, the presence of four legitimate pass rushers at the start of the game showed Seattle's emphasis on getting after Manning in the pocket. (Obviously, that opening snap didn't work out too well for the Broncos, as the football flew right past Manning's unsuspecting face and into the end zone for a safety.)
In the following screengrab, notice how the Seahawks are aligned in a hybrid 3-4 look, with the big bodies positioned over the center and offensive guards:
That alignment essentially eliminates the possibility of an inside run while giving the Seahawks the flexibility to harass the opposing passer with a variety of stunts, games and twists.
From a coverage standpoint, Seattle used a handful of play calls that were ripped out of a high school playbook. The Seahawks played a basic man-to-man defense with a deep-middle safety and a robber lurking in the middle. Additionally, the 'Hawks employed a three-deep zone with four or five underneath droppers stretched across the field. With Seattle's cornerbacks adept at employing press and press-bail techniques on the outside, the team is able to essentially play a matchup man defense that eliminates the deep ball and limits yards after the catch.
The Seahawks are known for their aggressive press-coverage tactics on the perimeter, but the team routinely employed a three-deep zone against the Broncos to effectively cover the variety of crossing routes utilized by the NFL's No. 1 offense. Instead of running across the field while attempting to avoid picks and rubs by receivers, the underneath defenders used "spot drops" (defenders drop to designated landmarks, with their eyes fixed on the quarterback) and essentially passed off the crossers. In addition, the Seahawks added an underneath defender by regularly dropping McDaniel into the "low hole" from his defensive tackle spot.
This was particularly effective against the Broncos' empty formations because it allowed the Seahawks to match up with the five eligible receivers while maintaining deep coverage with the corners and deep-middle safety. In the following screengrab, taken from early in the first quarter, the Seahawks incorporate this coverage on third-and-5:
This coverage eliminated yards after the catch and prevented the Broncos from stringing together drive-sustaining first downs.
One of the benefits of playing man coverage is the ability to send extra rushers at the quarterback. If the secondary can hold up against receivers, the blitz quickens the clock in the quarterback's head. Additionally, the cumulative effect of the pressure disrupts the rhythm of the passing game, leading to mistakes and turnovers.
In the following screengrab, the Seahawks are set to bring a five-man blitz, with Wagner attacking the A-gap and Clemons looping around from his defensive end spot to hit the opposite A-gap:
With airtight coverage on the perimeter, the rush closes in on Manning:
This leads to an errant toss over the middle and interception by Chancellor.
While the Seahawks do attack opponents with a variety of blitz-man pressures, their bread-and-butter coverage is Cover 1-Robber. The Seahawks will position a safety in the deep middle to take away the home-run ball while employing the other safety as a robber in the intermediate area. Chancellor typically plays the role of the robber, with his size, speed and physicality making him an ideal defender to smash crossing routes or attack the line of scrimmage against the run.
Chancellor lurks between the hashes, limiting Manning's options to a series of tight-window throws:
Eventually, Manning tries to hit Decker along the sideline but sails the throw out of bounds.
At a time when most defensive play-callers attempt to fool opposing quarterbacks with a variety of coverages and exotic, pre-snap disguises, Quinn and Pete Carroll defeated the NFL MVP with the type of simple game plan usually seen under Friday night lights. That the Seahawks dominated in a very straightforward fashion will force defensive coordinators across the NFL to rethink the way they approach big games.
3) The 'Hawks heeded Pete Carroll's message: It's all about the ball.
Winning the takeaway battle is the biggest deciding factor in the NFL. Teams enjoying a plus-one advantage in the turnover margin won nearly 69 percent of the time over the past six seasons. Predictably, that percentage rises significantly as the takeaway advantage increases, which makes it sensible for defensive-minded coaches to constantly harp on their players to create turnovers.
In Seattle, Carroll has preached the importance of hunting the ball since his arrival in 2010. He has talked about it consistently in meetings, and Seahawks practices feature several periods devoted to knocking the ball loose or snatching errant passes out of the air. Additionally, the defense is encouraged to run and hustle to the ball, spawning turnovers off tips and overthrows (see: Smith's game-sealing interception in the NFC title bout).
Reviewing Super Bowl XLVIII, it was apparent that taking the ball away was a focal point of Seattle's defensive approach. The Seahawks flew to the ball with reckless abandon, displaying a keen awareness of where the ball was located at all times. From pass rushers attempting tomahawk chops on Manning when closing around the corner to Maxwell punching the ball out of Demaryius Thomas' arms following a completion, the Seahawks attacked the ball with purpose. In pass coverage, the defenders kept vision on Manning and anticipated throws in their respective areas. Most importantly, the entire unit ran to the ball when it was released from Manning's hand, putting everyone in position to capitalize on possible deflections.
Taking a peek at the video clip of Smith's pick-six, it's clear that a combination of hustle, technique and awareness led to this game-changing score. Avril collapsed the pocket with a bull rush while maintaining the awareness to get his hand up prior to the throw, thus producing a deflection. Smith not only locked onto the receiver in his area, but also displayed the hustle to run and get the ball when it fluttered from the pocket. Finally, the "scoop and score" mentality of the entire defense turned the takeaway into an offensive play by setting up a wall down the sideline. The Seahawks put all of the elements together in that sequence.
How will this dominant defensive showing affect the rest of the NFL?
The Seahawks' blowout win over the Broncos will be dismissed by some observers as an exception to championship success, but it's interesting that nine of the past 14 Super Bowl champions featured top-10 defenses. Additionally, six teams ranked No. 1 overall in total defense have captured the crown since 1990. While plenty of folks will continue to point to the importance of a franchise quarterback when it comes to chasing a title, it is just as critical to have a strong supporting cast, including a stout defense and a solid running game.
With an imposing defense in place, a team can weather a disappointing performance from a quarterback. In addition, a viable defense allows a head coach to take a conservative approach to winning games, reducing the likelihood of turnovers -- which are the deciding factor in football.
From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks' physically imposing secondary has led some teams to rethink their standards at the cornerback position. Several organizations are now searching for big, physical corners with the size (6-foot or taller) to match up with the big-bodied receivers of today's NFL. Additionally, the length of the Seahawks' perimeter players meshes perfectly with the bump-and-run tactics that are re-emerging in the league.
Teams also will look to copy the Seahawks' brilliant use of specialists on the defensive side of the ball. Whether they're using Bennett, Avril and Bruce Irvin in various pass-rush capacities or scheming around a deep and talented collection of defensive backs, the Seahawks maximize their defensive personnel. Sure, most teams incorporate various packages to put their top defenders on the field at the same time, but few do as good a job as Seattle of playing to each guy's individual strengths.
Finally, I would anticipate teams attempting to copy the Seahawks' approach to player development, based on Seattle's success with late-round picks on the defensive side of the ball. While some will suggest that Seattle simply has hit home runs on late-round picks and undrafted free agents over the past few seasons, I believe the consistent play of backups who are suddenly thrust into key roles is a byproduct of exceptional teaching on the practice field. From Smith's emergence as a Super Bowl MVP to Maxwell and Walter Thurmond playing well in Brandon Browner's absence, it's clear that the Seahawks have emerged as heavyweights on the development of their young players. This is a testament to the competitive program in Seattle.
Given the copycat nature of the NFL, I have no doubt teams will study the Seahawks' operation from top to bottom and see what lessons can be learned from this sudden powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest.