It wasn’t so long ago, about seven months to be more accurate, that we saw the Seattle Seahawks absolutely annihilate the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. On Sunday the two teams are set to tee off on one another again.
The Denver Broncos enter the game with a 2-0 record, edging out both opponents by seven points. Their offense hasn’t been as explosive as last year, but it possesses all the same weapons the San Diego Chargers had.
Seattle’s typically dominant defense was nowhere to be found in San Diego last week, as the Chargers were seemingly able to do whatever they wished with the ball offensively. They dominated the time of possession 42:15 to 17:45 over the Seahawks.
According to Odds Shark, the Seahawks are 4.5-point favorites over their revenge-seeking Super Bowl opponents. The euphoria is gone for the Seattle Seahawks, who should be focused and ready for their Sept. 21 game, after their surprising loss last week.
|Denver Broncos||Category||Seattle Seahawks|
|4th||Yards Per Attempt||14th|
|25th||Yards Per Attempt||1st|
|T-7th||Yards Per Attempt||T-7th|
|T-12th||Yards Per Attempt||T-4th|
*Rankings via NFL.com.
Super Bowl teams usually sweat the details. Winning championships is less about flashy highlights, and more about attention to those details in critical situations like third down. How each team performs in those moments this Sunday will go a long way toward deciding the outcome. Neither team can be happy about how their defenses are performing on third downs so far.
Broncos reeling on third-down defense
Alex Smith and the Chiefs converted an eye-popping 69 percent of their third downs against the Broncos last Sunday. That led to four drives of at least 10 plays and a sizable advantage in time of possession (36 minutes to 24). They did all this without their workhorse running back, Jamaal Charles. It was not enough to win the game, but it kept Peyton Manning and his lethal offense on the sideline long enough to keep it close until the game’s final moments.
Denver exited that game with the 28th-ranked third-down defense in the NFL, according to TeamRankings.com. Opposing offenses are converting nearly 52 percent of third-down opportunities. This has been perhaps the largest contributing factor as to why Manning is averaging almost 10 fewer pass attempts and 87 fewer yards passing per game this year.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks bring the 19th-ranked third-down offense into the game against Denver, converting at just under 37 percent, per TeamRankings.com. This, despite being third in the NFL in yards gained on first downs, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
John Fox has to be worried about his defense’s ability to stop a Seahawks running game that ranks tops in the NFL in yards per carry (6.3) when his team had its hands full with Chiefs backup running back Knile Davis last week (79 yards rushing, 2 TDs). A Seattle team facing 3rd-and-short playing at home is going to be hard to beat.
Seahawks defense is even worse
The worst third-down defense in the NFL belongs to the Seattle Seahawks, according to TeamRankings.com. Let that sink in for a moment. A defense that in 2013 was in the conversation as one of the best in history is worse than any other team at stopping opponent drives on third-down.
Seahawks opponents have combined to convert 55 percent of their third-down plays so far this season. Part of that is due to facing Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, but Pete Carroll has much higher standards for his defense than what they have shown so far.
They will face the ninth-ranked third-down offense when Manning comes to town. The Broncos have converted 45 percent of their third downs so far. It is worth noting, though, that the Broncos converted 46 percent of their third-down chances in the Super Bowl, but still scored only eight points against the Seahawks.
Carroll has a history of identifying flaws in situational defense and making adjustments quickly. Working with a group that has played together a few years will help in making those corrections quickly. He may find, though, the problem is less about third-down performance than it is losing the battle on earlier downs.
Seattle has allowed opponents to convert 75 percent of their third downs of five yards or less, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. One of the decisive tests this Sunday will be whether Denver’s offense can get into manageable third-down distances against a Seahawks defense that will be extremely motivated to reestablish its swagger.
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Denver is known for owning one of the most significant home-field advantages in the NFL, but the Broncos have been great on the road recently, going 12-2 and 10-4 against the spread in their last 14 road contests.
However, that trend will be severely tested this week when Denver visits Seattle for a Super Bowl rematch at the Clink, the first time since Oct. 15, 2012 that the Broncos have been an underdog.
Both teams head for their bye week, but only one has been dominant in this position and that is Seattle (10-1 SU last 11 home games before bye week).
Odds Shark computer prediction: 35.7-33.6 Seahawks
Why the Broncos can cover the spread
The Broncos are off to a 2-0 start, with wins over the Colts and Chiefs. QB Peyton Manning continues to amaze, throwing six touchdown passes already, with zero interceptions. Denver seems like it needs a little time to get warmed up, then explodes.
Through the first two games of this season, the Broncos have scored 10 points in the first quarter, 35 in the second, to take double-digit leads into halftime. After being embarrassed by Seattle in the Super Bowl, Denver will be looking for some retribution Sunday, and maybe they can steal some of what San Diego did to beat the Seahawks last week.
Why the Seahawks can cover the spread
The Seahawks are coming off one of their worst efforts in awhile, after being dominated by San Diego last week 30-21. But sometimes a shock to the system can be a good thing for a team used to winning so convincingly, so regularly. This team isn’t much different from the one that destroyed Denver seven months ago.
They’re still going to hit hard on both sides of the ball, then sneak in a big play or two from Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson. And they’ll probably try to get the ball to Percy Harvin a little more often, after he touched it just four times last week.
Seattle has been a nightmare for visiting foes in recent seasons, winning 20 of their last 22 home games SU, going 17-5 ATS.
Also, the Seahawks just clobbered the Broncos three games ago 43-8 in the Super Bowl, and they have the “bounce-back” factor on their side. So the pick here is with Seattle, giving the points, to extend their terrific run of pre bye-week games at home.
- Denver is 5-2 ATS in its last seven games when playing on the road against Seattle
- Seahawks 10-1 SU last 11 home games before bye week
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They have spent significant dollars in free agency to upgrade a defense that surrendered 27 of the Seattle Seahawks‘ 43 points in the Super Bowl. Injured players such as Ryan Clady and Von Miller have returned to the fold. The superficial assumption would be that Denver is a much better team than the one Seattle walloped in February.
Dig a little deeper, and there are legitimate questions about whether the improvements the Broncos targeted in the offseason have actually translated onto the field.
When the Seahawks Are on Defense
The Broncos’ record-breaking 2013 offense averaged 42.9 points per game in their first eight games and scored at least 33 points in each game. They have not scored 33 points or more in any of their last five games, dating back to the playoffs last season.
In fact, they enter this game against the Seahawks averaging fewer points (27.5) than the Seahawks (28.5), despite Seattle’s offense only seeing the field for 40 snaps and 17 minutes against the San Diego Chargers.
Manning appears to be playing even more efficiently than last year. His passer rating is up from 115.1 to 126.5, but he is well off his 2013 pace in a few key areas. Most notably, his pass attempts per game are down from 41.2 last year to 31 per game this year, and his yards per game have followed suit. He is averaging 255.5 yards per game this year compared to 342.3 last year.
The culprit does not appear to be a drop-off in his play or even in the passing offense. The running game is not what it was with Knowshon Moreno off to Miami, and the defense is struggling to get off the field.
Denver is ranked 24th in rushing yards and 25th in yards per carry, according to TeamRankings.com. They will face a Seattle run defense that ranks fourth in the league in opponent yards per carry (3.1), and that has consistently played better in front of their rowdy hometown fans.
Manning is always difficult to sack, but Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons and Michael Bennett made the pocket very uncomfortable in the Super Bowl by bull rushing in nearly every passing situation.
Manning rushed some throws, and that led to two interceptions. Throwing interceptions is one of the only differences in Manning’s game on the road compared to when he plays at home. He has 25 more interceptions over the course of his career on the road than at home in two fewer games, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Seattle has been a house of horrors for opposing quarterbacks where their lightning-quick pass-rushers can get a jump on linemen, and their All-Pro laden secondary can feast on mistakes. Even the best in the game have been unable to overcome the atmosphere and the Seahawks defense. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are a combined 0-5 in CenturyLink Field since 2012.
When the Seahawks Are on Offense
Lost in all the talk about Seattle’s poor defensive performance last weekend was the second straight impressive outing from the offense. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks lead the NFL in points per play and are third in yards per play, according to TeamRankings.com. Their vaunted running game is more explosive than it has ever been. How explosive?
They had 108 yards rushing on just 13 carries this past week. Even subtracting Percy Harvin‘s long touchdown run left the team at nearly five yards per carry.
J.R. Sweezy, Max Unger and James Carpenter are combining to create one of the most powerful interior run-blocking units in the NFL. Kansas City found some success running up the middle, despite losing star Jamaal Charles early in the game. Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and possibly even secret weapon Christine Michael will present a much stiffer test for a Broncos run defense that is mediocre so far.
Denver’s defensive line, outside of Terrance Knighton, is built to rush the passer.
The linebacker unit is still missing starter Danny Trevathan. He was among the best defenders for Denver in the Super Bowl, when he tallied 12 tackles and a tackle for loss. Brandon Marshall has stepped in with 18 tackles and a sack in his two starts, but he was caught out of position a few times against the Kansas City Chiefs, leading to long runs.
Seattle receivers were an underappreciated part of the Super Bowl victory and are likely to have mismatches to exploit, even with Aqib Talib joining the Broncos secondary.
The Seahawks can go five- or six-deep at the receiver position and also have tight-end threats in Zach Miller and Luke Willson. Although, look for at least one tight end to be left in to help rookie right tackle Justin Britt against Von Miller much of the game.
Key Matchup: Wes Welker vs. Marcus Burley
John Breech of CBSSports.com reports that Welker is expected back this week when the NFL and NFLPA can agree on the revised drug policy. Denver will eagerly look to isolate him against the Seahawks’ unproven nickel corner. Burley has some good and bad moments in his first start versus San Diego, but he will undoubtedly have his biggest professional test this week.
Key Matchup: Doug Baldwin vs. Bradley Roby
Percy Harvin will demand attention in the slot, leaving Doug Baldwin facing the rookie corner when Seattle is in three-receiver sets. Baldwin has yet to get untracked in his new split-end role and could easily be overlooked by a Broncos defense thinking about Lynch and Harvin.
Key Matchup: Kam Chancellor/K.J. Wright vs. Julius Thomas
Stopping Thomas will be a point of pride for Wright and Chancellor after Antonio Gates had a field day in San Diego. Thomas is a great athlete, but there is only one Gates.
Key Matchup: Demaryius Thomas vs. Richard Sherman
Much has been made of the Seahawks’ unwillingness to allow Sherman to follow the opposing teams’ top receiver around the field. This may be the game to break that rule. A Thomas-Sherman matchup would be epic.
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Antonio Gates finished last season with only four touchdown receptions. He finished Sunday with three, two of which came in one quarter.
Gates being his vintage self isn’t exactly shocking. He may be slowing at the age of 34, but his hands remain soft, and his instinctive body positioning—a skill learned on the hardwood—isn’t going anywhere. He tossed in a Velcro one-handed catch too, just for fun.
No, it’s who he went off against that was jarring. Gates, who averaged 54.4 receiving yards per game last year, posted those touchdowns and 96 yards on the Seattle Seahawks.
The same Seattle Seahawks who gave up only 51.6 yards per game to tight ends in 2013, according to Football Outsiders. Yet still, this happened…
Third career three-TD game for Antonio Gates, first since 2005. Like I’ve been saying, he’s still the #Chargers MDM. Most Dangerous Man.
— UTKevinAcee (@UTKevinAcee) September 14, 2014
We’re also talking about the same Seattle Seahawks who faced a top-10 tight end last year eight times, including the playoffs (Vernon Davis three times, Jimmy Graham twice, Julius Thomas, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen, all based on total receiving yards).
Please note how low the numbers from those games are, and the nothingness premier tight ends walked away with after being stifled by Seattle.
Saying the Seahawks have dominated the league’s best TEs since the start of last season is an understatement. They’ve almost been completely shut down.
Highlighted by holding Graham and Davis to a combined 24 total yards during the playoffs, that list shows eight games when hulking tight ends were limited to an average of 27.4 yards, with only 23 total receptions and two touchdowns. Reminder: The regular-season touchdowns from Graham, Davis and Thomas alone in 2013 add up to 41, with all three in double digits (Graham led with 16).
So what was the problem for Seattle Sunday?
Mostly, a lack of pressure, or at least effective pressure. Philip Rivers often had plenty of time to scan the field, and even a slower Gates had just as much time to amble deep.
Seattle thrives on getting pressure from their front four without blitzing. That didn’t happen Sunday, as Rivers completed 22 of his 25 attempts for 211 yards when facing four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Since the start of last season, Seattle is also first in the league in touchdowns allowed when sending only four pass-rushers.
While there’s no disputing that on most afternoons/evenings the Seahawks secondary is historically great, that unit relies on pressure up front so Richard Sherman et al can remain physical and aggressive. Too often it simply didn’t arrive against the Chargers.
This is a team that crept close to three sacks per game last year, averaging 2.75 with a total of 44, and last week the Seahawks took down Aaron Rodgers three times while also recording a safety. Rivers was sacked once and was hit only three times, with the Seattle front four losing the trench battle to an offensive line that allowed only 60 quarterback hits in 2013 (fifth fewest in the league).
Of course, the searing heat didn’t exactly help matters.
Football humans are large and often house-like. But they’re still humans, and engaging in athletic activity when the temperature is 120 degree—as it was at field level Sunday—is downright draining for anyone. Especially the Seahawks, who are more accustomed to the mild September climate in the Pacific Northwest
Three of the Seahawks’ four starting defensive backs were forced to retreat to the locker room in the second half to battle cramps. It became much more than a passing coincidence when Earl Thomas was among them. Thomas is from southeast Texas, and he told the Tacoma News Tribune it was the first time in his entire football career he’s had to get intravenous fluids for cramps.
There also seemed to be a reluctance from coordinator Dan Quinn to deploy his nickel defense against Rivers. As Gregg Bell from the Tacoma News also observed, Quinn effectively slowed Rodgers last week with that approach, trotting it out 92 percent of the time when Green Bay was in three- or four-wide receiver sets.
He stuck with the base defense more often against San Diego, which resulted in mismatches between Gates and a linebacker, with Malcolm Smith and K.J. Wright trailing on two of his three touchdowns. That contributed to an exceptionally long day for the Seattle defense in an exceptionally hot office, with the Chargers converting 26 first downs, and they were successful on 58 percent of their third-down attempts while maintaining possession for a whopping 42:15.
It was a rare time when the Seahawks lost a chess match, and they were defeated by a veteran quarterback who continually used his largest chess piece. It doesn’t get any easier with Julius Thomas, a likely healthy Jordan Reed and Jason Witten lurking over Seattle’s next three games.
Recent history says Sunday was likely a blip, and we should give the Seahawks defense a tight end mulligan. And I think we’ll look back and see it was deserved, though with that upcoming gauntlet, the problems which led to Gates’ sudden surge—mostly a lack of consistent, effective pressure—need to be fixed fast.
Sean Tomlinson covers the NFC West for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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