The Seahawks’ suffocating defense in Super Bowl XLVIII wasn’t just the best performance of the season, but of the last decade in the NFL. Only one thing went wrong on their way to the Lombardi Trophy

By Andy Benoit
February 06, 2014

All season long Andy Benoit has studied NFL game film to break down tendencies, tactical concepts and the hidden games within the game. This is his analysis of the big one.

Broncos offense vs. Seahawks defense

This was the most impressive defensive performance of 2013, and perhaps the last decade. Seattle’s physical domination, plainly evident on the live broadcast, was even more pronounced on the coaches’ film. The Seahawks were the faster, stronger unit in every facet. As they closed on tackles, they looked like an SEC team taking on a Sun Belt Conference school. Truly.

Seattle’s clever tactical measures on defense didn’t confuse Peyton Manning as much as they out-leveraged the Broncos. The Seahawks’ best ploy was using strong safety Kam Chancellor as a lurk defender a yard or two behind the linebackers, which isn’t atypical. Chancellor basically plays this role in the base 3-over, 4-under zone, and it’s a common league-wide alignment behind man coverage, which the Seahawks used in certain obvious passing situations. The lurk concepts were especially potent on Super Bowl Sunday because Seattle also had a zone-dropping defensive lineman who essentially served as an extra, shallow lurker in front of Chancellor. This took away Denver’s inside crossing patterns and forced receivers to win in isolation against the suffocating press corners on the outside. Eric Decker never came close to getting open, nor was Demaryius Thomas, despite his big numbers (13 receptions for 118 yards), great in this sense either.

Speaking of Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, did you realize your Super Bowl MVP played only 34 of 69 snaps?

It can be argued that the interior clogging got inside Manning’s head. On the failed 4th-and-2 at the end of the first half, the play was designed for Wes Welker down the seam. Welker was open, and check-down target Julius Thomas was uncovered five yards downfield, over the middle. (Given the circumstances, Thomas could have been treated as the primary read on fourth-and-short.) But Manning uncharacteristically fixated on Demaryius Thomas, even though Thomas was clearly running a decoy route on the outside (he hardly even looked for the ball).

Manning did not make many mistakes like this, but he rarely looked comfortable. The extra lurk defender left the Seahawks with only a three-man rush, but that wasn’t a problem because their outside edge-rushers aligned wide enough to still command one-on-one matchups against offensive tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin, who were both consistently bull-rushed into Manning’s lap. (Franklin also struggled with awareness at times.) And on the many occasions when the Seahawks still used their traditional four-man rush, defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Clinton McDonald consistently generated pressure. Manning was hit after several throws and frequently moved off his spot. Pressure was a critical factor that led to both of his interceptions, especially Malcolm Smith’s pick-six, which was a well-designed Broncos deep-shot attempt ruined by Franklin being driven back into Manning.

Walter Iooss Jr. and David Bergman/SI/The MMQB Walter Iooss Jr. and David Bergman/SI/The MMQB

Speaking of Smith, the third-year linebacker who was taken in the seventh round out of USC, did you realize that your Super Bowl MVP played only 34 of 69 snaps? The Seahawks spent a lot of time in nickel against the Broncos’ three-receiver base, which is a package Smith often sits out, behind K.J. Wright. Smith only happened to be on the field for his pick-six because Seattle suddenly switched from nickel to their base 4-3 on the fly during Denver’s fourth series. The nickel D had only played seven snaps to that point, so fatigue wasn’t a factor. Most likely, the Seahawks realized their hybrid man-zone concepts were dominating the middle of the field, which meant Welker was not his usual threat. So, presumably, Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn figured they might as well put more size inside.

Of course, we can’t say for sure because the next time the Broncos had the ball, they were already trailing 22-0 with 3:21 left in the half, which meant they would be passing (might as well play nickel then). And the series after that, it was 29-0, which just meant more passing (and even more nickel).

Bill Frakes/SI/The MMQB Bill Frakes/SI/The MMQB

When the Broncos did run the ball, it was ineffective. As they did against the pass, the Seahawks condensed the middle of the field. They featured “Bear fronts,” which align three interior defensive linemen over the center and guards. This was a shrewd tactic because the Broncos’ ground game, particularly their audibled ground game, takes place mostly in the A and B gaps.

The only blemish on the Seahawks’ defensive performance was actually out of their control: Smith had a stellar game, but Chancellor was clearly the biggest difference-maker and should have been the MVP.

Seahawks offense vs. Broncos defense

The Broncos’ defense was not awful, but it spent the entire game in reaction mode. That caught up to them down the stretch, illustrated by Seattle’s last two touchdowns. Jermaine Kearse’s TD late in the third quarter and Doug Baldwin’s early in the fourth were products of sloppy tackling. The Broncos did a good job taking away most of the Seahawks’ big-play designs, but due to an ineffective pass rush, they weren’t able to create any big plays of their own.

The Broncos, somewhat uncharacteristically, featured split-safety concepts, meaning they kept their entire secondary back and defended Marshawn Lynch with just a seven-man box. From this look they played a lot of quarters coverage, hoping to limit a passing game (and the big plays) that’s built on play-action and downfield patterns typically aimed at exploiting single-high coverage. Late in the game, figuring the Seahawks would nurse a big lead by staying on the ground, the Broncos started going to more single-high concepts—and the Seahawks responded with play-action.

Denver’s unaided front seven, led by nose-shade tackle Terrance Knighton and linebacker Danny Trevathan, successfully contained Lynch, but it could not contain Russell Wilson. The second-year quarterback was a little less impatient from the pocket than he had been down the stretch of the regular season, but he still often looked to flee and make sandlot-style plays. The improvising worked, especially when Wilson went to his left. That, plus a handful of well-designed passing plays out of three-receiver sets and a few misdirection concepts such as Percy Harvin’s end-around on the second play of the game, kept the Seahawks one step ahead all night.


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