6 DENVER'S DOMINANT RECEIVERS CAN BE CORRALLED

January 27, 2014

A DEFENSE doesn't become the league's best without thriving in man-to-man. Often used in concert with blitzes, man coverage is also the best antidote for a spread offense, and because it requires almost no presnap organizing, it's the optimal way to defend a hurry-up attack. Both the spread and the hurry-up are used by more and more offenses these days (including Denver's), and while Seattle coach Pete Carroll has always favored a 4--3 zone, he also understands this changing landscape. His Seahawks led the league in every major pass-defending category because they perfected a hybrid scheme that features suffocating press-man corners on the outside. One of them, Richard Sherman, speaks the truth when boasting that he's the best in the NFL; the other, Byron Maxwell, is long, strong, athletic and alert—and he's on track to join Sherman on the first tier. With corners who can own the perimeter, Seattle's speedy, hard-hitting safeties and 'backers can play a more condensed zone inside.

It will be fascinating to see how the record-setting Broncos offense attacks this secondary. Peyton Manning's system is rich in man-beater concepts: intertwined crossing patterns, receiver screens, (legal) pick plays and switch releases, in which receivers who are aligned close to one another essentially crisscross early in their routes, hoping to cross up their defenders.

While no defense has truly stopped this attack yet, the Seahawks are equipped to do so. Sherman and Maxwell can take away Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside. When those receivers go inside, they'll encounter zone defenders who are among the best in the league at recognizing route designs and picking up assignments. So instead of following these wideouts on crossing patterns and falling susceptible to picks, Sherman and Maxwell can just pass them off to the zone defenders (on plays that even get that far). Denver's receivers will first have to break free from jams, and the offensive line will have to hold up against a dynamic Seahawks front four.

Of course, Manning and his offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, will be well-prepared for such tactics. Instead of asking their receivers to fight hard against the stingy corners on the outside, they'll employ unbalanced formations, likely overloaded trips. In this set Thomas, Decker and Wes Welker (who'll be engaged in a great man-to-man battle with slot corner Walter Thurmond) will line up on one side, and überathletic tight end Julius Thomas will position himself as the lone receiver on the opposite side, either split wide as an "X-iso" or in his usual line-of-scrimmage tight end spot.

What will the Seahawks do here? If they stay in their foundational look, one of the corners will be matched against 6'5", 250-pound Julius Thomas. That would leave a linebacker or a safety mismatched against a wideout on the trips side. Or, if they use more of a true man-coverage approach, with their corners aligning opposite the receivers, then either Sherman or Maxwell would be playing inside rather than along the boundary, where each is most comfortable. That would also put either strong safety Kam Chancellor or a linebacker (likely K.J. Wright, but maybe Bruce Irvin) in the position of playing, essentially, a man-to-man corner against Julius Thomas. As talented as those defenders are in coverage, they're not used to doing so on an island. Thomas would abuse either defender, the same way he abused the Patriots' safeties and linebackers on Sunday.

Seattle has two weeks to sort out these scenarios. Whatever they come up with must emphasize turnover-creating opportunities. The Seahawks led the league with 39 takeaways. They'll need at least two to prevent Manning & Co. from controlling this game.

PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CHANCELLOR)KAM, LOOTIN' Can Chancellor—who had that other big INT on Sunday—contain Julius Thomas (below)? Doubt it. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (THOMAS)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)