7 ... AS CAN SEATTLE'S RUMBLING RUNNER

January 27, 2014

FACT: Russell Wilson is immensely talented. But like almost any second-year quarterback, he remains an unrefined field reader. That was apparent on Sunday when he struggled to identify the 49ers' selective blitzes even though Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had employed a litany of play-action concepts to put Wilson on the move and create defined reads. Another fact: Wilson, whose 25.4 pass attempts per game in 2013 were the fewest of any QB with at least 12 starts, would not be playing in Super Bowl XLVIII if he didn't play in an offense that ranked fourth in the league in rushing.

Sure, Wilson's mobility has a lot to do with Seattle's big rushing numbers; no QB came close to matching his 26 gains of 10 or more yards this season. But the tenacious Marshawn Lynch has far more to do with it. By now you probably know that Seattle's ground game features zone-blocking up front, which requires acute cut-back ability from ballcarriers—something Lynch (best known for creating yards after contact) has in spades, as demonstrated on his improvised 40-yard touchdown on Sunday.

Now, the $64,000 question: Can the Broncos—who just held the Patriots' white-hot rushing attack to 64 yards on 16 attempts—keep Lynch from entering his so-called Beast Mode? While a coach can manipulate his pass defense with various coverage concepts, disguises and blitzes, there's not much he can do to beef up a run defense. Every tactic is tethered to the same principle: gap control. And that boils down to whether your personnel can outexecute the opponent's.

Operating out of a 4--3 defense, coach John Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio most often ask that their linemen control one gap apiece, which puts an emphasis on penetration (as opposed to a 3--4, in which linemen aim to control two gaps by holding ground). In this regard, Denver's best player has been defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who has quick enough feet to change directions in confined areas. Knighton, a free agent addition from Jacksonville, has been a noticeably stronger force down the stretch, after starting linemen Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson went on IR. Much of this game hinges on whether Knighton can beat Pro Bowl center Max Unger off the snap to defeat the reach and seal blocks that define zone runs.

Helping Knighton's cause (along with rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams) is Seattle's instability at left guard. Paul McQuistan, James Carpenter and Michael Bowie have each started at some point; none has impressed. This is a deficiency the Seahawks can overcome, but that likely means using more runs designed to initially go right. With edge-setter extraordinaire Von Miller on IR, the onus then for Denver falls to Nate Irving, who is physical and assertive but lacks experience. Expect Seattle to challenge the third-year backup turned starter with play-side zone runs or misdirection concepts. In turn, Irving will continue to lean on veteran Paris Lenon, who has brought size and stability to the Mike 'backer spot since replacing Wesley Woodyard (more of a finesse guy) in early December.

With the Seahawks proving inconsistent as a passing outfit and likely to sprinkle read-option looks into their running game, expect the Broncos to bring an eighth defender into the box—presumably thumper strong safety Duke Ihenacho. Fox and Del Rio implore their front seven defenders to maintain their usual approach in such a heavy box, making this eighth man a bonus, so to speak. This extra allocation up front means that Fox and Del Rio must trust their DBs in one-on-one coverage—and that'll be easier this week, as Denver's hot-and-cold secondary is coming off its most impressive performance of the season. If the coverage is sharp again, there will be ample resources to contain Lynch and ground the Seahawks.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRONCOS)COLD FRONT If Denver turns its front seven into eight, Lynch (below) could be in a pinch—just ask the Patriots.

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)