Before we get to my preview, I want to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:
- Bill Barnwell at Grantland has a mind-bogglingly in depth Super Bowl preview
- Brian Burke has created an advanced stats page over at ANS, and he gives the Seahawks a slight edge in his column at the New York Times
- Chris Brown at Grantland looks at how Peyton Manning, at age 37, is better than ever
- At Pro Football Focus, Sam Monson looks at how the Broncos passing attack can gain an edge against the Seattle secondary.
Last week, I went into the film room and recapped the preseason matchup between these two teams. Today, I’m going to analyze the six — yes, six! — different matchups to watch in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle Pass Defense vs. Denver Pass Offense
I’ve written many glowing articles about the Seattle pass defense, and we all know about the Broncos record-setting offense. Super Bowl XLVIII is the greatest offense/defense showdown since 1950 and the greatest passing showdown ever. Denver’s pass offense is historically great, and Seattle’s pass defense is historically great. But beyond being a great defense, there are reasons to think the Seahawks present a particularly tough challenge for Manning and company.
You might be surprised to learn that opposing passers completed 59% of passes against Seattle during the regular season. That’s a relatively high number for a dominant pass defense, and the Seahawks defense just barely ranks in the top ten in completion percentage. The reason the defense ranks first in yards per attempt is because Seattle allowed a puny 9.9 yards per completion this season, the lowest rate in the league. In other words, teams may complete passes against Seattle, but they don’t gain many yards.One reason for the low yards per completion average is that teams don’t complete deep passes against the Seahawks. But an even bigger factor is that Seattle doesn’t allow many yards after the catch. In fact, the Seahawks allowed just 4.1 YAC per reception in 2013, the best rate in the NFL (Carolina was 2nd at 4.4). Peyton Manning, of course, led the league with over 2500 yards of YAC gained by his receivers, and he ranked 6th in average YAC per completion. Manning’s average pass attempt went just 7.8 yards in the air, the 28th lowest rate in the league. In other words, completing short passes for big yards has been the trademark of the Broncos offense in 2013.
Denver lives off the short, conservative passing game that turns short, safe throws into big gains due to the run-after-the-catch abilities of players like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Wes Welker. Seattle’s aggressive secondary, with physical cornerbacks who play close to the line of scrimmage, presents a very challenging matchup for Denver. The passes near the line of scrimmage that typically gain 8 yards may be lucky to go for half that much against Seattle. How will Manning respond?
You might think he would choose to challenge the defense deep, but I’m not so sure about that. According to Football Outsiders, Seattle allowed just 30 completions marked as “deep” all season long, the fewest in the NFL. That includes a staggering two passes completed down the middle of the field. Denver completed 55 “deep” passes, tied for the second most in the NFL, but can the Broncos succeed challenging Earl Thomas or Richard Sherman deep? Sherman will likely stay on the right side of the field, which means the key to winning the game for Denver may be completing a few passes to the deep left side of the field.
Here’s another statistic you probably haven’t heard: Seattle ranked 2nd in passes defended per pass attempt, behind only Baltimore. Manning and the Broncos offense had some success moving the ball against Seattle in the preseason, but I think the Seahawks defense does a good job containing the Denver passing attack in the Super Bowl. Manning trumps all, but I think the Seattle defensive backs trump the Denver wide receivers.
Denver Rush Offense vs. Seattle Rush Defense
The Broncos passing attack produced positive Expected Points Added in every game according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. We’ve grown accustomed to the Denver passing attack succeeding, but it faces its toughest test in the Super Bowl against Seattle. Can the running game pick up the slack if needed?
The graph below shows the Expected Points Added by the Denver rush offense and Seattle rush defense in each game this season. For both units, positive is better.
According to EPA, the Seattle rush defense has been more impressive than the Denver rush offense, although much of that is due to rushing plays, on average, being less effective than passing plays. Denver ranks 12th in EPA added on the ground at -13.5, while Seattle’s run defense was only 14th in EPA added despite adding 38.7 expected points. But with this graph, you can see how each unit has been progressing throughout the year. Other than a Colin Kaepernick-induced struggle in the NFC Championship Game, the Seattle run defense been very good over the last two months. In games 8 and 9, the Rams and Bucs shredded the Seahawks on the ground. Since then, the 49ers have excelled against the Seattle run defense twice, but no other team has averaged 4.2 yards per carry.
Denver’s running attack is also on the rise. Early in the season, Montee Ball looked lost and the Broncos didn’t know what they had in Knowshon Moreno. But eventually, Moreno turned into a Pro Bowl caliber back, and Ball has played well over the past few weeks, with 432 yards on 74 carries over his last eight games (a 5.8 yards per carry average). This has quietly turned into a very competitive and talented side story to the passing units.
The effectiveness of the Broncos running attack is critically important against a defense like Seattle’s. But running well has not proven to be the key to beating the Seahawks. In fact, in the eight worst performances (by EPA) by the run defense this season, Seattle is still 7-1. Over the last 9 games, Seattle has only allowed one rusher (Frank Gore) to gain even 70 yards. Expect Manning to check to running plays more often than usual, but I don’t think Denver can expect to win the game with a heavy dose of Moreno and Ball. Seattle’s run defense is too good to allow that.
Seattle Rush Offense vs. Denver Rush Defense
Seattle and San Francisco were the only teams this season to run on more than half of their plays. The Seahawks ranked 2nd in rush attempts and 31st in pass attempts, although much of the explanation for that split was the team’s Game Script. The big question for Seattle is whether Marshawn Lynch — and perhaps Russell Wilson — can move the chains on the ground.
Denver’s run defense has posted very good numbers this year, ranking 10th in yards per carry allowed and 8th in Expected Points Added. Of course, the Broncos have been playing with large leads most of the time — on average, the Broncos had possession with the lead for 11.6 minutes per game, the best mark in the league.1 Denver’s run defense may be effective, but it hasn’t dissuaded teams from running against them.
The Chargers ran 44 times in the upset win in December, while four other teams recorded 30+ carries and another five hit the 25-carry mark. We would certainly expect Seattle to run at least 25 times, and perhaps 30 or 35 times. But offensive coordinators beware: only four teams — the Chiefs twice, the Eagles, and the Titans — have averaged over 4.2 yards per carry against Denver this season. Lynch is arguably as talented as Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy, but that alone won’t be enough, of course: Denver went 4-0 in those games. Unless Lynch puts a Larry Csonka/Franco Harris/John Riggins/Terrell Davis type of Super Bowl performance — which would be a challenge against this defense — I wouldn’t expect him to win the game for the Seahawks.
Seattle Pass Offense vs. Denver Pass Defense
Since Russell Wilson entered the league, there have been just four out of 36 games where Seattle’s rush offense produced negative EPA and Seattle’s defense has also been below average. The Seahawks simply aren’t used to relying on the passing game to win, but the big question is can Seattle win if the running game is contained.
Over the last two years, Seattle has been held under 100 yards rushing just seven times. The Seahawks still won five of those games, including a 3-1 mark in 2013. But all anyone is talking about is Wilson’s struggles over his last six games. To be fair, the critics have a point: the Seattle pass offense is averaging just 5.2 ANY/A over that stretch. The thing is, Wilson’s been an up-and-down quarterback most of his career, which just makes him a talented but young quarterback. Take a look at his ESPN QBR in each of his 36 starts:
[visualizer id="17704"]In starts 28, 29, and 30, he played like a Hall of Famer on a hot streak – Wilson completed 73% of his passes, averaged 11.2 yards per attempt, had 7 TDs and no interceptions, and rushed 13 times for 81 yards. Since then he’s been a disaster, but Wilson has a habit of following a bad stretch with a very good game and vice-versa. Wilson averaged 7.10 ANY/A this season, the 7th best rate in the NFL. Yes, he’s struggled of late, but he was an above-average quarterback this season. Meanwhile, the Denver pass defense was league average by both NY/A and ANY/A standards.
I also believe that the Seattle passing attack is underrated, mainly because the Seahawks wide receivers are underrated. And the Seahawks wide receivers are underrated because the media and fans don’t know how to judge wide receivers. Golden Tate ranked 31st with 898 receiving yards and Doug Baldwin was 45th in that metric. Neither player missed a game, so they were even lower in per-game statistics. But remember, Seattle was 31st in pass attempts this season. Both Tate and Baldwin ranked in the top 25 in yards per team pass attempt, a better measure of their abilities. According to Pro Football Focus, Tate and Baldwin also ranked in the top 25 in yards per route run among wide receivers, minimum 350 routes run. The X-Factor, of course, is what Percy Harvin can bring to the table. It’s easy to forget, but in 2012, Harvin added 8.66 yards after the catch on each reception, the most of any receiver in the league (he also ranked 6th among all wide receivers in pro-rated yards per team pass attempt). But even without him, the Seahawks still have the advantage in the passing game relative to a Denver defense without Von Miller and Chris Harris.
Matt Prater and Steven Hauschka have been two of the best field goal kickers all season. Both have missed just two kicks this year — Prater missed a 52-yarder at home against Kansas City before the end of the first half, and then was wide left on a 47-yard attempt against San Diego in the playoffs. Hauschka had one blocked against Indianapolis (that was returned for a touchdown) and then shockingly hit the upright on a 24-yard attempt against Arizona. Both are excellent kickers, and Prater — who in past years was a product of his home stadium — went 13/13 in road games this season, which included five attempts from 47+ yards out.
Prater is not as good when it comes to touchbacks, especially on the road. As a result, Football Outsiders ranked Seattle’s kickoff team 7th in the league compared to a 29th-place ranking for Denver. On the other hand, much of that gap is washed away since Denver has the better kick return team, although (1) who knows when Trindon Holliday’s fumbling problems will reoccur, and (2) Harvin is expected to return kicks in the Super Bowl. Football Outsiders also gives Seattle a big edge in the punting game, on both punts and punt coverage and punt returns. No, Jon Ryan isn’t going to be the MVP of the game (and neither will Britton Colquitt), but every yard helps in a tight Super Bowl. Relative to Denver, Seattle had, on average, a net gain of about five yards in average starting field position during the regular season.
Terry McAulay’s crew may wind up being as important as any unit on the field. Seattle committed more penalties than any other team in the NFL during the regular season, while Denver committed more penalties than any team other than Seattle! A matchup of the two most penalized teams in the NFL in a cold-weather Super Bowl means the spotlight may wind up on the officials.
Officials tend to swallow their whistle during the playoffs, and that effect seems to be especially true in cold games. NFL officials are hesitant to have the spotlight shined on them in the most crucial games, and like everyone else, they aren’t particularly inclined to lengthen the duration of their time spent in cold weather. Add in those two variables with the two teams most likely to commit penalties in the league, and you’re left with a very unique — and potentially fascinating — situation.
I would expect the referees to try to take control of the game early, as a chippy Super Bowl where the players are jawing and shoving after each snap doesn’t make the refs look good, either. But I suspect the judgment calls later in the game — holding, pass interference — may be left uncalled. How will John Fox and Pete Carroll instruct their players? This might be a case where the wisest move is for each coach to tell his players to push the envelope as much as possible, especially since the other team is likely to employ a similar strategy (note that Jason Lisk wrote a great article dispelling the notion that the Seahawks hold, mug, or foul on most pass plays). During the regular season, the Seahawks averaged 8.9 penalties per game; the Broncos 7.9. Through two playoff games, Seattle is averaging 7 penalties per game and the Broncos five, which either means the teams are committing fewer penalties, officials are calling fewer penalties, or the difference is due to random error.
What do we know about McAulay? During the regular season, he called about 1 fewer penalty per game than average, although in previous years he’s been more willing to throw the laundry. His team is split pretty evenly: umpire Carl Paganelli, head linesman Jim Mello, and field judge Scott Steenson called fewer penalties than average during the 2013 season, while line judge Thomas Symonette, side judge David Wyant and back judge Steve Freeman called more.
McAuley worked two Broncos games this year: the 51-48 shootout in Dallas (5 penalites, 55 penalty yards for the Broncos) and the Broncos 35-28 victory in Kansas City (10 penalties, 75 yards). McAuley also worked two Seahawks games: Seattle’s 34-3 victory in Arizona during the regular season (10 penalties, 70 yards), and the team’s home playoff win against the Saints (8 penalties, 69 yards). McAuley previously worked the Eagles/Patriots Super Bowl (which had just 10 combined penalties) and the Cardinals/Steelers Super Bowl (which had 18 combined penalties). How often — and which way — the flags fly on Sunday may go a long way towards determining the champion. The onus will be on each coach to make sure that their players are well-instructed, whatever those instructions may be.
The heavyweight battle between the Denver pass offense and the Seattle pass defense looks like a draw to me. So where are the advantages? Despite Wilson’s struggles of late, the two clear areas where advantages appear are the Seahawks passing attack against the Denver pass defense and Seattle’s special teams. I expect both teams to have moderate success on the ground, but expecting Denver to win the game on the ground is a risky proposition.
For the Broncos to win, the defense will either need to shut down Wilson or Manning must have another outstanding game. Either of those events are possible, but I don’t think either are too likely.
Seattle 24, Denver 20
- It would be better if I had the statistic for minutes the defense spent playing with the lead, but alas, I do not. [↩]