Super Bowl XLVIII will be between the No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 scoring defense, but break that down into individual units, and there is quite a bit of discrepancy. The Denver Broncos have an average rushing attack, and the Seattle Seahawks have a good run defense—neither one was ranked in the top five.
The best vs. best matchup is really the Broncos pass offense versus the Seahawks pass defense. Against a team that likes to play tight man coverage and does a great job disrupting routes, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will need extra time that only his offensive line can provide.
Manning is purely a pocket passer, and like most quarterbacks, he’s much worse under pressure. It’s a team game, but it’s easy to see how Manning’s pass protection will have a huge impact on the outcome.
The Seahawks also present a unique challenge because they have the secondary to force Manning to hold onto the ball a little longer and the pass rush to force him to get rid of it. Pressure Manning, and he becomes a good quarterback instead of a great one—which will no doubt be one of the Seahawks’ goals.
Manning gets rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the league, taking an average of just 2.36 seconds to throw, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). By getting rid of the ball quickly, Manning protects himself and doesn’t often put his offensive line in tough situations, such as 3rd-and-long.
The only reason Manning is able to get rid of the ball so quickly is because he knows almost instantly where to go with the ball based on the pre-snap alignment of the defense and its post-snap movement. Except the Seahawks aren’t going to do anything exotic in coverage; they will almost strictly use press-man coverage.
Many teams simply don’t have the personnel to match the Broncos, but if any team does, it’s the Seahawks. The Broncos might be the best in the league at timing legal pick routes to create separation against man coverage, but even those plays can be defended with the right personnel.
|Time to Throw vs. Sack Percentage (2013)|
|Quarterback||Avg Time To Throw (Sec.)||Sack % (All)||<2.5 Sec.||>2.6 Sec.|
The Seahawks have a very strong secondary anchored by cornerback Richard Sherman, and they might be the only team in the league that can truly match up with the Broncos receiving corps. Since no secondary can cover forever, the Broncos will find success in the passing game if their pass protection gives the receivers extra time to get open and Manning extra time in the pocket.
That’s why the offensive line will have to play well for the Broncos to win. The Broncos rarely allowed quick pressure on Manning, which means that any sacks or hurries were the result of the receivers being covered or Manning waiting for a receiver to get open.
While the hope is that quick pressure doesn’t become a problem for the Broncos, they need to protect against it. Manning could also use an extra second in the pocket if he is going to shred a good secondary.
Manning’s completion percentage drops from 70.9 percent when not pressured to 58.1 percent when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), so the offensive line has to deliver.
Essentially, the Broncos can negate the expected strength of Seattle’s secondary by giving Manning a little more time to throw. In tight man coverage against physical cornerbacks, the pass protection is going to be the key to success for Denver’s passing game.
The challenge for Denver’s offensive line is not just giving Manning extra protection, but also doing it against a very good front seven. The Seahawks ranked fifth in the league in sack percentage during the regular season at 7.7 percent, just ahead of the Patriots.
That’s good, but sacks also don’t tell the whole story. Pressure can sometimes be as effective or better if it forces a bad throw, as has been the case with the Seahawks.
The Seahawks finished the season No. 1 in interception percentage (5.3 percent). That’s 1.2 percent higher than any other team and 1.8 percent higher than any opponent the Broncos played this season.
Manning has generally been brilliant this postseason, but he has had occasional lapses in judgment that he’s been able to get away with. A would-be interception squirted through the hands of a defensive back against the Chargers, and a fluttering pass was caught against the Patriots only because the defensive back had his back turned to the play.
Most of Manning’s poor decisions this season have been the result of pressure. Manning has been pressured on about a fifth of his 750-plus dropbacks (21.6 percent), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His touchdown rate also drops from 8.8 percent to 4.8 percent under pressure—proof that he has to compensate.
On a would-be interception from Week 12 in New England, Manning made a poor decision under pressure only to be bailed out by a defensive-holding penalty. The Patriots created a free rusher right up the middle, Manning threw it off his back foot and couldn’t get anywhere near his intended receiver.
If the Broncos allow the Seahawks to create free rushers, they are going to be in trouble because the Seahawks will contest and intercept passes that most teams don’t. Manning needs to be able to step into all of his throws in a clean pocket.
The two most dangerous pass-rushers the Seahawks have are defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. The two combined for 16.5 sacks during the regular season and three more this postseason.
While right guard Louis Vasquez and right tackle Orlando Franklin have been very solid for the Broncos this season, Bennett and Avril can pose a challenge even for the best offensive linemen. Bennett and Avril split a sack on New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the NFC divisional round by blowing past right tackle Zach Strief and right guard Jahri Evans.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Evans was the fifth-best pass-blocking guard and Strief was the third-best pass-blocking tackle this season. By comparison, Vasquez was the second-best pass-blocking guard and Franklin was the 13th-ranked tackle in that department.
Strief also allowed a sack and three hurries in that playoff game against the Seahawks, while Evans allowed a sack and five hurries. This Saints duo is as good if not better than the Broncos duo on the right side, yet it struggled in passing situations.
In clear passing situations, Bennett and Avril are tough to contain, even with a running back staying in to block. When on any given play both players could apply quick pressure, the quarterback is going to be in trouble.
While the offensive line is often the last group to get recognition for a team’s performance, Denver’s offensive line is going to go a long way in determining the outcome of the Super Bowl. If the offensive line continues to perform like it has most of the season and Manning can sit in the pocket, it’s going to be a long day for the Seahawks.