With dynamic players and endless storylines, Super Bowl XLVIII is already shaping up to be one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory. Both teams were No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, both teams finished with 13-3 regular-season records, and both teams are making their first Super Bowl trips under head coaches Pete Carroll and John Fox.
Yet, the storyline that will undoubtedly decide the NFL’s biggest game is between Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary and Peyton Manning’s passing attack. Is the Legion of Boom built to shut down Manning and the Broncos’ aerial assault? That’s the million-dollar question heading into Super Bowl XLVIII.
Based on the Legion of Boom’s talent level and accolades, there’s no question the unit is built to shut Manning down. The Seahawks secondary consists of three All-Pro members, three Pro Bowl selections and one of the league’s most underrated cornerbacks.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), every starting member of the Legion of Boom has an above-average grade. Left cornerback Richard Sherman has a plus-12.4 grade, right cornerback Byron Maxwell has a plus-9.3 grade, free safety Earl Thomas has a plus-7.5 grade, and strong safety Kam Chancellor has a plus-6.1 grade.
There isn’t a secondary in the NFL that can accurately compare to the Seahawks secondary and the numbers they put up. During the regular season, Maxwell and Sherman combined for 12 interceptions, Thomas held opposing quarterbacks to a 67.6 quarterback rating when throwing into his coverage area, and Chancellor registered 30 defensive stops.
The Legion of Boom will have to rely on those same types of numbers and win one-on-one matchups down the field if they want to keep Manning at bay.
Demaryius Thomas vs. Richard Sherman
Obviously, this will be the game’s biggest matchup from a positional standpoint. Sherman isn’t known for shadowing elite wide receivers around the field, but that’s OK—because he won’t have to shadow Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas; Thomas will come to him.
Despite playing left wide receiver early on in the season, Thomas took the majority of his snaps at right wide receiver down the stretch. The full-time move helped him put together three 100-yard games in four attempts (playoffs included) and score five touchdowns.
However, those top-notch performances came against some of the weakest corners in the NFL. Over the course of the last four games, he abused Houston Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson, Oakland Raiders cornerback Phillip Adams, San Diego Chargers cornerback Richard Marshall and New England Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
Sherman can outplay any one of the four corners mentioned above, which is why you should expect Thomas’ numbers to dip in the Super Bowl.
In addition to being PFF’s sixth-best cover corner, Sherman only surrenders 1.8 receptions per game and 26.3 yards receiving. That’s incredible when one takes the time to examine the number of defensive snaps he played in coverage this season.
Aside from the strong statistical numbers, Sherman’s style of play matches up well with Thomas’. The third-year pro out of Stanford is physical, plays with sound technique and has great recovery speed on patterns deep down the field.
Even though Thomas has been Manning’s go-to guy all season long, the first-round pick out of Georgia Tech will have to put together the best game of his career to put Sherman in his place. Few have been able to do it, yet No. 88 has the size, speed and route-running ability to make it happen.
Eric Decker vs. Byron Maxwell
On paper, this matchup would easily favor Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker has been playing at an unprecedented level in 2013. Through 16 regular-season games, he notched 87 catches, 1,288 yards receiving, 11 touchdowns and 397 yards after the catch.
Furthermore, he averaged 14.8 yards per reception and garnered 15 receptions of 20 yards or more. Based on PFF’s signature stats, Decker did more damage down the field than any other wide receiver in the NFL. On those 15 receptions, he tallied 509 yards and five touchdowns.
Nevertheless, Maxwell’s play shouldn’t be overlooked. In 494 snaps this season, opposing quarterbacks only completed 51.1 percent of their passes in his coverage area, while registering a quarterback rating of 47.8. His quarterback rating against was the second-best mark in the league behind Sherman’s 47.3 rating.
Let’s not forget the fact that Maxwell is coming off of a game where he shut down wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. On four targets, Crabtree and Boldin recorded one catch for 22 yards receiving and zero touchdowns.
Decker may have the height advantage over Maxwell, but that’s irrelevant when you take into account the way Maxwell plays the game. Like Sherman, he is physical at the line of scrimmage, plays with sound technique and can run with any wideout who is thrown his way.
As soon as the game starts, you should expect Maxwell to get inside Decker’s head and throw him off his game. According to PFF, Decker had eight drops on 95 catchable passes this season.
Peyton Manning vs. Seattle’s Defensive Ends
In 2013 there wasn’t a quarterback in the NFL who got rid of the ball quicker than Manning did. On 676 dropbacks, the 16-year veteran out of Tennessee unloaded the ball in 2.36 seconds, per PFF. This, in turn, means the Seahawks’ vaunted pass rush has to find a way to turn the corner and disrupt No. 18 faster than other teams have.
The task won’t be an easy one, but it’s certainly doable based on the play of defensive ends Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril.
Bennett, Clemons and Avril have combined for 21 quarterback sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 95 quarterback hurries. To put that into perspective, the pass-rushing trio accounted for 46.9 percent of Seattle’s quarterback sacks, 48.6 percent of Seattle’s quarterback hits and 43.9 percent of Seattle’s quarterback hurries.
That’s one hell of a pass rush. But as I mentioned before, Manning is smart and gets rid of the ball quickly. During the regular season, the All-Pro signal-caller was sacked 18 times (the lowest rate of any 16-game starter) and hit 31 times.
Those numbers are not only a credit to Manning’s quick release, they are a credit to how well the offensive line played this year. Yet, one has to wonder how fast his release will be with the Legion of Boom covering on the back end.
Denver’s wideouts will have to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage, which means Manning will have to hold onto the ball longer because the receivers' routes will take longer to develop. And the longer the routes take to develop, the longer Seattle’s defensive ends can pin their ears back and rush the passer.
This is why the Seahawks pass rush shouldn’t be undervalued in the Super Bowl. The team's success rides on the success of the secondary, and the secondary's success rides on the success of Seattle’s defensive ends.
As you can see, this game is shaping up to be a classic chess match between two well-built teams. Although, I suppose that is bound to happen when you have the No. 1 pass offense and the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL squaring off against each other.
Nonetheless, all the records and accolades will go out the window once the game starts. Manning will be looking to exploit matchups in the secondary if the Seahawks are sitting in Cover 3, and Seattle will be looking to exploit the greatest quarterback in the game if the Legion of Boom’s coverage is tight down the field.
The good news is the Super Bowl will have more than three crucial matchups. For the Broncos, their fourth matchup will allow them to feed tight end Julius Thomas over the middle of the field against Chancellor, while the Seahawks' fourth matchup will be wide receiver Wes Welker and slot cornerback Walter Thurmond.
There really are so many great individual matchups to go around, yet it comes down to which team wins multiple matchups on game day, not just one. And that team would be the Seahawks. They have the most talented roster in the NFL, the most talented defense in the NFL and the Legion of Boom.
Not to mention, a good defense always outweighs a good offense.