When the Seattle Seahawks take the field in Super Bowl XLVIII next week, they will be facing the NFL's best offensive team. The Denver Broncos have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, tremendously talented receivers and a competent running game. The Broncos also have one of the best young tight ends in Julius Thomas.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, they have a history of shutting down the game's best tight ends. In their past two games, the Seahawks have shut down two of the best in the NFL.
In the divisional-round game against the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks held All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to just one catch and eight receiving yards. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis didn't fare much better in the NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks held him to just two receptions and 16 yards.
The tape from those two games should provide evidence of how the Seahawks will stop Denver's Thomas in the Super Bowl.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Seahawks appeared to game-plan very little for Davis. Because of the coverage skills of their linebackers and strong safety Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks were able to treat Davis like he was a fairly average tight end for most of the game.
They rarely used press coverage or bracket coverage on Davis, though they did have cornerback Richard Sherman cover him on a few plays.
The same cannot be said for the way they played Graham the week before, though. The Seahawks game-planned around him extensively.
One of the things the Seahawks did regularly against Graham (and a couple of times against Davis) was provide a second defender to help cover certain areas of the field. This was almost always a linebacker and was not in the form of traditional double or bracket coverage.
Here is an example of how that worked.
It is difficult to see from the camera angle below, but Sherman lined up with outside leverage. Graham's route took him into the center, which meant that Sherman was going to be a step late to prevent a completion on any quick throw.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was matched up on running back Darren Sproles, but Sproles didn't immediately leave the backfield to run a route. Wagner used this opportunity to step up and take the quick pass to Graham.
On one play against Davis the following week, the Seahawks took this concept a step further.
Davis came in motion, and Chancellor followed him across the formation. This was a clear indicator that Chancellor was going to be in man coverage on Davis.
Given how short the route was and Chancellor's eight-yard cushion, this looked like it was going to be an easy completion for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
At the snap, however, linebacker Bruce Irvin peeled off and tracked Davis, taking away the quick pass. Chancellor hung back, keeping his eyes in the backfield, but was clearly tracking Davis to the outside as well.
It is clear that Kaepernick wanted to throw to Davis initially, but Irvin's help made that pass impossible.
One advantage the Seahawks have over other teams when trying to slow down a dynamic tight end is that they have multiple players capable of winning in coverage. This allows them to mix things up. They can keep the quarterback and tight end from adjusting to Seattle's scheme and finding openings that can be exploited.
At least five different Seahawks covered Graham at least once during the divisional-round game. Few other teams have more than one player capable of that task. Here is an example play that shows why it is important.
The Saints lined up Graham in the slot, with a receiver to the outside. The Seahawks countered by bringing Chancellor to line up over Graham, with Sherman lining up over the receiver.
The pre-snap read in this instance suggested man coverage. With Graham attacking the seam and the receiver running a slant underneath, the slant was the first option on this play.
The problem for the Saints was that the Seahawks weren't in man coverage; they're playing Cover 3. Sherman tracked Graham deep, and Chancellor sat in perfect position to defend against the slant. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was left with no other option but to force the ball into tight coverage for an incompletion.
This play was a success for Seattle in part because of Sherman's ability to cover a target as large as Graham. Against most teams, Brees would have simply just thrown the ball up and let Graham come down with it.
Seattle's ability to be diverse in its coverage on a dynamic weapon like Graham played a major role in the Seahawks' ability to shut down the entire New Orleans offense.
Putting It All Together
The Seahawks have uncommon speed and athleticism at linebacker, along with an All-Pro strong safety, to help them shut down Denver's dynamic tight end. They can mix and match what players are in coverage without generating major mismatches for the Broncos to exploit.
This makes things easier for the Seahawks when putting together a game plan against a player like Thomas; however, expect the Seahawks to also provide additional help whenever possible, especially to prevent quick completions.
While it is impossible to predict exactly what Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has planned, the tape from these last two games suggests that the Seahawks should be able to keep Thomas in check during the Super Bowl.