"I'm the best corner in the game!"
With that now infamous postgame statement, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman laid down the gauntlet for Super Bowl 2014: If Denver is going to win, then they're going to have to get past the vaunted Seattle secondary, also known as "Legion of Boom."
Led by Sherman, the Seattle secondary is easily the best in the league. During the regular season, the 'Hawks held opponents to just 172 yards per game through the air, which was best in the league.
The Seahawks have established a prototype for a new-age secondary. It takes big, tall athletic corners like Richard Sherman, who is 6'3", Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane to play aggressive on the line and be really physical.
It takes a big-hitting safety like Kam Chancellor to roam the middle of the field, covering tight ends and running backs and acting as a quasi-linebacker. And then it's anchored by Earl Thomas, who is one of the fastest safeties in the game and can cover a remarkable amount of turf.
They do it all. Sherman really is the best corner in the game, as Pro Football Focus makes so clear:
In the last 2 seasons Richard Sherman has allowed a single receiver more than 3 catches in a game just once...Titus Young! (5)— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 24, 2014
Inc playoffs QBs targeting Richard Sherman have a league-low 44.5 QB rating. Completing exactly 50% of passes.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 20, 2014
Kam Chancellor also doesn't nearly get enough credit for being such a tremendous enforcer in the secondary, but Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus does just that:
Kam Chancellor has been on fire in the playoffs. +8.9 @PFF grade, 23 tackles, and just 2 first downs allowed on 13 targets.— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) January 24, 2014
What's most striking to me is that when starting corner Brandon Browner was lost due to a suspension, Byron Maxwell stepped right in, and the team didn't miss a beat.
John Fox knows just how good this defense is. He told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times: “They’re well coached and they’ve got good length, outstanding speed. They are very aggressive. They’re fun to watch, for sure. They’re very talented."
So we know how good this unit is. We know the players it comprises are going to come out and be aggressive and try to get under the skin of the Broncos receivers.
The big question is this: Can Denver's talented receivers, and of course, Peyton Manning, find a way to do what no other team has done? Can they bring the Legion of Boom back to earth?
It won't be easy, but if anybody is going to do it, it's Manning. His numbers on the year are fantastic, as he threw for 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions during the regular season.
Even more impressive is the breakdown of stats amongst his top receivers:
That type of distribution is simply unheard of, and it speaks not only to the talent level on the Denver roster, but the mastery of Peyton Manning. He doesn't have just one favorite target—he has four.
So how does Denver begin to attack this secondary that has been so impenetrable?
It starts with matchups. If Richard Sherman covers Demaryius Thomas, then Thomas is not going to do much.
But if the Broncos stack Demaryius Thomas with, say, Eric Decker, then it might be easier for Thomas to get a clean release.
They'll have to use motion to get Julius Thomas away from Kam Chancellor. Having Julius Thomas going up against Earl Thomas presents a significant mismatch since Julius Thomas is 6'5" and Earl Thomas is just 5'10".
Using a variety of motion as well as trips and bunch looks could make Seattle deviate from what it does best—aggressive press-man coverage. The Broncos need to cause chaos behind the line of scrimmage, throwing the Seahawks new looks that they haven't seen before. Getting Demaryius Thomas away from Richard Sherman could be really successful.
Of course, Seattle is going to come hard on the pass rush, leaving Manning with precious little time to let his routes develop.
That's why quick motion and quick slants or bubble screens could be really effective. In fact, that's why Wes Welker could have a huge game. Welker in the slot running really quick slants or crossing routes can be really effective, so long as they can give him a clean release off the line.
And therein lies the rub. The Seahawks are so successful because they do not allow receivers to get off the line quickly. They're so aggressive and so physical that it's nearly impossible to get a clean break. And if, on the off-chance that you do get off the line clean, then there's Earl Thomas patrolling center field. There are simply not many places for opposing quarterbacks to throw the ball.
I fully expect the Legion of Boom to dominate. And it's not because Peyton Manning isn't good enough to pick them apart. He is. It's because his receivers will have so much trouble getting off the line that there won't be enough time and space to consistently make plays. Timing will be off, and Broncos fans will have to hope that Knowshon Moreno has a huge game.
It's a juicy matchup. The ultimate quarterback against the ultimate secondary. And based on how Seattle structures its unit, give me defense all day long.