The Super Bowl is a matchup of strength-on-strength and (relative) weakness-on-weakness. While much of the pregame hype has surrounded two historically great units in the Denver Broncos offense and Seattle Seahawks defense, the reality is that each team's lesser unit is talented enough to make the impactful plays.
So while Seattle's defense may be clearly superior to Denver's in a vacuum, the Broncos unit stands just as great a chance of generating game-changing plays, given the circumstances.
Household defensive names like Richard Sherman and Champ Bailey may attract the most fan and media attention, but each defense has helped its team advance this far due to depth and role players emerging to fill the roles of stars. With that in mind, here are the most crucial defensive X-factors for each team.
Thurmond has drawn a lot of unnecessary attention due to his criticism of Wes Welker's dubious hit on Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship Game. The Seattle secondary is used to backing up controversial statements, but Thurmond will likely have to bear the weight of his own words.
Seahawks CB Walter Thurmond says the Welker hit on Talib was dirty and "he should've been flagged and he should've been fined."— Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP) January 22, 2014
Indeed, as Seattle's slot corner, he will draw the very receiver he excoriated for much of the Super Bowl. With Sherman and Byron Maxwell providing outside coverage on Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Peyton Manning figures to target his security blanket often.
Welker does not play the most snaps among the Broncos' prolific receiving trio, but he may be the most important weapon. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Denver put up a league-leading 48.8 percent third-down conversion rate with Welker through the first 13 games of the regular season. When he missed the final three contests, that mark plummeted to 37.1 percent, 16th among teams over that span.
Denver does hit its share of big plays, but Welker's near-automatic third-down presence is the ingredient that keeps the offense humming at historic rates. If Thurmond can cover Welker has strongly as he criticized him, the Seahawks are capable of shutting down Denver's offense.
As good as it is, the Seattle front seven is quite anonymous. More knowledgeable football fans know names like Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin, but few casual fans would mention them among the very best at their positions.
The rock of Seattle's front seven, however, might be defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. He has been a steady presence in the defense since 2007, and as the MMQB's Doug Farrar illustrates, he is the key that allows Seattle to be creative in its pass-rushing concepts:
The Stunt 4-3 creates mistakes from the opposition when used by the right kind of player, and it’s just one of the techniques Mebane uses to reinforce his reputation as the rock of the NFL’s best defense...he occupies double-teams as often as any nosetackle in the game, which allows all those around him to make plays...his ability to stop running plays before success is among the NFL’s best—per Pro Football Focus’ game-charting, Mebane amassed a team-high 22 run stops on 266 run snaps. Finally, his six quarterback hits ranks fifth on the team, and his 26 quarterback hurries rank fourth. Those ahead of him are defensive ends and outside linebackers—situational pass rushers whose value lies specifically in quarterback disruption.
Mebane will be a key to collapsing the pocket and forcing Manning off his spot, as well as plugging the middle when the Denver QB sees favorable numbers in the box and audibles to a halfback draw. Mebane may not register much of anything on the stat sheet, but if the Seahawks win, he will be one of the primary reasons.
Some believed Chris Harris Jr.'s season-ending ACL injury would sink an already thin Denver secondary. However, in the AFC Championship Game, Tony Carter stepped into the slot and performed admirably, containing New England's Julian Edelman until junk time.
Carter will have another difficult task against Percy Harvin, who appears ready to play. Even in limited reps against New Orleans in the divisional round, Harvin made a clear impact on the Seahawks' flagging passing game. As Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post notes, Carter must hold up when Russell Wilson inevitably targets him as Tom Brady did:
On the Patriots' second possession of the game, Brady went after Carter on a third-and-3 play, throwing deep down the right side for wide receiver Matthew Slater. Carter was there to break up the pass and force a punt. He finished the game with two passes defensed and four tackles (three solo).
"I think I did a pretty good job, but I left a couple of plays out there," Carter said Thursday. "Brady completed a few plays, where I was close to getting my hand on the ball and breaking it up or making a pick. But I didn't, so I can get better.
The problem with evaluating how Carter might perform is that the Seahawks offense with Harvin has only demonstrated a tiny sample size. Seattle figures to try and get its speedy slot receiver the ball in space where he can rack up yards after the catch, although the offense did take a couple of deep shots with him against the Saints.
Overall, Carter has generally been a steady corner, providing average production using Pro Football Focus' grading metrics. If he can keep a lid on Harvin from busting out into the open field, the Seahawks will have a difficult time moving the ball through the air.
The casual fan probably knows Danny Trevathan for his Leon Lett-like gaffe against Baltimore in the season opener, but that is a discredit to the linebacker's value. Against the Patriots, CBS commentator Phil Simms even went so far as to call him the best linebacker in football:
Holy crap. Did Phil Simms just say that for a 5-6 game stretch this year, Danny Trevathan was the best LB in the NFL??? #FOAud— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 19, 2014
That's hyperbole of course, but Trevathan has done an admirable job in run defense since Von Miller's season-ending injury. In Denver's two playoff wins, he has compiled five stops (defined as solo tackles constituting an offensive failure) and positive run defense grades.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has received well-deserved credit for anchoring the run defense, but Marshawn Lynch is an irrepressible back who rarely gets stopped at the first level. Trevathan will thus be necessary to clean up the work of the defensive line and ensure that Lynch does not unleash "Beast Mode" on Denver's secondary.
In addition, he is also solid in pass coverage, although that may not come into play as much against Seattle. Tight end Zach Miller did compile five touchdowns, so Trevathan might see some coverage duties in the red zone, but expect most of his impact to come in the run game.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus (subscription required).