Spotlighting the Weakest Links in Super Bowl XLVIII
We're less than a week away from Super Bowl XLVIII, and in the buildup to the big game, there will be a ton of stories about what each team does well.
For Denver, the offense is the story. Quarterback Peyton Manning serves as the maestro of the Broncos' offensive symphony, as he tossed an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and led the unit to an NFL-record 606 points.
For the Seattle Seahawks, it's all about the defense and the ballyhooed "Legion of Boom" secondary. The team finished with the top-ranked defense in the league.
There's no doubt that the Broncos and Seahawks were the two best teams in football all season, and there's a reason why both are in the Super Bowl. But that doesn't mean that both teams are without weak links.
In this piece, I spotlight the weakest links for both teams and discuss why they could be a factor come Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle's Wide Receivers
The Seattle Seahawks have one of the most nondescript wide receiving corps of any Super Bowl team in recent memory, with an outfit that includes the likes of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. The returning Percy Harvin does add some sizzle to the unit, but it remains to be seen how effective he'll be.
Baldwin, who starred in the NFC Championship Game victory over San Francisco, is aware of the fact that people don't think much of the team's wideouts, according to Tim Booth of the Associated Press (via the Denver Post): "It irritates me when we've got guys who constantly want to talk about our receiving corps. Talking about we're average. We're pedestrian. We're going to walk our (selves) to the Super Bowl. Pedestrians."
With apologies to Baldwin, pedestrian is a very fair word to describe them, especially in comparison to Denver's pass-catchers, which include the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker.
If the Broncos jump out to a lead and the Seahawks need to throw the ball to stay in the game, will Tate, Baldwin and company be able to create enough separation and make enough big plays to get the job done?
The confidence level in that particular scenario cannot possibly be high. That makes the Seahawks wide receivers a weak link heading into the Super Bowl.
Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas had a sensational season, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and hauling in 12 touchdown catches. He's been electric in the postseason as well, with 14 catches for 161 yards in the team's two victories this January.
But don't expect him to have a ton of success in the Super Bowl.
Why? Because he's going to be matched up with Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.
As B/R's Keith Myers writes, Chancellor is good enough to cover Thomas one-on-one and completely neutralize him. In Seattle's two postseason wins, it faced two of the better tight ends in football in New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and San Francisco's Vernon Davis. Graham and Davis combined for three catches for 24 yards against Chancellor.
Thomas is a good player, but he isn't at the level of either Graham or Davis. Expect Chancellor to effectively remove Thomas from the game.
Pete Carroll's Inexperience
Pete Carroll has done a magnificent job in his four seasons as the Seahawks coach, building a championship level roster and advancing to Super Bowl XLVIII.
But it's Carroll's first appearance in the big game, while the Broncos' John Fox coached the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. That definitely favors Denver.
While Fox is traditionally considered a conservative coach, he eschewed those principles at the end of Denver's victory over San Diego in the divisional round. After taking the ball out of quarterback Peyton Manning's hands last year in the team's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Fox let his signal-caller win it against San Diego and let him loose in the AFC Championship Game, where he completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards.
Fox has already lost a Super Bowl, and his past experience can only serve him well. But how will Carroll coach with a world championship on the line? Will it alter his way of thinking? Sure, he's won a national title on the collegiate level, but that's another ballgame entirely.
The coaching matchup will be one to watch, especially with Fox's experience. The onus will be on Carroll to not change his approach and do what got his team to the Super Bowl.
Denver's Screen Game
One of the main reasons why the 2013 Denver Broncos possess the most prolific offense in NFL history is because of their screen game, where receivers, running backs and tight ends totally devastate the opposing defense.
As CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan writes, the Broncos have completed nearly 100 passes to running backs, which softens the defense for passes down the field and for the ground game. But the Seahawks aren't a typical, run-of-the-mill NFL defense.
Seattle's linebackers play the screen very well and in an extremely aggressive fashion, and they should be able to disrupt that facet of the Broncos offense. Don't expect Denver to have a ton of success in the screen game.
One of the biggest moments in the NFC Championship Game was when Seattle Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka begged off a 53-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, telling coach Pete Carroll to go for it instead.
Quarterback Russell Wilson ended up throwing a 35-yard touchdown strike to receiver Jermaine Kearse that gave the Seahawks a lead they would never relinquish.
Even though Hauschka made the right call, the fact that he didn't think he could make the kick is a little disconcerting. He turned out to be correct, but what happens in the Super Bowl if the Seahawks need him to drill one home and he doesn't have the confidence he can get it done, particularly in the swirling winds and inclement conditions at MetLife Stadium?
Hauscka went 33-of-35 on field-goal attempts this season and is one of the better kickers in the league. But after the NFC Championship Game, do you trust him to convert a long field goal in the waning moments if it comes down to that?
Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who went 25-of-26 this year, definitely inspires more confidence.
The kicking battle will be one to watch out for on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Denver Broncos secondary took a major hit in the victory over San Diego, when cornerback Chris Harris Jr. tore his ACL and was lost for the season.
And even though the unit played well in the AFC Championship win over New England, there are still question marks surrounding its ability to play well when it matters the most. The Broncos finished 27th against the pass in the regular season and allowed over 4,000 yards through the air—and the secondary is banged up.
Do you trust 35-year-old Champ Bailey to stick with Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin if that's the matchup? Does 34-year-old Quentin Jammer have a chance to cover Doug Baldwin or Golden Tate? Can Denver's safeties, Duke Ihenacho and Mike Adams, slow down the passing attack?
The Broncos secondary could turn out to be a weak link in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle's Offensive Line
The Seattle Seahawks allowed 44 sacks during the regular season, and another seven in the postseason. Even though the Seahawks find themselves in the Super Bowl, those numbers don't bode well for quarterback Russell Wilson as he attempts to guide the franchise to its first title.
Wilson has been sacked 19 times in the past five games, and the Broncos pass-rushers are surely licking their chops at the thought of getting after the second-year signal-caller.
Seattle's offensive line has been bailed out by Wilson numerous times this season, as his ability to run and extend plays has shown up in a major way. But in the Super Bowl, the failures of the line could come back to hurt the Seahawks.
Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno has been terrific throughout the season, and despite having sore ribs, he's expected to play in Super Bowl XLVIII, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today.
But his injury is one to monitor, since if he's forced to leave the game because of his ribs, rookie running back Montee Ball would be the next man up. And while Ball came on late in the season running the football, his pass protection is suspect—and that's the primary responsibility of a running back in the Peyton Manning-led Broncos offense.
Ball also put the ball on the ground three times in the regular season, compared to only once for Moreno, and with far less touches. Ball might run the ball with aplomb, but his pass protection and ball security definitely leave something to be desired.
If Moreno has to exit to the game, should Broncos fans have faith in Ball to protect Manning when the Seahawks blitz? It's a major story to watch.