Super Bowl XLVIII: Spotlighting the Biggest Mismatches
Super Bowl XLVIII and its intriguing matchups are nigh.
Much has been made about the Denver Broncos' top-ranked offense going up against the Seattle Seahawks' No. 1 defense, the perfect foil for a record-breaking unit. As to be expected, there aren't many mismatches between the two teams.
We scrounged a few up for The Big Game, though. Will Seattle's defensive line overcome quarterback Peyton Manning's theatrics? Can Percy Harvin shake his injuries to dominate a weakened Denver secondary?
Let's look at what few mismatches we could find for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Russell Wilson vs. Denver's Pass Rush
How do you stop Russell Wilson?
The talented second-year quarterback has been in a bit of a malaise in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean he has been easy to wrangle.
Wilson is an escape artist the likes of which would make Harry Houdini blush, if the late magician was capable of blushing.
Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar broke down Wilson's escapability, and how it can get him into trouble at times.
In 2013, Wilson was sacked 33 times with just 393 passing attempts. Peyton Manning, the quarterback on the other side of the field in Super Bowl XLVIII, was taken down just 21 times with 583 attempts. And while that has something to do with Manning’s understanding of defenses and ability to distribute the ball in a hurry, Wilson also has a blessing and curse Manning will never possess — the gift of functional mobility as a runner. And there are times when quarterbacks with that gift should ask for a refund.
Wilson’s offensive line has been patchwork all season, especially at guard, and that’s a major part of the problem. But there are also times when Wilson tries like crazy to take a play beyond its logical conclusion, leading to some crazy results. Occasionally, he’ll hit a receiver deep downfield after his mobility leads to huge holes in pass coverage. More often, a play — and the drive within that play — will stop with a quickness, and Seattle’s offense will be forced to reset.
Wilson is his own worst enemy when it comes to sacks, but he can neutralize Denver's pass rush with his athletic ability like few other quarterbacks.
He is easily the most dynamic quarterback of those the Broncos have faced in the postseason, though they did handle Philadelphia's Michael Vick and Washington's Robert Griffin III during the regular season. They didn't coin "All Russell Wilson Anything" for no reason, though.
Percy Harvin vs. Denver's Secondary
The biggest X-factor in the Super Bowl is snakebitten Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin. Russell Wilson's quarterback rating is a gaudy 100.4 when targeting the dynamic receiver, per Pro Football Focus, albeit in a limited sample size.
Seattle has had trouble moving the ball in recent weeks, and much of that has had to do with the lack of a big-time option in the passing game. Receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin have had their moments, but Harvin is special.
That is, if he can get on the field.
If he does, it will be interesting to see how he is tracked on defense. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is Denver's top cornerback, but Harvin will be lining up all over the field. Fellow cornerback Chris Harris was lost for the season, leaving Tony Carter, Kayvon Webster—two of the worst cornerbacks in the league this season, per PFF—and Champ Bailey to try to keep pace.
Harvin might even take a handoff or two, to add to Denver's defensive worries.
With Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch to worry about, Denver's defense might not be able to contain Harvin.
Peyton Manning vs. Seattle's Defensive Front
The word "Omaha" has jumped the shark.
Peyton Manning's audible has become the stuff of legend. But it is only a part of his pre-snap hysterics. Manning has made a career of pre-snap adjustments, a big reason why he has been able to dissect opposing defenses like a football surgeon.
Bleacher Report's Chris Hansen wrote up an excellent deep dive on the tactics behind Manning's wordplay:
The whole idea behind Manning’s theatrics is to get the defense to tip its hand before the snap. If Manning figures out the defense before the snap, he’s going to make sure the protection, the route combination and the play itself is the best for that situation.
A defense that shows its true intentions before the snap is a lot easier for Manning to figure out.
The best chance for a defense is to force Manning and the rest of the offense to adjust after the snap by showing its true intentions as late as possible. To do this, many defenders try to figure out when the snap is coming.
And that is the rub—the Seahawks defense won't know what's coming. With two weeks to prepare, Manning will have had plenty of time concocting audibles and fake audibles to make Seattle's defense tip its hand or throw off its pass-rushing rhythm.
Seattle's defense loses an advantage without the 12th Man there to drown out Manning's exclamations.
Brandon Mebane vs. Zane Beadles
Peyton Manning might have an advantage over the defensive line as a signal-caller, but there is one player who could neutralize that advantage.
Seattle's Brandon Mebane has been one of the best defensive tackles in the league this season, an underrated player heading into the Super Bowl. Where he lines up will determine whether this is really a mismatch—he played on both sides of the line this season—but it's difficult to imagine the Seahawks won't maximize the matchup by having him line up across from Denver's Zane Beadles.
He has had a good career, but it has been a down season for the Broncos guard. Beadles rated an abysmal 51st overall among all guards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), allowing the fourth-most total quarterback pressures—a combination of sacks, hits and hurries—in the league this year.
Mebane can be a disruptive force in the middle, which could be problematic for Manning and running back Knowshon Moreno.
Wes Welker vs. Walter Thurmond
The battles waged between Denver receivers and Seattle cornerbacks will be fun to watch this Sunday. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will go up against cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, matchups the Broncos won't be able to exploit easily.
But that's why Wes Welker is in town. He will likely be tracked by Seattle's nickel cornerback, Walter Thurmond, who spent a good deal of time defending the slot receiver this season.
There seems to be a bit of bad blood between the two—at least on Thurmond's side—per Stephen Cohen of the Seattle PI:
Welker collided with New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib on a pass route over the middle, knocking Talib — the Patriots’ best cover man — out of the game.
“It was really uncalled for,” Thurmond told reporters. “The receiver ran right into the guy. I don’t know the extent of the injury Talib had, but I thought we were supposed to protect football players in this league now. I guess not.”
Whatever Thurmond's feelings about Welker, the Seattle cornerback will have his hands full with the savvy receiver.
Welker has made a living making slot cornerbacks look foolish throughout his career. He is a fantastic route-runner, and he could well possess the key to moving the ball against the stout Seattle defense. Per PFF, Thurmond allowed a 68-percent catch rate to opposing receivers while playing slot cornerback this season, and he didn't catch many good slot receivers on the schedule.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Welker garner double-digit targets this Sunday. He just needs to avoid the Super Bowl dropsies.