The biggest story of Super Bowl week is how the game will pit the Denver Broncos and their No. 1 offense against the Seattle Seahawks and their No. 1 defense. In the rush to cover every angle of the game, there has been surprisingly little analysis done on the marquee matchup.
It's a matchup that isn’t as much about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning versus a great secondary as the Broncos receivers versus a great secondary. If Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker can’t beat Seattle’s press coverage, it’s going to be very difficult for Manning to be productive.
The Seahawks don’t play a scheme the Broncos haven’t seen before, so Manning shouldn’t have too much trouble diagnosing the coverage. The old coaching cliche rings true here: The team that executes better will win the game.
The Broncos have faced cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brandon Boykin, Alterraun Verner, Orlando Scandrick, Alan Ball and Jason McCourty. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded all six of the aforementioned cornerbacks higher than Walter Thurmond, Seattle’s nickel cornerback. Aqib Talib also has a very good reputation.
Against this collection of cornerbacks, Manning completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 365 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions and just five pass breakups. Manning also averaged 6.9 yards per attempt against this group.
To put that production into perspective, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 60.5 percent of his passes at 6.9 yards per attempt during the 2013 regular season. If Manning were to throw 40 passes in the Super Bowl at this level, he’d throw for 284 yards and nearly four touchdowns.
It’s hard to imagine Manning throwing four touchdowns and the Broncos not winning the game. The Seahawks also have three cornerbacks who have been nearly as good as the best the Broncos have seen this season, which might be enough to disrupt the offense.
Notable on the list is Ball of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ball played under first-year head coach Gus Bradley, who was the defensive coordinator in Seattle prior to getting the job. The other notable cornerbacks are Verner and McCourty, who are the only two teammates on the list.
Some may remember the game against Verner and McCourty when Manning passed for 397 yards and four touchdowns in 18-degree weather against the Tennessee Titans. After the game, Manning responded to his cold-weather critics on Denver’s KOA-AM.
“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don't shine,” Manning said via NFL.com. "I felt pretty good out there today."
The Titans use a similar scheme as the Seahawks that includes a lot of press coverage with a single deep safety (Cover 1 or Cover 3). The Jaguars used quite a bit of Cover 2 with press coverage because the Broncos were throwing a bunch of quick screens to the outside.
The Broncos' best receiver will draw the attention of Seattle’s best cornerback, Richard Sherman, but probably only when he lines up on his side. Thomas may actually have it easier than Decker, but cornerback Byron Maxwell is no slouch.
Thomas doesn’t have it easy just because he may not always be covered by Sherman. The Broncos have made a habit of picking on the weakest link in the defensive secondary, but Seattle's weakest link is pretty good.
One thing Thomas does very well is use his hands and arms to fight off cornerbacks and gain separation on shorter routes, but he struggles to get that same separation down the sideline without setting up a double move. Thomas also frequently skirts the line between simply fighting off the jam and committing pass interference.
In Week 7, Davis limited Thomas to just one reception for eight yards on five targets when covering him. On the reception, Davis engaged Thomas, but Thomas gave him a subtle shove and broke hard to the inside. Since Davis was playing outside leverage, Thomas was able to get separation and turn a 2nd-and-10 into a manageable 3rd-and-2.
On an incomplete pass down the sideline, Thomas took advantage of the inside leverage and avoided the press altogether. Davis had to run down the field with him, but in this case he was able to do that. Thomas doesn’t have nearly the height advantage against Seattle's cornerbacks; the Broncos may not even try to attack the deep sideline.
The Broncos will use quick screens to get Thomas the ball, but they will also let him pull his man deep down the sideline in order to run Welker, tight end Julius Thomas or a running back into the area vacated by the defensive back.
The Seahawks may be able to take away the explosive plays, but the Broncos should still use quick passes to move the ball down the field. If the Seahawks try to take away the short passing game, Thomas has proven that the press isn’t that much of a problem.
Trying to take Thomas away is only half the battle. Decker had one of his best games of the year with eight receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown when Davis was slowing down Thomas. Against Sherman, it’s going to be a lot harder for Decker to have that kind of performance, but he's a lot better than his reputation.
At 6’3” and 215 pounds, Decker should be good at fighting off press coverage. He’s a big guy who few cornerbacks can physically match. Sherman is the exception because he’s also 6’3” and about 200 pounds.
Probably the closest cornerback Decker has faced this season is Ball at 6’2” and about 200 pounds. In that game, Decker caught five passes, but only two of them came against Ball and none of them were against press coverage.
There really isn’t a comparable player to Sherman, but there may be a comparable challenge. The Tennessee Titans have two solid cornerbacks and the best one, Verner, primarily covered Decker with McCourty primarily covering Thomas. Against those CBs, Decker and Thomas combined for 186 yards on 12 receptions and two of Manning’s four touchdowns in that game.
Verner had trouble covering Decker. Either he would get too physical or he wouldn’t get a hand on him and Decker would get separation. A notable example was a deep sideline throw that Manning perfectly placed only where Decker could make the catch.
Without any contact within five yards, Decker was able to get enough space between him and Verner to make the diving catch. It was a small window, but it was enough of a window to make a big play. If the Broncos are going to complete passes against this defense, fitting them into tight windows is going to be a requirement.
Verner got himself into trouble getting too physical, but Decker had trouble fighting through it. When Verner had to ratchet back his physicality, it didn’t seem to bother Decker at all.
On this play, Verner was called for pass interference because he didn’t disengage Decker while the ball was in the air. Although there was a penalty, it didn’t change the fact that Decker wasn’t able to get any separation.
If Sherman is a little better than Verner and can disengage while the ball is in the air and go for the ball, Decker is going to struggle. Given that Sherman led the league with eight interceptions, he's obviously good at finding the ball in the air.
However, if the officiating is tight and doesn’t allow Sherman to get real physical, Decker has a chance to be productive. Late in the game against Verner, Decker fought inside of Verner, stuck his foot in the ground and broke inside to make a catch.
Verner wasn’t able to get as much contact with Decker on this play and therefore wasn’t able to prevent him from getting separation. Verner knew he had to play it safe as his free safety was playing deep in the middle of the field.
Although the Seahawks have a great secondary, that doesn’t mean they are going to be able to completely slow down the Broncos passing attack. Welker and tight end Julius Thomas can also pose a problem on quick outs, whip routes and short crossers against man coverage if Thomas and Decker are having trouble against Sherman and Maxwell.
Throwing quick screens to Thomas and Decker is another way to get them the ball against physical coverage. The Broncos will certainly pull out every method they have in the playbook to give Manning open receivers.
While Thomas and Decker have struggled in certain situations against press coverage, no receiver is going to beat the press every single time in a way that makes every play a success. Both Thomas and Decker have struggled mostly when trying to beat good cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage down the sideline.
DEN produced 68 pass plays of 20+ yards (2nd most in NFL). SEA only allowed 30 pass plays of 20+ yards (Best in NFL). #SB48— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 29, 2014
That does pose a small problem for the Broncos because deep fly routes down the sideline require perfect throws from Manning that are going to be harder to complete against the Seahawks' taller cornerbacks. The Broncos may have to use the short-passing game to move the ball, but that’s not much different from the norm.
Against inside-breaking routes, Thomas and Decker haven’t had much trouble against physical coverage. Cornerbacks have to drive hard to have a chance to break up those passes, which sets up double moves and big plays on play action.
Unless Seattle’s pass-rushers are getting to Manning quickly, his receivers should be able to get open and gain positive yardage. If the Seahawks can’t keep the ball out of Manning’s hands on offense, the Broncos have more than enough ability to beat their physical coverage—including Sherman.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Chris Hansen is the AFC West Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.