Much of the hype in the lengthy wait for Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos has gone to the flashy offense the latter touts thanks to legendary quarterback Peyton Manning.
Of course, some of the attention has gone to the Seahawks and their No. 1 defense, but mostly because of the antics of one Richard Sherman.
Denver's defense, despite an elite presence against the run, has received little or no coverage.
Believe it or not, two stout units may turn this title bout into a gritty, defensive battle.
Outside of the obvious such as Sherman, who will see his impact mostly come from Manning's refusal to look in his direction, there are a few defenders who will rise above the rest of the pack at MetLife Stadium.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: FoxSports.com
Note: All pertinent player rankings courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
While for some reason not a major household name, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is the heart and soul of the elite unit that is set to take on Manning.
Sherman was quick to point out Thomas' importance recently, via Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times:
Whenever you’re talking about a true competitor, a true champion, a true football player who is passionate and loves his job and does everything he can to help his team win. If you’re not talking about Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson then I don’t know what you’re talking about. You look at those guys and you really want to give him everything that you got.
Thomas was consistent in the regular season and a force in all phases of the game.
He recorded 105 total tackles, two forced fumbles and five interceptions, plus ranked as the No. 9 safety in the league according to PFF.
What Thomas does on the field each down makes the lives of those around him easier—including Sherman. He is big enough to come up and bang with the biggest of running backs, but also has the agility to break up passes all over the field.
Also a very cerebral player, Thomas is one of the few safeties who can line up and find success across from Manning. The world will know Thomas' name by the time the big game is over.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
Before his career renaissance this year, Terrance Knighton was best known for being benched as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.
It was as bad as it sounds.
In Terrance's case, he worked very hard. ... He lost 30 pounds. He changed his physical look as far as his body content with our strength and conditioning people. Really, everything Terrance has done, he did. You can have all kinds of talks. You can talk until you are blue in the face. But until you start seeing actions, they basically make that decision.
At 6'3" and 335 pounds, Knighton is an obvious force in the run game, but also excels as a pass-rusher.
He ranked as the No. 9 interior defensive lineman in the NFL last year as the main cog in an unheralded defense that ranks No. 8 overall against the rush.
Like Thomas, Knighton makes the lives of those around him easier.
His ability to absorb multiple blockers allows rushers to run free and linebackers to come up and stuff the run—something imperative against a run-first team such as Seattle that features a running back like Marshawn Lynch.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner did much to make a name for himself in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers thanks to his 15 total tackles.
The production was by no means a shock.
After all, the Utah State product had 120 total tackles, five sacks and two interceptions in the regular season as one of the NFL's best young linebackers—right up there with Carolina's Luke Kuechly.
According to the gurus over at PFF, Wagner was the No. 13 overall inside linebacker in the NFL for his efforts.
Wagner is the presence in the middle of the NFL's best defense that holds it all together.
While efficient when he drops into coverage, Wagner excels against the run and will play a key role in making sure the Denver duo of running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are held in check.
The players behind him will have their hands full against Manning and his host of weapons, so Wagner's ability to shut down the running game when necessary will go a long way in the championship showdown.
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