Everyone knows how important Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson will be in this year’s Super Bowl, but there are a few players being overlooked right now that will truly determine who wins it all in 2014.
Considering that the Denver Broncos were the league’s best offense in the regular season, while the Seattle Seahawks were its best defense, this title game should be a close one.
That means that it's likely going to be the game's underrated players that end up tipping the balance in one direction or the other.
In fact, there’s one player on each team that’s getting overlooked right now that could end up deciding the whole thing.
Where: MetLife Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.
Date and Time: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider (as of Feb. 1)
Over/Under: 48, per Vegas Insider (as of Feb. 1)
Seattle’s secondary has rightly gotten a lot of attention for its excellent players, but cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie deserves some attention on the Denver side of things.
After his disastrous stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodgers-Cromartie has flashed the kind of talent that prompted the Eagles to steal him away from Arizona back in the day.
He’s helped Denver’s pass defense improve markedly this season, despite veteran cornerback Champ Bailey’s extended absence. Although the Broncos finished 18th in total defense in the regular season, they finished sixth against the pass, partially due to Rodgers-Cromartie’s skill.
Advanced stats also point to the cornerback's improvement this year, as Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Inquirer notes:
The numbers suggest there's been improvement. Rodgers-Cromartie is ranked among the NFL's top cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus. Only 44.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction have been caught this season. That number was about 58 percent during the last two seasons. His three interceptions this season match his two-year total with the Eagles.
Rodgers-Cromartie has also been on the big stage before. Ben Roethlisberger completed the pass that won Super Bowl 43 to Santonio Holmes over the rookie back in 2009, a play he still thinks about today.
"I do tend to think about it a lot. Anytime the Super Bowl comes back around, they tend to show that play to this day," he told ESPN. "You sit there, look at it and think, 'I was almost there.' You can't dwell on it. (That was) the main thing I learned from that game, and I am looking forward to playing in this one."
Now, with something to prove, he’ll have extra motivation to play well in the NFL’s biggest game. Russell Wilson has struggled in the playoffs, so Rodgers-Cromartie could easily have a big day and redeem his previous poor performance.
Much like Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive end Michael Bennett joined his team on a one-year deal, then he proceeded to vastly outperform such a meager contract.
Bennett had 8.5 sacks in the regular season and has kept up the pace in the postseason, earning 1.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles.
Peyton Manning has long had trouble with formidable pass rushes, but his offensive line has done an excellent job of protecting him this year. Denver has allowed the fewest sacks in the league, but stopping Bennett presents a unique challenge.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn actually chooses to use Bennett in an unusual way, leading to a lot of confusion on the line, as Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus explains:
The Seahawks have a platoon of edge-rushers they can deploy to bring the heat but in Michael Bennett they also have a defensive end who they align inside in a four-man line to ply his trade as a defensive tackle.
There’s nothing unusual about this in today’s NFL – it’s a trend that multiple teams employ – but the Seahawks don’t actually line Bennett up inside.
Bennett is lined up all the way over the right tackle, actually shaded a hair to his outside. He’s lining up a full player further outside than the guy who is tasked with blocking him, RG Alex Boone in this case, or Louis Vasquez on Sunday. The Seahawks will attack the tackles with speed around the edge from wide alignments, but it’s the way they line Bennett up abnormally wide and exploit that width that is unusual, and effectively turns the RG into an extra right tackle on the play.
This technique has made a lot of talented offensive lines look silly, and if Quinn is able to use Bennett to keep Manning uncomfortable in the pocket, Seattle has a shot at slowing down the Broncos’ offense.
Bennett will also be playing for a new contract, a motivation that can’t be ignored. He’s said that he’d like to stay in Seattle, but he could be lured to Chicago to play with his brother—tight end Martellus—and a big game on the big stage would go a long way towards facilitating that move.
But beyond mere contract considerations, Bennett could helps the Seahawks do what so few teams have recently: contain Peyton Manning.
If they can’t, Seattle may be in real trouble, especially when considering that Denver has formidable defensive players of their own like Rodgers-Cromartie.
It will surely be a close game when these two teams meet, but don’t surprised if one of these two players ends up deciding it all.