The Seattle Seahawks offense and special teams did its part, but defense won this championship.
Super Bowl XLVIII was a triumph of scouting, drafting, coaching, leadership, balance and chemistry. Above all, though, it was a triumph of one of the best defenses in recent memory over one of the best offenses of all time.
Actually, "triumph" isn't the right word.
The Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos. Suffocated, obliterated, decimated—pick a synonym. It's impossible to overstate how complete Seattle's victory was. Incredibly, the 43-8 final score might understate it.
The Broncos offense—which set records for points (606) and touchdowns (76), among others—was thoroughly and completely shut down. Not only were they forced into four turnovers and held scoreless in three of the four quarters, but the team couldn't buy a first down.
#Broncos first first-down of the game with 10:32 left in the 2Q— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) February 3, 2014
Is the Seahawks defense that good, did the Broncos lay an egg or does defense just plain win championships?
A Systemic Advantage
Football people have said, "defense wins championships" for ages.
Recently, I wrote about how it seems as though every year someone sets out to try and statistically prove the saying true or false: NFL.com, Freakonomics.com, AdvancedNFLStats.com and ColdHardFootballFacts.com have all taken recent cracks at it.
Their conclusions vary depending on how they define "defense" and "winning," but for the most part these sites don't think the old saying holds water. Here's what the Freakonomics folks found:
As Chris Berman himself pointed out on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, 38 (out of 45) Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 defense and 22 have been won by a top three defense. The sentiment has hardened from cliché into an article of sports law. But is it actually true? Does defense really win championships?
In a word: no.
When it comes to winning a title, or winning in sports in general for that matter, offense and defense carry nearly identical weight. For example, here’s what Berman didn’t tell you: the number of Super Bowl champs with a top 10 offense? Thirty-eight. And a top 3 offense? Twenty. In other words, offense wins championships, too.
What about when a great offense faces a great defense? Twenty-seven Super Bowls have pitted a top 5 offense against a top 5 defense. The best offensive team won 13, and the best defensive team won 14. Another stalemate.
In the NFL it seems, you need either exceptional defense or exceptional offense to win a championship. But neither one is more important than the other.
So the Seahawks didn't win because great defense beats great offense in a "rock, paper, scissors" sense. Instead, the strengths of the Seattle defense matched up perfectly against the Denver offense.
Just as in Super Bowl XXXVI, when the New England Patriots' unusually deep cornerback corps held the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" passing offense to just 17 points, the Seahawks' outstanding secondary challenged the Broncos like no other defense could, and the pass rush gave Peyton Manning and his receivers little time to find space.
Nowhere to Run
The Seahawks approached the Broncos much the same as they have every other opponent: They used a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 deep zones. They also featured a heavily rotated defensive end group in a lot of stunts to create inside and outside pass rush.
The most shocking thing about Super Bowl XLVIII was the way the Denver offensive line played. Pro Football Focus graded it as the second-best pass-blocking unit (subscription required) this season, but Seattle had no trouble at all getting to Manning.
The stat sheet credits the Seahawks with just one sack (end Chris Clemons' fourth-quarter strip-sack), but they got plenty of pressure on Manning, especially end Cliff Avril. He forced a poor throw on Manning's first interception and partially deflected a pass on his second.
It seemed as though the Broncos only had one response to this blanketing coverage and surprisingly effective pass rush: receiver screens.
Manning threw a lot of sideways passes, many of them to Demaryius Thomas. Though Thomas rarely had success running around, through or away from Richard Sherman and the big, physical Seattle secondary, Denver never stopped trying.
Per USA Today's Nate Davis, Manning's force-feeding of Thomas set two completely meaningless Super Bowl records:
From the did you know files: Peyton Manning sets record for #superbowl completions (34), Demaryius Thomas gets record for most catches (13).— Nate Davis (@ByNateDavis) February 3, 2014
Here's a little perspective on how timid and ineffective the Broncos offense became in the face of this constant pressure and blanketing defense.
Manning averaged a third-best 8.3 yards per attempt all season long, per Pro-Football-Reference, but he was held to a minuscule 5.71 in the Super Bowl. No NFL quarterback who threw enough passes to qualify for rate stats averaged so few; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon was 37th (last) with 6.3 yards per attempt.
One of the best ways to slow down a keyed-up pass rush is to run through the lanes their linemen are vacating, but the Broncos abandoned the run after running out of the tunnel.
During the regular season, Denver averaged 28.8 carries per game, comfortably above the league average of 27.1. Yet in the Super Bowl, Broncos running backs Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson combined for just 13 carries.
The game ended as a blowout, but Denver kept it within one score until just under three minutes into the second quarter. The opportunity was there for the Broncos to get back into the game, but the Seahawks' dominance on the line of scrimmage short-circuited everything Denver planned to do. The team had no Plan B.
"It's all about making history," All-Pro safety Earl Thomas told the Associated Press, via NFL.com. "This was a dominant performance from top to bottom."
This game was a matchup of the two best teams in the NFL, and now there's no doubt who the better one is. The Seattle Seahawks weren't just a team that got hot at the right time, they're indisputably worthy NFL champions.
The Broncos defensive line initially pushed the Seahawks offensive line around, forcing quarterback Russell Wilson to scramble early and holding star tailback Marshawn Lynch to just 39 yards on 15 carries.
Unlike Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Seattle's Darrell Bevell did a great job of adjusting to the Broncos pass rush and attacking the secondary.
Bevell also got explosive, oft-injured offensive weapon Percy Harvin involved in his first full game of the season. Harvin not only picked up 45 yards on two end-arounds, he also opened the second half with an 87-yard kickoff return for a back-breaking touchdown.
Let's not forget Wilson in this, either. He looked nervous early, throwing everything too high and too hard. But he finished 18-of-25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and three rushes for 26 yards.
Seattle's offense and special teams gave the team a great chance to win even if the defense didn't dominate the day. It did, though, and it's the defense that won the Seahawks franchise and fans their first NFL championship.