Everything went wrong for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. At least, that’s probably how it feels. When the scoreboard after the Super Bowl reads 43-8, the team that scored just eight points didn’t do a lot of things right.
Many things can go wrong in a win, too. Many things went wrong for the Broncos this season, and they still made it to the Super Bowl. In reality, not everything went wrong in the Super Bowl loss, but many important things went wrong.
Denver's third-down defense was atrocious, but that’s not why the Broncos lost the game. Allowing a kick return touchdown was bad, but things had already gone terribly wrong for Denver by that point.
What really went wrong for the Broncos? They couldn’t pass the ball effectively. The No. 1 offense in the league, the one that broke multiple records thanks to its great passing game, was shut down by Seattle’s No. 1 defense.
There will be an excessive amount of talk about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s legacy over the next few days, months and years. Manning’s performance didn’t tarnish his legacy, but it obviously didn’t add to it.
There’s no way to predict if or when Manning will be able to add to his legacy with another Super Bowl win, so it was really people’s expectations that were tarnished. The expectation is that a great quarterback is able to win multiple Super Bowls, but Manning has only been able to win one despite making the playoffs just about every year.
While Manning neither took away from his legacy nor added to it, he made the kind of mistakes he is normally able to avoid. Manning’s 69.4 percent completion percentage and 280 yards passing doesn't seem that bad, but his three turnovers hurt the Broncos.
Manning threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Turning over the ball against a good team is usually a recipe for disaster—the Broncos were just the latest one on record.
“When you are minus-three in the turnover margin against a great football team like the Seattle Seahawks, this is sometimes what you get,” Broncos head coach John Fox said after the game, via DenverBroncos.com.
Even if the offensive line and wide receivers also struggled, Manning could have been better simply by avoiding the turnovers. Manning could have easily taken more sacks—the Seahawks got to him just once even though they hurried and hit him all night.
At worst, the Broncos could have played the field-position game while they tried to figure things out. Manning was forcing too many throws against a great defense, and it cost the Broncos. Had Manning been a bit more conservative while his team got used to Seattle’s break-neck defensive speed, it might have given the Broncos a chance.
The Offensive Line
Obviously, putting the loss all on Manning is unfair. Manning needs his supporting cast to be productive, and his offensive line was a big reason why he struggled.
The offensive line struggled to pass block, run block and screen block—a rare trifecta of blocking failure that made everything harder for the Broncos. The importance of protecting Manning is obvious, but the other two were just as important.
Right tackle Orlando Franklin did a terrible job blocking defensive end Cliff Avril on just about every play, and his pressure led to both interceptions. Had Franklin been able to slow Avril down a little bit, at least Manning would have had a chance to complete passes down the field.
My Twitter block button is having a better night blocking than Orlando Franklin.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 3, 2014
To slow down the pass rush, the Broncos' only alternative was to run the ball. That gets harder and harder as you fall behind, and the Broncos dug themselves a small hole at the start of the game.
If the Seahawks had to guard against the run, they couldn’t pin their ears back and try to get to Manning. Running backs Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and C.J. Anderson averaged 2.1 yards per carry in the game on just 13 combined carries, and it’s hard to blame their lack of production on them when the offensive line wasn’t giving them much running room.
The Broncos fell behind early, but had they been a little more productive on the ground, the Seahawks would’ve occasionally had to roll another defender into the box on early downs. Such a scenario might have opened up the deep passing game.
Who was most to blame for the Broncos' performance in the Super Bowl?
Instead, the Seahawks didn’t respect the run, both of Seattle’s safeties were able to play the pass and Manning had to take short throw after short throw while being harassed in the pocket. When Manning tried to throw deeper, the pass rush got to him, and that resulted in the turnovers.
One alternative to the running game is the screen pass. Typically effective against man coverage, screens could have been a productive play for the Broncos had the offensive line done a good job blocking on them.
The Broncos tried and failed early in the game to get their screen plays going—Seattle’s defenders blew right past would-be blockers to drop the ball-carriers. Without screens, the run game or adequate pass protection to go deep, the importance of the Broncos beating Seattle’s press coverage was compounded.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
When wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas are doing well, Manning can get the ball out of his hands quickly. When this happens, the pass protection is not an issue, nor is the running game.
When the offensive line faltered and Manning was unwilling to take a sack, Denver’s offensive weapons had to beat Seattle’s press coverage and get yards after the catch, but they weren’t able to do it. Decker drew the toughest assignment against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and caught one pass for six yards.
Julius Thomas had the size and speed advantage over many of the Seahawks defenders, but he had just four catches for 27 yards. Demaryius Thomas might have set an NFL record for receptions in the Super Bowl with 13, but his 118 yards broke down to just 9.1 yards per reception.
Welker was the only wide receiver that averaged more than 10 yards per catch with eight receptions for 84 yards. The Broncos had to use the short passing game against a tough defense, but they weren’t nearly productive enough to overcome the turnovers.
When the Broncos did catch short passes, the Seahawks were right there for the big hit and tackle. That included screens that are supposed to give the receiver a chance to make a big play.
|Player||Receptions||Yards||Yards Per Reception||Yards Per Reception (Season)|
|Julius Thomas (TE)||4||27||6.8||12.1|
When Manning wanted to make a big play with his arm, he had to hold it too long. No matter how many games Manning has played, he’s a lot like every other quarterback when under pressure.
The fact that the Seahawks limited Manning to 5.7 yards per pass attempt paints an ugly picture. The receivers struggled to get open quickly enough for Manning to get them the ball before there was pressure.
The Broncos have to give the Seahawks a lot of credit, because they won just about every matchup in the No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup. The Seahawks unleashed a defense upon the Broncos the likes of which they hadn’t seen this season, and things went south in a hurry.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NFL.com.