Breaking Down the Seahawks' Blueprint for Making Peyton Manning Look Ordinary

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 23, 2014

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrates an interception by teammate Kam Chancellor (not pictured) in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at CenturyLink Field on September 21, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Broncos 26-20.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks defense is usually either humbling or humiliating for its opponents. That’s been true for a while now, and we’re at the point where anything less than dominance feels like failure.

There was a collective gasp when a receiver who was Richard Sherman’s responsibility (Demaryius Thomas) caught the game-tying pass on the Broncos’ two-point conversion attempt Sunday. Is that legal?

But since humans are programmed to remember only the most recent events, there’s a chance that fourth-quarter comeback—which, though still spectacular, was aided by great field position—could cloud a few memories. A different overtime result certainly would have too.

As a precaution, then, let’s repeat this over and over with feeling: The Seahawks have made Peyton Manning look ordinary.

The stonewalling from Seattle’s defense goes beyond Manning, of course. Soon Week 2 against Philip Rivers may be either a blip for the Seahawks, or it will remain an example of tight end defending gone wrong. But when we reflect on the Seahawks’ last five wins dating back to the beginning of the 2014 playoffs, we see a lot of greatness that was cut down quickly.

The opposing quarterbacks have been Manning twice, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Colin Kaepernick. The results? Rather impressive. Seattle gave up only 60 points to five of the best quarterbacks this planet has to offer, an average of 15.2 per game.

The Broncos alone averaged 37.9 points per game last year. Oh, it gets better.

Seahawks Pass Defense Over Last Five Wins
Passing Yds allowedYds/attemptPassing TDsINTSPasser Rating
Peyton Manning (Week 3)3036.22185.7
Aaron Rodgers (Week 1)1895.71181.5
Peyton Manning (Super Bowl)2805.71273.5
Colin Kaepernick (NFC Championship)1536.41256.4
Drew Brees (Divisional Round)3087.21086.3
NFL.com

That’s an average of 246.6 passing yards allowed per game to four quarterbacks, three of which are Hall of Fame-caliber. But there’s some magic against Manning specifically following Sunday’s win. You also know him as the best quarterback of this generation.

Manning has thrown only 14 interceptions dating back to the beginning of last season including the playoffs, a startling number considering his high volume of pass attempts during that time (861). Three of those picks have come over his last five games, and yes, all three have landed in the hands of a Seahawks defender.

The same defenders who have held him to 583 total passing yards between Sunday and last February’s Super Bowl. Split between the two games that’s an average of 291.5 for a quarterback who sauntered along merrily with 342.3 yards per game in 2013.

The same defenders who limited Manning to 5.9 yards per attempt over the two meetings, 3.5 yards lower than his overall 2013 pace. And the same defenders who held him to only three completions on throws that traveled 15 or more yards downfield Sunday, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Seahawks Haven't Been Kind to Peyton Manning
Passing Yds/GamePassing Yds/attemptInterceptions
Against Seahawks over last two games291.55.93
Against every other opponent since start of 2013 (including playoffs = 20 games)330.98.311
NFL.com

The comeback that nearly gave Sunday’s game a much different result (and the Seahawks only their second home loss during the Russell Wilson era) was helped by a baffling decision from Marshawn Lynch to bounce outside while trying to escape his own end zone. That ended in a safety, and a short time later an interception gave Manning the ball on Seattle’s 19 yard-line. An actual wall won’t stop Manning in that situation often.

The Seahawks’ only brief but costly defensive meltdown came on Denver's final fourth-quarter drive. Highlighted by a 42-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders made possible when Byron Maxwell arrived late in coverage, Manning needed only 59 seconds to drive down the field 80 yards.

But as impressive as that drive was, what came before it for nearly four full quarters and necessitated those heroics was even more stunning. Of Manning’s total passing yardage Sunday, just over a quarter (26 percent) came on that final drive and only three throws.

Throughout the other 59 minutes of the game Manning was limited to 223 yards at a YPA of 5.2. When you’re forcing a quarterback—any quarterback—to drive 80 yards in less than a minute and nail a two-point conversion to only tie the game and force overtime, you’re doing something really, really right.

What exactly is that something for the Seahawks? Physically contesting and swarming to every single throw.

A play early in the fourth quarter is a prime example of the Seahawks’ speed and physicality winning another battle. The play call is simple enough, and it’s one the Broncos use often with generally solid results: a wide receiver screen to Demaryius Thomas. It’s the same play that ended in a 78-yard touchdown on opening night last year and the same one that contributed significantly to Thomas leading the league in 2013 with 704 yards after the catch.

Here the Broncos have a first down on their own 35-yard line. The Lynch safety had just happened, cutting Seattle’s lead to 17-5. Early in the quarter it’s the ideal time to get some easy yards on a low-risk throw, with Thomas banging bodies after the catch and advancing toward midfield.

Except it didn’t go down that way, because there were far too many bodies.

NFL Game Rewind

That’s a whole lot of red arrows converging with the ball not even halfway to its intended destination and the play still developing. Two of those arrows belong to defenders who were completely unblocked, arriving at Thomas before his blockers could. Kam Chancellor diagnosed the screen immediately and made the tackle, but the play ended with Michael Bennett and K.J. Wright also getting a hand on Thomas.

Only five of Manning’s 31 completions resulted in gains of 15 yards or more. That’s coming from a quarterback who finished second with 68 passes for 20-plus yards a year ago.

Aside from the final drive—which was very much the exception, not the norm Sunday—chunk gains were nearly eliminated. Both through the air and when the Broncos attempted the screen and swing passes they lean on heavily.

Seattle’s fundamental defensive approach is to swarm, hit, strip and repeat. It worked in Week 3, creating a turnover on Denver’s first play, and it’s made some of the league’s best quarterbacks look merely good, or even ordinary.

Including Peyton Manning. Twice.

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