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27 Jan 2014

QR Bonus: How to Score on Seattle

by Vince Verhei

Last week in Quick Reads, we looked at the top players against the Denver defense this season, and what that meant for Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense. Today, we'll flip the script, looking for which players fared best against Seattle, and what that means for the Broncos offense in the Super Bowl. And based on these results, it may not be Peyton Manning or Demaryius Thomas or Wes Welker who decides things on Sunday. Instead, the fate of the Broncos may rest on Knowshon Moreno's shoulders.

Among quarterbacks, the four players who fared best against Seattle this season were Andrew Luck in Week 5, Mike Glennon (really!) in Week 9, Matt Schaub (even more really!) in Week 4, and Cam Newton in Week 1. As a group, this quartet completed 64.5 percent of their passes against Seattle, for 7.1 yards per pass, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Except for the TD-to-INT ratio, this doesn't sound that impressive; after all, the average NFL quarterback averaged 7.1 yards per pass in 2013. In their other 12 games, though, Seattle limited opponents to a 57.3 percent completion rate and just 5.4 yards per pass, with nine touchdowns and 26 interceptions.

The common thread between all four of these quarterbacks is that the deeper their passes against Seattle, the better their results. They completed 67.8 percent of passes to receivers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but those throws only gained 5.0 yards apiece. On passes that went 11 to 15 yards downfield, the completion percentage dipped slightly to 64.7 percent, but the average gain climbed to 8.8. And on deep balls that traveled at least 16 yards through the air, the completion rate fell again to 55 percent, but the average gain soared to 15.2 yards per play. And if anything, these numbers drastically undersell the success this foursome enjoyed on deep balls against Seattle, because they include only completions and incompletions, not defensive pass interference calls. In these four games Seattle committed five DPI fouls on deep passes, for 109 more yards. If we count those as completed passes, the completion rate jumps to 64 percent, for a mind-blowing 16.5 yards per play.

All of this is a little misleading, though, because Seattle's top target on those deep passes won't be playing in the Super Bowl. The now-suspended Brandon Browner didn't play in Week 1 against Carolina, but he was targeted seven times on deep passes against Houston, Indianapolis, and Tampa Bay, resulting in three incompletions, one 29-yard catch, and a whopping three DPI calls for 71 yards. At 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, Browner is one of the biggest cornerbacks on record, but he's not known for his speed. Apparently, when receivers got behind him, his strategy was to simply tackle them before the ball could arrive. With Browner unavailable for the Super Bowl, the Seahawks will rely on Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond at the cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman. And while Browner drew three DPIs in his eight games, Maxwell and Thurmond had one DPI between them in a combined 28 games, eight of them starts.

You can't throw deep on every pass, and regular readers who have read our previous playoff previews know by now that the best place to throw short against Seattle is up the middle. That was especially true for the Newton/Schaub/Luck/Glennon group. They threw 19 passes to the short middle area of the field, completing 14 of them for 167 yards, and adding 10 more yards on a DPI. Those totals aren't skewed by one or two big plays, either. The 14 completions resulted in 11 first downs, including a touchdown, with only one play resulting in a failed completion (i.e. a completion that didn't meet DVOA's success baselines). These passers also averaged 5.3 yards after the catch on throws to the short middle area of the field.

This is where Moreno starts to become critical for Denver. Moreno was second on the team with 22 targets in the short middle area of the field, and he led the club with 17 catches for 174 yards in that direction. Moreno was overshadowed by his teammates in the passing game, and for good reason, but he was one of the league's best running backs this season when it came to receiving numbers, where he finished third in DYAR and fourth in DVOA. There aren't many weaknesses in the Seattle pass defense, so Moreno will probably get several chances to exploit this flaw.

Moreno, though, figures to make even more of an impact as a blocker in the Super Bowl. The big four QBs who hurt Seattle most this year were more effective with an extra blocker or two in the backfield than they were with a standard five-man protection scheme. This is true even when Seattle didn't blitz (and they don't blitz much anyway). The Seahawks rushed our quarterback foursome 92 times with four men or fewer. On 59 of those plays, Seattle opponents protected the quarterback with only their five linemen, averaging 5.6 yards per play and picking up a first down 27 percent of the time. On the 33 plays where they used six blockers or more, though, the average jumped up to 8.8, and they picked up a first down 58 percent of the time.

If there is a blueprint to beat Seattle then, it's this: Spend most of your time poking away in the short middle area of the field. (For Denver, this means not only plenty of targets for Moreno, but also plenty of Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas.) Do not tempt fate risking throws to the outside. When it's time for a shot play, keep Moreno in the backfield to block, even if you're not expecting a blitz. Give Peyton Manning more time in the pocket, give your receivers more time to stretch Seattle's zones downfield, and open the seams as wide as possible. That's all easier said than done against the league's best defense, but as Luck and company have shown, it's not impossible.

When we looked at top runners against Denver last week, we found it less interesting who those runners were and more interesting when those games happened. Of the top five rushing games against Seattle this year, four of them came in consecutive games in Weeks 8 (St. Louis' Zac Stacy), 9 (Tampa Bay's Mike James), 10 (Atlanta's Jacquizz Rodgers), and 11 (Minnesota's Toby Gerhart). That's partly due to circumstances -- Rodgers and Gerhart did most of their damage when their teams were down big in the second half -- but it also shows a flaw that once existed in the Seattle defense, though it appears that flaw has been fixed. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has mentioned his team did a poor job filling their "run fits" in October and November, but they haven't made the same mistakes recently. Since Week 11, the best game against Seattle on the ground was Frank Gore's 15 DYAR in Week 14, a game that included five successful carries in 17 runs. Gore's 51-yarder in the fourth quarter that day was worth 20 DYAR; otherwise, he had a below-replacement game.

The best receiving day against Seattle this season, by far, was put up by Indanapolis' T.Y. Hilton in Week 5. Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith also played well against the Seahawks, but by and large, the best receivers against Seattle this year were rarely-used guys who made the most of limited opportunities. The other five men in the top ten receiving games against Seattle -- Jaron Brown of Arizona; Jarius Wright of Minnesota; Jerrel Jernigan of Giants; and Tim Wright and Tiquan Underwood of Tampa Bay -- combined for 19 catches in 22 targets and 253 yards. That's only 13.3 yards per catch and 50.6 yards per game, and again, these were the best receivers against Seattle. Guys who got lots of targets, generally speaking, didn't do very well. Twenty receivers (wideouts and tight ends) had at least eight targets in a game against Seattle this year. The median DYAR for that group? Eight. This would suggest that Julius Thomas and Wes Welker are critical for Denver's chances, but at this point they hardly qualify as under-the-radar threats. Denver's best bet would be to find the open man rather than try to force the ball to any one guy. Fortunately, for Peyton Manning, that has rarely been a problem.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 27 Jan 2014

59 comments, Last at 28 Jan 2014, 2:48pm by Sixknots

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:27pm

It seems to me that Seattle primarily plays with a single safety over the top, to ensure being sufficiently stout against the run, and they can do this because their dbs are talented and physical enough to prevent such an approach from being exposed by the opposing passing attack. They are just a terrific defense, which means that it doesn't matter what you dial up, they are going to be very hard to score on. That doesn't mean impossible, however. If your offensive line has a good enough day, and your qb is smart enough, the Seahawks defensive front 7 does not just physically dominate in the manner of some past historically great defenses, which means that some opportunities may present themselves.

I'm inclined to think Seattle wins, because I think their dbs will soundly defeat the Broncos receivers, a group that I believe to be a little overrated. However, if the Broncos o-line has their best day, and the Broncos defensive front can whip the Seahawks offensive line (a not terribly unlikely proposition), and the Broncos dbs don't suffer any more injuries, the Broncos will win. I'd give them about a 45% chance. I've seen the money line at -145 Broncos, and +125 Seahawks, though, so it appears as if the public very much disagrees with me.

7
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:13pm

Not a bad assessment Will Allen. I think the game is likely going to be won or lost on the Denver defensive side of the ball, and will largely be based on how the SEA O-line handles the Denver D line. The Denver offense will get some points. There are just too many weapons there. I think they'll be held in the 27-23 point range which should make this a very interesting ball game. The Seahawks have scored 27 or more 9 times this year and still have yet to lose a ballgame by more than 1 score in the 'Wilson Era'. Everything seems to point to a close game ... but that often seems to be the case by this time in the superbowl hype cycle so maybe I've just the various narratives dull my senses.

The line in the Superbowl seems to be far less indicative of the wisdom of the masses than even a normal NFL game. Waaay too many uninformed bettors bet the Superbowl, as Vegas' well documented initial backpedal this year indicates.

12
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:41pm

What Seattle does very well is force the opponent to have to play near-perfectly to win, especially in Seattle. You can't afford to give the Seahawks' offense any short fields, by either turnover, special teams, or three and outs deep in your own territory, because it just makes it too easy for the Seahawks to cover up their biggest weakness, which is a lack of dynamic offense, and because they don't give up points easily.

Obviously, when they are at home, Seattle has a better chance of succeeding with this approach; the opponent's margin for error shrinks appreciably, against a Seahawks team which all about shrinking the opponent's margin for error. If the wind doesn't blow hard, the neutral field will be a big boost to Denver's chances, but it still requires an extremely high level of execution in all phases. I just think the Seahawks have a bigger margin for error than the Broncos.

38
by Bruce Lamon :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 4:44pm

Mitigating the neutral field advantage to Denver may be the impact on special teams. Seattle is about two points per game better on special teams per DVOA (if I understand it correctly), but at sea level the Denver kicking game is more likely to allow returns and to have a shorter field goal range.

59
by Sixknots :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 2:48pm

Agreed, and the Broncos punter won't have the hangtime he gets in the lighter gravity of Denver's altitude. ;}

14
by RickD :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:09pm

I think the fact that the public moved the line 4-5 points in the 24 hours is a good sign that you should bet against the public and take the Seahawks.

The public was overreacting to the conference championship games. The Broncos won relatively easy while the Seahawks barely held on to beat the 49ers.

34
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:54pm

Not to mention:
"OMG Peyton is sooo dreamy! Did you know he'll go into the hall of FAME one day?"
"Who is that "thug" Sherman, and why is he shouting at the poor sideline reporter?"

40
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 5:30pm

I have never heard Peyton described as "dreamy" in any source, even in a tongue-in-cheek manner, prior to now.

Probably because he has more forehead than an uplifted dolphin.

42
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 5:57pm

Clearly you don't know enough 13 year old girls who play fantasy football?

50
by Bobman :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:11am

That part of a dolphin (and other cetaceans) you are referring to is called a melon, no kidding. Helps with their sonar.

Anyway, Peyton's fivehead IS dreamy because you can use it for all sorts of things. An ironing board. White board for diagramming plays and jotting down the grocery list. Projecting movies on Friday nights.... ("Daddy, let's watch that vacation movie where you gave Uncle Eli a wedgie!")

58
by RickD :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 2:04pm

Points for "uplifted dolphin".

2
by Sixknots :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:30pm

It sure seems as though Manning and the Broncos excell at short middle passing. How is Moreno at pass blocking on shot plays?

18
by cjfarls :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:22pm

Moreno is a very good blocker.

Ball is also good, and much improved after the typical early season rookie learning curve.

3
by stan (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:40pm

Peyton's receivers have ALWAYS been overrated. I can't think of any HOF receiver who disappeared in games against tough, physical DBs as much Marvin. The Colts never had a receiver who would fight for a jump ball. In the modern NFL where QBs rely so often on big physical receivers to "make plays", Indy never had one. Thomas and Thomas are a little more physically imposing than what he had in Indy, but neither is in the top echelon.

5
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:52pm

I'll say again that if Alshon Jeffrey had Manning throwing to him, he'd be First Team All Pro by a comfortable margin. Can you imagine what Manning would do to even extremely good defensive backs, with a receiver who just catches everything? It'd be like watching a lioness on the African plains teaching the cubs how to hunt, by toying with a juvenile springbok for three hours.

51
by Bobman :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:16am

The thing is, Will, that's not Peyton's game. I never recall seeing him throw an alley-oop, even with his TE's who had decent size, speed, physicality, and wonderful hands. It's always been the more traditional patterns, timing throws, and great placement. It may have been his receivers, or it may have been how the offense has operated. But he's WAY more likely to throw a back-shoulder pass knee high where his WR is the only guy who can grab it, he snags it and falls OB to stop the clock, rather than a jump ball.

I was often frustrated at the end of halves when he'd kneel with 20 seconds left rather than gun for a couple jump balls or DPIs. Was it arm strength? Offensive design? Beats me.

56
by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:27am

The thing is that with Manning's placement, a guy like Jeffrey would make even great dbs look pedestrian. It seems like every time I've watched the Broncos the last twp years, I've seen, at least a couple of times, a perfectly placed ball dropped by a Denver receiver, due to some fairly normal contention by the db. They just don't have good ball skills, which is kind of odd for the most prolific offense ever.

15
by RickD :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:16pm

I would agree, except for Reggie Wayne. Also, Pierre Garcon has looked better with the Redskins than he did with Peyton.

As for Wes Welker, he's the most underrated overrated WR in the league.

There is a serious point to be made about how any and every WR needs a QB to throw him the ball. Demaryius Thomas is an excellent case study to prove that point. Before Peyton got to Denver, we sort of knew he had talent, but he was limited by the weak QB play. With Peyton throwing the balls to him, Thomas is an all-Pro.

19
by justanothersteve :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:33pm

Larry Fitzgerald is also a good case study.

26
by RickD :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:50pm

One of Fitzgerald's best seasons was 2011, with SkeltonKolb at QB. That didn't last, though, as 2012 was poor (by his standards). Bringing in Palmer hasn't helped.

Most of his best seasons were with Warner at QB, but it's not exactly a 1-to-1 thing.

Weird career stats. High variance.

37
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 4:32pm

Wayne isn't a terribly physical receiver; he's a good route runner and gets off press coverage fairly well, but he isn't a Brandon Marshall type of receiver who impresses you with his work on 50-50 balls. Garcon is a little more physical, but he looked great in Indianapolis, too; right up until he dropped the passes. He has improved his hands a lot.

Manning has always done well regardless of his receivers (and even his o-line). The last couple of years in Indy, and especially 2010, were a clinic in QB talent overcoming a falling-apart ballclub. He took a team to the Super Bowl in 2009 that won 2 games 2 years later.

I agree about Alshon Jeffery. I've always wondered what Manning would do if given a receiver who would win sideline contests with tough DBs. Decker was supposed to be that guy, but has turned into a graduate of the Tom Brady School of playing for the referees as much as the ball.

46
by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 8:17pm

That 2009 team also lost their #2 and #3 receivers from the previous season less than a quarter into the season. Harrison retired in the offseason, and DVOA-pet Anthony Gonzalez tore his ACL on a non-contact play in the 1st quarter against Jacksonville (and was never heard from again.....). Manning proceeded to lead that team to win every game they tried to win outside of one.

What am I saying? Peyton Manning is good at football. He's gotten to play with some good receivers, but he's made them more than they've made him.

47
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 9:08pm

The #2 receiver in 2008 was Dallas Clark, and he wasn't lost for 2009. Gonzalez was a big loss, but Harrison was basically replacement level, and that's with Manning throwing him the ball, so losing him wasn't that bad.

48
by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 9:13pm

He was still better than a 6-th round pick from 2008 in Garcon, or a 5-th round rookie in Collie heading into 2009.

49
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 9:32pm

I don't see why that's axiomatic just because of their draft position. Doug Baldwin was undrafted, for example, and still had a terrific rookie season despite catching passes from Tarvaris Jackson.

4
by CBPodge :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:42pm

WHERE ARE MY PROBOWL AUDIBLES AT THE LINE?!

What, you didn't all watch it?

8
by Theo :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:19pm

It was pretty good this year.
As Collinsworth stated "like the Pro Bowl used to be played"

9
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:20pm

It really bugs me that they called the rosters "Team Rice" and "Team Sanders." Football players suffer from enough anonymity as it is with pads/helmets without having their pro bowl appearances suborned by a HOF's identity. I didn't watch a down (or even think to try to) but the game was 22-21, so it looks like the outcome was more entertaining than most pro bowls.

All we really want to know is: who got picked last?

PS - I really hate the pro bowl scheduling. Having it during the Superbowl bye week so that the Superbowl teams can't compete has always stuck me as really lame. Now that I think about it, I haven't watched a single pro bowl since they went to the current schedule. But I'm clearly in the minority.

23
by apk3000 :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:38pm

I thought they moved the Pro Bowl to this week because the Super Bowl participants tended to pull out of the Pro Bowl anyway.

35
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 4:07pm

That could be, although I don't remember that really being the case back when I watched the pro-bowl. Still, moving some of your most high profile participants from "sometimes pulled out" to "cannot play" seems like an odd marketing move.

52
by Bobman :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:21am

I think it was ratings--once the SB was over, fans moved on to skiing hoops, 7 months of slumber, etc.

Manning always said it was way cool being at the PB when the SB champs rolled in a couple days late, being treated like rock stars by a bunch of other players at the top of their games. And of course he wouldn't miss that for the world after he won. Clearly not everybody feels that way (49ers, I'm looking at you)

53
by CBPodge :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:09am

How can you look at the 49ers not wanting to miss the Pro Bowl for the world after winning the Super Bowl, when the Niners would have been turning up after losing a semi-final?

I reckon any player who won the Super Bowl would want to turn up and have fun in Hawaii a couple of weeks later. They probably wouldn't want to put too much effort into preparing for the game though.

54
by CBPodge :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:14am

Have to say though, the draft format would add something to it if the Pro Bowl was held after the Super Bowl. Maybe make the Pro Bowlers on the Super Bowl winning team the captains of one team, with an appropriate Hall of Fame "coach" (so maybe Shannon Sharpe if the Broncos win, Steve Largent if the Seahawks, with the opposition captains being the top vote getters (at the position the Super Bowl winner has a Pro Bowler at (so the top QB after Manning and so on). Might foster a sort of "knock them off their perch" sort of attitude?

28
by Theo :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:02pm

I did expect as much as you (a lame shoot out) but it ended up being a defensive d-line fest.
The corners were allowed to play man-to-man bump coverage and the defenses could stunt the d-line and play cover 2. Add some vanilla blocking schemed and this makes deep passing a lot harder.
So all in all, the QBs were under constant pressure and the game resembled real football.
Add some team mate vs team mate action and a close game (it was won on a 2 point conversion and a missed field goal) and this game was just plain fun to see.

6
by jacobk :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 12:52pm

How sure are we that the four quarterbacks selected did something different than everybody else, as opposed to just acting as the avatars for statistical noise? Suppose every quarterback has a "true" success rate of 30% on deep passes down the middle against the Seahawks. If every quarterback tests Seattle deep five times a game there will be a few guys that have success four or five times out of five.

Put another way, is the way to succeed against the Seahawks: "throw the ball deep down the middle"; or is it: "experience good fortune on your deep shots"?

I think the fact that two of the star performers were Mike Glennon and Matt Schaub puts this question in play a little more than it might be otherwise.

11
by Roadspike73 (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:30pm

I tend to agree on the "avatars of statistical noise" point that you made, although Schaub -did- carve up the Seahawks defense pretty well for 3 quarters (this was before Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman (and the rest of the Seahawks) broke the Texans.

It might be more illuminating to take a look at those shot plays and short middle throws and see if there was a common theme between them (because Seattle has done pretty well defending against those types of plays the rest of the season). I would guess, as noted in the article, the common theme of the successful shot plays was: distract Earl Thomas and then run a double move on Brandon Browner (although T.Y. Hilton did the same to Richard Sherman in the Indy game).

Was the short middle success a question of overloading zones? Was it crossing routes? Rub routes? Crossers out of bunches? Coverage by Thurmond (or Lane) from the slot, or by the linebackers?

45
by The Ancient Mariner :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 8:07pm

Seattle spent the first three quarters against Houston playing straight zone, which they've rarely done otherwise. Schaub's performance isn't all that predictive.

22
by RickD :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:37pm

"How sure are we that the four quarterbacks selected did something different than everybody else, as opposed to just acting as the avatars for statistical noise?"

Because passing a ball isn't a random process?

Let me go to another context to make this point.

Suppose you had a population of 100 people of varying heights. You could model height with reasonable accuracy as a normally distributed variable. But that wouldn't mean that the taller people are "avatars for statistical noise". They are taller for biological reasons - different genes, different childhood nutrition, etc.

The fact that a process can be well modeled by a random distribution doesn't mean that it's caused by randomization.

31
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:07pm

I think his point is that other than Luck, none of the other QBs were particularly great against the other defenses they faced. To use your analogy, it would be like looking at the tall peoples' nearest relatives and not finding any noticeably tall people among them.

25
by jacobk :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:44pm

Passing isn't totally random, but when you start slicing and dicing into relatively small sample sizes I think you need to be careful to rule out random chance. Otherwise you don't know if you've identified an actual strategy or if you're just confirming that lucky teams did better.

Tell you what, given the choice between "Mike Glennon throws a much better deep ball than Drew Brees" and "Mike Glennon had a luckier day with the deep ball than Drew Brees," which statement do you think is more likely to be true?

27
by RickD :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:54pm

"Constant performance levels" and "random results" don't exhaust all the possible types of outcomes.

Unless you want to take the route of "variation = luck" at which point we're arguing philosophy.

32
by jacobk :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:13pm

Philosophy? All I'm asking is, if you were ranking quarterbacks on their ability to throw the deep ball, would you put Mike Glennon or Drew Brees #1 on that list?

29
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:03pm

Well, there is a third option, which is "Mike Glennon has played for such a short amount of time (four games) that Seattle hasn't figured out all of his tendencies yet."

On a side note, I wonder if Wilson gave his defense any tips on beating Glennon. I just can't imagine him actually pointing out Glennon's weaknesses, but he must've noticed them in practice and such.

24
by justanothersteve :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:41pm

The "throw the ball deep down the middle" strategy probably works best when the defense is more concerned about stopping the RB than the QB. I'd guess the Seahawks were more focused on Foster and James than Schaub and Glennon. Richardson was fairly new to the Colts when they played, so he may also have been a bigger concern than he really merited (at least compared to Luck). (Cam is Cam and if he's on he can beat any defense.)

57
by tuluse :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:49am

In this case it doesn't matter. No one was successful without throwing deep. So even if you need good luck, you still have to throw deep to get that luck.

10
by drillz :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:21pm

seems like allowing man 2 man coverage this yr in pro bowl, made the game competative and interesting.

20
by MilkmanDanimal :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:33pm

That was a point Collinsworth made during the game; in zone coverage, if a guy scores a TD, well, it's just that they ran through a certain area. Man coverage? If that guy scores, he scores on me, and pride means players don't want that to happen.

I flipped on the Pro Bowl on a lark, and wound up watching the entire thing. It was an actual football game, and it was genuinely fun to watch. I am stunned and amazed by this fact, but, when Team Rice put the two-point conversion in at the end to go over the top, players were screaming and high-fiving like I have never seen them do in a Pro Bowl.

Whatever they did this year apparently worked, because it means I'm actually most definitely watching it again next year.

13
by Jeff M. :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 1:44pm

The successful types of plays (way downfield and short middle) are exactly the ones we'd expect to work the best against Seattle's standard Cover 3.

The big weaknesses of that scheme are going to be:
1. against 4-verts (where Seattle's counter to this is basically "have Earl Thomas be so fast he can cover two guys at the same time"...which actually works surprisingly well much of the time) or at least having an inside WR/TE running a seam route to occupy the high safety and get single-coverage on the outside
2. running 5-man horizontal stretch patterns against the 4 underneath defenders (which will frequently open up a hole in the short middle).

16
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:16pm

"1. against 4-verts (where Seattle's counter to this is basically "have Earl Thomas be so fast he can cover two guys at the same time"...which actually works surprisingly well much of the time)"

Teams can prevent this by leaving a big gap between the routes of the 2nd and 3rd receivers, so what this sometimes morphs into is "have Richard Sherman watch the QB's eyes so well that he can cover two guys at the same time." This happened on the last play of regular season in 2012, against the Rams (he goes over the play in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbQGlO0B5nY). This was one of the more ridiculous defense schemes I've ever seen. It was near the end of the game with the Rams down by 7, so you'd think Seattle would know that they would be running go routes, and they still called that coverage. Admittedly, it wasn't a good throw, because there shouldn't be anyone that can cover two receivers at the same time (against a good throw, tall DBs like Sherman shouldn't be fast enough and fast DBs like Thomas shouldn't be tall enough)

21
by cjfarls :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:35pm

Trying to bet on Manning staring down a WR and not moving DBs around with his eyes seems a dicey proposition. If they rely on this too much, I'm betting against SEA. Such tactics work great against some QBs, but vs. PM, that seems like a DEF destined to be burned, even though Sherman is an amazing player.

30
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:06pm

I think Seattle's DBs have moved beyond watching a QB's eyes and concentrate more on a QB's tendencies (and I'm guessing Bradford tends not to try testing Sherman on a corner fade). So against elite QBs that are very proficient at looking safeties off, I have seen them anti-bite on where the QBs first look at. That is, Thomas will move away from the direction the play seems to be going towards, and he did this with devastating effect against Brees in the first game (and probably in the second game as well). This means that QBs have to go against their tendencies to beat Seattle. One example of this was Jarius Wright absolutely burning Sherman on a double move this year; Sherman was surely not expecting Ponder to take deep shots, so he was playing it short.

17
by cjfarls :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:18pm

This!

The thing about the SEA DEF is that the cover-3 that is their bread and butter isn't going to confuse Manning at all. He won't overtrust his arm like Kaep and try to force passes past a buzzing safety, etc.

For SEA, it is all about execution. There will be schematic holes in the SEA DEF, and the only way to cover those is either a great passrush (SEA is capable, but DEN has a very good oline), or DBs making huge physical plays (E.g. using Thomas to cover 2-guys vs. 4 verts, or Sherman's great play to finish the game last week one-on-one, etc.).

Most offenses don't have the depth of targets to really force a mismatch against a deep SEA coverage unit. If anyone is going to do it, it will be DEN and I'm guessing mainly gonna be inside for welker and JThomas vs. the LBs. DEN may still not be able to find a "weak link" matchup wise, in which case it falls to Manning to make precision throws vs tight coverage and hit the scheme vulnerabilities, and SEA's ability to limit YAC on the shorter completions that will likely be there.

Should be a great game, and while I think SEA probably should be favored, I can really see it going either way.

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by SJackson (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 3:51pm

I am slightly less taken aback with this article than I was last week's, but the premise and the argument are still flawed to me. However, you have succeeded in sparking the debate, so here's my take.

The common thread in the three SEA losses is a balanced attack and not allowing SEA, particularly the defense, to capitalize off turnovers. These are not exclusive conditions. I am defining balance by having more than 29 rushing attempts (which for DEN would mean about a 60/40 pass-to-run split). SEA had several games where the opponents offensive attack was balanced, but they still came away with the win. In most cases they were able to capitalize off of the turnovers they generated (HOU pick-six comes to mind), and they generated at least one in all but one game and at least two in all but five games.

Since Week 11, when the author says SEA fixed its run defense, they have given up four one hundred yard rushing games, including both playoff games. Each was either a loss or tightly contested late into the fourth quarter. In the other three games they completely shut down the rush. In total, SEA has played in seven games this season where the opposing offense rushed 29 or more times. In those games they have three losses, two overtime wins (TB and HOU), one tightly contested win (Wk 8 STL), and one blowout win (MIN with four TO).

What does this mean for DEN? Maintain a commitment to the run as they have done quite proficiently all season, with only a few glaring exceptions (SD loss - 11 attempts, IND loss - 20 attempts). DEN has the #10 DVOA rushing attack. SEA has only faced two other top ten rushing attacks (#4 CAR, #8 MIN). In this regard, Montee Ball may have a coming out party in the run game as the bigger back, while Knowshon Moreno looks to exploit that soft middle in the pass game.

While turnovers were a major problem early in the year, DEN has only three since week 14. Two of those came in the divisional game, which only resulted in three points. This bodes well for DEN.

As a counterpoint to the article, the author does not take into account the difference between the other OL that SEA faced versus the DEN OL. SEA has only faced three top ten run or pass OL, respectively. While DEN will undoubtedly keep the back in to provide an additional blocker against the blitz, this flies against an obvious DEN strength against the four or five man rush, which is putting five legitimate pass catching threats in play. I'm not saying SEA won't get a sack or two, but I am saying they are facing an OL that has won those battles (see KC games).

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by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 5:58pm

"In total, SEA has played in seven games this season where the opposing offense rushed 29 or more times. In those games they have three losses, two overtime wins (TB and HOU), one tightly contested win (Wk 8 STL), and one blowout win (MIN with four TO).

What does this mean for DEN?"

I think it means: if you want to rush for 29 or more times against Seattle, either get an enormous early lead (without particularly focusing on the run --- the two teams averaged 18 runs and 22 passes to get to their biggest leads) so that you're trying to run out the clock in the second half (TB, Houston), be incompetent enough at throwing the ball that running is the better option (St. Louis, Arizona, Minnesota), or have your QB be a willing rusher, without whose rushes the team wouldn't have reached 29 (Indy, SF). I don't think Denver wants the last two options, and the first one, while highly desirable, is not an actual gameplan.

A similar analysis with respect to Denver's opponents would reveal the same thing. Of their 5 games where the opponent ran for at least 29 times, there was one blowout win (Philadelphia), one close win (at San Diego) and three losses. But two of those losses occurred because of the opposing quarterback, not because of the run game.

36
by RoninX (not verified) :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 4:26pm

Some good points here. The "other" line war (Sea D vs. Den O) should be pretty interesting too. The SEA D line has been a mystery for much of the year. They look absolutely dominant at times and completely pedestrian at others. Despite having to spy Kaep in the NFC champ game the SEA D line mauled the SF O line (a subjectively very strong line, though it didn't grade out as well this year as the last couple) for much of that game. Kapernick's elusiveness and a couple of strong off balanced throws accounted for a huge chunk of the SF WPA in that game.

I've had a tough time disentangling some of the memes of this Superbowl from their context and two of the toughest are Denvers offensive line performance (rank #1 by ProFootballFocus) and Seattle Offense. Both performances are so entwined with the defenses each team has faced (or not faced in the Broncos case) that I end up chasing my tail on the stats. Bottom line is I'm not sure that the Broncos line is really that much better than the 49ers line. There is also the issue of familiarity when it comes to Seattle's performances against the Saints/49ers and it is unclear how much the second (or 3rd in the 9ers case) meetings were impacted by the previous matchups. Not just from a scheme standpoint, but from a man on man actual familiarity with how the opposing lineman (WR, DB etc etc.) moves and reacts.

So much intriguing stuff going on in this game!

39
by cjfarls :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 5:21pm

The other interesting thing on the SEA D-line will be the effect of the no-huddle.

SEA has not played a no huddle team this year, and relies heavily on rotating the D-line with run stoppers vs. passrushers depending on down and distance?

Can they get enough push with their run-stop group? Can the pass-group stop the run? Can they do either if stuck on the field all drive?

A few folks have mentioned this, but it seems to me an under-analyzed matchup issue.

41
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 5:46pm

There is very little reason for Denver to huddle in this game. It won't be loud, and Seattle doesn't stunt much, so I'd expect Manning to mostly call the game from the line of scrimmage, if Seattle wants to swap d-linemen a lot.

One thing I've never looked at closely is whether defenses with a pronounced home field advantage also find it easier to execute press coverage, and not just in the sense of the qb's ability to communicate with receivers prior to the snap. I wonder if a receiver has a much harder time beating press coverage when he has to look for the snap of the ball, as opposed to hearing a snap cut. It'd take s pretty significant amount of charting data in noisy stadiums, over a long period of time, to get a sense of it, but I don't find the notion unlikely.

44
by EricL :: Mon, 01/27/2014 - 7:05pm

From the other side of the ball, I've heard at least two Seattle defenders mention they get a small but noticeable jump on the play at home due to both offense and defense having to react to the same thing: the snap of the ball.

This doesn't necessarily address your question about receivers beating press coverage, but it would certainly help the pass rush, thus adjusting the timing of routes just slightly, possibly making it harder to beat press coverage quickly enough. Is there enough data to fish this out of the noise? Likely not.

55
by CBPodge :: Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:21am

Don't receivers typically look at the ball, rather than listen to the snap count? They all tend to have their heads facing towards the bal at the snap more often than not, and don't come off the ball as quickly as the OL.

That being said, I'm English and have never played american football, so I don't even know how that kind of thing works or is coached, and whether it differs at higher levels (I suggest that hearing the snap count in a kids game where the only crowd is half-watching parents isn't as tricky as hearing it in an NFL or large college stadium!). But based off anecdotal viewing it seems to be the case.