Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
27 Jan 2014
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.
59 comments, Last at 28 Jan 2014, 2:48pm by Sixknots