Under Pressure's Super Bowl Preview
by J.J. Cooper
This is going to be a fascinating Super Bowl.
The first-ever Super Bowl to match the league’s best offense by DVOA against the league’s best defense by DVOA, it’s also a matchup of two wildly dissimilar quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning, for all his many amazing attributes, is also a modern day Dan Marino when it comes to avoiding sacks. Like Marino, Manning is a statue when it comes to mobility, but he has the league’s best internal clock. If you are going to sack Manning, it’s almost always because someone else screwed up.
You don’t blitz Manning, because it almost never works. Manning faced a five-man (or larger) pass rush 203 times this year according to ESPN Stats and Information. He was sacked on three of those drop backs. And one of those was a play where he simply dropped the ball with no one around him.
Of Manning’s 18 sacks this year, only five were long sacks. (Our definition of a long sack is one that took 3.2 seconds or more.) Two of those were only that long because Manning took off and ran (or, more accurately, sped up to a slow gallop), which meant it took longer to run him down. None took longer than 3.5 seconds. Only one, the blown play where Manning simply dropped the ball, could be clearly blamed on the quarterback.
This has been true for Manning throughout his career. Wherever he plays, he can turn a mediocre pass-protecting line into a group that seems to combine the attributes of Anthony Munoz, Walter Jones and John Hannah.
Denver led the league in Adjusted Sack Rate this year. They were second last year. But the year before that, with largely the same offensive line but with Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton at quarterback instead of Manning, the Broncos ranked 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
It was the same story when Manning was in Indianapolis. His Colts teams finished first in ASR seven times and second four times. Overall, Manning’s team had finished first or second in ASR in 13 of his 15 seasons. They’ve never finished worse than seventh.
It’s a big reason for Manning’s durability -- the season he missed in 2011 because of his neck injury were the only games he’s missed as a pro. Every other season, he’s started every game his team has played.
Realistically, when playing against Manning, you’re looking to disrupt his delivery rather than bring him to the ground. He gets rid of the ball so quickly that it’s hard to count on getting more than one or two sacks over the course of the 40-to-50 passes he’ll throw in a game. In the playoffs, Manning has dropped back 82 times. He’s had his footwork or throwing motion disrupted in any way by a pass rusher seven times. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones grabbed Manning’s shoulder pad to disrupt a throw on a third-and-goal in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game. That’s the only time Manning has actually been grabbed as he’s thrown. He’s not only not been sacked in the playoffs ... he hasn’t even been knocked off his feet.
Because of his arm-strength limitations, it’s important that Manning have a clean pocket so he can step into his throw. But in the playoffs, he is 5-of-7 for 47 yards and a touchdown on the plays where his throwing motion has been disrupted.
So as good as Seattle’s pass rush is (they were seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate this year), it’s hard to see them being a major factor on Sunday. Simply knocking Manning to the ground a few times is cause for celebration. Manning was sacked four times in a Week 8 game against the Colts and three times in Week 1 against the Ravens. In the Week 8 game, defensive end Robert Mathis simply dominated Chris Clark. If Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril has similar success on Sunday, they are deserving of MVP consideration.
They will have a tough job. Not only does Manning avoid sacks to a degree that no one else currently in the league can emulate, but the Broncos have a very cohesive offensive line that has worked together all season. The Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady to a Lisfranc injury in Week 2, but otherwise, the Broncos offensive line has been remarkably healthy this year. Guards Louis Vasquez and Zane Beadles and center Manny Ramirez have started all 18 games this year. Right tackle Orlando Franklin has started 17 of the 18 games. Left tackle Chris Clark has been a fixture in the lineup ever since he replaced Clady.
With Manning’s sack-avoidance tendencies, there isn’t really a weak link in the Broncos pass protection. But Clark, Denver's replacement for Clady, is the player to attack. Clark has given up 6.5 sacks this year. Franklin has given up 4.5 sacks. Ramirez (1.5 sacks), Vasquez (0 sacks) and Beadles (1 sack) have all been excellent at keeping the interior of Manning’s pocket clean.
If the Broncos suffered an injury, it could swing things. Backup Chris Kuper was a disaster in his lone start of the season (he replaced Orlando Franklin against the Colts in Week 7). In that one start, Kuper gave up 1.5 sacks.
It’s amazing just how different the Seahawks passing game is. While Manning’s Broncos led the league in ASR, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks were dead last.
That can be partially explained by injuries. The Seahawks have had to shuffle their lineup constantly. Like the Broncos, the Seahawks lost their left tackle to a significant injury in Week 2, but Russell Okung made it back from his trip to the injured reserve for a toe injury, missing the required eight games. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was sidelined at roughly the same time with a knee injury that forced him to miss seven games.
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The Seahawks have continued to shuffle their line even after Okung and Giacomini returned. Michael Bowie, a backup tackle who started while Giacomini was out, was inserted into the starting lineup at left guard for the Seattle's first playoff game. The experiment was not considered a success, as Bowie moved to the inactive list for the NFC Championship game, and the rotation of James Carpenter and Paul McQuistan once again shared the job.
McQuistan was in over his head trying to fill in for Okung at left tackle early in the year. He allowed 7.5 sacks during the regular season, but all but one of those came when he was playing tackle. Besides McQuistan, no Seahawks offensive linemen gave up more than three sacks during the regular season.
So with the exception of a guard playing out of position at left tackle, there’s no clear weak link in Seattle's pass protection. So how could the team be dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate? Blame it on Wilson’s desire to try to make things happen.
Wilson is very mobile. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his first two NFL seasons, but he’s even more likely to run around to buy time to throw. Sometimes, it pays off in a big way. This play from the NFC Championship game took nearly 10 seconds of scrambling before Wilson found Doug Baldwin for 51 yards.
But 22 of Seattle's sacks (four more sacks than Manning had all season) could be blamed on Wilson or the play call. Twelve times, Wilson held the ball for four or more seconds on a sack. You get the occasional big play and the drive-killing sack. They both are part of the package.