We all understand that preseason football games are meaningless, and in the second half August football can make humans do unhealthy things to themselves. Yet since our thirst for football has reached such a dire state late each summer after eight months of cold, barren nothingness, we not only watch preseason football, we pay to watch preseason football.
But it’s not entirely meaningless. The scoreboard certainly is, as friends don’t let friends care at all about the score of a preseason game. And we all understand that a proverbial rust shaking process is ongoing, and both offensive and defensive coordinators could be doing some experimenting during a time designed for just that.
The on-field results matter, though. That long completed pass happened, and so did the fumble that followed. Those, say, four sacks surrendered? They happened too, and so did the formations which saw success against a specific defense. The outcome of each play and who beat who matters, which is why right now as we look ahead to next Sunday, a mid-August night matters.
That’s when the Denver Broncos went to Seattle to play the Seahawks, their Super Bowl opponent.
It was the second week of the preseason, and I won’t even mention the final score because — again, this time with feeling — it doesn’t matter at all.
Most of the starters played the entire first half. Some of them are missing now due to injuries, of course, with Von Miller, Chris Harris, and Brandon Browner chief among them, while Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril, and Chris Clemons didn’t play. The Seahawks’ defensive front is so stupid deep that we can still use this game as a reasonable gauge of the pressure set to reach Manning, though that knob will clearly be cranked several notches.
Let’s see what we can see then. Mostly, I saw three things…
1. Chunks upon chunks: The Seahawks had two scoring plays that went for over 100 yards, each coming with their offense watching. That shouldn’t happen regardless of the date on the calendar, and even if you put a team of wiener dogs on the field.
The first came on a 107-yard Jermaine Kearse kickoff return. The return game is a very real potential area of hurt for both teams in Super Bowl XLVIII, and one that could be overlooked. Trindon Holliday has returns for 81 and 105 yards this year, while just last week Doug Baldwin returned a punt 69 yards that set up a field goal.
The other absurdly chunky play came when Browner stripped Ronnie Hillman at the goal-line, and then returned it 106 yards for a touchdown. Browner (who forced two fumbles during the game in question) may be out, but there’s still plenty of rip and strip power among the Seahawks’ defenders. They forced 11 fumbles throughout the season while leading the league with 39 takeaways, four of which turned into touchdowns (Kansas City led the league with seven defensive touchdowns).
But the Broncos countered with some chunkiness of their own. Of Peyton Manning’s 11 completions, five of them went for at least 15 yards, including a 23-yarder to Demaryius Thomas when he was one-on-one with Richard Sherman.
2. Precision: Whenever either quarterback dropped back to pass, wonderful things usually followed. Of the 28 total passes attempted by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, only nine didn’t reach their desired destination as they combined for a 67.9 completion percentage, and 290 passing yards over just one half (163 for Manning, who left midway through the second quarter, and 127 for Wilson with two touchdowns).
Of Manning’s four incompletions, one of them was a throw away, which is surprising efficiency over 16 attempts against a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 59.0 percent of their passes throughout the regular season. The same can be said for Wilson, who was facing a Broncos defensive backfield with a healthy Chris Harris, and a not yet broken Champ Bailey who wouldn’t play again after this game until Week 6, and he still isn’t quite right.
What’s most impressive against this Seattle defense is that over Manning’s five drives (on one he marched 80 yards down the field for a touchdown, and another went 79 yards before a fumble at the goal-line), the Broncos gained 217 yards on 33 plays, an average of 6.6 yards per play. The Seahawks’ per play average yards allowed throughout the regular season? A league leading 4.4.
As Chase Stuart notes (oh and hey, go read his excellent breakdown of each Manning drive against these Hawks), Manning shattered another Seattle defensive average. Throughout the regular season they surrendered an average of 26 yards per drive, and at 43.4 Manning far exceeded that.
3. Tight end troubles: Browner is the only Seattle defensive back who started in August and won’t start next Sunday, and he’s now been replaced by the far more effective Byron Maxwell, who has 15 passes defensed, five interceptions, and one forced fumble over just seven starts including the playoffs. So keep that overall stacked and healthy reality of the Seahawks’ secondary fresh in your mind, and then consider this: over just the Broncos’ first three drives back in August, Julius Thomas had 70 receiving yards.
That includes a fumble on one of Browner’s strips, but it came when Thomas was already 20 yards downfield. Of his four catches, three of them went for at least 15 yards.
With his house-like body that can move like that of a wide receiver, Thomas could present a real problem for Seattle, but not on his own. By himself Thomas is threatening and he’s a scary man, but led by Sherman’s lunacy in both play and sideline spitting interview form, the Seahawks’ secondary can match the brute force of today’s large and fast tight ends. They did it with Vernon Davis all season, holding him to just 57 yards over three games. Even better, over their two playoff games the Seahawks have held Davis and Jimmy Graham to a combined 24 yards.
But the problem with Thomas could lie with another Thomas. On the other side, Demaryius Thomas’ physical style and body is rather tight end-like, checking in at 6’3″ and 229 pounds. To provide room for both of them and to limit the effectiveness of Seattle’s press coverage, in the preseason the Broncos often used bunch formations and crossing routes that ended in high percentage, quick-strike throws. That’s what happened on Orange Julius’ 31-yard reception, when three pass catchers were lined up to Manning’s right and confusion followed, with Thomas then able to gain 27 yards after the catch on a short out route.
So can the Seahawks contain two physical experiments? I’ll go with a shoulder shrug for now, though it feels like if one doesn’t go off, the other will.