As I continue to think about one game and only one game, what I’m mostly thinking about are how the teams involved could win that one game (I may have also spent some time thinking about how often Joe Buck will say “Beast Mode” and what Bruno Mars will wear on his head).
So since writing down my football thoughts is what I do, over the next two days I’m going to lay out what I believe are the three main factors which give each team a very legitimate chance to win what’s become a mind-numbingly close matchup. Starting with the Broncos…
1. A defense can limit one Thomas, but not both
I suppose it’s possible, but right now sufficiently containing both of the Broncos’ pass catching fellows who have Thomas (Julius and Demaryius) as their surname seems difficult, to be kind.
Of course, if one defense can do it and match the dueling physical monstrosities, the Seahawks would be that defense. They’re ridiculously good against tight ends, and lately that’s even applied to the upper echelon awesomeness of the position. Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham combined for just 24 receiving yards over the past two weeks, a shutdown effort led by the return of athletic linebacker K.J. Wright.
Here’s the task at hand. Julius and Demaryius combined to catch 26 of Manning’s 55 regular-season touchdown passes, and they also combined for 2,198 receiving yards, which is 40 percent of Manning’s overall yardage. Oh, and with 19 and 10 respectively, they combined for a similar percentage of Manning’s 68 completions for 20 yards or more (42.6).
But perhaps the most daunting threat from Julius and Demaryius happens after the play has been removed from Manning’s hands. About that…
2. Underneath looks only? Yeah, we can do that
There will likely be little deep for Manning, because a secondary with three Pro Bowlers drains that away quickly, and the Seahawks allowed a league low 30 passes for +20 yards. When Denver has the ball offensively then Manning will often take what he’s offered, and through the Broncos’ frequent use of trips and bunch sets that create both confusion and space, he’ll be given opportunities to find intermediate targets.
We saw that frequently throughout the season, when Manning would take a handful of shots deep, but often his drives were methodical and strategic as offensive coordinator Adam Gase concentrated on shorter, high-percentage throws. That system was particularly on display against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, when both of Denver’s touchdowns were scored on drives of 80 yards or more in length (one was a 93-yarder) which each sucked back over seven minutes of game clock. Manning threw 11 of his 32 completions on those drives, and the longest one went for a modest 18 yards.
Within that short game is the Broncos’ screen game, which has led to many yards after many short passes. That’s why with their large bodies that mash other large bodies as they run fast in space, Thomas x2 is the answer to Seattle’s press coverage. Above I dropped some fun combined numbers for Julius and Demaryius, and here’s another one: combined they had 981 yards after the catch during the regular season, with Demaryius finishing second overall in that metric (633).
The chunks came frequently in large slices off of those screens and short passes to the flats, with Julius scoring on a 74-yard reception that traveled three yards through the air in Week 10, and Demaryius doing this on opening night…
3. The beef can contain the beast
The focus for 10 days now has been on the Broncos’ top-ranked offense and it’s colossal clash with the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense. And rightfully so, as that’s what should happen when we’re about to watch the first Super Bowl matchup between the top-ranked offense and defense since 1990, and only the sixth in league history since the merger. There’s also this piece of incredible…
This is the 1st Super Bowl matchup with top offense in yards + points facing top defense in yards + points allowed.
— gregg rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) January 20, 2014
All of that is tremendous, but there’s still a job to be done by the other two units here, one of which has been ravaged by key injuries. This would be a far more intimidating Broncos pass rush with Von Miller and Derek Wolfe present, and a far more trustworthy secondary if Chris Harris’ ACL was still in one piece, and if he was alongside the also broken Rahim Moore. Those crumblings will provide Russell Wilson with the time required to complete passes, and the green space down field to see them through to their conclusion.
That’s a problem, but it’s one the Broncos can concentrate on, because Terrence Knighton can make sure that Marshawn Lynch isn’t about that action, boss.
Lynch has beast stomped throughout the playoffs thus far, with 249 rushing yards and three touchdowns at an average of five yards per carry, and that’s included runs for 31 and 40 yards. But the beast will find chewing on “Pot Roast” far more difficult.
That’s the delightful nickname for Knighton, who’s the beef and run stuffer in the Broncos’ front seven, and he’s strongly supported by linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. Even at 335 pounds Knighton is quick, and he penetrates, reads, and blocks running lanes, often forcing a bounce to the outside. Lately, all that has resulted in production from opposing running backs that resides somewhere between poor and non-existent. Over their two playoff games against the Patriots and Chargers, the Broncos have held all running backs to just 112 yards.
However, if Knighton is neutralized and ineffective, the holes left by those injuries will quickly become glaring. With his run containment and consistent penetration as a pass rusher, Knighton has been the anchor holding a defense that’s missing five starters together.