Nobody knows how Peyton Manning will attack the Seattle Seahawks’ defense. He may not have a choice, to be frank. He may have to settle for underneath throws all night and work his way up the field. It’s entirely possible if his Week 6 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense is any indication.
The Jaguars and Seahawks have a clear disparity in talent, but their infrastructure is the same: they follow the same blueprint, by way of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley becoming the Jaguars’ head coach. As a result, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Seahawks do similar things defensively come Sunday.
What did the Jaguars do to slow Manning down? They kept it simple and stuck to their fundamentals and keys. A lot of Cover 2 and Cover 3, both zone based shells that load the underneath and force Manning to either strike deep or down low.
Cover 2 meant a five under, two-deep zone that placed stress on the safeties to get outside the numbers, something that wasn’t too problematic outside of a handful of plays.
As for Cover 3, it’s a four under, three-deep zone that places stress on the single-high safety to keep his shoulders squared and not commit too early to one receiver. This also wasn’t too much of a problem outside of a handful of plays.
The simplicity is key. There’s very little that can be done to confuse Manning, and defenses that have tried to in the past have found themselves moving far too many parts, and consequently their players are running without discipline. This cannot happen if a team is to succeed in their attempts to slow Manning, who will certainly take advantage.
The Seahawks are unlikely to get creative in defending Manning. They’ll stick to what they know and what’s worked, which falls in line with the aforementioned Cover 3. They’ll probably play this and Cover 1 (Man-Free) more than Cover 2 because they have the personnel to matchup better than the Jaguars did. Additionally, they’ll be able to avoid some of the two-deep shell problems that the Jaguars had, such as in the third quarter.
In what was a surprisingly close 21-19 game, the Broncos had a chance to extend their lead with more than seven minutes left in the third quarter. It was 2nd-and-nine, and the offense had the ball on their own 21-yard line. Manning, who was lined up in Pistol formation with a running back behind him, had a 2×2 set that consisted of two receivers split to each side of the formation, one tight end in-line to his right and another split from the line to his left.
The one to his left was Julius Thomas, and he would be running a bend route into the middle of the field. Ideally, this route would constrain the movement of the strong safety, who was responsible for getting outside the numbers and defending the outside receiver’s route in the defense’s Cover 2 play-call.
When Thomas released off the line, he ran directly at the backpedaling safety for nearly 15 yards before bending toward the middle. Stuck in between defending Thomas’ vertical route and the outside receiver’s, the safety became a non-factor when Thomas turned to the middle because he was no longer his responsibility — that became the middle linebacker’s. However, he also wasn’t able to run to the outside route, where the receiver ran vertically after he was “passed” off by the cornerback to what was supposed to be the safety. As a result, Manning delivered a standing strike to the receiver for a 42-yard catch and run.
Earlier in the game, the Jaguars played a bit more with a single-high shell and found some success while forcing Manning to check down often. This also helped make it easier on the deep safety because the underneath defenders did a good job of sinking deeper and matching the route runners. A fine example came in the first quarter with nearly six minutes left.
The Broncos had a steep down and distance to climb — it was third-and-14. and Manning once again had a 2×2 set surrounding him, except he was in traditional shotgun set this time and with only one tight end, who was in-line to his right. When he looked deep before the snap, he briefly saw a two-deep shell and then a slowly morphing one-deep shell when the strong safety walked down.
At the snap, the free safety backpedaled and the strong safety stood on the Broncos’ logo, playing the role of a hook defender. He was one of two covering the middle; two others covered the curl and flat areas. Deep, two cornerbacks patrolled outside the numbers as the free safety controlled outside the bottom hash.
The Broncos’ pass catchers found little running room. Demaryius Thomas ran a clear-out route near the team’s sideline to help free room for Julius Thomas’ deep crossing route, which he briefly became open on. Underneath, Wes Welker ran a shallow crossing route and was open over the middle, but was quickly closed down by the strong safety and near linebacker. And Eric Decker ran a dig route on the opposite end of Demaryius Thomas, but found himself covered over the top and underneath. Eventually, Manning settled for a checkdown pass to running back Knowshon Moreno.
The key to closing down Manning’s passing lanes was — and always will be — playing fundamentally sound and forcing him to work his way up the field. Once he’s succumbed to that, his patience is tested and his pass catchers take a beating, something that the Seahawks have been doing all season long by playing single-high coverages and flooding the underneath.
But can they do it to Manning and the Broncos?