When the Talent Levels Are So Close, You Have to Spread the Field
This Broncos-Seahawks matchup isn’t just the best offense vs. the best defense of the season, it’s the best offense ever (at least statistically) going up against arguably the best defense since the 2000 Ravens (supporting evidence: the Seahawks’ D led the league in turnovers and ranked first in every significant passing category; and making big plays and stopping the pass are the name of the game in today’s NFL).
What’s more, recent history says that if any style of offense is equipped to overcome Seattle’s defense, it would be Denver’s. And if any style of defense is equipped to stymie Denver’s offense, it would be Seattle’s. There is deeper meaning here than simply stating the obvious.
Over the last two years, just four teams have scored 23 or more points against Seattle’s defense. They were the Patriots (23 in Week 6 last year), the Lions (28 in Week 8 last year), the Colts (34 in Week 5 this year, 27 of which came on offense) and the Buccaneers (24 in Week 9 this year). All four of those offenses game-planned the same thing: wide spread formations with receivers aligned outside the numbers (aka “plus splits”).
Not every offense that has spread out against Seattle has scored at least 23 points; but every offense that has posted at least 23 points has spread out. Makes sense, because one of the Seahawks’ greatest strengths is picking up zone assignments from good collective route recognition. A spread dismisses this element and makes everything more individually based on matchups The Broncos, with their lethal three-receiver foundational package, are certainly equipped to spread out.
On the flip side, only two defenses have really slowed down the Broncos’ juggernaut offense this year: the Patriots in Week 12 and the Chargers in Week 15. (Yes, the Broncos scored 31 against the Patriots, but the first seven points came off a Von Miller fumble scoop-and-score and the next 10 were off short fields that were set up by fumble recoveries.) What did the Patriots and Chargers have in common against Denver? They featured hybrid man-zone coverage concepts. That’s what the Seahawks defense is built on (granted, the Seahawks employ a more straightforward approach, particularly compared to the interchangeable approach that the Bolts used).
Of course, it helped in those games that the Broncos were shorthanded. Julius Thomas sat out Week 12 and Wes Welker wasn’t on the field in Week 15. Both were back in the rematch against the Chargers and Patriots, which the Broncos controlled with ease. Nevertheless, while not every team that has played a hybrid man-zone has halted the Broncos offense, every team that has halted the Broncos offense has played a hybrid man-zone. That bodes well for the Seahawks.
Something else to consider….
The common assumption is that snowy weather would favor the Seahawks’ defense. Yes, it would through the air. But on the ground? The Broncos’ running game has been productive largely because it has faced a litany of light boxes, as defenses keep both safeties back against Manning. That element would likely disappear in the snow on Sunday, especially against a defense that, with a rangy free safety like Earl Thomas, naturally uses an eight-man box anyway. But snow can have a greater adverse effect on a run-defending front four.
If the field gets slick, players can’t fire off the ball. We saw the Lions, who like the Seahawks have one of the fiercest D-line’s in football, give up 299 rushing yards in a blizzard at Philadelphia earlier this year. With no explosive get-off, their front four was dominated by the Eagles’ double-teams at the point of attack. The Broncos offensive line is among the best in the league with point-of-attack double-teams, particularly inside where guards Louis Vasquez and Zane Beadles work with drastically improved center Manny Ramirez. A snowy forecast wouldn’t be ideal for Manning, but it could spell a big day for Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball.