On paper, you couldn’t ask for a better Super Bowl matchup than the Denver Broncos vs. the Seattle Seahawks. Not only is it exceedingly rare for a title game to pit the No. 1 seeds in each conference against each other, but this will be just the fifth time since the AFL-NFL merger that the league’s top-scoring offense will play the top-scoring defense in the Super Bowl.
Yet even best offense vs. best defense is too broad to fully explain what make this particular matchup so intriguing. This season, the Broncos pass offense, lead by presumptive NFL MVP Peyton Manning, was the most prolific in the history of NFL football, as the Broncos scored a record 606 points at an average of 37.9 per game, over 10 points higher than the No. 2 team, the Philadelphia Eagles, who averaged 27.6. Seattle’s pass defense was also the league-leader, holding teams to just 172 yards passing yards and 14.4 points per game on average, a remarkable figure in an era of pass-heavy attacks.
If Seattle’s pass defense shuts down Manning and plays a major role in the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory, the 2013 Seahawks deserve to join the ranks of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, and the 1985 Chicago Bears as one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. Here’s a look at five plays that illustrate the strengths of Seahawks, both on defense and offense:
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Richard Sherman’s game-clinching tip in the NFC Championship could not have been more emblematic of the Seahawks biggest strength: Creating turnovers in the game’s biggest moments. Since their very first game of the season -- a 12-7 win road win over the Carolina Panthers that would eventually give the 13-3 Seahawks the No. 1 seed over the 12-4 Panthers -- Seattle has come up with game-altering turnovers just when they needed them the most.
Just watch the play above. D’Angelo Williams breaks through to the secondary and appears to be on the verge of capping a lengthy drive that started at the Panthers 20. But Earl Thomas, the best free safety in the NFL and strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year, continues his pursuit even after being stiff-armed, and punches out the ball for a Tony McDaniels fumble recovery. It wasn’t just that Seattle lead the NFL with 39 turnovers this season; time and time again, those fumbles and picks came during the game’s most pivotal juncture.
Another of Seattle's defensive strengths is stopping teams when they get in the red zone, ranking No. 1 in points per red zone trip, per Football Outsiders. That strength will be tested when Seattle takes on Denver, who scored touchdowns on nearly 73 percent of their trips inside the 20 yard-line, the best in the NFL.
The Seahawks five-play goal-line stand against the Rams in Week 8 secured the victory in a game they had no business winning. Seattle's offensive line was being blown up by Robert Quinn and Jake Long and, excluding a touchdown that was scored on an 80-yard bomb to Golden Tate, the Seahawks managed just 55 yards of offense the entire game. Seattle's defense struggled as well, giving up 200 yards rushing, their second-most of the season, but they managed to hold St. Louis to field goals to keep themselves in the game.
On the final series, the Rams were putting together a phenomenal clock-gobbling drive that started at their own 3-yard line when a Richardson run got the ball down to the 6 with under a minute to go. On first down, Kellen Clemens threw the ball away on play-action with no one open. On 2nd down, Richardson's run up the middle looked like it might go for a TD, until Thomas flies in from seven yards deep in the end zone and knocks him flat in his tracks at the 3. On 3rd down, Givens drops a short pass that probably wouldn't have gotten a TD, but the Seahawks were offside and the ball was moved up to the 1½ yard line. Richardson is stuffed again with the help of Earl Thomas on 3rd down, setting up the game’s final play with :04 seconds left. Inexplicably, St. Louis decided to go with an empty backfield, which the Seahawks countered with a blitz, forcing Clemens into a rushed throw that had no chance for his receiver. Game over.
St. Louis had five chances to punch the ball in from the 6-yard line and came up short, not so much because of their own miscues but because of Seattle's ridiculous goal-line defense. It's among the most impressive of any string of plays this year.
Seattle didn’t have a single player reach double-digits in sacks, yet finished in the top 10 with 44 sacks this season. That speaks to the depth that Seattle has along their defensive line, where defensive ends Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, and Red Bryant rotate in and out and regularly harass quarterbacks in the backfield.
Yet Seattle’s defensive linemen aren’t the only ones responsible for the quarterback pressures. The Seahawks are outstanding at disguising blitzes from their linebackers and even defensive backs, as this clip illustrates. With Carson Palmer staring down a rush from unblocked cornerback Jeremy Lane, he forces a quick throw into the middle that’s tipped by Clemons and picked off by Malcolm Smith (who proved last game that he has something of a knack for those types of interceptions). It’s telling that a defensive back, linebacker, and defensive lineman were all involved in the play, and that the roles you would expect them to play in it were essentially reversed.
No NFL quarterback is better at making accurate throws while on the run than Russell Wilson. His elusiveness when facing a pass rush is more like Donovan McNabb than Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III, in that he looks to throw first, run second. Most of his rushes, including the 10-yard TD run on the play after this highlight, come on designed plays or read-option, not scrambles that come when his receivers are covered. In fact, as we saw in the Saints game, Wilson is outstanding at moving up in the pocket like he’s going to run, getting the defender to bite, then dumping it off right at the line of scrimmage to a now uncovered receiver.
Wilson is especially good at throwing his receivers open on sideline throws, as the clip above demonstrates. Not only does he spin away from an unblocked blitzer, but he gets away from the defensive end, then delivers his throw on the run and in the face of a third defender. Perhaps most impressively, it’s not a desperation heave, but a perfectly thrown ball along the sidelines that only his receiver can catch.
Which brings us to the single-most overlooked area of the Seahawks team, the receiving corps. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse all consistently made spectacular catches like the one above, but their contributions were obscured thanks to Seattle’s run-first offense (the Seahawks were 26th in passing, 4th in rushing). Seattle’s passing game may not have been prolific, but their receivers do a fantastic job within a system that’s heavy on the improvisation created by Wilson’s knack for extending plays.
Because of his power-running style and remarkable game-in, game-out consistency (averaging 98.4 combined yards per game) it’s hard to come up with a single moment that typified Marshawn Lynch’s season and his role in Seattle’s offense. Instead, just enjoy this video of Beast mode highlights set to the appropriately terrifying “Night on Bald Mountain.”
Lynch really is one of the scariest players in football, because so much of what he does comes after first contact. A perfect pre-snap diagnosis of the play still doesn’t help defenses when Marshawn gets into Beast Mode, because he simply drags defenders forward with him, turning a two-yard gain into four. Against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round, Lynch broke 13 tackles and got 96 of his 140 yards after first contact. The following week, the Niners made it a point of emphasis to stop him; Lynch still ripped off 83 of his 109 yards against San Francisco after contact.
The importance of Lynch’s role as a steadying force within Seattle’s offense can not be overstated. According to Pro Football Reference, only six of Lynch’s 301 regular-season touches went for more than 20 yards, so his numbers weren’t inflated by big runs. Instead, with almost 93 percent of his touches coming on first or second down, Lynch specializes in the hard-earned, grind-it-out runs that give you a chance on third-down. Russell Wilson had his moments, but in the regular-season and now the playoffs, Marshawn Lynch is Seattle’s best offensive weapon.