One of the first concepts I learned as a young athlete long ago was that when it came to playing defense there is no superior scheme than man to man, when coupled with better players. There are no holes to exploit in a man to man defenses, only players.
This is the key to understanding how Seattle's defense is going to fare when it encounters Denver's offensive attack on Sunday. Seattle's defense is built around simple man concepts coupled with superior personnel, while Denver's offense is built around having more weapons than most teams can account for and a QB who can use all of them..
The Bronco's offense in a nutshell is four legit receiving threats coupled with a back who can catch out of the backfield, and of course Peyton Manning under center poking holes wherever you misallocated your resources. For most teams this is simply too much to handle because capable corners are hard to find, let alone three of them. This of course leads them to play 5 and 6 man boxes that Manning invariably audibles into a running play to Denver's 5th weapon, running back Moreno. That is how Denver broke records this year, that is not how Sunday is going to go.
To the actual match ups then:
The vaunted "Four Horsemen". At receiver the Broncos have legit #1 and #2 starter quality players in D. Thomas and E. Decker. Thomas isn't an elite talent on the lines of Calvin Johnson but he is a top 10-ish quality player with good size and speed. Decker is a solid #2 option, but he really shouldn't scare anyone from an ability standpoint. Seattle has faced better #2 options in division with Boldin and Floyd.
Decker and Thomas will be able to choose whether they want Sherman or Maxwell based on where they line up, but I suspect they will line up Thomas more on Maxwell with the hopes he has an edge while more or less sacrificing Decker to the black hole known as Sherman's side of the field. Neither receiver should be expecting to have a big day as this match up favors the Seahawks on one side of the field and is a push at best for Denver on the other.
Member #3 of the group is slot receiver Wes Welker, who had success against the Seattle secondary the previous season while with the Patriots. If there was a weakness in the secondary it was in the slot, and it was in last season when the nickel corner position was manned by a nearly retired Marcus Trufant. Oft injured corner Walter Thurmond managed to stay healthy for the year and had himself an exceptional break out season save for a minor 4 game spell of the marijuanas that cost him the starting outside corner spot. Welker is a crafty vet, but is physically over matched vs the younger Thurmond. At this point in his career, our very own Doug Baldwin is probably a superior slot receiver, but I do expect him to have a handful of catches and maybe 40 or 50 yards.
The 4th and final member of the group is Julius Thomas at tight end who at 6'5" 250 pounds creates a mismatch for most linebackers and safeties he lines up against. Against Seattle he'll be facing either Kam Chancellor, Bruce Irvin, or K.J. Wright for the most part and will have no built in advantage. The Seattle defense has been like a spirit quest for tight ends this year, where they hope to find themselves but end up wandering around in the desert only to make their way home tired and empty handed. Previous attempts by Tony G., Vernon Davis (3x), and Jimmy Graham (2x) were fruitless endeavors.
The Denver running game.
Denver's offensive line is regarded as an overall strength of the team, but this is misleading in my opinion. What we do know their offensive line can do and do well is what they've done all season: run the ball vs. 5 and 6 man boxes and protect Peyton Manning for two seconds or less. Chris Clark at LT, Zane Beadles at LG, Manny Ramirez at C, Louis Vasquez at RG, and Orlando Franklin at RT on paper are a fairly replaceable group. They graded out well as a unit, but in reality it's because blocking for Peyton Manning is the easiest job a big man can get in the NFL.
Manning and his 4 receiving threats have stretched defenses thin all year long, allowing for cheap and easy yards on the ground but this doesn't mean that Denver has a powerful running game. It is a bye-product of how talent is distributed throughout the leagues. Secondary talent and linebackers with run stopping and coverage ability are hard to come by, most teams don't have a single shut down corner, nor can they afford one. So they are forced to come up with schemes to cover for their lack of superior talent.
And good teams get away with it most of the time, because most QBs (meaning nearly all of them) can't use 4 targets so a team only has to worry about defending one or two per game. For the Seahawks however, that is their team strength and Denver's bread and butter should mostly be neutralized.
So to me, this is question of the game: how will Denver's offensive line play facing 6 and 7 man boxes while the secondary will force them to protect for longer periods of time than they're used to. I don't think they'll hold up the whole game and Moreno isn't hard to bring down.
Denver will likely try to go no huddle and try to free up Manning to throw vs our run formation and they'll probably have moderate success doing it, but Seattle is more than willing to play the dink and dunk game while the secondary plays for an interception on every pass. One out of five drives ends with a turn over for the Hawks.
Three out of four players in the Seattle secondary are all pro and it would have been all four had Maxwell played a full season with his numbers. Deion Sanders has called it arguably the best secondary ever assembled, which is high praise from the best corner ever to play. The Legion of Boom vs. the Four Horsemen is a massive mismatch that is going to force the game to the line of scrimmage.
Seattle is going to get its 25-30 points this game against their defense, and what is going to decide the game is what Denver's offensive line does vs. 7 in the box and how they hold up for 3 and 4 seconds vs. a 4 man front. I like Micheal Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, Clint McDonald and the bunch in that battle.
When Peyton lines up under center in this Super Bowl, virtually every one of the other players on his team will be lined up against a better player than himself. I can't think of a better scheme to beat Peyton Manning.