In preparation for Super Bowl XLVIII we are breaking down the key match up, Peyton Manning versus the Legion of Boom. While everyone and their mother seems to have an opinion on what will happen Sunday, we want to show you what makes the Broncos offense and Seahawks defense so dominant with a quick film study using all 22 film. Today, we examine how Peyton Manning will attack the Seahawks Cover 3 defense using multiple route combinations that create open receivers by overloading an area of the zone.
With Seattle bringing their number one ranked pass defense to Metlife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII; Peyton Manning and the record setting Broncos offense will have their hands full. Yes, they have the most prolific passing game in the history of the NFL featuring the best wide receiver corp and a transcendent quarterback but the Seahawks have the defensive firepower to contain anybody.
As we looked at it on Wednesday, Seattle’s defense is actually quite simple, playing primarily Cover 3 and relying on their outstanding secondary to win one on one match ups. And while the Seahawks have ridden the Cover 3 to the league’s premier pass defense there are still some inherent weaknesses in their staple coverage. Like all zone defenses, Seattle’s Cover 3 defense can be exploited by using zone busters; offensive schemes centered around attacking a single defender with multiple receivers.
The most basic zone buster is a flood route, where the offense floods one side of the field with more receivers than they are defenders to cover them. A less drastic alternative is the flat/curl combination where the underneath defender is caught in between a shallow route in front on him and an intermediate behind him. Last but not least, the brutally simple but effective four verticals route combination, where 4 receivers run simple vertical routes deep to overwhelm the 3 deep defenders.
On Sunday, Peyton Manning will surely incorporate all of these offensive concepts into their game plan in an attempt to move the chains against the Legion of Boom and Co. In addition to these zone busting route combinations, the Broncos will likely feature a lot of their ‘Trips Closed’ formation as it presents a difficult challenge for a defense due to the strong passing formation on one side, trips receivers, and a closed formation, tight end inline, on the other.
The Chargers responded to the Broncos 'Trips Closed' formation by keeping a corner on the closed side and announcing their intention to play zone defense, as they wouldn’t dare play a linebacker on Welker or Thomas in man coverage.
With that knowledge, Peyton Manning attacked the Chargers Cover 3 with a flood concept using a flat/curl route combination to the left side.
With three routes covering the short, intermediate and deep parts of the field, the Chargers zone is spilt between the underneath zones and deep zones enabling an easy completion. While the Seahawks will execute their Cover 3 way better, primarily the inside linebacker will not cheat the far outside therefore making the throw to the curl a difficult one, Manning and the Broncos will definitely use the ‘Trips Closed’ formation in an attempt to flood one side, potentially using the flat/curl off it.
While the flat/curl is a classic route combination against Cover 3 a more traditional flood route, not coming from a trips formation, can be just as effective. Knowing the Seahawks in and out, the 49ers dialed up more than one flood route to pry open the NFC Champions defense.
The two receivers aligned left and Frank Gore leaking out of the backfield on a flat route create a 3 to 2 advantage for the 49ers along the left sideline. Add in an inward breaking dig route, which work well by itself against Cover 3 due to it breaking in between the levels of the zone coverage, and this was an easy pitch and catch for 20 yards.
While most zone busting routes combination rely on stretching a zone and a receiver sitting down in a vacated area, 4 verticals simply overwhelms the 3 deep shell with 4 receivers. It's not complicated but it can be brutally effective as the Broncos showed against the Texans in Week 16.
Although this wasn’t a true 4 verticals, as two of the routes broke off, it demonstrates how effective the concept can be as the Texans cannot account for all 4 receivers. The main issue with attacking the Seahawks with a 4 verticals route combination is they have the best safety in the NFL in Earl Thomas who covers more ground than any other safety with his combination of elite instincts and game changing speed. And if the Seahawks rotate Kam Chancellor into the single high safety as they occasionally do, the Broncos receivers will find out how Seattle’s secondary earned the nickname the Legion of Boom.
Obviously, the Seahawks won’t exclusively play a Cover 3 defense, in fact multiple teams have excluded zone coverage against Manning, and mix in some Man 2, Man 1 and Cover 0 looks. That said, I feel the Seahawks will drop back into their staple defense early and often, confident that they can contain anyone with it. And that is the key to Sunday’s game. If the Seahawks can contain Manning with their Cover 3 and generate some pressure with their front four, the Broncos will be in serious trouble.
On the flip side, if Manning and Co. are able to pick apart the Cover 3 expect the Seahawks to switch to their press Man 1 and force the Broncos to match their physicality at the line of scrimmage. And for that reason, Seattle’s ability to play multiple defensive styles at an elite level, I predict the Seahawks to come out on top 27 to 20, despite their lack any offensive firepower outside of Marshawn Lynch.