DK Note: From the archives -- Joshua wrote and published this article about the Seahawks' defensive performance in Super Bowl XLVIII back on February 7th. Whether you missed it the first time around or just need a refresher, hopefully you enjoy it.
Usually, I start these look backs with a narrative. This week calls for something a little different after the game we saw on Sunday. I just couldn't stop thinking about what I had felt going in:
We have the best defensive mind in football and it isn't even that close.
I was considering how to approach this game after such a dominating win where the defense created 17 points off turnovers and realized that I hadn't been teaching folks nearly enough or discussing Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn's approach to defensive study of an opponent. Pete Carroll let us know his basic approach to defense early and often starting out, base defense on the first two downs and then the "fun" starts on third down.
I didn't really understand in full why he approached it that way, but as I watched his approach on third downs each week from 2010 to now, I was always impressed with how much strain his defenses could put on teams in that particular down.
My favorite was a game against Eli Manning in 2011 that game would look a little more like a shootout than it should have, thanks to impressive catches by Victor Cruz, but all I remember about that game was how Pete and Gus Bradley had designed coverages and pressure looks on third down to force Eli Manning to throw the ball outside toward the sideline. Anyone that had watched Eli Manning or had analyzed his third down approach would know that he liked to throw mostly in the middle of the field on this down in throwing situations. Pete and Gus made sure he couldn't easily solve their defense for those throws. The third down numbers were something like 2/15 if I remember right, and featured incompletions, sacks and a pick by Earl Thomas.
There are other examples, including against Joe Flacco, the Seahawks abandoned all idea of covering short throws or flat routes, because Joe never throws those. I watched as Baltimore threw it 50 times in a loss and the coverage was just so soft against anything underneath they could have run for ages. Pete and Gus new that Joe, 1) isn't as accurate on short patterns and 2) He's going to come back to those throws so late that the defense should be able to rally and tackle. Why give them those throws, or dare them to try and beat you with anything? I'm getting to that, hold on, be patient.
So a couple of things I realized about focusing on third downs as your exotic scheme down or your "fun" down as Pete and his players put it is, 1) The offense is going to limit itself for you. Why? They need to pick up a first down most likely (if it isn't redzone, goaline). So a team with an 80-play playbook is suddenly only going to use about 20 of their plays here, their best executed and most familiar, sometimes called "money" plays.
This leads into the second and key part about this for Pete 2) With limited offense comes less plays to study and scheme for. In the best games by offenses you might have 12-15 plays per game that are on this down. In most cases think 10-12, so now, in film study you can pull up 50 plays all on third down and start scheming to take those downs apart.
Sometimes, you may even get a look and you prep for it because you know a team calls it at least once in a key situation. This was the case with Pete and Dan on a call against Houston on a 3rd and 4 look, which saw Richard Sherman get a pick six to help bring the Seahawks back in one of the biggest signature victories of the season.
It's all by design and Houston had run the same exact play from the same look the week before against Tennessee.
Pete and Dan and the defense took apart their own tape against the Broncos in preseason -- which was at least something to go on -- but with two weeks to prepare and plenty of hours to take apart the Broncos offense they could not only look at their own tape, but all 205 third downs Denver faced this year. Denver, according to the team website, recorded 95 conversions on third down on 205 attempts. That's a damn good clip.
So now that we know these basics, here are some of my own thoughts as to how Pete and Dan approached study and preparation. First, they would cut up every one of those third downs and categorize them into distance, short, medium and long. This being done, they would then study route combinations as well as how Peyton would move through his progressions on each. They would also, (this is my own observation again after watching Pete for the last four years) be looking for, not a tendency per se or a weakness, but something obvious that the QB is not doing and basically invite him to do that thing. I know that some of this might not make a whole ton of sense, but let me show you by example what I mean.
The following diagram by Danny Kelly shows a basic three wide shotgun with an H-Back Julius Thomas and a back beside Peyton -- either Ball or Moreno. (I am laying a basic foundation, this isn't an actual play by the Broncos). The key of this play is to force the strong safety to declare either against the go-route, or the in-cut route from the slot. This is the main component of the play. This was a common play for the 2005 Seahawks offense that I have adapted with the fantastic help of Danny for the sake of this demonstration. You would see this particular concept about five times a game.
Here's the thing though, if the Safety doesn't declare quick enough or lurks on this concept, it blows up, that's it. You can throw it to the back in the flat or the H-back possibly, but the Seahawks almost never threw the curl backside on this play. So the whole defense knows where the ball wants to go here, it's to the slot, so what they can do is make sure they scheme to pinch the route a bit with a Linebacker or in this case Chancellor who would be in the box. This now allows Earl to take the go if he must and the coverage can basically give the QB the curl route, while everything else is pinched doubled or dead.
In this situation if the QB is fast enough through his progressions and good at identifying the defensive response (post snap) and he gets to the Curl route on the play, Pete is just going to tip his cap and say congratulations, but if the QB holds the ball and comes to that Curl late? The man coverage has a great chance to break up the pass or make an interception.
To beat the play you just have to understand what a QB isn't doing and force him to do that rather than trying to compete with him in the areas where he is the best, and most comfortable. Pete isn't the only defensive mind to think of this, but he is one that isn't too worried about creating exotic looks every down or over-scheming an opponent. There are a lot of coaches in this league that like some players want to make the big play, want to design the perfect unbeatable scheme and call the perfect game as a coach. Pete wants to win however they can.
As I've watched Pete over the years I've seen fundamental football be his mantra -- fans call it bend but don't break -- but as I said, it's more about creating the third down opportunities where an offense will help you by limiting itself, creating chances for you to cause takeaways or force punts. In games where he felt the offense might struggle a bit, he's brought early pressures to cause a turnover or at least try and change field position.
Whew, now with all that out of the way, lets breakdown some plays shall we?
[First Quarter 9:52 2nd and 7 Throw to D. Thomas tackle by K. Chancellor for two yards.]
Everyone knows this play, it sets the tone, but it establishes something again that I pointed to against the 49ers. The Seahawks do not man-cover crossing patterns by outside players, instead they allow the outside corners to bail deep and replace the safeties who are now crashing down on these patterns.
The whole reason Seattle can accomplish this response is team speed and size. The Patriots can't do this, the Jets can't. The 49ers don't even do this. As soon as I saw the pattern develop on TV I was looking for Chancellor or Thomas to cut it down. I almost felt as though I could hear Kam as he said "MINE MINE MINE MINE MINE MINE MINE..." *BOOM*
A statement was made on the second play. If you haven't heard it, you need to hear Warren Moon's sphincter clinching gasp on the radio broadcast as he sees Peyton's decision and the result. It's epic.
Seattle's seen this play all year and teams just keep trying it. The first team to really employ it as a basic concept against the Seahawks was St. Louis, though in their defense they were probably trying to give Kellen Clemens some easy throws rather than worrying about running us out of man coverage looks.
I like this play the most because of the solid execution that creates the hit so quickly. Kam sees this perfectly, is tracking it and unloads with authority all discipline and film study. The team also realized it would be insane to create a log-jam against these routes by forcing their big corners to play those routes all the way through when they have safeties like Earl and Kam to clean up the chaos.
[First Quarter 1:15 3rd and 7 pass intended for J. Thomas INTERCEPTED by K. Chancellor.]
Heh, Seattle dials a blitz on their fun down and Peyton feels it instantly.
Julius Thomas is covered on the play by K.J. Wright, but is really Manning's only shot at the first down because he has to get the ball out quickly under pressure. He gets a good swing at it, but the ball sails high and over Thomas' head and is picked by Chancellor, who comes over the top as he sees Manning key on Thomas. If you watch the replay, Manning's eyes get really big as he realizes he's in trouble. It's hard to say why he misses this though, as I said, he had a really good swing at it and his mechanics were solid.
Pick for Kam Bam.
[Second Quarter 3:45 3rd and 13 Pass INTERCEPTED by Malcolm Smith returned for a TOUCHDOWN]
The Seahawks allow a drive here, but it's a bit of a change for the Broncos as they managed to pick up the blitz on a 3rd and 9 earlier in the drive. From there, it was a ton of short throws and almost every third down play was 3rd and 1, hairs were holding the Broncos from the sticks on this drive. When a tripping call by the Broncos on Red Bryant finally slowed their momentum, Seattle settled in like a squad of sharks at a chum feast.
The first play was a tight-end screen, sniffed out by Mebane, which pushed it to a 2nd and 22. Seattle showed a rare two deep safety look and Manning ran a draw to Moreno - this gained nine yards.
On 3rd and 13 Seattle shows a cover 2 and most everyone is spaced well in coverage pre-snap. Here's what happens post snap for the Broncos though:
Cliff Avril is a speed rusher most times and will put a lot of that on film. Watch Orlando Franklin here, it looks to me like he wants to swing wide and match Avril's speed and force him past Manning, knowing that this is a deeper throw for the first down. Avril instead bull rushes Franklin who now has his feet going in the wrong direction to counter him and so he tries to work as best he can to contain Cliff Avril's smart rush.
Unfortunately there is no chance for Manning to attempt the throw he wants, because as he gets ready to throw, Avril hits his arm as it comes forward. This takes away all the force from the attempt, leaving a floater for Malcolm Smith to pick and return for a touchdown.
[Second Quarter 1:06 4th and 2 Pass incomplete turnover on downs]
This play is a big sign in the game that John Fox and Peyton Manning felt they needed a touchdown more than a field goal. They were probably right, but this is a feather in the cap to the defense here. Manning looks to the weak side where Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker are working and never really comes off it. The play develops and Peyton gets rid of the ball.
I actually think Thurmond has a great shot at picking this off if it isn't tipped, possibly for six, but Clemons forces the issue and tips Peyton's throw. Ultimately the Seahawks get the ball anyway.
[Third Quarter 6:10 1st and 10 Pass complete D. Thomas 18 yards FUMBLE forced by Byron Maxwell recovered by Malcolm Smith.]
The theme for Thursday practice is turnovers. This here is a key reason why Seattle rates as the best in the league. Bobby Wagner plays a bit in between here and that gives enough room for Manning to throw the ball into #88 on the deep crosser.
Maxwell comes in to greet the man and as he starts the tackle process with one arm he punches through the pocket holding the ball forcing a fumble with the other. I remember Pete showing this technique before but hadn't remembered it until Danny Kelly mentioned it on twitter later after the game.
This is just Pete's out of the box coaching again doing work and creating results as he has over the last four years. It's no surprise here that after this play Seattle's offense finished off any idea of a comeback and allowed the defense to shift into total cruise control for the remainder of the contest.
Overview of the game:
I notice weird things as a football analyst at heart. I also remember obscure interviews from players over the years. I came away from reviewing this game twice and realized the one thing Pete was daring Manning to do -- throw over the middle of the field. Throw in between the hash marks. Watch all the coverages down the field and how the middle is open. I also remembered an interview that Trent Green had given at the QB skills competition as one of the best in the league with the Chiefs at the time. When asked about the hardest throw to make in the league he had this to say:
"I really don't like throws over the middle of the field -- shorter throws over the middle are ok, but when you have those mid-range to deep throws they're hard to gauge how much you need to get on the ball and the type of swing you get isn't like throws toward the sideline, they're kind of weird to square up."
It's no shock with Peyton's diminished arm strength that these throws are the ones he avoids or even his offense avoids having a lot of. The three times I saw him throw over the middle on purpose one was picked off to Julius Thomas, one was incomplete to #88 and the other was a weird miscommunication of some type that was almost picked by Richard Sherman.
So, as a defense the Seahawks could play everything to the outside for the entirety of the game and every long third down, they were able to take away his primary looks every time and force him to his third and fourth look which allowed the pressure to get home.
The Defense. Though Malcolm Smith is one of my most favorite players in terms of how much he has improved over the years, there are just too many guys who made plays through out the game to make this a singular award this time. Congratulations defense, you did it on the biggest stage against the "best" offense in the league.
I could nit pick here and mention some names, but then, I would just be Douchey McNitpick and no one would ever consider my thoughts of value again. Seahawks are SuperBowl Champions. What's to improve on in this season?