The offseason is officially over, and the Seattle Seahawks will kickoff their 2018 season on Sunday afternoon, away to the Denver Broncos. The Broncos, like the Seahawks, are in the midst of a transition phase. As talent-poor as Denver may appear, playing at altitude is a difficult task and it will be a hard slog for Seattle to defeat the Broncos.
This year’s pre-game column will look a little different to last year’s. Instead of just focusing on what to watch, we’re going to hit on a few different areas: The numbers that matter, matchups to watch and which opposing player you might not know yet, but should. Starting next week, notes on the opponent’s film in 2018 will be included, as well. This week will have primers on Denver’s offense and defense.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
The 2018 season will be the Broncos’ first full year with Bill Musgrave at the helm of the offense, after he took over as offensive coordinator in late November last season. Previously, Musgrave coordinated Derek Carr’s best season to date, in 2016.
Musgrave is best known for his wide use of personnel groupings, not being married to one over another (a glaring fault in other play-callers). During his final season as Raiders offensive coordinator, Musgrave used 11 personnel 28% of the time, 10 personnel 22% and 12 personnel 19%. In the same season, no other team used 11 personnel less than 42%.
Previously having coached under Chip Kelly, Musgrave blends spread concepts with his background in a West Coast offense. Two features of Musgrave’s offense that stems from his experience with Kelly are creative play designs to get the ball into space, and the buzzword of the offseason, RPOs.
On defense, both Vance Joseph and coordinator Joe Woods return for a second season together, meaning the defensive system will remain the same. Up front, regardless of the number of down linemen, they often rush five. As a result, they’ll have either safety, Darian Stewart or Justin Simmons (more on him later), down in the box to make up the numbers.
Replacing a legend like Wade Phillips isn’t an easy task, however Joseph and Woods did improve Denver’s defense in one area. The Broncos’ defense regressed to 21st against the run by DVOA in 2016, Phillips’ final season in Denver. In Woods and Joseph’s first year together, the run defense jumped back up to third in the NFL by DVOA.
On the back-end, Joseph runs a zone heavy defense (about 75-25 zone-to-man)—generally, either single-high or cover-3.
Numbers that Matter
75: The much maligned Germain Ifedi will start his season with a tough assignment, lining up across from former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. In 2017, Miller registered 75 pressures from the defense’s left, the most among all EDGEs. With Bradley Chubb now manning the right, Ifedi can expect to see Miller across from him on every single snap. Thankfully, Ifedi can also expect to have Will Dissly riding sidecar next to him, or getting help via a chip from either the running back or Nick Vannett.
69.2: A core principle of Pete Carroll’s defense is the importance of pressure, viewed almost the same as sacks. During his time with the Seahawks, former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn detailed it perfectly:
“The biggest thing for us is affecting the quarterback, and that may be the hits on him, the times we can move him off the spot. The third-down sacks are critical ones, ‘cause that’s getting off the field. For us, the biggest thing is affecting the quarterback, maybe by the way we rush, maybe by the way we pressure, maybe by the way we cover or combination of all of those. But affecting him is the No. 1 thing.”
Affecting the quarterback, as always, will be crucial against Denver. However, if the back end isn’t doing its job, it may not matter. In 2017, new Broncos signal caller Case Keenum ranked fifth in the NFL in adjusted completion percentage (69.2) under pressure. Keenum was absolutely terrific navigating the pocket and creating outside of it; pass rush and coverage will need to work in unison on Sunday.
5.6: We may be treated to one of the most exciting, and equal, matchups in the NFL when Seattle faces the Broncos. Chris Harris, as sticky of a cornerback as they come, will be tasked with containing Doug Baldwin. Whether Harris follows Baldwin into the slot, or if that responsibility falls elsewhere, remains to be seen. Either way, when the two are across from one another, keep a close eye.
On one side, you have the master of the release, Baldwin. On the other, you have Harris, whose 5.6 yards per target in press coverage was the lowest in the entire league (among qualifying cornerbacks) in 2017. It may not be every snap, but the Baldwin-Harris matchup will be must-watch football at the line of scrimmage.
99: With Aqib Talib now in L.A., reunited with Phillips on the Rams, Bradley Roby has finally made his long awaited move to outside corner. Roby’s position switch has left a vacancy at slot corner, expected to be filled by Tramaine Brock and the recently signed Adam Jones.
However, with Jones just added, it will remain Will Parks and Brock primarily covering the slot. When Parks is in the slot—either in nickel or dime packages—he should be exploited. Last season, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 99.0 when targeting Parks out of the slot. Whether it’s by motion, or if Parks simply plays over Brock, the Seahawks should do everything they can to get him across from Tyler Lockett and force him to cover the shifty slot receiver in space. With Baldwin banged up, it may be their best option.
18: Denver’s pass rush is to be feared, that much is known. But how much does it affect a team’s game-plan? As The Ringer’s Robert Mays pointed out this week, it might just be a whole lot. Opposing offenses used play action just 18% of the time against the Broncos’ defense in 2017, the second-lowest in the NFL. The two years before that? Denver was dead last in the same category.
In Brian Schottenheimer’s last four seasons as an offensive coordinator (Football Outsiders’ play action offense data goes back only as far as 2011), his offenses have used play action 20.5% of the time on average. While the difference may be just a handful of plays, it will be interesting to follow this for two reasons, both in the long-term and short-term: Will Seattle’s use of play action be lower against the Broncos than in the rest of their games this season, and will they rely on more three- and five-step drops, allowing Wilson to release the ball quickly?
85: Denver’s home field advantage in September and October has been written about in several places—Field Gulls (twice!), Optimum Scouting, Mile High Report and The Athletic—so this one will just quickly be reiterated:
- During the first two games of the season since the merger, the Broncos have a winning percentage (85) that towers over the league average (56).
- They are 19-1 in these situations since opening their new stadium in 2001.
The altitude matters, and perhaps it’s no coincidence Denver is opening their season with back-to-back home games for a third consecutive season. Expect Sunday’s game to be as taxing as a September game in Southern California or Miami, and expect a heavy rotation along the defensive line in an effort to keep players fresh.
Matchups to Watch
Justin Coleman versus Emmanuel Sanders: The arrival of Courtland Sutton sparked trade rumors surrounding Demaryius Thomas this offseason, however it appears it’s Sanders, not Thomas, who Sutton is pushing out. Or more specifically, in—to the slot.
In 2017, Sanders ran 27.5% of his routes from the slot. In a small sample size, he did well, finishing just ahead of Lockett in DYAR from the slot. This preseason, Sanders’ percentage of routes from the slot has rocketed up to 63.9%. Sanders’ takeover as the Broncos’ de facto number one and slot receiver may be coming at a perfect time: In 2017, Keenum ranked higher in both DYAR and DVOA when targeting the slot over a receiver split wide.
So, the responsibility of slowing down Keenum’s best option—and most efficient area—falls on Coleman. After a trade sent him to the Seahawks just prior to the regular season in 2017, Coleman enjoyed his best season, one that included two pick-sixes.
Among qualifying cornerbacks, Coleman allowed the fifth lowest passer rating (73.7) when targeted out of the slot in 2017. His fine form carried into the preseason, as Coleman excelled both in coverage and blitzing off the edge, where he registered two hurries and appeared to be shot out of a cannon on his blitzes. Timing and disguise are two massively important traits for corners to have as blitzers, and both were on display in a small sample size in August.
A revamped offensive line versus the Broncos’ NASCAR package: The rich got richer this spring when the best defender in the draft, Bradley Chubb, fell into Denver’s lap at the fifth selection. Not only is Chubb a polished pass rusher, he’s just as steady against the run, pacing college football in run stuff percentage in 2017.
The addition of Chubb not only gives Miller his best running mate since DeMarcus Ware, it allows them to roll out a daunting NASCAR package. In obvious passing situations, Miller and Chubb will remain on the edge, with Shaq Barrett reducing inside and joining DeMarcus Walker in applying pressure from the interior. Shane Ray could give them a rotational option on the edge, as well.
And so, in their first regular season game together, Seattle’s new-look offensive line and coach Mike Solari will have to slow down one of the most fearsome sub packages in the entire NFL. Despite being one of the most talent-poor groups in the NFL in 2017, Solari’s line in New York finished 10th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. In 2016, they were second in the NFL, while surrendering just 22 sacks all season.
An immediate improvement in pass protection from the Seahawks’ line would go a long way, as Seattle attempts to be just the second team to win against the Broncos in Denver during the first two weeks of the season since 2001.
Chris Carson versus Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall: The Broncos’ inside linebackers improved upon losing starter Danny Trevathan to the Chicago Bears. Davis has been terrific since stepping into the lineup in 2016 and he makes up half of one of the league’s best duos.
Last season, Davis totaled 82 run stops in just 14 games, and is the perfect partner for Marshall, who excels defending the pass. Though 2017 was a down year for Marshall (granted, he played with an injury for 75% of the year), in the five seasons prior to 2017, Marshall allowed the fifth lowest yards per snap in coverage among all linebackers. With Marshall patrolling the underneath, Davis will be tasked with attacking downfield and slowing down Carson.
Since the 2017 season concluded, Pete Carroll has consistently talked about the Seahawks’ desire to get back to being a successful, run-first offense. Their offseason moves reflect that desire, and so will the game-plan against Denver.
To avoid more of the same from last season, the line will have to make their blocks up front and Carson will have to win his matchup against the Broncos’ inside linebackers.
Opponent to Know
Justin Simmons, S: An uber athlete in Denver’s secondary, Simmons is set for what should be a breakout third season in his return from an ankle injury that ended his first year as a starter. Simmons has all the tools of a modern safety, capable of playing high (either as the single safety or in a two-deep look), in coverage in the slot, or as a box defender.
Speaking to media ahead of Sunday’s game, Shane Ray discussed the difficulties of defending a quarterback like Wilson, and the need to “Cover twice,” which is, essentially, taking care of your assignment and then doing it all over again when Wilson breaks out of the pocket. Simmons is a prototypical defender to do just that and more.
Simmons has the change of direction and burst to stick in coverage as Wilson breaks structure, and Seattle’s receivers work back to him in the scramble drill. Plus, he has the explosiveness to make up ground and make a play on the ball.
Though Simmons will be primarily used as the single-high safety in Vance Joseph’s defense, they will continue to maximize his wide-ranging skill set. Against the run, Simmons will be popping up in the box and around the line of scrimmage, aiding Davis and Marshall’s efforts against the run.
In 2017, the Broncos were one of the worst teams in the entire league. Vance Joseph is uninspiring as a head coach and could’ve been one-and-done after 2017. It remains to be seen if John Elway has finally found a replacement for Peyton Manning. However, Denver still has key pieces from a Super Bowl winning defense, and combined with their innate home field advantage, Week 1 will be a tough start to 2018 for the Seahawks.