No one knows what will happen on the field tonight (or late afternoon for my friends in Western time zones). But I think Broncos and Seahawks fans alike recognize that the matchup between the Seattle offense and Denver defense is most likely to determine the outcome. Those Broncos fans predicting a blowout in their favor most likely envision a Seattle offense that resembles the Keystone Cops on the gridiron. Seahawks fans predicting a blowout in their favor most likely envision Beast Mode up the wazoo with a heaping helping of Angry Doug Baldwin, Showtime Tate, and Percy Harvin breaking tackles and romping unopposed into the end zone.
Both scenarios remain in the realm of distinct possibility. The play of Seattle's offensive line, probably the most variable unit on the field, will make one outcome more likely than the other. Some aspects of their play we will just have to wait and see. Are they jumping snap counts, a recurring problem -- especially in the red zone? Obviously, that's bad for Seattle but there is no way to know how much of a problem that will be. We can however look at some personnel matchups and formation decisions that will be important.
Run Blocking on the Interior: The Pot Roast Problem
It is worth saying at the outset that Denver's run defense is legit good. I read somewhere this week someone describe it as "Carolina-lite". I think that's an apt way of thinking about the problems Denver poses. They are stout in the middle in a way that SF and some of our NFC West foes are not. Terrance Knighton, is something of a poor man's Star Lotulelei. That kind of size has been a recurring issue for Max Unger, whose play this season has struck me as variable in the extreme. Some of his inconsistency stems from injury. Hopefully the bye has helped things clear up.
I am curious about how Bevell will look to attack Denver's run defense, and unlike most offensive lines that will determine who plays--at least at left guard.
Solution #1: Throw to Run.
A "classic" WCO offensive coordinator would look at Denver's pedestrian pass defense and quickly conclude, "pass to set up the run." Mike Holmgren might come out in 11 personnel, try to force the defense into nickel and then run down their throats. Honestly, that's so obvious I cannot rule it out. You put Harvin on the field right away, force the defense to overreact and open the door for Lynch. (If you think back to some of his big games at USC he didn't mind coming out wide-the-hell-open.)
Solution #2: Wide zones in Regular Personnel.
However, this is Pete Carroll's team. He believes in running to set up the pass. The classic way that ZBS teams attack a big, penetrating 1-tech is with the wide zone run. I will always remember hearing the Broncos coaches in their Super Bowl win over Green Bay saying, "We got the big boy on skates," referring to Packer's man-mountain 1-tech, Gilbert Brown. The made him run the width of the field. The approch has had its moments against our own Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant. Recall the first quarter in last season's divisional round at RFK, Mike Shanahan returned to wide zone runs. He was able to consistently get Alfred Morris to the edge, and eventually open up cutbacks.
It is worth noting again from the NFC title game the cat and mouse games that Seattle engaged in with SF. The 49ers were prepared for the wide zone approach, and like a number of teams their subtle adjustment was to play their front 3 or 4 (with Aldon Smith) backed away from the line of scrimmage by a few feet. This facilitated them sprinting to the edges, and kept backside blockers from getting cut blocks on persuing defenders. This wrinkle in how teams approach the wide zone befuddled Bevell and Cable for weeks until the 2nd quarter of the title game. They countered by adding an extra TE, Bailey (I'll get to that) and they went to something more akin to power (almost man) blocking. The few feet SF was conceding up front to facilitate getting to the edges became the space Seattle needed to knock them back off the ball.
Enter Pot Roast. He dominated the (imho) criminally overrated Logan Mankins. He would be a handful for Unger as a man-to-man assignment in the run game. However, I do like Seattle's ability to manage him a bit better with classic wide zone runs.
Solution #3: Heavy Personnel & Formations.
So, the opposite approach to Denver's interior power on defense is to counter with power. That may mean playing Carpenter most of the snaps, and potentially adding a heavy dose of Bailey as an extra TE. It may also mean that we see a good bit of Michael Robinson. Extra blockers opens the possibility of doubling Knighton if need be. Of course, that comes at the expense of a skill player. Keep in mind that Seattle could go to wide zone runs or throw from heavy personnel. So, none of these approaches is mutually exclusive.
Don't Blitz Me Bro!
This is probably the most resistable-force-meets-moveable-object portion of the game. This isn't fancy or complicated. It is really a question of personnel and performance. For the most part the tackles are trustworthy. Don't look now but Breno Giacomini has become a perfectly reliable RT. Okung has been generally good if not dominant since returning from turf toe. The rest can only have helped.
The question, as always is about pass protection on the interior. McQuistan can be physically dominated. The more common problem is that Carpenter and Sweezy are prone to blowing assignments when defenses run blitzes and stunts. There isn't much to say here other than pass protection has been a game-to-game problem rather than uniformly bad. Seattle has games where it is very good-to-outstanding (e.g.., New Orleans 1 and St. Louis 2). Although Denver has some solid rushers (e.g., Shaun Phillips) it is not what one should consider a strength.
Throwing from heavy personnel could aid with protection issues. Of course, the short and intermediate passing game are great aids to shoddy pass protection. Being at peak health is probably the singularly best thing.
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