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Super Bowl XLVIII, Seahawks vs. Broncos: Don't sleep on special teams

When the irresistible force meets the immovable object in football big plays on special teams can have dramatic effect.

Christian Petersen

The Importance of Special Teams Increases in the Playoffs

During the first four or so games of a season, special teams can be a free-for-all of great plays, breakdowns, and generalized whatnot. Unsettled rosters lead to assignment uncertainty. Opposing coaching staffs often have little film on rookie-laden coverage and return units. Big, field position flipping plays are a common result. Then things usually settle down for the lion's share of the season. You start to see separation between teams that pay legitimate attention to gaining field position advantages in the kicking game and those on the Dennis Erickson/Mike Martz "special teams, shmeshel shmeems" plan.

Once the playoffs begin, special teams often emerge again to have an out-sized impact on games. As the gap in quality between opposing offensive and defensive units gets smaller and smaller, the only place to derive a sustainable advantage is on special teams.

So, what does that mean for Sunday's Superb Owl? Well, I doubt that it will shock anyone to learn that Seattle has a significant overall advantage on special teams, according to Football Outsiders stats. Seattle is 6th in weighted special teams DVOA (3rd overall) while Denver is 28th (13th overall).

So we romp right?

Well, not exactly. Special teams mostly generate field position advantages (only FG/PAT leads directly to points). So what matters is how field position translates into points on the scoreboard.

Denver Doesn't Need Long Fields, But Seattle Must Force Them Anyway

Denver's average starting field position is basically the 28 yard line, good for a middling 17th. That takes into account kick and punt returns as well as opponent turnovers. Denver converts just okay field position into a lot of good stuff. Denver is 1st in points/drive, 2nd in yards/drive, 5th in plays/drive, and 1st in drive success rate. Denver's offense may be less affected by driving long fields than most but Seattle cannot gift them short fields. Forcing Denver into poor field position is a necessary but not sufficient condition for winning. Let's look at the matchups using Football Outsiders field position points (in parentheses).

  • Seattle's kick coverage (+5.6) vs. Denver's kick return (+4.8). This matchup looks like a wash on paper. However, for all the talk of the weather's impact on the quarterbacks the kickers may face more substantial problems. With game time temperatures in the 20s expect shorter kickoffs with a frozen ball. Returners should have their opportunities. Trendon Holiday's 27.7 yard avg, along with three 40+ yard returns (including a 105 yarder), makes him particularly dangerous. Also, his infamous fumbling problems seem to be an issue on punts. Not kickoffs.
  • Seattle's punt coverage (+10.4) vs. Denver's punt return (-7.6). Seattle has a clear advantage here, but with a caveat. Denver's season numbers are compiled mostly with Holiday as the returner. Given his fumbling issues, Denver has recently swapped in Eric Decker. With sure hands, size, and surprisingly swivel hips, he's done a good job. For Seattle's part, Jon Ryan and the coverage units were on a best-in-history trajectory until very late in the season. Seattle's best chance to force long drives is via punts, but obviously we would prefer not to see much of Ryan. Also, I would also be remiss if I did not mention that Seattle endured a rash of FG and punt attempts blocked or heavily pressured. Those issues seem to have been resolved. Let's hope they were.

Seattle Must Create Short Fields

Seattle is actually 9th in points/drive. That may surprise some. However, what probably doesn't surprise is that Seattle is doing it with excellent starting field position (roughly the 31 yard line, good for 3rd in the league) but only middling drive efficiency. Denver can afford long fields to some degree. Seattle really cannot if it expects to have a good offensive day. So, what do their matchups look like on special teams?

  • Seattle's kick return (-3.7) vs Denver's kick coverage (-11.7). Replacing Jermaine Kearse with Doug Baldwin raises the explosive potential for Seattle's return group, but it's hard to make a case that these two "meh" units will decide the game. The matchup is most likely to matter if Seattle can force Denver to kick field goals. Three points for Denver (much less a FG miss), especially in the first half, followed by a long kickoff return may still be a field position win for Seattle. Although Denver's kick coverage group is quite poor, we hope not to see much of them.
  • Seattle's punt return (7.2) vs Denver's punt coverage (-1.7). This matchup is likely to be important. The two punt teams actually have a roughly equal net (Denver's 38.8 to Seattle's 39.2). However, this matchup is an unmistakable advantage for Seattle if and only if the defense can force punts. Seattle's 11.1 yard avg. was ninth in the NFL. Although Seattle did not score a punt return TD, returns were a source of explosive plays with roughly 15% going for at least 20 yards. Meanwhile, Denver gave up almost 10 yards/return. Denver's strength is in denying the return rather than tackling the returner. The Broncos tied for 3rd in fair catches forced with 25. So, they are capable of neutralizing a good return game. However, since Seattle rarely fair catches (14, 25th in the league) it has to like this matchup.

What About the Kickers?

Denver has a significant advantage over Seattle in FG/PAT (10.8 to 4.4). Seahawks fans of course know how money Hauschka (33 of 35, 100% PAT) has been this season. He is skinny Vince Vaughn, money. Well, Matt Prater (25 of 26, 100%) has been even more money. His only miss came from over 50 yards (5 of 6). The difference in the two FO FG/PAT scores is almost certainly based on two Hauschka FG attempts returned for touchdowns vs. IND and TEN. As noted earlier, Seattle has not seen those kinds of breakdowns since early in the season. It would be foolish to dismiss them, however. Denver most certainly has that film. Breakdowns aside, should the game come down to one kick either team should feel quite confident that their guy can make it.

One Last Thing...

Football Outsiders also measures special teams advantages that derive from factors that lie outside a team's direct control. Their HIDDEN measure includes "opposing field goals, kickoff distance, and punt distance." I will call these factors "luck". (It's not pejorative. It just means that they are not the outcomes of strategy.) Denver has had a monstrous special teams luck advantage. The difference between Denver's luck (21.4) and the second luckiest team (OAK, 13.3) is as big as the difference between Seattle (-4.7, #21) and the unluckiest team (NYG, -13.0, #32). Despite this, Denver's overall special teams are still generally mediocre.

Denver's offense is too good to suggest that Seattle can control the entire game on special teams. As with New England in the championship round, special teams cannot substitute for poor offense or defense. Field position advantages with nothing else won't be enough. Denver played a fair number of quality special teams units and beat those teams while losing to San Diego and its middling special teams.

Seattle has the potential to wipe the floor with Denver in the special teams matchup, but it won't matter unless they are playing even or better on their other matchups.