What To Expect From Denver’s Offense

Whenever there’s a big game, people want to analyze it to death.  Like, if they can just figure out EXACTLY what’s going to happen, they won’t have to stress out about it when the game finally starts.  It’s like actively seeking out spoilers for an exciting TV show or movie.  I abhor spoilers in my regular entertainment, but in my sports entertainment, I seemingly can’t get enough of ’em.

The broad strokes of this game are as follows:  Denver has the best passing attack in football, featuring one of the best quarterbacks of all time, having his greatest statistical season ever.  Seattle has the best overall defense and BY FAR the best pass defense.  If you want one overarching theme to Super Bowl XLVIII, it’s a referendum on what’s REALLY most important in winning championships:  Offense or Defense.

If you think they’ll cancel one another out, then it boils down to Seattle’s offense vs. Denver’s defense, but who really wants to talk about that?  Save THAT story for next week, when we’re running out of things to talk about.  This week, we’re going to look at the matchup everyone wants to see.  Indeed, if Seattle vs. Denver was the Super Bowl everyone wanted all along, then it’s exactly BECAUSE of the matchup of Seattle’s Defense vs. Denver’s Offense.

The best way to try to figure out what Denver will do is to look at what works against this Seahawks defense.  That’s not an easy task, because this defense has been SO dominant this season.  You could argue that the running game might be key, but it’s seemingly random when the Seahawks give up a huge day on the ground and when they completely shut an opponent down.  In their first game, the Rams ran all over the Seahawks; but in the second game, the Rams could do absolutely nothing.

There have been five instances this season where teams scored 20 or more points against the Seahawks.  Out of 18 games.  That’s good.  The Seahawks are 4-1 in those games, so it’s not like you can look at some point threshold and say, “That’s the magic number Denver has to score to win this game.”  So, let’s say the threshold is 50.  If the Broncos score 50 points, PROBABLY they’ll win the game.  But, no reasonable person could expect that, unless the entirety of our starting lineup came down with ACL tears in pre-game warmups.  Even then, I’m not so sure 50 is all that likely.

The teams that have looked the best offensively against this team are the Indianapolis Colts and, oddly enough, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  I was on a flight home during the Colts game and missed everything except for the game-clinching interception, so I don’t have a great idea of how the Colts did what they did.  It goes to show what a dynamic quarterback can do if he gets on a roll, that’s for damn sure.

The Tampa game was something else entirely.  I’ve spent the last 12 weeks or so trying to FORGET about that game.  No one saw this coming.  In essence, the Seahawks came out flat, and Tampa really executed well.  This was one of those games where an opponent ran the ball for over 200 yards on us, so that’s something.  But, Mike Glennon of all people, really made some nice throws in that first half.  Contrary to what you would expect, Glennon was able to throw behind our coverage units and really diced up our defense good.

If I’m Denver, I don’t think I’m necessarily looking at that Tampa game as some huge revelation.  I think we came into that one expecting a walk-through and were surprised to find a team willing to fight.

Here’s what you should expect out of Denver’s offense.  A LOT of bunch formations.  When they go Trips, expect those three receivers to be lined up very close to one another.  When they have two wides on either side, expect those wides to be lined up one in front of the other.  This will force the Seahawks into more of a zone scheme.  As you know, our corners like to press, while the rest of our defense usually zones up pretty well.  However, when the receivers are bunched, you can’t just declare a man and go, because you’re likely to get rubbed out of the play.  So, in order for them to get some early separation, they’re going to need our corners playing just a bit off the line.

Speaking of rubs, expect A LOT of crossing patterns.  Remember that Wes Welker hit on Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship game?  That’s going to happen again.  Hopefully it doesn’t result in one of our guys going out with an injury.  Crossing patterns are great for two reasons:  first, you can use them to pick off defenders and are more likely to get someone open that way; and second, they’re short and they’re quick, yet if the guy loses his defender, he can run for big gains.

And that’s going to be key:  quick, short throws.  As we all know, it’s going to be cold.  It might even be windy.  And, it’s almost certainly going to involve some form of precipitation at some point in the contest.  The last thing you want to do is come at us with a bunch of seven-step drops and challenging our defenders deep.  It doesn’t matter how long the route is, our guys will keep up with their receivers, and more often than not, they’ll end up winning when the ball is thrown.  Likewise, Manning’s arm isn’t that strong to begin with, so forcing him to chuck it up in sub-freezing weather conditions just isn’t a smart way to attack.  That doesn’t mean you won’t see ANY deep balls out of him – after all, he’s got to keep the defense somewhat honest – but I just wouldn’t expect it to be a major focus of their gameplan.

Finally, the quick passing neutralizes our pass rush.  And here’s, really, the critical point.  Whenever you listen to someone yak about this game or read someone’s analysis for what the Seahawks have to do to stop Peyton Manning, ultimately they’re going to say the most important thing the Seahawks have to do is “pressure Peyton Manning.”  If you haven’t heard that so many times you want to puke, just give it a few more days.

Peyton Manning has been sacked exactly 18 times in 18 games this year.  This isn’t because he has the greatest offensive line of all time.  This is by design.  I don’t have the exact figures, but Peyton Manning must get the ball out of his hands – on average – quicker than any quarterback in the league.  He’s reading the defense at the line, he’s calling out audibles (or non-audibles) with his Omahas and his Marshalls and whatnot, and he knows EXACTLY who he intends to throw the ball to before he’s even received the snap.  There isn’t a moment of wasted activity in that pocket.  He gets the ball, he throws the ball, and more often than not it’s a completed pass.

When you watch this game, you’re not going to see a lot of pressure on the quarterback.  It’s going to be frustrating – especially if the Broncos are steadily moving the ball up and down the field – and you’re going to listen to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman endlessly rag on the Seahawks’ inability to get pressure on the quarterback.  But, is it really fair to expect guys to “get home” in less than three seconds?

Hey, if they can bust through the line, then great.  But, I wouldn’t count on it.  To combat their short passing game, as I said before, that’s going to mean a lot of zone defense.  If you see any blitzing at all, it’ll likely be some sort of zone blitz, where we’re still dropping the same number of defenders out in coverage, but the attacker is coming from somewhere unexpected.  Seeing more than four people rush the quarterback is likely going to be a rarity.

Go into this game assuming the Seahawks won’t get any pressure whatsoever.  It’ll be better for your health, because when they do manage to force Manning into an ill-advised throw, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  My hope, if we can’t hit him, is to just bat down enough of his throws at the line to keep him rattled.

The real catalyst, as I’ve alluded to before, will be how well Denver runs the ball.  I went into this a bit yesterday, but they will swap out Moreno and Ball at will, going with the hot hand more often than not.  If the Seahawks end up giving up 150+ yards on the ground, it’s going to be a long day.  It sounds funny to say we need to make Denver one-dimensional, but that’s really the case.  Granted, that one dimension is the best in football, but the whole point is:  don’t make it easy on them.

Bend, Don’t Break.  That’s the mantra.  Just know that Denver will get their yards.  More than any other opponent, how we do on third down and in the red zone will dictate who wins this game.  I don’t anticipate turnovers being a factor whatsoever, so just throw that out and focus on third downs & the red zone.  Third downs come into play if we’re struggling in our rush defense.  Manning won’t complete 100% of his passes.  He’s not perfect.  So, if we can hold their running backs to 2 yards or less per carry, we will be in good shape.  But, if they’re gashing us and setting Denver up for a lot of third & 3 or less, then expect Denver to control the time of possession and expect Denver to tire out our defense by the time the second half rolls around.

Stopping the run SHOULDN’T be difficult, but I’ve been wrong before.  While I don’t expect a whole lot of base defense – we’ll probably be in nickel coverage most of the day – I could see us playing our heavy defensive line just as much as we always do.  Unless we’re really going out of our way to install some crazy blitz packages – which I doubt – I think we’ll be as vanilla as it gets in that regard, which should bode well for stopping their ground attack.

That still leaves the rest of their offense, but I’m not too worried.  We’ve got superb length on the outside in Sherman and Maxwell.  And, inside, we’ve got great speed with Thurmond and Lane to keep up with their crossing routes.  I have every reason to think we’ll be able to get some hands on these passes.  Not necessarily a lot of interceptions (though, a guy can dream, can’t he?), but a lot of tipped balls and passes defended.  And, who knows, if we tip it the right way, maybe the ball falls into the lap of a linebacker or something …

I’m not going to come on here and give you a score that the Seahawks have to hold Denver to.  If Denver scores into the 30s, all hope is not lost.  Our offense is just as capable of scoring in the 30s and 40s as theirs.  If this thing turns into a track meet, I expect Russell Wilson and our receivers to be up to the task.

But, I just can’t imagine we’ll get to that point.  Holding Denver to something like 23 points sounds pretty reasonable.  More field goals than touchdowns, that’s the name of the game.

Later on next week, I’ll have my official prediction on how the game will go, but consider this (and yesterday’s post) sort of a primer.

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