The Denver Broncos have the No. 1 offense in the NFL but will be facing Seattle's top-ranked defense, and this is the marquee matchup in the Super Bowl. Old school football people say "defense wins championships" and the modern football fans believe offense captures the crown. Time will tell, but for now it is time for a scouting report.
1. Keep it snappy: Denver is the most prolific "no huddle" team maybe of all time. The Broncos come into this game with close to 500 snaps of no-huddle offense and 57 touchdowns from the package in 18 games. Denver has used its no-huddle 89 times for 523 yards and four touchdowns in its two playoff games. Seattle coach Pete Carroll is preparing to see at least 30 snaps of this offense during the game. Denver loves to use it on many second downs in order to prevent defenses from substituting players, especially defensive linemen and nickel defensive backs. Seattle will not panic when the no-huddle pops up and it is in base defense because Kam Chancellor can match up with TE Julius Thomas when Thomas flexes out as a wide receiver.
2. Pressure is on who? The Seahawks need to be very careful if they decide to blitz Peyton Manning. Archie Manning once said to me, "Peyton is kind of like a hunting dog always looking for the blitz." This season backs up the notion that blitzing Peyton is a dangerous proposition. Teams have made pressure calls against Manning close to 200 times this season, including the playoffs, and sacked him just five times, or one out of every 35 pressure calls. Manning wasn't sacked in either playoff game. Manning does have 14 touchdown passes against blitz calls and just five interceptions. Seattle is what I like to call an "exotic four-man rush team." The Seahawks play a lot of three-deep zones and variations of man looks with a mixture of four-man rush. Seattle is the only team that has the personnel to matchup with the Denver receivers, and that should force Manning to hold the ball more than usual, possibly resulting in sacks. In October, the Colts got to Manning four times and defeated the Broncos. Seattle is studying that game closely.
3. High priority on third down: The Denver offense has a few "chain movers," and it is tough to figure out who to take away on third downs. Demaryius and Julius Thomas both have eight first downs in the playoffs. In the postseason Denver has converted 62 percent of its third downs and punted once in the two games. Seattle has to get off the field on third down. In the playoffs, Seattle has allowed teams to convert 26 percent of the time and during the season had 12 interceptions and 22 sacks just in third-down situations. I would not be surprised to see Seattle use more three-man rush in third-down situations knowing Manning isn't going to run, allowing the Seahawks to use the extra defender in coverage. Seattle employed a less than four-man rush on the interception to end the win over the 49ers last week, and the Seahawks will be effective with Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett mixing up a three-man rush and one of them dropping into coverage.
4. More from Moreno: The health of Knowshon Moreno is very important for the Broncos. John Fox told me Moreno's ribs should be good to go. Knowshon is critical to the run game but he may be more important the passing game. No one on the Broncos has touched the ball more than Moreno with 341 touches for 1,761 yards and 14 touchdowns in 18 games. If Moreno can't go, or can't finish, Montee Ball will be adequate as a runner but isn't close to understanding the pass protection role or the receiving role. Moreno has 93 first-down conversions and has not turned the ball over. Seattle will be more aggressive going after Manning if Moreno is out of the game. If he's in the game middle linebacker Bobby Wagner will key him.
5. When and where does Manning throw the ball? Manning only has 72 attempts greater than 20 yards (four per game) all year and produces most of his offense with the short passing game. Seattle safety Earl Thomas will play a big role in convincing Manning to throw the ball where the Seahawks want him to by baiting the QB with coverage disguises. Manning will not use motion to disguise or change formations. He would much rather come up to the line and read the defense. Peyton Manning has seen it all before but Seattle still presents problems.
6. A chill wind could slow down Denver: Weather could play a big part in this game for the Denver offense. The Broncos aren't worried about the temperature, and their offense will function well as long as it isn't windy. This year in cold weather conditions Manning has thrown 11 touchdowns and averaged 429 yards in the team's three cold weather games. The Denver running game averaged 5 yards a carry, plus the Broncos averaged 30 runs in those colder games. If the wind is an issue I believe it favors the Seahawks, being Seattle is a power run team, but most importantly wind reduces Manning's options in the passing game.
7. The Denver screen game will be challenged: Denver has completed nearly 100 passes to running backs and relies on the screen game to slow the pass rush and take advantage of the deep drops linebackers take when facing the Manning attack. Seattle plays a different style of linebacker coverage than most teams and is very aggressive hunting down running backs waiting for the screen game. The Seahawks like to snatch the back and force the QB to throw the ball away or take a loss when the ball is caught. I would be surprised if Denver gets a lot out of the screen game.
8. In the red zone: Denver is a machine in the red zone with Manning running the offense. The Broncos have 37 touchdown passes with zero interceptions and three sacks. They also have 14 rushing touchdowns and score touchdowns 76 percent of the time in the red zone. No one comes close to them. Peyton told me over the summer that he never had so many tall receivers in all his years in the league, and he takes advantage of their height. Seattle is the NFL's best red zone defense. The Seahawks let teams into the red zone less than any team and give up the fewest touchdowns. More impressive than the limited number of touchdowns Seattle has surrendered is that they have forced seven turnovers in the 36 trips inside the red zone. This area of the field will tell the tale of this game.
9. Talking turnovers and crunch time: Denver led the NFL in scoring in all four quarters this year and scored the most points for the season with 606. But they face a Seahawks defense that allowed up the fewest points, 231, and only 101 of those points came in the second half of games. I expect Denver to probably lead at halftime but things could get tough from there. I can't remember such a big differential in turnover ratio between two teams in a Super Bowl with Seattle plus-23 and Denver even after 18 games. Breaking it down when Denver has the ball, the Broncos have given the ball away 28 times this year in 18 games and Seahawks have taken it away 42 times. If Seattle wins the turnover battle, watch out.
10. Scoring points! Denver led the league averaging 38 points a game this year in the regular season but has dropped to 25 points a game in the playoffs, and now the Broncos face a much better Seattle defense. Seattle's defense gave up 14 points a game in the regular season and held serve in the playoffs, giving up 16 points a game. I think points are going to be hard to come by in this game and I do not expect a high scoring game. Remember earlier when I said Seattle is studying the Indianapolis-Denver game because the Colts sacked Manning four times? Well, the Broncos are studying the Colts-Seahawk game because Indianapolis scored 34 points in its win over Seattle.