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Breaking Down the Seahawks Defense

Posted Feb 1, 2014

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes a closer look at Seattle's defense and the challenges it will present to the Broncos on Sunday.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- When you have players who use their size, length and strength as well as Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Brandon Mebane, you don't need to be weighed down by superfluous scheming.

Besides best defenses in NFL history usually weren't tactically complicated -- although there were exceptions, starting with the Cowboys' flex during the "Doomsday Defense" era of the 1970s. Most relied on a core of stellar players, supplemented by solid contributors and depth, with simple assignments.

“The way I see these guys is, they don’t play a whole bunch of stuff, but they play it about as good as you want to play a defense. Their execution is off the charts," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "They play their three-deep zone and man-to-man as good as you want it designed.

"We’ve played teams this year that have played similar schemes that did not play it as well as these guys do. These guys are on it with their execution, and then bring that size and physicality that they have."

And that's what has been called into question, although the physicality of Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond is generally within the legal limits.

"As far as pushing the envelope, I wouldn’t say so much. I’d say they do as much as other teams do, even ourselves," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker.

They'll use the five-yard zone within the line of scrimmage to disrupt; as a result, their interception rate of one every 20.29 pass plays leads the league -- and is well above the league average of one interception every 38.71 pass plays. (The Broncos, by comparison, throw one interception every 69.5 pass plays, the second-best in the league behind Kansas City's one every 73.38 pass plays.)

"That’s what makes what they do so special is those corners, they can lock up one-on-one," said Gase. "They can take away the run with the rest of their guys, and, you know, Earl is going to cover the entire field. This group is a special group on defense, and it’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”

But the ability of their cornerbacks to handle their responsibilities in press man coverage explains why their safeties and linebackers can be so active in the pass rush.

Pressure could mean Peyton Manning will have to throw into coverage from time to time. But that's where his exceptional ability usually makes itself known; you've seen myriad throws over the last two seasons in which his targets had little separation, but he dropped it into a precise spot where it could not be defended.

"It's like catching tissue paper," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "It's so easy to catch, it really doesn't matter if it's a spiral or wobbly."

But in Week 7, the Broncos' big-top aerial circus saw its tent punctured by the Colts and their press coverage. Indianapolis' aggressive cornerbacks disrupted the timing of the Broncos' passing game until a pass-interference penalty in the second half finally forced them to play back, at which point Denver's offense returned to its normal service and mounted a comeback that wasn't finally derailed until a goal-to-go fumble.

Press coverage never again affected the Broncos in the same way it did for the first two-thirds of that night, revealing the offense's ability to adjust and adapt. Still, the Broncos know they must be prepared for Seattle's physicality.

"You see a lot of defenses, especially with the passing game becoming more prevalent, cornerbacks getting to the receiver at the line of scrimmage and at the top of routes. I think they do it well," Decker said. "They challenge teams and are the best at it in the NFL."

And like the Colts that night, the Seahawks have an effective pass rush, which has synergy with press coverage.

"That pass rush gets to the quarterbacks so fast that the corners know they don’t have very long to cover regardless of what coverage they’re in," said wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert. "They could be in cover two, three or one. The pass rush is coming and every little bit of time you spend on coverage the defensive end has two more steps up the field at the quarterback."

Seattle's quarterback hit rate of one every 7.89 pass plays is third-best in the league, and their rate of hurried throws forced, according to ProFootballFocus.com, is one every 2.63 pass plays, second-best in the league behind the Broncos (one every 2.42 pass plays).

"We put it in our receivers’ head that you can’t spend too much time at the line trying to beat press coverage because the defensive pass rush is coming," Tolbert said. "They have to get in their route, use their technique, get open and be ready for the ball."

But no one makes that more difficult than the Seahawks, which is why they're here. In a league now predicated on prolific passing games, the Seahawks were the best at limiting their effectiveness.