The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into Super Bowl XLVIII

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2014

NFL Game Rewind

Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen goes inside the film room to get you ready for Super Bowl XLVIII in “The Second Level.”

Five Keys to Study from the Film


1. Broncos Hi-Lo (rub) concepts

Look for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to run their Hi-Lo series (Hi-Lo, Hi-Lo Crossers, Hi-Lo Opposite) versus the Seahawks man-coverage schemes (Cover 1, 1 Robber, 1 Rover, etc.). There will be many two-level reads for Manning with pick/rub situations inside of the numbers.

Here’s a look at Hi-Lo Crossers from the AFC Championship Game versus the Patriots:

NFL Game Rewind

With Eric Decker in a reduced split (ball on near hash, top-of-the-numbers alignment), that’s an alert to the Hi-Lo. Decker works across the field and plays off the pick from Wes Welker to create leverage versus the cornerback. This is a quick read for Manning in the short to intermediate passing game.

The Seahawks’ defensive backs have to win on the release, force the receivers to take a flat stem and also jam the point man in bunch/stack looks to limit these crossing concepts. 


2. Seattle’s pre-snap disguise

When the Seahawks lean on their single-high safety defenses, how will they disguise their Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes (or roll the safeties) to give Manning different looks in his pre-snap reads?

Below is an example from the NFC Championship Game, with Seattle showing a two-high safety shell (think Cover 2, 2-Man or Quarters):

NFL Game Rewind

With both cornerbacks aligned in press, Earl Thomas drops at the snap to the hook/curl and Richard Sherman sinks to the outside one-third to pick up No. 3 (Vernon Davis) on the inside vertical. This allows Thomas to read the back-side receiver on the shallow drive route and break on the ball as an underneath defender.

Here’s one more from the regular season versus the Vikings, with the safeties showing that same two-high look and rolling to a five-man zone pressure that led to Walter Thurmond’s interception versus the smash concept:

NFL Game Rewind

Let’s see how the Seahawks align their safeties on Sunday night and move at the snap to close down throwing lanes.

3. Percy Harvin’s impact from a slot alignment

Given the limited amount of snaps Harvin has played this season for the Seahawks, it’s tough to predict exactly how he will be used in the game plan. However, we can go to the tape from Seattle's divisional-round matchup against the Saints to study his role from a slot alignment.

Let’s start with Harvin aligned as the No. 3 receiver in a Slot Open formation (trips to the open side of the field):

NFL Game Rewind

Working against man-coverage (single-high safety), Harvin stems in across the field, with the defender playing from an outside leverage position. That puts Harvin in a one-on-one matchup with the safety removed in the deep middle of the field. 

The Seahawks also showed some creativity with Harvin on the jet sweep:

NFL Game Rewind

With Golden Tate in a reduced split to the open side, Harvin motions to a slot alignment and gets the ball off the jet-sweep action. This allows the receiver to press the edge and find a running lane with lead blockers out in front.

4. Peyton Manning’s three-deep beaters

To target Cover 3, the Broncos will have to run their standard three-deep beaters out of both 3x1 and 2x2 alignments to create throwing lanes versus the zone shell.

In the divisional round, the Broncos executed the semi-curl against the Chargers:

NFL Game Rewind

Using the semi-series (seam-curl, seam-out, seam-comeback), the Broncos occupy the cornerback with the inside vertical seam and widen the underneath defender on the flat in order to give Manning a clear throwing lane to look up the intermediate curl.

Now, let's check out four verticals (classic three-deep beater) versus the Cowboys 3 Buzz (safety drops inside as hook/curl defender):

NFL Game Rewind

Off play action, Manning forces the safety to stick his eyes in the backfield and targets tight end Julius Thomas on the inside seam (in front of the free safety), with the cornerbacks occupied by the outside comebacks (outside verticals convert versus three-deep).

5. Broncos’ secondary support vs. Seahawks’ running game

The Seahawks will force safeties and cornerbacks to fill/fit versus the run based off formation and alignment. That showed up in my tape study of Marshawn Lynch, with the Seahawks attacking the back side of the slot, moving receivers to a wing alignment or using crack blocks on the edge.

Here’s an example from the Seahawks' matchup versus the Rams, with Doug Baldwin shifting to a wing alignment on the counter lead out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB):

NFL Game Rewind

With Janoris Jenkins matching to his coverage (Baldwin), the Rams cornerback has to fill as the inside support defender versus the fullback's lead block. Jenkins gives up one-for-one versus the fullback (a win for the offense), and that allows Lynch to get into the open field. 

Five Things to Watch Heading into Super Bowl XLVIII


1. Russell Wilson vs. pressure

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 19:  Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks drops back against the San Francisco 49ers during the 2014 NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field on January 19, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

One of the key aspects to Wilson’s game is his unique talent to escape pressure and extend plays. That allows wide receivers to convert routes, and it also forces defensive backs to plaster to their coverage in the secondary. 

However, Wilson has also missed on some opportunities this postseason by leaving the pocket or pulling the ball down to give ground.

Let’s see how the second-year pro performs when the Broncos bring pressure and if he can climb/slide in the pocket, identify his targets and deliver the ball in crucial game situations versus the Denver secondary. 

2. Marshawn Lynch’s production

The ability to control the tempo of the game—that’s what Lynch can provide if the Seahawks can consistently win versus Terrance Knighton and the Broncos defensive front.

The Seahawks will run the zone (split-zone), power game or lead, among others, with Lynch, which are all schemes that cater to his downhill style, lateral quickness and finishing ability on contact. He is a veteran back with a rare blend of size, speed and power.

By establishing the running game, the Seahawks can open up some play-action opportunities for Wilson (think of boot/dash schemes) while also keeping Manning and the Broncos offense on the sidelines.

3. Seahawks defensive game plan

There are four tapes I would study to prep for Manning and the Broncos offense: Jaguars (Week 6), Colts (Week 7), Chiefs (Week 11) and Chargers (Week 15).  

Jacksonville played Cover 2 almost the entire game, Indianapolis used some combination coverages (2-Buster), Kansas City played a mix of Cover 1/2-Man, and San Diego did an excellent job of disguising their coverages/pressure concepts.

These are multiple schemes from which the Seahawks could learn new material or add to their game plan on top of their single-high defenses.

Here’s a quick look at the Jaguars playing Cover 2 versus Denver’s four verticals. With both safeties at the proper depth to drive outside, or overlap any throw to the middle of the field, Mike ‘backer Paul Posluszny matches the inside seam (Welker) and intercepts this ball:

NFL Game Rewind

4. Julius Thomas removed from the core of the formation

I use the term “Dakota” when talking about a 3x1 formation with the tight end removed as the back-side X receiver. We saw it all season from the Saints (Jimmy Graham), as it provides a size matchup at the tight end position versus both zone and man coverage outside of the numbers.

Whether that is the fade/slant combo in the red zone or the curl, dig, 9 out in the field, drawing that matchup gives the offense a player who can create leverage/box out versus defensive backs.

As I wrote last week, there is no question this Seahawks secondary is the No. 1 unit in the NFL. But can the Broncos create (and win) some matchups with Thomas versus Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Kam Chancellor removed?

5. Special teams coverage units

Oct 20, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Trindon Holliday (11) runs with the ball against the Indianapolis Colts during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the return ability of Denver's Trindon Holliday and Seattle's Golden Tate, I think the kicking game should be discussed more as we get closer to Sunday.

Look at this from the perspective of the coverage units. Can the gunners win versus a double-team, get down the field and force a fair catch? How about the interior coverage in the open field? Can they win their matchup, break down, move laterally and get the returner on the ground?

The special teams units on both sides need to focus on lane discipline, contain and tackling. Those are the basic keys to any coverage unit. And with field position being a critical factor on the championship stage, I would keep an eye on the core special teams units for both the Seahawks and Broncos. Neither side can afford to give up a free one in the kicking game during the Super Bowl. 

All-22 Rewind: Broncos Create a Red-Zone Matchup

After talking about Thomas being removed from the core of the formation as the back-side X receiver, let's break down how the Broncos created a one-on-one matchup versus the Chiefs in Week 11.  

Chiefs vs. Broncos

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Slot Open “Dakota”

Offensive Concept: Tare Route

Defensive Scheme: Cover 1 

NFL Game Rewind

With trips to the open side of the field, the Broncos remove Thomas as the back-side X versus the Chiefs Cover 1 look (single-high safety) in the red zone. That creates the matchup versus safety Eric Berry from a press-man alignment.

To the open side, the Broncos are running the “tare” route. The No. 1 receiver releases on the clear out 9 (fade) with No. 2 and No. 3 on the stick outs. And anytime you see a 3x1 alignment in the NFL, there should be an automatic alert to the back-side slant (Thomas). 

NFL Game Rewind

On the release, Thomas sells the quick, outside stem. That forces Berry to open his hips and widen his feetcreating inside leverage for the tight end to run the slant. And with no immediate help, the tight end is in a position to shield the defender from the ball.

NFL Game Rewind

Even if Berry drives the upfield shoulder, can he play the ball in this situation versus the size and leverage of Thomas on the slant? With the free safety coming late (and taking a flat angle to the ball), Manning can target the tight end and watch as he drags Berry into the end zone for six points.

We can’t forget about the execution here from both Thomas and Manning, but this was set up because of the “Dakota” formation the Broncos used to create the one-on-one matchup outside.

Football 101: Nickel Fire Zone

Let’s talk about a base fire zone from the nickel sub package (5 DBs) that can cause some confusion in the protection scheme while impacting throwing lanes. 

Nickel “Nemo” Fire Zone 

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

This is a five-man pressure with your standard three-deep, three-under zone scheme in the back end. 

Up front, the closed side defensive end will drop into coverage with the tackle scooping to a contain rush and the nose working to the closed-side A gap. To the open side, the end will rush up the field with the nickel coming underneath the vertical path and the Mike ‘backer hitting the B gap.

From a coverage perspective, the safeties will roll at the snap (show Cover 2 in the pre-snap alignment) with both cornerbacks bailing (open hips, sink) to play the outside one-third (match to No. 1 vertical). Underneath, the free safety and closed-side defensive end drop to the seam-flat (match to No. 2) with the Sam ‘backer playing the middle hook (match to No. 3).

This is an effective blitz that shows up across the league, as it forces the open-side tackle to account for the defensive end while the Mike 'backer occupies the guard to allow the nickel to come free. Plus, you have the protection of the zone shell if the running back steps to the open side to pick up the blitz.

What happens if the offense aligns in an empty formation? Check to “chop” (zero-pressure) and go after the quarterback.

Inside the Locker Room: Adjusting to the Weather Conditions

During the last month, the narratives surrounding the possible poor weather conditions for Super Bowl Sunday at MetLife Stadium have developed into major discussion points in NFL circles.

Snow, sleet, rain? Sure, that can have some impact on defensive backs and wide receivers when they are coming out of their breaks. That is why they must control their footwork, play with balance and sink their hips—a common coaching point that applies to almost every position on the field when weather is a factor.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 22:  Crews work to remove snow from MetLife Stadium, which will host Superbowl XLVIII next month, on January 22, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. In what is being called the first ever 'cold weather superbowl,' the Denver
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

But given that the game is going to be played on field turf in New Jersey (which holds up pretty well under poor conditions), I don’t see that as an issue for pro players.

Wind? Now, that can create some problems for special teams, quarterbacks and offensive game plans. Plus, it forces defensive backs to adjust their depth/alignments depending on the direction of the wind and field position.

However, the forecast for Sunday calls for a high of 44 degrees and a low in the upper-20s with winds at just nine miles per hour. 

Those are very manageable conditions when compared to the brutal cold of Lambeau Field in January or the gusts of wind coming off Lake Michigan in Chicago late in the season.

I understand that it will be cold when the temperature starts to drop late on Sunday, but players have access to thermal gear under their uniforms, there will be heaters on the sidelines and both clubs have already played in suspect conditions this season.

I don’t see the weather truly impacting game plans on either side of the ball, and this is exactly what we should have expected with the Super Bowl being played outdoors in a cold-weather city.

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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