The Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XLVIII because of their defense's ability to play with speed, challenge routes and win one-on-one matchups.
Let’s break down how Pete Carroll’s club limited Peyton Manning and the Broncos' route concepts, talk about scheme and focus on the core techniques that allowed the Seahawks to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
The Ability to Move Manning off the “Spot”
The Seahawks' speed and athleticism along the defensive line was on display Sunday night as they generated edge pressure, attacked interior gaps (A/B gaps) and forced Manning to move in the pocket.
Disruption is the key here versus Manning and the Broncos' route tree. By getting pressure with four players (and showing some five-man blitz looks), the Seahawks made Manning move in the pocket (coming off his primary reads) while leaning on their single-high schemes in the secondary (Cover 1, Cover 3).
Let’s look at an example of a five-man pressure scheme versus the Broncos' Hi-Lo concept with defensive end Cliff Avril winning on the edge.
With the Broncos running a Hi-Lo concept (Wes Welker/Julius Thomas) from a “vice” alignment (double stack), Manning wants to work the two-level read versus man coverage. It's a classic Cover 1 beater in the NFL to create traffic and allow receivers to work away from a defender’s leverage.
Because of the interior pressure, tackle Orlando Franklin steps down inside and gives up the edge to Avril. This forces Manning to slide to his left and step up while speeding up the process in the pocket.
With linebacker K.J. Wright driving to the hip of Thomas on the crossing route—and Kam Chancellor in the deep middle of the field—Manning sails this ball. That leads to a basket interception for Chancellor, but it started up front with the blitz look and edge pressure.
Leading up to this game, one of the key discussion points centered on the pre-snap looks of the Seattle safeties. How would Earl Thomas and Chancellor disguise their single-high looks?
The Seahawks often aligned in a two-deep shell and rolled a safety down as a hook/curl defender in Cover 3 (or 3 Buzz) and in 1 “Robber” defense (safety drops as underneath hole defender).
This allowed both Thomas and Chancellor to occupy the deep post while driving downhill on any throw inside of the numbers. It was a smart game plan from Seattle to use their safeties to impact the underneath passing game while limiting the inside seams versus a three-deep shell.
Limiting the Production Outside of the Numbers
Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell played excellent football outside of the numbers for the majority of the game, and it started with their ability to win on the release. They were physical, used their hands at the point of attack and took away the outside reads from Manning in both Cover 1 and Cover 3.
In Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under) the Seattle cornerbacks will match any vertical stem and pattern-read the release. That allows the Seahawks to play their zone scheme with both corners in man technique and the deep middle-of-the-field safety impacting the seam/post.
By taking away the curl, comeback, 7 (corner) and fade, the Seahawks forced Manning to consistently come back to his checkdown options underneath. That played a major role in Manning’s route progressions and limited the Broncos' playbook.
Downhill Speed to the Ball
Watching the underneath defenders on Sunday night, who would want to catch the ball on an option route with Chancellor, Malcolm Smith, Wright, etc. driving on the throw?
In the Broncos' route tree, Manning wants to throw the Hi-Lo concepts, flood, option, shallow drive and stick route (quick out from a slot alignment). However, because of the depth and landmark drops this defense plays within its zone schemes, Seattle limited the Broncos' ability to produce after the catch.
That showed up consistently on Sunday night as Seattle’s second-level defenders took away the intermediate throwing lanes, broke on the ball and arrived with speed to bring their pads on contact. And it also produced a score when Smith broke on the ball to take an interception back for six points.
Tackling vs. the Run Game
The Broncos only produced 27 yards rushing (on 14 carries) as they struggled to work the inside zone/power versus the Seahawks defensive front. That forced Manning to play behind the sticks consistently and created adverse third-down situations.
Seattle was quick with their run/pass keys, tackled at the second-level and didn’t allow the Broncos to produce any explosive runs. Even on Moreno’s run early in the game that broke past the second level, both Thomas and Chancellor took the proper inside-out angle, squeezed the ball-carrier to the middle of the field and put him on the ground.
Think of a defense that gets multiple hats on the ball, pursues laterally with speed and wraps up on contact. It's a sign of a well-coached unit that plays with technique and discipline versus the run game.
If we look past scheme here, and focus on the speed and physicality this unit plays with, it’s easy to see why Seattle was so dominant on the defensive side of the ball.
This is an intimidating style of football displayed on all three levels on defense. The Broncos couldn’t match the Seahawks' speed, and they struggled consistently to win one-on-one matchups when we break this down from a straight physical perspective.
This defense will put a helmet under your chin. And that showed up consistently when the Broncos tried to move the football.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.