SB XLVIII mega-preview: Peyton vs. Wilson, Sherman and more

Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson have both had great seasons, but only one can win the Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl XLVIII showcases a battle of opposites.

We have the fire of the Seattle Seahawks’ defense, the NFL’s best, that’s fueled by the attitude of its vivacious and vociferous leader, Richard Sherman.

We have the ice of the Denver Broncos’ league-leading offense, which has adopted the quiet demeanor of quarterback Peyton Manning while stringing together spine-chilling performances.

And now these opposites will collide in the most highly anticipated Super Bowl we could have asked for.

Who will win the battle between the quarterbacks?

Will Sherman keep the attention on his all-world cornerback play this time around?

And where will the rings ultimately be won?

Let’s break all of that down in a Super Bowl mega-preview.

With two of the NFL’s best QBs going against each other, here’s a closer look at each, beginning with the man in Denver.

Peyton Manning

Manning is on a roll. He’s had arguably the best season by a quarterback in NFL history – completing 68.3 percent of his passes for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns (to only 10 interceptions) — and will likely be this year’s MVP. He’s not invincible, though. 

The best way to slow Manning’s roll is to play tight press coverage, which allows defensive backs to get their hands on receivers and disrupt the timing of routes. It’s no secret Manning isn’t that mobile, and when tight coverage forces him to stand in the pocket for a half-second longer, he gets panicky (probably because of the titanium plate and four screws in his neck).

Games in which Manning was stymied, harassed and sacked most, defensive coordinators deployed their troops on a mission to mug Denver’s wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.

The best counterattack for receivers against this type of coverage is to run designed pick plays, or rub plays, where one receiver is taught to run directly at the defender who is covering another receiver on his team. This sets the other receiver free long enough for the quarterback to dump the ball off.

Look for the Broncos to dial up more of the now-infamous crossing routes they used in the AFC Championship Game where New England cornerback Aqib Taib was injured after Wes Welker ran into him. Here’s that play diagrammed on film:

On Sunday, Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas must get separation and win their one-on-one battles against Seattle defensive backs aligned in press coverage, giving Manning a target to hit.

When Manning saw press coverage in the AFC title game, he looked to Demaryius Thomas first, who seems to be the receiver Manning trusts most to get open against smothering defensive backs.

Thomas and Co. have quite the challenge against Seattle — the best press coverage team in the NFL – and their ability to win those battles will determine the success Manning has.

Russell Wilson

Wilson has impressed many this season with his poise under pressure for being such a young quarterback. Like the great Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what the hell you are doing.” Both Wilson’s composure and preparation will be tested more than ever before on Super Bowl Sunday.

After studying tape, there are two defensive schemes that have given Wilson and Seattle the most trouble this season: Cover 1 Rover and Bluffs.

I broke Cover 1 Rover down in detail for the NFC Championship Game and diagrammed its strengths. This is something we will likely see often from the Broncos on Sunday. Wilson will have to conquer this by either delivering pinpoint passes in small passing lanes or by taking off and keeping the chains moving with his legs.

Let’s talk a little more about the other scheme, “Bluff,” which we haven’t covered yet in this space.

Before or at the snap, the defense bluffs, or gives the impression it will blitz six or more players, when in actuality it will rush only four while the others drop back into coverage. A bluff presents problems for quarterbacks, because it’s difficult to diagnose where the passing lanes will be after some of the perceived rushers suddenly drop back into zone coverage.

A bluff is also difficult for the offensive linemen, because they may sell out to block a player who isn’t even actually rushing, and by the time they realize it, the player who is rushing has already broken through to the quarterback.

Here is a great example of a bluff San Francisco ran in the NFC Championship Game. Notice the defense starts by showing an ordinary, non-pressure front:

Then, just before or at the snap, the defense gives the impression it’s rushing six players:

Now in the next photo, you can see that, after selling the rush, both NaVorro Bowman (No. 53) and Ray McDonald (No. 91) suddenly drop back into zone coverage:

The confusion causes a breakdown in the Seahawks’ protection, and Patrick Willis (No. 52) bursts through the line to pressure Wilson.

Expect to see Bluffs on Sunday in an attempt to pressure Wilson and the Seahawks on third downs. How Wilson handles that and Cover 1 Rover will determine Seattle’s offensive productivity.

He’s one of the most interesting characters playing in this game, but enough analysis has been offered about his trash-talking and post-game interview after the NFC Championship Game.

Sherman also happens to be the NFL’s best cornerback, so I wanted to offer some insight into what makes him so impressive on the field, specifically in press coverage. We can break it down into two parts – preparation and technique.

1) Preparation

At the Senior Bowl last week, one scout told me he will never forget what his director of player personnel told him about Stanford players (Sherman’s school and – full disclosure – mine as well): “When you install a new defense, most players simply want to know what to do. Stanford players want to know what to do, too, but then they also ask why?”

For a football intelligence agent like Sherman, it’s all about the details. In the video below, Sherman says, “I feel like I’m a decent athlete but my tape study and my meticulous attention to detail are what makes me a good ball player. Some dudes play with pure athleticism. I’m not one of those guys.”

Sherman performs all of the intricacies within Seattle’s defensive scheme more consistently than most corners in the league, and that’s why he’s better than most. On top of his knowledge of his own position, he also knows how opposing receivers think because he began as one in college. In the NFL, almost every player has great physical ability – it’s the mind that separates the mighty from the mundane.

Watch this video for a glimpse into Sherman’s intellect and preparation:

2) Technique

It’s one thing to study tape, but it’s another to execute the techniques required by your position. There are many techniques required by defensive backs, but here are two often overlooked and undervalued techniques that Sherman has seemingly perfected, allowing him to consistently stay at the top of his game:

He doesn’t peek: When in press coverage, watch Sherman before the snap and follow him during the entire route. His eyes are fixated on the receiver and the receiver only. The only time he turns to look at the QB or for the ball is when he is certain he has his man locked up. Sherman’s eyes are locked to the receiver’s solar plexus of the receiver before the snap.

Why the solar plexus? Because receivers can shake and bake and wiggle with their head, hands and feet, but there’s never been a receiver who can juke you with his gut. It’s all about the details.

He doesn’t panic: Every DB is taught the same thing — when the ball is in the air, watch for the receiver’s eyes to get big. That means the ball is entering the catch zone. Defensive backs are taught that if they’re in good position — hip-to-hip with the receiver – they can turn to look for the ball and try to make an interception.

If, however, defensive backs are slightly out of position, they are taught to stay calm and shoot their hands through the pocket when the receiver raises his hands. Despite being coached the proper technique, many DBs still panic. They often flail their arms and desperately swipe and reach at the moment of truth, either missing the ball completely or getting called for defensive pass interference. When the ball is in the air, the great ones, like Sherman, keep calm and make plays.

(Field Gulls did a good job illustrating this – scroll down to the photos of Sherman and Crabtree.)

Above all else, this game will be decided by which team performs best on the ground and in the red zone. Let’s look at how that might happen in greater depth.

The game on the ground

I talked to a New England Patriot, who lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, and he offered some insight into what Bill Belichick thought was the formula for beating Denver. The philosophy was quite simple:

If the Patriots could run the ball 35 times and play physical football, they would keep Manning off the field and likely win the game. That was it – that was the plan.

The Patriots had the right plan, but the problem was their defense was outmanned. With some of their best run-stoppers (Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes and Tommy Kelly) already out due to injury, their chances of stopping the Broncos’ offense was already slim-to-none. When Talib left the game in the second quarter, “slim” left too.

Now with their fourth-string defensive back on the field, the Patriots never led at any point in this game and couldn’t stick to their plan of relentlessly running the ball, because they were forced to play catch-up by passing. They never had a shot at beating the Broncos that way.

Unfortunately for Denver, the Seahawks have succeeded with the Patriots’ original plan all season and are healthy and built to execute it better than anyone in the NFL.

Run the ball 30-plus times per game? Check. They were second in the NFL with a whopping 31.8 rushing attempts per game.

Play physical football? Check. Flesh bombs, knock-backs, kill-shots and body blows – it’s what the Seahawks do. It’s been well documented that Marshawn Lynch can go Beast Mode on a defense, and nobody carries the rock in a more physical manner. Denver is not built to be a smash-mouth, slobber-knocking defense. The Seahawks wore the 49ers (who are a smash-mouth, slobber-knocking defense) down.

How does Seattle do it? By hitting a defense in the same spot over and over until it finally folds. The Seahawks take small gains early knowing the opposing defense eventually will wear down. Their offense is like an ancient water torture technique.

They rely heavily on two specific plays in the run game that Denver will be forced to stop – the bend play and stretch play.

The bend play is difficult to defend, because it looks like a lead play to the weak-side ‘A’ gap before the offense “bends” it at the last second to the strong-side ‘B’ gap. Here’s how it looks:

If the linebackers aren’t patient and good with their eyes by reading the fullback (No. 26), Lynch (No. 24) will gash the front seven and be sprinting into the secondary.

In this next photo, notice how the flow of the play starts to the weak-side ‘A’ gap, and the fullback and Lynch do an outstanding job of selling the lead to that side. San Francisco’s linebackers, Bowman and Willis, begin to move to that gap:

And here’s the last photo: 

Willis did a great job of being patient with his feet and was able to fall back into the weak-side ‘B’ gap to hammer the fullback and turn the play back to his fellow linebacker Bowman. On this play, however, Bowman didn’t fall back with the fullback soon enough, so he got caught on the other side of the center leaving a huge crease for Lynch to burst through.

Now let’s look at the stretch play. How it begins:

Seattle’s offensive linemen, particularly guards Paul McQuistan (No. 67) and J.R. Sweezy (No. 64), do a great job of bursting upfield and getting into the chest of the linebackers. With wide initial alignments, there is plenty of space for them to get access to the second level. Lynch pushes the play to the outside foot of the offensive tackle to get the linebackers running fast to the sideline.

The next photo:

As you can see, although Lynch may be running towards the outside foot of the offensive tackle, his eyes are looking for a cutback lane so that he can burst upfield.

He knows this will likely happen when the backside tackle (No. 76 Russell Okung, circled) gets a chop block on the backside defensive end.

Now the final photo of this play:

After starting as a stretch play to the sideline, it has suddenly become a downhill play now that Lynch spotted the crease, planted his foot in the ground and burst upfield.

You can also see that the guard McQuistan (No. 67, right circle) has climbed five yards past the line of scrimmage to get in the face of Willis while the tackle, Okung (left circle), has secured the cutback lane by chop-blocking his man to the ground. Perfection.

The game in the red zone

Some would call Denver’s defense “good.” Based on tape, I would say “average” is a better description of what it has shown thus far this season. The Broncos rank 22nd in points per game allowed, 20th in yards allowed per game, 18th in third down conversions, 16th in turnovers and 13th in sacks.

More importantly, in the context of the Super Bowl, Denver hasn’t been challenged by a run game quite as good as Seattle’s. Because Denver’s offense averages 37 points per game, its defense often faces opposing offenses that are forced into becoming one-dimensional (that dimension would be the pass, to keep up with Manning).

I suspect the Seahawks and Lynch won’t have that problem and will be able to run the ball up and down and score touchdowns. When facing Seattle’s NFL-best red zone defense, it’ll be vital for the Broncos to match those scores with touchdowns of their own as opposed to field goals. Luckily, Denver has the league’s best red zone offense.

This is football’s version of the “unstoppable force paradox.” Seattle has allowed only 13 red zone touchdowns this season, or only 36 percent of the time (both NFL bests). In 36 red zone battles, the Seahawks’ defense has forced seven turnovers. Denver, meanwhile, has 17 more red zone TDs than the second-best team (51-34) and leads the NFL with touchdowns on an astounding 76 percent of its red zone trips.

Two reasons for Denver’s dominance in this area: stature and schematics.

Denver’s towering targets shred shorter defensive backs in the red zone. At 6-foot-5, tight end Julius Thomas dwarfs DBs, while receivers Decker and Demaryius Thomas both stand 6-3. Manning will be the first to admit that a major factor contributing to Denver’s red zone success is the height, wingspan and catching radius of his receivers.

As for scheme, the Broncos use a lot of rub routes to either get Welker open for quick strikes cutting across the middle – look for it inside the 10-yard line, especially when the defenders are in press coverage — or one of their taller targets sprinting to the back-corner pylon of the end zone where Manning can throw up a lob pass. Let’s quickly take a look at the back-corner fade.

This is where Julius and Demaryius Thomas really come to life in the red zone because of their size and jumping ability.

Here’s how they set one of the back corner fades to Julius Thomas (who is lined up as the receiver closest to Manning on the right side of the formation):

The next photo shows how the play looks when it is set into motion versus tight press coverage. Here it is:

Notice how the outside receiver picks the defender (circled) covering Julius in the slot. The receiver gets just enough of a pick on the defender so that he will be in a disadvantage when the ball is tossed up high in the corner of the end zone for Thomas (yellow arrow streaking to the pylon).

Here’s the end result:

This is the final moment of a play perfectly designed for the Broncos’ taller red zone receiving threats with great leaping ability. The smaller defensive backs are at a great disadvantage and can’t get in position to break up the pass.

Seattle should be better equipped to defend one of Manning’s favorite red zone plays, because most of its defensive backs stand taller than 6-feet and have the defending radius to hang with Denver’s big receivers.

In some ways, these battles will be strength against strength, which seems fitting for a Super Bowl built on opposites.

Coy Wire is a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes CFB and NFL for FOXSports.com. He played college ball at Stanford before spending nine years in the NFL with Buffalo and Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.