"I think as we have seen in the past, sometimes games go, and sometimes it can be kind of like an avalanche. The scores start happening. Field position just tilts and everything goes your way. We were really ready. We were really ready for the opportunities. - Pete Carroll
For a large majority of the record-setting 111 million people watching Super Bowl XLVIII around the world, apart from Seahawk fans of course, this one was kind of a snoozer. It was 22-0 at halftime, 29-0 before a scrimmage play had been run in the third, and 36-0 before the fourth quarter began. So much for dramatic comebacks or late-game drama. Maybe Roger Goodell should've turned the lights off again just to make things more interesting.
"We ran into a buzz saw," as John Fox put it, and after the Seahawks took the lead only 12 seconds in, they never really looked back from that point. It was the longest a team has held a lead in any Super Bowl, but of course, the game was not over when the Seahawks managed a safety on the first play from scrimmage. It took a series of events and a combination of factors for Seattle to ultimately dominate the game.
Let's take a look at a few of those elements.
1. Get an early lead
Seattle's offense is centered around ball control. They've shown an ability to slow the game down during the season, rely on a punishing and clock-burning run game, and won several games against some of the toughest teams in the NFL by leaning on their stingy defense and strong special teams. The NFL's best scoring defense insulated them, and their highly rated special teams units helped win them the field position game. Going in, I had wondered that if Denver had shot out to an early lead, it may have been tough for Seattle to go blow for blow with an offense of that caliber. The Hawks aren't necessarily built for comebacks - that's not to say that they can't orchestrate a comeback - but Seattle is built to get, then protect even the smallest lead.
As you saw, it didn't take long for Seattle to grab that small lead when a premature snap flew past Peyton Manning and into the back of the endzone for a safety.
"We were using the snap count on the play and due to the noise no one could hear me," Peyton Manning said after the game. "I was walking up to the line of scrimmage to sort of make a change and get us on the same page and then the ball was snapped."
"We were backed up to the endzone and they were loud," said Broncos center Manny Ramirez on the Seahawks' 12th Man. "It was real loud and we're trying to go on a cadence and I thought I heard him. I didn't, you know. He was already walking up to me because he had already said the cadence and I snapped it."
For a team whose home crowd prides itself on creating havoc for an visiting team's offense and being the loudest in the NFL, it was only fitting that they could take their act on the road and get their team a quick two points.
The Broncos switched to a silent count after that.
2. Execute scripted plays
I wouldn't say the Seahawks' offense moved the ball at will, but Pete Carroll, Tom Cable, and Darrell Bevell's normally conservative and basic gameplan certainly looked varied and creative, and helped Seattle mount three straight scoring drives in the first quarter and early part of the second. Those three drives totaled 29 plays for 146 yards, created 13 points, and ate up about 20 minutes of clock.
They say teams typically run about 15 scripted plays at the start of the game, and though that can obviously change based on a multitude of factors, in Seattle's first two drives, what we saw was some pretty awesome multiplicity. The Hawks' first play from scrimmage was a run from a six-offensive lineman "Jumbo" package. It was followed by a play-action bootleg pass, a college-style fly sweep, a tight four-wide spread formation, a wider-split spread formation, a classic old school I-formation, and then new-school read-option. They followed up with a power-O run with a pulling guard, and threw using a wide receiver stack formation, a bubble screen, a rub-route, and a frickin' flea-flicker. This is all in their first two possessions!
Seattle earned a reputation among its fans for running an overly vanilla, predictable, unsophisticated offense this season. That went out the window with their scripted plays in this one as they drew from every section of their play-sheet.
3. The Percy Harvin Factor
Of course, it didn't hurt to get maybe the best offensive player on their team back on the field. It also didn't hurt that there wasn't a whole lot of tape out there on the ways in which Seattle wanted to use him, so when they did, the Broncos didn't have a great answer for it.
The Seahawks broke out one of Percy's old Florida Gator staples, the fly sweep, and on the second play from scrimmage, he nearly housed it 60 yards for a touchdown. In eluding a tackle by the oncoming safety, Harvin stepped out of bounds, but still picked up 30-odd yards on the play.
The key to the fly sweep is that it stresses a defense laterally, particularly after it's already stressed in the middle with the threat of Marshawn Lynch. It's a pick-your-poison question for a defense, and in this case, the attention given to Lynch on the fake allows Harvin to get outside quickly. The unblocked end to the playside doesn't even see the ball.
In his defense, neither did the end zone angle camera guy.
The drive would stall in the red zone, but Seattle would get three points out of it to go up by five. They would break out the fly-sweep again on their second drive in the closing minute of the first quarter.
In this case below, you can again see the Broncos in a zone coverage scheme (no one follows Harvin), and Zach Miller and Doug Baldwin make key blocks. Harvin's speed to the edge is the key though, and he easily picks up 15.
Oh, and if you're keeping track at home, the camera guy in the end zone still doesn't know where the sh*t Harvin went.
4. Play physical
One of Pete Carroll's pillars of defense is to 'outhit the opponent on every play.' That showed up really early in this game as the Seahawks looked to set the tone. In effect, they said: "We're not going to let you throw it deep, but when you throw it short, we're going to beat up the receivers that catch those passes."
Said Carroll: "We really made the decision early to stay with what we know really well and demonstrate to our guys that we believe in them and trust them. Let's play the way we want to play. The more we looked at it, the more excited we got about it. We really felt like we could knock the crud* out of these guys."
The Broncos are known for running confusing crossing and pick routes in the short- to intermediate-area, and on their first drive, they went right to that. Kam Chancellor went right to letting them know he studied tape.
"We were able to jump a few routes." said Kam afterwords. "Just see everything that develops in front of you, playing off of Peyton's eyes. He takes you right to the ball every time. He's a great quarterback, but he definitely has tendencies and he takes you to the ball."
You can see Chancellor pick up the crosser by Demaryius Thomas early, close on him, and deliver a punishing hit. Thomas pops right back up (and played a very good game), but it was later reported he played with a separated shoulder. Was it perhaps from this hit?
Regardless, the message had been sent.
Seattle continued to assert their physical NFC West brand of football throughout the entire game.
Gang tackling, stripping the football...
... And blowing up screen passes.
Seattle's defense, who had heard from the media for two weeks all about Denver's offensive exploits, came out and played mad. Played like they wanted to make a statement. Said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner: "We loved hearing about the Denver offense. Because after the game, we knew, ‘You're going to hear a lot about Seattle's defense.'"
5. Get Manning off his spot
While a ton of credit is due to the Seattle secondary for frustrating Manning and the Broncos' passing attack for nearly the entire game, the front seven deserves a lot of the praise as well. Peyton Manning came into the game without being hit (not even knocked down) in Denver's first two Playoffs wins.
In the Super Bowl, Seattle managed to sack Manning once, hit him five more times, and they hurried him 17 times, per Pro Football Focus' tracking. The Seahawks' ability to harass Manning and get him to move off his spot in the pocket was a big reason they were able to suffocate the prolific Broncos' offense.
Early in the game, trailing 8-0 and trying to regain some momentum, Manning threw an uncharacteristic interception to Kam Chancellor when he was forced to step up on the pocket and slightly rush a throw. His rushed throw, though he had Julius Thomas on a slow-developing route up the seam, ended up sailing it right into the defender's hands.
In the second quarter, now trailing 15-0, the Broncos had managed to move into Seattle territory and were threatening to get the game back to a manageable 15-7 score. On the astonishing 15th play of the drive, Manning's arm was hit as he threw, and the ball was picked off and run back for a touchdown.
Cliff Avril is the key player here, rushing from the strong side. Avril converts speed to power as he jukes outside, setting up the right tackle, and then simply bullrushes into his chest, driving Orlando Franklin back into the pocket. Avril impressively reaches out with his left arm and strikes Manning as he attempts to throw, and eventual Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith coasts under it to pick it off.
That put Seattle up 22-0. They took that lead into halftime, but if Super Bowl XLVII taught me anything, it's that 22-point leads aren't necessarily safe (Baltimore led 28-6 in the third before San Francisco fought back into it to trail 34-29 with under two minutes left).
I'm sure this is what the Broncos were talking about during the interminable halftime show. They were a historically good scoring team. If any team could come back from 22 points, it was this team. I'm sure that's what they were saying, but they wouldn't be saying it for long.
6. Extinguish any momentum shift
For those Seattle fans that still felt a genetically-passed-down automatic-nervousness of impending Seattle Sports meltdown, Percy Harvin's 87-yard kick return touchdown to start the third quarter eased that feeling.
As we saw on Showtime's NFL Turning Point this week (a show that features mic'd up players and coaches), Seattle knew the Broncos might try to kick the ball short so as to avoid putting the ball in Percy Harvin's hands. With that in mind, Special Teams coach Brian Schneider called a normal kickoff coverage scheme but added a secondary option if the ball was kicked short. That option was called "bloop middle," meaning, if the ball is 'blooped' short, block for the middle of the field. As you can see above, the Seahawks clear a giant lane in the middle of the field and Percy breaks a couple of tackles to spring himself for the score.
It's a look that, according to Percy Harvin after the game, the Hawks hadn't put on tape all year, and let's just say the Broncos did not adjust to it.
It's now 29-0, Seahawks. The rout in on.
7. Nail the coffin shut
If things weren't bad enough for the Broncos at this point, Seattle strung together a few more excellent plays to put the game into "our backup quarterback is now playing" mode.
First, on a key second-and-10 from the Seattle 38-yard line, Manning looked for Wes Welker on a nice crossing route for what would've been a big gain into the Seahawks' red zone.
As the ball is snapped, Chancellor runs with Julius Thomas up the seam. He keeps his eyes in on Manning, and notices Welker coming underneath into his zone. Chancellor reacts quickly to break up the pass. Really, an underrated and excellent play. This goes back to Chancellor's comments on learning some of Manning's tendencies and knowing the route combinations the Broncos like to use.
The Broncos would run out of third-and-10, gain one, and punt.
The next drive, after finally forcing a Seattle punt, the Broncos would move into Seattle territory and threaten to score once again. Manning hits Demaryius Thomas on a brilliant crossing route, and Byron Maxwell comes up to make the tackle at the Seattle 20-yard line or so.
Seattle recovers. On the ensuing drive:
The bottom line
While the Seahawks' offense was efficient in this game -- Russell Wilson made some impressive throws; his receivers made more impressive plays -- the defense was the story. The Broncos didn't get a first down until the second quarter. The most prolific scoring offense of the modern era didn't score until the last play of the third.
"They were relentless," said John Elway after the game. "They smelled blood and stayed after it."
The shark feeding frenzy comparison is apt. Seattle continually pressured Manning, tackled fiercely in the pass game, hit hard and stopped the run game almost completely (Denver rushed for 27 yards on 1.9 YPC), forced four Broncos turnovers, and had another forced fumble that was recovered by the offense. Denver's drive chart looked like this:
Said Carroll this week:
"The first score, we had nothing to do with that one. (The safety) was just unfortunate for them on the snap and all. From that point on, we really seized the night. Whenever you play turnover football like that, it's the formula that we try to live by. You get four turnovers and they get none; the game is going to go that way. We had great kicking game play as well. We really were able to put the whole formula together, and that was the outcome that came out of it."
Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports, Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports