Super Bowl pits strength vs. strength

While most of America spent the day after the NFC Championship game reacting to Richard Sherman’s postgame antics, the Seahawks cornerback was already immersed in film study.

“With Peyton,” Sherman said, “you have to be on it quick, because I know he was on it quick.”

When it comes to preparing for quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ offense, an extra week between games is probably one or two weeks too few, which is why Sherman and the Seahawks defense, despite being the best in the NFL, know they have their hands full this weekend.

All season this Super Bowl matchup seemed like destiny. In the AFC, the 37-year-old Manning enjoyed the best season of what will surely be a Hall-of-Fame career, shattering passing records while leading the Broncos to an NFL record for points in a season.

Seattle, meanwhile, earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed thanks in large part to a defense that became the first since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in fewest points (14.4) and fewest yards allowed (273.6) as well as takeaways (39). When you factor in the pass-happy era we’re in, Seattle’s pass defense wasn’t just great, it was one of the best of all-time.

So when Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass to Malcolm Smith for the game-clinching interception in the NFC title game, it didn’t just secure a Super Bowl berth for Seattle, it also set up one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups in recent memory, a classic meeting of an unstoppable force and an immoveable object.

“We really embrace that, man,” Sherman said. “As a defense, we respect the heck out of Peyton Manning, but as a true competitor, as competitive as our team is, you wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You want the best of the best, otherwise you don’t feel like you’re getting the biggest challenge of your life. … It’s just a competitive drive in you. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. So that’s the only way it can go.”

And there is no arguing that this is a best-vs.-best matchup. Manning, whose career was in danger less than three years ago following multiple neck surgeries, established single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55). He carved up opposing defense by spreading the ball around to a group of pass-catchers with diverse skill sets, ranging from a prototypical No. 1 receiver in Demaryius Thomas to a speedy slot receiver in Wes Welker to an athletic tight end in Julius Thomas. And of all the crazy stats the Broncos put up, the most stunning might be that they had four pass-catchers produce 10-plus touchdown seasons: Thomas, Thomas, Welker and Eric Decker. For a little perspective on how crazy that is, there were just nine other receivers and tight ends on the NFL’s 31 other teams to accomplish that feat.

So it’s no surprise that the Broncos are confident in their offense, no matter who is lined up across from them.

“They are the No. 1 defense,” Demaryius Thomas told reporters in Denver. “They have a great defense and we have a great offense. This is what you play for. I think we’ll be fine.”

Yet as confident as the Broncos may be, it’s safe to say they’ve yet to see anything quite like this Seattle defense, which didn’t just have the best pass defense in the league, but the best by a significant margin.

Seattle allowed 172.0 passing yards per game, 22.1 fewer than the No. 2 team. The Seahawks’ opponents’ passer rating of 63.4 is 10.8 points better than the next best team. The website came up with a formula to rate pass defense in a historical context by using adjusted net yards per attempt — meaning it factors in sacks, not just actual pass attempts — then factored in a standard deviation relative to the average pass defense that year, and came away with the conclusion that the Seahawks have the fourth-best pass defense since 1950 behind 2002 Tampa Bay, 1988 Minnesota and the 1970 Vikings. Those ‘02 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, and it should be noted that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the defensive backs coach of the ‘88 Vikings.

Seattle’s secondary deservedly saw three players, Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, yet it’s safe to say they’ve yet to see anything quite like Denver’s offense.

But Seahawks fans might take comfort knowing that in the previous four Super Bowls to match the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in terms of yards, the defensive team won three times. Not only is Denver’s offense talented, it’s also a challenge because Manning has so much freedom at the line of scrimmage, essentially serving as, as Sherman called him, “an offensive coordinator out there.”

“Nobody has ever taken more command of the game than he has at this stage of his career,” Carroll said. “And the coaching staff has allowed that to happen where he can be in total command of what’s going on.”

One thing Carroll and his defense know well is that stopping Denver’s passing game isn’t only about the players covering Manning’s targets. If the Seahawks can somehow generate a pass rush to disrupt Manning’s timing, they’ll be doing something few teams have this season. The Broncos allowed a league-low 19 sacks this season, 18 on Manning, and that number clearly isn’t a testament to Manning’s mobility. Instead the Broncos rely on solid pass protection and, even more important, a quarterback who through years of experience has learned precisely when to get rid of the ball and where to throw it.

The Seahawks added Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to improve their pass rush, and it worked, with Seattle registering 44 sacks this season, but even with a strong group of pass-rushers, pressuring Manning, like stopping the entire Broncos offense, will be a challenge even for the league’s best defense.

“We have to be able to do everything,” Carroll said. “We have to be able to pressure him, we have to be able to play zone and man, do all of the things. Hopefully give him some new looks he can’t prepare for. We have to find a way to get him out of his normal rhythm. Very few teams have been able to do that. So it’s a big challenge.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Sports

Jean-Luc Baker leads advanced students through a warmup during the Seattle Skating Club 2024 Your True Step figure skating seminar on Saturday, June 15, 2024, at Olympic View Arena in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Patterson: What’s next for local Olympian Jean-Luc Baker?

The Edmonds ice dancer brought Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen to town with Your True Step.

Logan Gilbert of the Seattle Mariners throws a pitch during the second inning against the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park on June 16, 2024, in Seattle, Washington. (Alika Jenner / Getty Images)
Mariners week: Gilbert’s brilliance lifts Seattle to sweep

Seattle’s 8 1/2-game lead in the AL West is its largest since the 2001 season.

AquaSox week in review: Mariners’ Polanco does rehab stint

Everett wins five of six on the road against Eugene; Schreck and Garcia have big weeks.

Women’s PGA Championship offers fans chance to watch and learn

The women’s golf major tournament comes to Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish beginning Thursday.

Jackson senior and UNLV commit Yanina Sherwood is The Herald’s 2024 Softball Player of the Year. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
2024 Softball Player of the Year: Jackson’s Yanina Sherwood

With both her arm and bat, Sherwood led the Timberwolves to their second-straight state title.

Kamiak’s Synclair Mawudeku (2) pitches during a 4A softball game between Kamiak and Jackson at Kamiak High School on Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. Jackson won, 9-0. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
The Herald’s 2024 All-Area softball team

Editor’s note: The Player of the Year and All-Area teams were chosen… Continue reading

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba catches the game-winning touchdown pass as Eagles cornerback James Bradberry defends in the fourth quarter on Dec. 18. (Yong Kim / Tribune News Service)
Seahawks look to fully unlock Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s potential

Seattle is expecting good things from the receiver, who was taken 20th overall in the 2023 draft.

Everett 8-year-old Ryder Romano was selected to compete in the prestigious Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Walker)
Everett 8-year-old selected to prestigious hockey tournament

Ryder Romano will play at the Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament on July 1-7 in Edmonton, Alberta.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) celebrates a stop of Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) during the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Nov. 30, 2023. The Cowboys won, 41-35. (Tom Fox / Tribune News Service)
Captain of the Seahawks defense? Why it could be Witherspoon

The talented second-year cornerback brought ‘outrageous energy’ to Seattle’s minicamp.

Drew Bryson, the new Arlington boys basketball head coach, at Arlington High School on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Arlington taps alum Bryson to continue boys hoops tradition

The former Eagles star succeeds Nick Brown as Arlington’s head coach.

Why Seahawks are joining NFL trend with joint practices

Seattle will conduct practices with the Tennessee Titans prior to their preseason game.

Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn on the sidelines June 15, 2023, during a game against the Las Vegas Aces in Las Vegas. (Ellen Schmidt / Las Vegas Review-Journal, file)
As WNBA exposure grows, Storm content to quietly stack wins

Amid the Caitlin Clark-fueled buzz, Seattle has won seven of its past eight.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.