Lion’s Den: Pick Seattle

seattle-seahawks-logo_177409It seems like ages ago that I agreed to write Adam Schefter like comments about JFFL trade rumors. This was back in late July. Now here we are six months later at the Super Bowl and I am writing multi-page single-space rants on Football. What can I say, I love talking about this sport. The Lion loves the Super Bowl too, but not the hype surrounding it. Since the entire two week build up to the Super Bowl is hype, we are going no frills or gimmicks this weekend. Dazzle and I are sharing the load this Sunday and getting right to the point. We are each taking a team and explaining why we would bet them.  Let me start off by saying that both teams could very easily win this game. However, the Lion is here to tell you why I think the Seahawks will cover the spread and maybe win this game outright. I am also here to tell you HOW they can achieve such a feat. In honor of our JFFL Seattle fan, NTMVW, the Lion will dedicate this column to efficiency, and give you three reasons for why I am taking the points this weekend:

1)Great Defense almost always beats great Offense

2)There is a clear blueprint for beating the Broncos

3)There is no way for Manning to prepare for beating the Seahawks.

1) Great Defense almost always beats great Offense. For those of you who are even casual fans, you probably all have heard a thousand times this week that this Super Bowl features the number 1 scoring offense verses the number 1 scoring defense. You also heard that Denver’s offense is an all-time great offense, and Seattle is one of the best defenses in the last 10 years. You may also have heard that the last time this #1 offense vs. #1 defense matchup happened was 23 years ago when Scott Norwood cost the Bills the Super Bowl against the Giants. Believe it or not, the Bills were favored by 7 in that game because they ran what at the time was a revolutionary no-huddle offense called the K-Gun. It was the precursor to the up tempo spread offenses that are in vogue today around the NFL.  (Chip Kelly could learn a thing or two from Marv Levy, especially about playing with a lead. Not about winning the Super Bowl though.)

Looking at all “#1 Offense v. #1 Defense” Super Bowls, it seems to be a pattern that the Defense wins. In 1978, the Steelers had the #1 Defense and the Cowboys had the #1 offense. The Steelers won by 4. In 1984 the Dolphins had the #1 O and the 49ers had the #1 D. The 49ers had a pretty good offense also, and won 38-16. A little more recently, the Bucs #1 D dominated Rich Gannon and the Raiders’ #1 O. (The one outlier is the 49ers and their #1 offense’s domination of Denver in 1989, which I attribute to Joe Montana being the man. Also I still can’t believe the Broncos had the #1 D that year when I look at that roster. I think the AFC just was putrid that year). History says that Defense beats Offense.  I can already hear Trombone asking me “WHY?” I think the better question to ask is “HOW?” The answer is more obvious than you would think. I will answer that question below in reason number 2. (See what I did there with the tie in?)

2) There is a clear blueprint for beating the Broncos. I think the best way to illustrate this next point is to revisit that Super Bowl with the Bills v. Giants for a minute. The Lion remembers this game all too well. It was a defining moment in my childhood. As much as I hate to admit this, it’s not all Norwood’s fault Buffalo lost. (Who am I kidding; of course it is his fault. He missed a 47 yard FG that would have won the game. I hate kickers). Bill Parcells and his defensive coordinator Bill Belichick came up with an excellent game plan to keep the K-Gun from rolling. The Giants were able to control the time of possession by long, sustained drives that mixed in a steady dose of runs (39 attempts) with annoyingly huge third down conversions in the air. The 40 minutes and 33 seconds the Giants controlled the ball is a Super Bowl record that still stands.

On Defense, Belichick rushed just four men the majority of the time, allowing them to play a zone that kept everything in front of them and took away the big play. This forced an offense that is used to scoring quickly to do so at the Giant’s preferred tempo and also limited the opportunities for American Folk Hero Jim Kelly and his offense to beat them.  It worked; the final score was 20-19 Giants. Bill Belichick used a very similar strategy in 2001 to upset the St. Louis Rams’ greatest show on turf. The Dark Lord of the hoodie even had his own game plan used against his number 1 record setting offense by his colleague under Parcells, Tom Coughlin. The Giants ruined the Pats perfect 2007 season by using Coughlin’s “Nascar” package of 4 pass rushing lineman, particularly Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, to get pressure on Brady. The Giants’ strategy against New England revolved around flooding the short areas of the field and forcing Brady to look over the top, all while hoping that four man pass rush could get after the pretty boy.

The Lion has mentioned many times over the past few weeks that Seattle’s ability to line up Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Chris Clemons together reminds me of those Giants teams. The similarities don’t end there. Seattle is particularly adept at challenging receivers on the outside while playing zone around them. While you can argue that this Denver offense is better than the Pats 2007 group, you cannot ignore that Seattle’s defense is much better than the Giants were, especially in the secondary. (Giants were the 11th ranked defense that year). It appears to me that if you were to design a defense to specifically challenge a high flying passing offense, Seattle’s Defense is precisely what it would look like. Further, if you look at the Denver losses this season, particularly the San Diego loss that the Lion discussed in his Divisional Sunday preview, you see that teams employed a similar strategy. To recap, to beat a juggernaut passing offense, you need to have long, time consuming, successful, drives which consist of a majority of run plays with passing conversions on 3rd and longs to keep Peyton off the field. You CANNOT turn the ball over. On Defense, you need to get pressure without blitzing, prevent the big play and force the opposing offense to play the game at your tempo.

If anybody can execute the Defensive part of this game plan, it’s Seattle. The biggest concern I have in taking Seattle in this game is the Offense. Russell Wilson has looked shaky as of late. He has no confidence to step up in the pocket and step into a throw. SF had the perfect game plan for him by getting pressure on the edges of the pocket. They also often ran what teams often call a “zero blitz” to befuddle Wilson. A zero blitz means sending more men after Wilson than Seattle has to block. Wilson struggled in picking up these blitzes and adjusting the play and blocking scheme. (I expect Denver to do the same this week, but hope that Wilson to be better prepared, yikes). Despite a perfect defensive game plan by SF, Wilson made enough plays down the field by buying time with his legs to get his WRs open, especially on 3rd down. Say what you want about Wilson, he gave his defense the lead in the 4th quarter.

Worst case scenario for Seattle is falling behind big early. I am not confident Russell can come back if down by more than two scores. I can’t emphasize enough how imperative it is for Seattle to convert 3rd downs to stay on the field. During the season, Seattle converted just over a third of their 3rd downs, which was just about league average. In the post season, they have improved this rate slightly, to just less than 36%. (UGH). It is even more imperative for the Seahawks to establish the run game with Lynch to control the clock and also to set up bootlegs for Wilson. This will also neutralize the edge rush. Against SF, Seattle struggled to get Lynch going early, until they added Alvin Bailey as an extra OL on the line of scrimmage along with a TE in what is referred to as an unbalanced line.

Seattle used this formation normally reserved for goal line situations at midfield. It created a mismatch with a huge body on a DB and if you watch the play, #78 Bailey takes advantage and is the guy who springs Beast Mode on his cutback.  I expect Seattle to try this again. (Side rant: It’s so obvious that the media is trying to cast the Seahawks as villains to no avail. Sherman is becoming a hero to race card players everywhere, and comes across like a smart calculating WWE or Ali type that young people tend to gravitate to. The reaction to Lynch not wanting to talk to reporters is having the same surprisingly positive result as well. The lesson as always, the national media sucks when it tries to create the story instead of report it).  Anyhow, I don’t know if a Von Miller-less Denver DL can contain Russell Wilson on broken plays. We can all agree Denver’s D does not have the talent SF has. As long as Seattle can execute this offensive game plan, and play their typical Seattle defense, history says that they have a shot to win. Of course they could do all this and Manning could beat them anyway. Here is why I think he won’t.

3) There is no way for Manning (and Fox) to prepare for beating the Seahawks. We all know the legend of Peyton Manning. There is no question that he belongs in the pantheon of all time greats. We all know the attributes that make him great. There has never been a QB better at preparing for defenses, reading them before the snap, and making quick, accurate decisions and throws. Peyton knows almost instantly where to go with the ball based on the pre-snap alignment of the defense and its initial post-snap movement. The result is that nobody gets the ball out faster.

One of the hot stats getting tossed around this week is that Manning gets rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the league, taking an average of just 2.36 seconds to throw. (Russell Wilson’s average is about 4 seconds). What this means is that blitzes do not work against Manning unless they are incredibly well disguised. Otherwise, he diagnoses them pre-snap and adjusts the routes to have a WR run immediately to the spot vacated, or audibles to a run away from the blitzing defender. As I discussed above, Seattle’s talent in the secondary allows them to stay in what is a base defense and rely on their front four get pressure. By staying in their base defense instead of trying creative blitz and coverage schemes, this gives Manning no obvious weaknesses to exploit. His guys have to beat Seattle’s guys. The advantage Manning’s preparation and computer like brain bring to the table are essentially negated here.  In other words, the Seahawks won’t lose the chess match because they will refuse to play it with Denver. Instead they will force the Broncos to beat them with talent, toughness and heart.

Speaking of preparation, in the Lion’s own preparation for this game he noticed something else about Seattle’s defense that could potentially drive Peyton nuts. I previously discussed Seattle’s attacking, Tony Dungy style one gap, 4-3 defense. (Seattle runs a Cover 3 instead of Tampa’s Cover 2). I have waxed poetic about how that differs from a two-gap reading style defense often used in 3-4 Defenses. I learned something watching game tape from the past few weeks. (Somehow, I am not divorced). Seattle has added a new wrinkle to its defense. Instead of running a straight 4-3 with one gap responsibility, the Seahawks often call for at least one defensive lineman to play two-gap in an effort to get the best of both worlds of the two styles of defense. With one or two linemen two-gapping to clog additional running lanes, the remaining defenders are free to attack their gaps or drop into pass coverage. When Manning is at the line of scrimmage checking to a run play he will not be able to easily ascertain which lineman are attacking and which are reading. Knowing Manning, if the Lion saw this so has he, and he probably has watched enough tape to make educated guesses based on tendencies. Still, it also affects Moreno and the OL’s decisions and is an advantage for Seattle. This of course has nothing to do with stopping Manning’s passing attack of course. Well let’s talk more about that.

I think the best way to illustrate my point about why Seattle’s defense is not able to be out schemed is to explain the Cover-3 for those who don’t know.  Also known as Three-Deep zone coverage, the Cover Three is a very simple fundamental defensive building block that is the equivalent of a simple 2-3 zone in basketball. The Lion has said before that almost every high school team in the country runs some version of it. In implementation it looks exactly how the name implies it should. You have three defenders drop and divide the field into three deep zones. Typically the two cornerbacks are on the outsides and the free safety has the middle. Each is responsible for being the deepest man in their third. The four other defenders drop into the 8-15 yard range to defend underneath passes as the 4 down lineman rush the QB. This coverage is sound against the pass and allows the Strong Safety to come up to stop the run. It’s also conservative, which is why veteran NFL quarterbacks tend to carve it up and why it’s no longer commonly used in the NFL on passing downs in favor of more complicated coverage schemes. I know what you are thinking. Manning is just the guy to carve up a Cover 3, especially with his increased reliance on mid-range back shoulder throws, drag routes and the crossing routes that made Belichick cry all week last week. (Bill used them himself to perfection in NE, the baby).

Well, as you may have guessed, Seattle doesn’t run your Daddy’s Cover 3. For one, Earl Thomas is as good of a FS as there is. Kam Chancellor is a menace at SS for those receivers crossing the field. Him and K.J. Wright will punish Welker or Decker in the middle. (Unless the refs flag them. For the most part the refs have let guys play in postseason, but I am wary of Manning favoritism here). Most important to Seattle’s Cover 3 though is the CB play. While normally this zone coverage has its CBs playing off the WR, Seattle’s elite (roided up) cornerbacks play tight press coverage on the outside wide receivers as long as a receiver’s initial steps are straight downfield. Take a look at this play. The way the CBs pressure the WRs off the line, it almost looks like the CBs are playing man, even though it’s the base Cover 3 zone all the way.

To help visualize it, think of Seattle’s press cover 3 as a great pressure matchup-zone in basketball, similar to John Chaney’s Temple teams. In short, Seattle’s matchup zone defense provides all of the benefits of traditional Cover Three (namely a deep middle safety and excellent run support) without conceding easy throws (the benefits of man to man or Cover 2). Carroll’s hybrid one-gap two-gap hybrid DL play and hybrid man-zone coverage defense gets the best of both types of defense while eliminating their weaknesses (like stability AND change). Speaking of weaknesses, if Manning has weaknesses, they are his inability to adjust to pressure AFTER the ball is snapped, and inability to throw the deep ball (post neck surgery).  I expect Seattle’s defense pick their spots to jump the short routes (remember how NOLA beat Indy the last time Peyton was in the SB?) They pressure the WRs off the line to throw off their timing, and will dare Denver to throw deep and beat them with throws like this one or the bombs Luck threw to TY Hilton in the Colts upset of Seattle during the regular season. I don’t know if I see Manning making that kind of throw.

If Peyton throws any ducks, (Sherman, like an idiot, stupidly pointed out to everyone he does) Seattle trusts its corners are talented enough to recover when beat to make a play on the ball. While I am terrified that this version of Manning is above being rattled, if it’s a close game, and his offense isn’t working, he does have a tendency to get frustrated and pouty because he is so anal. He straight up throws a temper tantrum if he gets hit. We have not seen the Manning face yet this year in the playoffs. Sunday could be the day. We haven’t even factored in the cold yet. While it’s overblown by the whinny media, the weather gives a slight advantage to Seattle here.  On Offense, Denver has no film on Percy Harvin because Harvin has not played. He is the X-factor in the game. Denver does not have an X-factor.

Final Thoughts and Prediction: I think you got the gist of my theme here. History tells us this game will be played at Seattle’s pace, low scoring, and close. This screams at me to take the under. It screams even more when you consider that the under is generally a great bet in the Super Bowl. This is because the influx of casual gamblers tend to bet the over, driving up the line. I could honestly see this game being eerily similar to Super Bowl XXV, only instead of losing 20-19; Matt Prater hits the 47 yard field goal for a 22-20 victory. (Because a 47 field goal is SO makeable. Seriously. I hate Norwood).

Speaking of the influx of casual gamblers, the line for this game opened at Seattle -1 before the masses that love Peyton and hated Richard Sherman’s rant drove up the line to Denver -3.5. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sharps came in late and bet Seattle causing the line to drop to 2. The Lion locked in with the spread at -3. That means I am going with SEAHAWKS+3, UNDER 47. I am not a fan of Seattle necessarily as a team, and I am terrified of Denver’s Offense getting an early lead. But come on; you really thought I would go with Denver?

The Lion is a grumpy old relic who hates the flag football game that the NFL is turning into. Football is about blocking and tackling and imposing your goon-ish, violent, will on the man across from you.  The Lion does not like the overemphasis on nerdy guy QBs throwing quick 4 yard passes 45 times a game. (Or pretty boy Tom Brady doing the same). Of course the Lion is going is going to go with the team that embodies the parts of the game that I love. The NFL does not want Seattle to win this game, but relics like me do. Deep down in places he doesn’t like to talk about at his corporate Super Bowl parties, Goodell wants the Seahawks to win this game. He needs the Seahawks to win this game. You want real football in the Super Bowl? You can’t handle real football in the Super Bowl! You’re damn right I ordered the Code Red Hot Wings. I’m clearly out of jokes. Enjoy the Super Bowl. The Lion will return in the upcoming months for some NFL Draft stuff, and maybe some college spring football/recruiting round ups.

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