Note: I haven’t been commenting much on the Seattle Seahawks so far this season. With the year ending injuries to key defensive stars Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, plus the problems with the offensive line and the running game, I have been, more or less, in “wait and see” mode as regards this […]Read the Rest →
I hate to employ once again that over used word “dominant” in describing the Seattle Seahawks 43-8 wipe out of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, but I am going to anyway. If ever a football team’s performance warranted that word, last Sunday’s by Seattle was it. The Hawks didn’t just beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos—they annihilated them. For the prior two weeks, amidst all the talk of Manning’s and the Broncos record setting offense and passing attack, and how Seattle would struggle to stop it (to be honest, they even got me to buy into it somewhat), Pete Carroll and his coaching staff quietly went about putting together a brilliant game plan; and when the bell rang on Super Sunday his players executed it to perfection.
Truth be told, the Seahawks players and coaches were incredibly confident going into this game. In all of the pre-game interviews leading up to last Sunday, they said all the right and humble things, duly genuflecting at the altar of Peyton Manning’s greatness. Most of them, however, felt like Seahawks linebacker KJ Wright did upon first seeing film of the Broncos offense. “Man,” he thought, “we already got this game won.” Whatever Wright and the rest of his Hawks defensive brethren saw in those films, they knew they had the answer to, and on Super Sunday they went out and proved it. The Broncos didn’t even get a first down until the game was 20 minutes old—by then Seattle already led 15-0! For the Broncos things would only get worse.
As promised, I am going to review this game for you, covering the key points that I see behind why Seattle was so able to blow Denver and Manning right out of MetLife Stadium. You must realize, however, that the magnificent Seahawks performance we saw on Sunday has a much earlier beginning than anything that happened on Sunday, during the two weeks of preparation leading up to Sunday, or even during this season. What manifested before us in this Super Bowl is the culmination of something Pete Carroll has been building in Seattle the entire four years he has been here. Before that he was building it through his entire 40 year career as a football coach. We “twelves” in Seattle and this Seahawks team are the beneficiary of a philosophy of life applied to football that took Carroll decades to refine into its current form; a philosophy that he calls “Win Forever”.
At the beginning of this season I took the time to write two blogs that do a thorough job of explaining this philosophy and how Carroll came up with it. I did it because I sensed that something magical was taking place with the Seahawks and I wanted to understand it. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of what you saw the Seahawks do this season and on Sunday in the Big Game you must read those blogs.  Better yet, lay your hands on a copy of Pete’s book by the same title and read it. When you do these things you will recognize that much of what the players say to the media and in interviews and so forth, as well as how they play, is straight out of Carroll’s philosophy. The Seahawks head coach has done a marvelous job of translating his tenets and principles to his players and through them to their play on the field. The “every week is a championship opportunity and chance to go 1-0” mantra, the emphasis on competition, and the granting of the right to be who they are to his players, are all elements of this philosophy. The result of the application of these principles is a dynamic, confident and well drilled TEAM, the players of which love and trust one another, as well as their coaches. You see this manifesting in the Seahawks—the whole definitely becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
With the Seahawks, because of Carroll’s adherence to these principles, a late round draft choice or an undrafted free agent can arrive in training camp and have an honest shot at making the team. You saw the evidence of this in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, both of whom scored touchdowns in the game, were undrafted free agents. Hawks linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcom Smith was a 7th round draft choice. Because of this characteristic, Seahawks All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, himself a 5th round draft pick, calls the team a bunch of misfits and rejects. To Sherman, however, these are terms of endearment.
Carroll’s whole emphasis is to place a player in the best position possible to maximize his gifts and become the best he can possibly be. How does he do it? Decades ago he observed that players were at their best when confident and free from doubt and fear. By allowing the players to be who they are they are re-affirmed instead of restricted. He coaches his coaches to not yell at the players, or tear them down. He ensures the inevitable playing errors are confronted and corrected, but always with an eye toward validating the player and not making him less, for to do so causes doubt, and doubt is the enemy of optimum performance. The other tools he uses incessantly are practice and competition.
Since the word is often mentioned in association with Pete Carroll, it is important to understand just what he means by “competition”. He describes his view of this most essential element of his philosophy as follows: “Competition to me is not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential; and it is about being in relentless pursuit of a competitive edge in everything you do.” Elaborating further on the subject, he states that to most people “competition” is viewed as a contest or test of skills between individuals, teams, groups or nations. To Pete Carroll this is a very limited and therefore limiting view: “In my world,” he says, “…it is a mentality, an outlook and a way of approaching every day. The traditional definition of ‘competition’ requires having an opponent. For players, the real ‘opposition’ is not necessarily the team they are matched up against in a given week—far from it. The real opposition is the challenge to remain focused on maximizing their abilities in preparation for the game…” Carroll then sums up his view as follows: “The essence of my message about competing has nothing to with the opponent. My competitive approach is that it’s ‘all about us.’ If we’ve really done the preparation to elevate ourselves to our true potential it shouldn’t matter whom we are playing.”
How many times across this season have Seahawks players echoed Pete Carroll’s principles as stated above in their interviews with the media? If you have been paying attention, a whole bunch. In a post game interview on Sunday Denver coach John Fox stated that he and his team had run into a “buzz saw” in the Seahawks. A “buzz saw”—that was the team that Pete Carroll unleashed at MetLife Stadium on Super Sunday. For all of their imposing physicality, there was an aesthetic and spirituality to the way the Seahawks played. Carroll’s philosophy and his application of it to his team has everything to do with this, and unless you understand that you are missing the most significant cause of the Seahawks “magic” on full display in the way they played in the Super Bowl. It was beautiful to watch.
With all that now understood, let’s take a look at just how the Seahawks dominated in Super Bowl XLVIII. In my preview to this game I isolated 4 main points that were key to Seattle defeating the Broncos. Paraphrased, these points were as follows:
- The Seahawks must get pressure on Peyton Manning…not necessarily sack him, but get him to move his feet and knock him down a few times.
- Seattle must successfully defend the Broncos “rub routes”…
- The Hawks needed to win the turnover battle going at least plus 2 for the day…
- Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense needed to be able to sustain drives with at least a 50 per cent 3rd down conversion ratio and ideally scoring 28 points…
Simply stated, the Seahawks won this game going away because they didn’t accomplish just 2 or 3 of these points, they accomplished all 4!
We’ll start with the first point:
- Getting pressure on Peyton Manning:
Seattle’s defensive ends, particularly Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril, were very successful at bringing pressure on the Broncos quarterback from both edges. They didn’t sack him much, but they didn’t need to. As stated above they just needed to force him to move his feet and make him uncomfortable, and they succeeded in that mightily. One of Manning’s big plusses is his ability to read a defense and still get rid of the ball quickly, thus tending to negate a pass rush. It was amazing to see how quickly Seattle’s defenders were able to get to Manning, which took away one of his primary strengths. The Broncos future Hall of Famer never seemed to get comfortable in the pocket and was hit and knocked down repeatedly. Also, Seattle was able to do this with just their 4 defensive linemen and sometimes with only 3 because they would occasionally drop one lineman into pass coverage underneath.
The pressure on Manning resulted in several big plays for Seattle’s defense, but one of them was most likely the key play in the game. With 12 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter the Seahawks had just scored on a 1 yard Marshawn Lynch run to take a 15-0 lead. To that point in the game the Broncos had been totally outplayed and had yet to even record a first down. On their possession following the kickoff Manning and his team finally mounted a drive, getting their initial first down of the game on a 5 yard Knowshon Moreno run to the Denver 30 yard line. From there, running mostly a no huddle, shotgun formation offense, Manning slowly and methodically moved his team down field and into Seattle territory. The biggest play of the drive was a 16 yard completion to slot receiver Wes Welker on a 3rd and 9 from the Broncos own 41 yard line. To get the completion Manning held on to the ball as long as he could, releasing it just before Seattle’s Chris Clemons crashed into him from the left side and crushed him to the turf. Despite the hard hit the Broncos now had a first down at the Seattle 43 and were moving the ball. Three plays later Manning’s team had a 1st down at the Seattle 32 and looked to be on the verge of their first score of the game.
Then Seattle’s pass rush took over. On 1st down the Seahawks massive defensive end Red Bryant got around Broncos left guard Zane Beadles and had a clear lane to Manning. In a desperate effort to stop Bryant, Beadles stuck out his left leg to trip him; the only problem being that tripping is illegal in the NFL. The resultant penalty cost the Broncos 10 yards. The next two plays gained 7 yards leaving Manning with a 3rd and 13 at Seattle’s 35, an obvious passing down. The play that followed changed the game. From the shotgun Manning took the snap and looked to pass, but did not have time to even set his feet. To that point in the game Seattle’s left defensive end Cliff Avril had been mostly using speed rushes to get around Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin. On this play he suddenly changed tactics and used a bull rush straight at Franklin. The move caught the Broncos tackle completely by surprise and he was rocked back on his heels directly towards Manning. With stunning speed Avril overwhelmed Franklin, extended his left arm and hit Manning on his throwing arm just as he was releasing the ball toward his intended receiver, Knowshon Moreno, to the quarterback’s right about 5 yards down field. The ball fluttered up and away from Manning’s hand and for fleeting moments seemed to be suspended in the air, defying gravity. When it finally came down it was into the hands of Hawks linebacker Malcom Smith who took off down field, outrunning everyone to the end zone.
The effect of the play was devastating for the Broncos. Not only could they not capitalize on a 15 play drive that had taken 8 minutes off the clock, due to Avril’s great play the Seahawks suddenly had a 22-0 lead. By the time Denver was able to mount another serious drive late in the 3rd quarter the game was out of reach.
Seattle’s pass rush on Manning was so relentless throughout the game that even with the lead at 43-8, the game already won and under 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter, they were still coming. On a 4th down and 11 play from the Broncos own 30 Manning took the snap from the shotgun and scanned the field to throw. On spotting a receiver he stepped up into the pocket while cocking his arm to pass. Swooping around his blocker from Manning’s left, Hawks defensive end Chris Clemons was already behind the quarterback when he cocked his passing arm. Clemons simply reached forward and batted the ball from the Manning’s hand causing a fumble. The ball bounced crazily for a few yards forward and to the right, ultimately being recovered by Seattle for another turnover. The Seahawks pass rush had struck again!
- The next key point for Seattle was defending Denver’s short, crossing “rub routes.”
As I explained in the preview article to this game, among Denver’s favorite tactics on offense are short, crossing pass routes by their receivers over the middle of the field in which one of them uses the other to “rub” his defender off in order to get open. These routes are called “rub routes” and they are high completion percentage passes that often result in yards after the catch (YAC) by the receiver. (As a note, Denver led the league in gaining yards after the catch this season.) In this game Seattle was very successful in handling the Broncos rub routes by just doing what they have done all season—playing savage but smart defense. The truth is there is probably no team better equipped in the NFL to deal with this aspect of Denver’s offense than Seattle. Because of this, playing the Seahawks in the Super Bowl was a worst case scenario for Manning and the Broncos. Let me explain why.
Seattle primarily plays what is called a “Cover-3” defense. I don’t want to get too technical on you here but the result you saw on the field was so impressive, if you are like me, you want to understand how Seattle did it; especially true when Denver had laid waste to the rest of the league with their “rub routes” the whole season. So what is “Cover-3”? The simple description is that it utilizes 4 down defensive linemen in pass rush, and 3 linebackers covering the underneath zones with a corner back on each side and 1 of the safeties in the deep middle, each covering their third of the field in pass defense. Depending on which version of “Cover-3” is being played, the other safety, in Seattle’s case Kam Chancellor, is positioned much closer to the line of scrimmage, like a 4th linebacker, either wide and closer to the sideline, or in the middle of the field a few yards off the line of scrimmage. This version of “Cover-3”, with the safety in the middle at linebacker depth, is called “3-buzz” for ease of identification.
The reason Seattle can play this defense so effectively lies in their personnel. Teams know that they must pressure Peyton Manning to stop the Broncos and often, therefore, feel the need to commit a 5th player to the pass rush. When they do this it plays right into Manning’s hands, as he reads what is happening and inevitably finds the receiver now open because his defender is gone rushing the passer. As you saw in the game, Seattle was able to get pressure on Manning with just the 4 defensive linemen, and sometimes just 3. (Occasionally Seattle would throw a defensive wrinkle at Manning by dropping one of the linemen into pass coverage with only 3 linemen rushing the passer.) In addition Seattle’s linebackers, KJ Wright, Bobby Wagner and Malcom Smith, are all very fast and physical. To play “3-buzz” they have to be because they need to be able to cover the underneath zones and flats on either side of the field all the way out the sidelines. With safety Kam Chancellor also being very fast and physical, the cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Richard Sherman both being excellent pass defenders, and safety Earl Thomas over the top to handle anything that gets by, Seattle has the ideal defense to handle Denver’s tendencies. They can play this defense because they have the ideal players to play it—a credit to Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider.
You saw how this played out in the game. In the first half, which Seattle dominated defensively and in which the tone was set for the whole game, Peyton Manning had 23 pass attempts. Seattle was in Cover-3 on 16 of those attempts with 11 of the 16 being “3-buzz.” In “3-buzz” Chancellor is in perfect position to disrupt the Broncos middle crossing “rub routes”, and disrupt them he did. Everyone by now has seen the shattering hit he laid on Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas during the Broncos 2nd possession of the game but it is worth reviewing again to see just how effective Seattle was with their defense. The play took place on a 2nd and 7 situation from Denver’s own 37 yard line. Manning took the snap from the shotgun and the various Broncos receivers ran their usual cris-crossing routes. From his position split to the left side, Thomas went two yards up field and then cut sharply to his right, underneath Denver tight end Julius Thomas who was crossing from the other direction. Manning hit D. Thomas with a short pass right over the middle whereupon the receiver was blown up by Chancellor coming from his position in the middle of the field. The savage hit not only knocked Thomas 5 yards backwards and to the ground, it set the tone for the rest of the game. From that point on Denver receivers knew the price to be paid on their “rub routes” and the “yards after the catch”, which Denver had relied on all season, became an insignificant factor.
A simple look at the first half stats illustrates just how effective the Seattle “D” was. On the 11 Manning pass attempts in which Seattle was in “3-buzz” he completed 9 of them for a grand total of 43 yards; an average of less than 4 yards per attempt. In the pass happy world of the NFL that is a ridiculously low figure and matches the worst of Manning’s career. Seattle’s defensive strategy worked to perfection on the rub routes. They allowed the catches but gave nothing on yards after the catch, and the Denver receivers were rendered anxiety ridden in crossing the middle by the savage hits of Chancellor and his mates. Brilliant!
- The next important point was winning the turnover battle.
Getting the other team to cough up the ball is a specialty of the Seattle Seahawks. They led the league in turnovers (39) and turnover ratio (plus 20) as well as interceptions (28). They are good at this because Pete Carroll emphasizes it so heavily, usually devoting a whole day of practice to it during the week. They are also good at it because Seattle’s players are just plain good and have great ball skills.
In the Super Bowl Seattle forced Denver into 4 turnovers (2 interceptions and 2 fumbles) while not, themselves, turning the ball over. (In addition, the safety on the game’s opening play, while not technically counting as a turnover, had the effect of one because Seattle ended up getting two points and the ball as a result.) With a plus 4 turnover ratio the Seahawks clearly won the battle for the ball. They accomplished this in different ways but it was the pass rush that started it all. I have already discussed two of the turnovers earlier in this article, Smith’s interception returned for a TD and Manning’s fumble late in the game caused by Chris Clemons’ pass rush.
The first Broncos turnover of the game was also pass rush related. Late in the 1st quarter Denver had a 3rd and 7 at their own 23 yard line. Manning took the snap from the shotgun formation while Seattle’s defensive linemen attacked their opposing blockers. From his left defensive end position Cliff Avril, displaying amazing strength and speed, got around his man and came up on Manning from behind. Perceiving this pressure from behind, Manning was forced to step up in the pocket just as he delivered the ball toward his intended receiver, tight end Julius Thomas, about 12 yards down field. Likely because of the fact he needed to move forward just as he was about to throw the ball, Manning’s pass sailed high and behind J. Thomas. A couple of yards down field from Thomas was Seattle safety Kam Chancellor, who only needed to stick his hands out to make the interception, thus halting another Denver drive.
Seattle’s other turnover came with 5:55 left in the 3rd quarter and Seattle leading 29-0. The Broncos had a drive going with a 1st and 10 on the Seattle 44. On the next play Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for what was the Broncos longest play of the game—23 yards. Unfortunately for the Broncos the play ended in disaster when cornerback Byron Maxwell punched the ball free from Thomas and Malcom Smith recovered it for the Seahawks, returning it to the Seattle 42 while thwarting another Denver scoring opportunity
Because of their great pass rush on Manning, their great defensive schemes and their brilliant and well-drilled ball hawking skills, as well as the fact that the offense protected the ball and had no turnovers, the Seahawks won the turnover battle with the Broncos decisively. This was a major factor in the game and contributed mightily to Seattle winning the Super Bowl.
- The last key point was that to win the Seahawks needed to sustain drives on offense and score at least 28 points.
In naming this 28 point figure I had in mind the fact that during the playoffs the Broncos had defeated both the San Diego Chargers AND the New England Patriots by scoring 24 and 26 points respectively. Knowing that Seattle’s defense is superior to either of those teams it seemed that if the Hawks scored 28 then they should win the game. The Seahawks easily surpassed this by scoring 43. With the safety providing 2 points at the beginning of the game and Smith’s pick 6 the Seattle defense directly accounted for 9 of the 43 points. The outstanding 87 yard kickoff return by Percy Harvin accounted for another 7. That means that Seattle’s offense accounted for 27 points, almost exactly the figure I thought they had to score. The fact is quarterback Russell Wilson and the Hawks offense played an almost perfect game when you consider what Seattle had to do to win.
The key to this for Seattle was sustaining drives by being effective on 3rd downs. When the Seattle offense struggled during the regular season it almost always coincided with struggling on 3rd down. In this Super Bowl Russell Wilson and the offense were at their best on the biggest stage, converting on 7 of 12 third down opportunities, well over 50 per cent. Wilson hit on 72 per cent of his passes, completing 18 of 25 for 206 yards and 2 TDs, one to Jermaine Kearse, a wild play in which the Hawks receiver pinballed off two sets of Broncos tacklers before reaching the end zone, and one to Doug Baldwin. In the process Wilson compiled a brilliant passer rating of 123.1 for the game. He completed passes to 8 different receivers and at one point connected on 8 consecutive throws. Denver was effective at shutting Marshawn Lynch down in the running game (15 carries, 39 yards) but had no answer for the way the Hawks used Percy Harvin, who was playing his first full game of the entire season because of a hip injury.
Specifically for the speedy Harvin, Seattle installed a play known as the “jet sweep”, in which Harvin lines up split wide to the right, then goes in motion back to the left before the snap, gets the hand off from Wilson and continues on around the left end. The Seahawks used the play the first time early in the 1st quarter and Harvin gained 30 yards, almost breaking it for a touchdown. They used it later in the game as well with Harvin getting 15 yards that time, giving him 45 rushing yards in two carries. With Wilson gaining 26 yards on scrambles and running back Robert Turbin gaining 25 Seattle more than made up for what the Broncos did in stopping Lynch. Seattle’s offense scored on 5 of 7 possessions (not counting a couple of meaningless possessions at the end of the half and the game) for the game, kicking 2 Steven Hauschka field goals and punching in 3 touchdowns. With all of the above as well as not turning the ball over, Seattle’s offense more than accomplished what they needed to do to win the Super Bowl.
Alright Hawks fans, there you have it. What a game it was for Seattle! I was delayed in getting you this summary because I spent a number of days re-watching this game and just enjoying, really, this Super Bowl victory and this phenomenal team. I needed the time to formulate my thoughts, these games are so emotional for me. It has been such a long time since any Seattle team has reached a pinnacle like this, and before this the Seahawks never have. Thanks to what Pete Carroll and his team have done, that drought is now over. Soon the Seahawks will be setting their sights on next season and will try to bring another world championship back to Seattle. They will do this because that is what Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and the rest of the Seahawks do. They are not people who live in the past.
We “twelves” don’t either. Nevertheless, this first ever Seattle Super Bowl victory is something we never should and never will forget. After the San Francisco NFC Championship game that Seattle won on Richard Sherman’s last second tip to Malcom Smith, he went in front of the press and summed up for them what many of us were feeling. I reported his comments in my review of that game and they are even more applicable now:
“Enjoy the moment,” Sherman said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. With this unbelievable team that we have; the kind of guys that fight, play in and play out. The team is filled with them, and I wouldn’t want to be on any other team.”
Richard Sherman is right. Winning your first Super Bowl IS a once in a lifetime thing. No matter how many Super Bowls Seattle ultimately wins, there will never, ever be another first one. The Lombardi Trophy is finally ours!
Enjoy it Hawks fans. Revel in it!
We, and this team, deserve it!
Copyright © 2014
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
 The two blogs referenced are entitled “Win Forever: The Philosophy of Pete Carroll”-Part I and Part II and can be found in the “Sports” category earlier in this site.
 Please see “Super Bowl XLVIII Preview: It’s the Broncos and Seahawks for All the Marbles” earlier in the “Sports” category in this blog site.
 For a great description of “Cover-3” and ”3-buzz” defenses read Hugh Millen’s article “Seahawks’ Cover-3 Beat Up the Broncos” in the Weds, 5 February edition of the Seattle Times in the Sports Section, pg C-8