Super Bowl XLVIII’s Special Teams, Coaching & Offensive Line Breakdown

Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday hopes to soar down the field against the Seahawks coverage teams.

Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday hopes to soar (and score) against the Seahawks coverage teams.

When breaking down Super Bowl XLVIII, NFL fans must look past the glitz and glamour. Victory is often decided by coaching philosophies, special teams play, all-important offensive line performance and those non-quantifiable, mystical, magical intangible forces that influence big games.

Special Teams 

Punts

Broncos P Britton Colquitt hasn’t been exactly taxed thus far in the 2014 NFL Playoffs. In fact, he booted the ball only once since Week 17. It was a 48-yard touchback. However,  if the Seahawks defense successfully slows the Peyton Manning flying circus and a boot is needed, his 2013 average is 44.5 yards per punt with 23 of his 65 kicks dumped inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

For the less offensively explosive Seahawks, P Jon Ryan has been pressed into service eight times since December and has averaged 38.9 yards per kick, with two balls coming to rest between the 20-yard line and the goal. His 2013 season average is 42.7 yards, with 37.8 percent landing inside the 20 and a long of 69 yards.

Field goals

In the kickers-who-contribute-points category, Steven Hauschka of Seattle is perfect in January with six field goals—three of which helped to seal the victory in a downpour against New Orleans. Meanwhile, Bronco Matt Prater is the NFL record-holder with a 64-yard score kicked this season. Catch the big moment here.

Prater is 5-of-6 attempted field goals in January, including a 54-yarder in the AFC Championship game. Even adjusted for altitude, Prater is a clutch kicker who connected on all but one of his 26 attempts in 2013. He was 85.7 percent on attempts over 50 yards and successfully converted 75 extra points.

Return yards

The Denver return game has featured multiple players, largely due to Trindon Holliday’s occasionally suspect ball-handling. When he does secure the rock, Holliday can take it to the house on any given play, but his sometimes shaky hands forced a rotation that featured WRs Eric Decker, Andre Caldwell and Welker and DB Omar Bolden. Nevertheless, in January the Broncos have averaged 22 yards per punt return and 20.3 yards per kick return.

Whoever has the ball will face a Seattle cover squad that almost set an NFL record in 2013 for allowing the fewest yards per punt, with a total of 25 yards surrendered on punt returns going into Week 17—where they gave up 57 return yards to the Rams.

WR Jermaine Kearse and RB Robert Turbin generally handle kickoff return duties for Seattle and have averaged in the neighborhood of a rather impressive 22 yards. WR Golden Tate is the main man on punt returns and has averaged 11.5 yards per attempt, with a long of 71 yards.

They’ll face a Denver coverage unit that had been somewhat unreliable, particularly toward the end of the 2013 campaign. When the Broncos punt team gave up a 51-yard return to the Texans Keshawn Martin in Week 16 , it was the third instance in a month that the group surrendered more than 50 yards in a game, including returns for scores by the Titans Leon Washington and the Chiefs Knile Davis. Of course it helps when your team only has to punt once in an afternoon and your PK is nailing consistent touchbacks.

Bottom Line

The Denver coverage units must contain Tate, the Seattle squad needs to rattle Holliday, the punting edge goes to Colquitt and place-kicking skills are evenly matched.

Coaching

Both head coaches for Super Bowl XLVIII hail from the defensive side of the football—and that may be where the similarity ends. In terms of demeanor, Pete Carroll resembles the highly-caffeinated city he represents, while John Fox is apparently the world’s nicest human who happens to have a head full of football knowledge.

Strengths

Carroll’s high-energy, youthful persona goes over well with his players. He is aggressively positive. As CB Richard Sherman put it to Sports Illustrated, “He’s not soft, but he’s easygoing.” Carroll is famous for allowing his players’ individual personalities full rein, with the caveat that no actions become detrimental to the team.

Fox exudes bonhomie, a kind humor and the perspective of a man who has been to the Super Bowl and back again. In a word, he is “professional.” As Marty Hurney, GM during Fox’s tenure with Carolina, phrased it for the Panthers website:

“He has it. He has great people skills. He listens to everybody and he has defensive expertise. And he has a tremendous presence. When he walks down the hall, he affects everybody.”

Those people skills have proven a perfect fit in working with a legendary QB so in command of his offense that his nickname is “The Sheriff.” NFL Network analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick discusses here why he thinks Fox is an under-appreciated talent at head coach.

Weaknesses

Conservatism is a trait Fox values. His refusal to switch the offensive focus from Stephen Davis, whom the Patriots had effectively stymied, to the more elusive DeShaun Foster in the first half of Super Bowl XXXVIII contributed in large part to that loss. Not to mention the “what was he thinking” aggressively non-aggressive decisions in last year’s divisional playoff disaster. However, one feels that there was a meeting of the minds last offseason on how, um, “assertive” this offense was going to be in 2013. In an interview with The Associated Press quoted by the Edmontonjournal.com, Fox isn’t telling:

“I mean, shoot, we broke just about every offensive record known to man. I don’t know that that’s because I’ve become more of an aggressive coach. I think it’s because I’ve got a lot better offence, all right?”

The most fiery Fox ever seen may have emerged when, on a Sirius XM NFL Radio show , he called Colts owner Jim Irsay “ungrateful and unappreciative” for his “cheap shots” at Peyton Manning in the week before the Broncos traveled to face the Colts.

Carroll’s weakest coaching aspect may be what some detractors perceive as a lack of discipline. This perception is based on Carroll’s enthusiastic, let-live approach to team culture. If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, this philosophy will be hailed as a new trend in American post-Lombardi coaching. If Seattle loses, some will consider it proof that only an authoritarian structure succeeds in professional football.

ESPN research in May of 2013 showed that the Seahawks had more suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs than any other team. Under Carroll, LB Bruce Irvin and CBs Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond were suspended in 2013 for violating the league’s drug policies. Whether there is a causal relationship between Carroll’s individualistic coaching philosophy and drug use is vastly open to debate. However, one can’t help but wonder whether the younger, looser (for whatever reason) Seahawks may stray from the straight and narrow during a festive Super Bowl pre-game week in the biggest of Big Apples.

Losing a player to pre-Super Bowl problems has had significant impact in the past. In 1999, Atlanta Falcons DB Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the big game on charges of soliciting a prostitute in Miami. In 2003, Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins’ battles with mental illness prevented him from being with his team for the Super Bowl. Both teams lost, at least in some degree to the absence of these starters.

Intangibles

Youth versus Experience

Peyton Manning is the only player in the upcoming game to own a Super Bowl ring. Four Broncos have been to the Championship and Fox has served in two of the big games (once as an assistant). No Seahawks have played in a Super Bowl and Carroll has coached in none.

When it comes to pressure, sometimes ignorance of the true magnitude of a situation can provide a blissful bubble of freedom. Lacking the weight of carrying Manning’s legacy, the Seahawks are more likely to enter the game light of heart and heavy on swagger. It’s entirely possible that Carroll is thrilled by the whirlpool of media attention surrounding CB Richard Sherman. Sherman’s intellect and personality seem capable of handling the spotlight, giving the rest of the team breathing room leading up to the big day. In particular, the vocal cornerback’s antics are overshadowing discussions on sophomore QB Russell Wilson’s less-than-eye-popping statistical season.

Conversely, Fox and Manning are tasked with leading “the charge of the professionals.” Their team boasts several highly decorated veterans seeking an NFL championship in the waning days of their careers: CB Champ Bailey, WR Wes Welker, DE Shaun Phillips, FS Mike Adams. Not to mention Fox’s desire to win the game as a head coach and the certain need of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to experience an exhilarating season after laboring so long in Jacksonville’s doldrums.

The Broncos play with surgical intensity, the Seahawks with youthful abandon. Either team ethos can succeed, but the NFC Championship game was a far sloppier affair than Denver’s systematic dismantling of the New England Patriots.

Weather

This week, Eli Manning is attempting to download his considerable knowledge of MetLlife Stadium’s swirling winds and hidden idiosyncrasies directly into his older brother’s brain. As of today, the weather is due to be clear and cold, with only a 6-mph wind. By MetLife standards, that’s positively balmy and still.

Obviously, the less wind the better for Manning’s chances of offensive domination. However, snow would also favor the Broncos. If you have any doubts, take a look at this video of the Philadelphia/Detroit game in Week 14. Passes were completed but few tackles were made. Beside, the Broncos will be wearing orange, remember? Uh-huh.

Rain, on the other hand, would play right into Seattle rushing star Marshawn Lynch’s hands—and feet.

Superstitions

According to a recent survey sponsored by Bud Light, Denver Broncos fans are only the 25th most superstitious among NFL faithful and the Seahawks lovers rank 31st. Obviously, the survey did not ask about the 12th Man credo or the concept of Manning’s “season of destiny.”

Offensive Lines

Quarterbacks, WRs and RBs have stats galore. Defensive players count sacks, interceptions and tackles. Special teams kick field goals, average over 40 yards per punt or break a return for a score.

Alas for the offensive linemen, there are few numbers showcasing their achievements. O-line contributions are either implied by the success of the running backs behind them or an accounting of the number of times that they fail to protect the quarterback.

Broncos

Denver’s “big men” are not the group they were meant to be. Both 2012’s center J.D. Walton and 2013’s proposed starter Dan Koppen were injured prior to the beginning of this season and replaced by Manny Ramirez. For a third option, Ramirez has been a rock at the anchor spot. The Broncos also lost All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady in September, replacing him with a fifth-year player (Chris Clark) who was undrafted and spent his first two NFL seasons on the practice squad. Again, the “next man up” stepped in almost seamlessly.

The resulting starting five proceeded to forge the foundation of the NFL’s most historically potent offense. Doing what 300-lb guys like to best, they blocked successfully as three Broncos RBs crossed the goal line 16 times. The designed run plays may not be revolutionary, but they are often executed with a flawless grace that brings to mind synchronized Clydesdale drills. This run from a decisive drive featuring rusher Knowshon Moreno illustrates both the design and achievement of the Broncos running game.

It’s no secret: the Denver O-line’s true mission in life is to protect their quarterback. In 16 games, the O-line allowed only 20 sacks. In return, their QB threw 55 touchdown passes to eight different teammates. No. 18 even rushed for one score on this excruciatingly slow bootleg that exhibits not only a coordinated blocking presence, but also stellar acting efforts that completely fooled the Cowboys defense.

That athletic symbiosis, ably aided on many a third down by excellent pass blocker RB Knowshon Moreno, is on display in this highlight video. When your quarterback is one of the all-time greats (and a rather feisty and competitive fellow), no one wants to be the defender apologizing to No. 18 for a sack. As Chris Clark said to Foxsports.com: ”That’s what drives me. I don’t want to be THAT guy.”

Seahawks

On the surface, Seattle’s O-line hasn’t excelled at protecting their diminutive signal caller: Russell Wilson has been sacked seven times in the two playoff games. However, one really can’t blame this entirely on the big front five. Without Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, the Seattle WR corps struggles to gain separation from top defensive backs—to put it politely. Additionally, Wilson often appears to be pressing for the big play and has been holding the ball too long to maintain a pocket. The combination results in some wonderful and artistic athletic scrambles such as this one from September.

However, when the sheer strength on this line teams up with the NFL’s own force of nature in Lynch, they achieve earth-shaking results like this.

Bottom line

Seattle’s sheer physical strength up front runs interference for two great athletic talents, while Denver’s coordinated moving road blocks both surge for the runner and stonewall for the Hall of Fame passer. Early offensive line success against the respective opposing defenses may well predict the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII.

On gameday, when the person sitting next to you at the sports bar starts raving about interceptions and seismic touchdown runs—show them where the game will really be decided.

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