Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has become a national story, and he deserves every single sentence of praise and focus. Knighton’s dominance in the postseason has been crucial to the Broncos success, and he was especially impressive against the New England Patriots in the Broncos AFC Championship Game victory. The Patriots didn’t account for Knighton enough, and they paid a big price for thinking that the much smaller Ryan Wendell could block the beastly DT one-on-one. Wendell clearly couldn’t hang with “Pot Roast”, who is arguably the most important player on the Broncos defense with both Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller out with torn ACLs (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is also squarely in the discussion).
The Broncos run defense is very solid, and they have plenty of depth in their underrated front seven. Guys like Malik Jackson and Robert Ayers deserve much more praise than they are getting, while there’s no doubting that Danny Trevathan and Knighton are critical players on the Broncos defense. Statistically, the Broncos defense is the best in the league at stopping runs up the middle, and they simply dominated the Patriots offensive line at the point of attack in their last game. Knighton was especially impressive, and he deservedly grabbed the headlines by controlling the line of scrimmage with his strength, explosiveness, and underrated gap discipline. LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots power running game came into the week with plenty of fanfare following their dominant performance against the Indianapolis Colts, but Knighton and the Broncos shut the Pats ground game up and forced their offense to become one-dimensional.
Maybe no player is more important going into the Super Bowl than Marshawn Lynch, who is the third-best running back in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy. He’s also the best-equipped back in this league to do well against the Broncos powerful front seven, because Lynch is the most powerful back in the NFL. “Beast Mode” breaks tackles like nobody’s business, and he hits as hard as a linebacker out there. His blend of vision, explosion through the hole, cutting ability in the open field, underrated speed, and incredible strength make him a whole different “beast” for the Broncos to try and stop.
Lynch vs. the Broncos run defense is one of the most critical matchups in the Super Bowl, but the most underrated matchup will be Terrance Knighton vs. Seattle Seahawks center Max Unger. Knighton is definitely the guy the Seahawks need to watch for the closest when running the football, and Unger will be the man facing off against the one-tech DT the most. It’s important for Unger to have at least an average game in order to give Lynch a chance, as Lynch is so good that he can get much more than the blocking in front of him.
Unger is a solid player overall, but he hasn’t had his best season at all in 2013-14. After putting together a great 2012, Unger hasn’t been the strong link that he usually is, and he had two rough games in playoffs against the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. That said, Marshawn Lynch didn’t have difficulty gaining yardage, as he rushed for over 100 yards in both games as the clear MVP in both outings. Unger went up against some talented nose tackles against the 49ers and Saints, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Knighton’s quickness makes him a whole different beast. I mean, the jump from Glenn Dorsey to Knighton is a bit like the jump from Blount to Lynch.
It’s concerning to see that pretty much all of Unger’s struggles have come when he’s faced bigger DTs like Dorsey, Brodrick Bunkley, Star Lotulelei, and Dan Williams. That’s not usually Unger’s M.O., since he’s usually an incredibly dominant run blocker who wins a lot of matchups with his size. Is this year an anomaly? Are the injuries worse than they appear?
Knighton’s also no slouch as a pass rusher, and that’s the part of his game that largely goes underrated by some viewers. Unger is about average in pass protection, so I expect him to hold up in that regard. Still, Knighton is so quick off the snap and uses his hands so well that it’s worth watching how Unger disciplined Unger is and how well he can latch onto Knighton (watch for the spin move) when protecting Russell Wilson.
But by far the most important part of this pivotal Knighton vs. Unger matchup is Unger’s run blocking, because he definitely has the size to match up with “Pot Roast” and has the talent to have a big day as a run blocker and match a great DT blow-for-blow. But is he in the right vein of form? Can he turn it around on Sunday? Those are the storylines that won’t grab headlines, but they win and lose ballgames. Because, at the end of the day, this year’s Super Bowl is just one game between two incredible opponents, so one player winning a key matchup could be the difference.