Super Bowl 2014: Seattle Seahawks WRs vs. Denver Broncos deep coverage

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) is interviewed during Media Day for Super Bowl XLIII at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Most people are rightfully focusing on the matchup between the Denver Broncos “Four Horsemen” and the Seattle Seahawks legendary “Legion of Boom”, and they are the best wide receiver corps and defensive backfield in the league respectively (and it’s honestly not even close). But an equally pivotal matchup is the one pitting the Seahawks wide receivers against the Broncos defensive backs, and I am particularly intrigued by the matchup as it pertains to the downfield passing game.

Russell Wilson has one of the best vertical arms in the NFL, but it goes beyond the arm strength that could have helped make him an MLB player. Downfield passing is just as much about arm accuracy as it is arm strength, and Wilson also has the incredible vision that it takes to spot slight openings and the intelligence needed to know where to place the ball and at what time. That timing has been off a bit over the last few weeks, though the main things that have contributed to Wilson’s sudden slump are poor pocket presence and decision-making (the latter is very uncharacteristic).

Anyway, we all remember Wilson’s huge touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse in the NFC Championship Game, and it was one of the only times in the game (the other was his deep bomb to Doug Baldwin) in which he didn’t look afraid to challenge the defense. There were too many times that we saw Wilson too worried to pull the trigger and make a throw that a great QB like him can make. His zero interceptions were key in the victory, but an interception isn’t as bad as a game of complacent passing.

I’m sure Wilson is going to be more willing to test the Broncos defense tomorrow, and it goes beyond the whole “He knows the stakes” concept. That’s probably a small part of it, but the Broncos pass defense is the weakest unit (run defense, run offense, pass defense, and pass offense are the four “units” I am referencing) on either team, which honestly speaks to how excellent both teams are. While the Broncos pass D is pretty underrated, they can be vulnerable and aren’t nearly as good as the San Francisco 49ers pass D. In that rivalry game, Wilson knew that one mistake could make the difference between difficulty and defeat in such a low-scoring slugfest, but he has to know that he’ll need to make the tough throws against the Broncos in order to keep up with Peyton Manning and his receivers.

The Seahawks are going to to throw a variety of passes, and I’m sure we’ll see a steady diet of screens to missed-tackle mavericks Percy Harvin and Golden Tate. But I think most people realize that the Seahawks are at their best when they get the deep ball going. They know it, too, as the only quarterbacks who threw a higher percentage of passes 20 yards or more downfield vs. their total attempts in the regular season, per the Pro Football Focus, were Nick Foles and Jay Cutler. Chip Kelly loves to throw it deep with zeal, and Cutler might have the strongest arm in the NFL and has two of the best outside wideouts in the game.

It’s telling that Wilson came in at third, and he was the most accurate QB on downfield passes in the league. That’s even more telling, and he pretty much hit up big target Jermaine Kearse, the speedy Golden Tate, and the uber-efficient Doug Baldwin evenly.

Here’s a fun fact. Which wide receiver in the Super Bowl had the highest yards per target average? It’s not Demaryius Thomas, who is second with ten yards per attempt. No, it’s the smart, sure-handed Baldwin, who averaged 11 yards per target by catching a ridiculous 69.9% of his targets despite going deep more often than any pass-catcher on either team. If you want an X-Factor on the Seahawks offense, then focus on guys like Baldwin and Kearse, who is someone Wilson trusts greatly with jump balls (see the Atlanta Falcons game for an example that corroborates what we saw against the 49ers).

So how do the Denver Broncos defend the league’s most accurate deep passer? Barring any surprises, we’re going to see Wilson and the Seahawks test the deep part of the field a number of times. The Broncos have suffered several massive injuries this season, and the two biggest ones were the ACL tears to superstars Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr. But one injured player who was supposed to return in time for the playoffs greatly hurt the Broncos deep coverage, and the loss of Rahim Moore at free safety can’t be underrated against a team like the Seahawks. That said, he’s been gone since Week 11, so it’s not like the Broncos aren’t used to fielding a starting safety duo of quality spot-starter Mike Adams (he’s not good enough to be a full-time starter, but he’s an excellent third safety) and up-and-comer Duke Ihenacho.

While Ihenacho is great in run support and Adams is an efficient tackler, neither player is good in coverage. In fact, the drop-off between Moore starting at FS and Adams starting there is quite huge. Per PFF, Moore was targeted significantly less often than Adams per cover snap and allowed .29 yards less per snap. Meanwhile, Adams and Ihenacho allow 0.79 and 0.80 yards per cover snap each, and they also allowed 140 and 155 yards after the catch each. By comparison, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor allowed just 168 yards after the catch combined and 0.33 and 0.44 yards per cover snap respectively. Maybe more importantly, quarterbacks had a 3:8 TD:INT ratio when throwing it into the coverage of the Seahawks safeties, whereas QBs are 3:1 in the coverage of the Broncos current safeties (2:2 against Rahim Moore, by the way).

Obviously the Broncos secondary isn’t as good as the Seahawks secondary, and their safeties were never going to stack up well against the Seahawks safeties in a comparison. I mean, that’s why the Broncos have their pass offense repuation and the Seahawks receive their fanfare from their pass defense. But at the same time, the Broncos safeties don’t match up well against a ‘Hawks team that is amazing at stretching the field deep.

It is crucial to remember that the safeties aren’t the only guys who defend the deep ball, and more attention honestly needs to be paid to the cornerbacks who cover those receivers in the first place. Those corners on the Broncos are very good, and they are the strength of this team. No. 1 CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie does not get burned easily, and Champ Bailey should be solid. But the Broncos need to watch out for the burn-proneness of their other CBs and could be vulnerable when defending four-wide sets of Harvin, Tate, Baldwin, and Kearse. The Broncos offense will want to spread the field horizontally, but the Seahawks will also want to spread things horizontally in addition to a steady diet of vertical passes. The Broncos are good enough to hold up in deep coverage, but they could be exploited by the Seahawks due to their QB and underrated wideouts.

Stat to Note

Seattle Seahawks yards per reception averages:

Doug Baldwin: 15.6

Jermaine Kearse: 15.7

Golden Tate: 14.0

Topics: Behind The Numbers, Denver Broncos, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie, Doug Baldwin, Duke Ihenacho, Golden Tate, Jermaine Kearse, Matchups, Mike Adams, Notes And Analysis, Percy Harvin, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl 2014

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