Denver Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker was the best performer on the team in yesterday’s crushing loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and I honestly don’t think it was close. The week before the game, I highlighted Welker as the wide receiver with the best chance of having a big game against the Legion of Boom. Demaryius Thomas is the better player and Eric Decker put up better regular season numbers, but I reasoned that while Walter Thurmond is very good, he also isn’t as good as the elite CB bookend of Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. The best way for the Broncos to get yardage on the Seahawks historically great defense was to use Welker on crossing routes, and that’s when Manning and the Broncos had their most success yesterday.
Thomas led the team with 13 receptions, but he averaged just 9.1 yards per reception to turn those 13 catches on 18 targets for 118 yards. That’s a mediocre average of 6.6 yards per target. Thomas played well and had a really nice touchdown catch on Byron Maxwell, but I think the stats flatter him a bit; he wasn’t as efficient as Welker was. Welker averaged 8.4 yards per attempt by catching 80% of everything thrown at him with eight receptions on ten targets for 84 yards.
According to Advanced NFL Stats, 63.6% of the plays involving Welker ended up being successful plays for the offense based on down and distance, whereas 52.4% of Thomas’s plays were successful for the Broncos O. So while Thomas played a quality game overall, his stats are inflated in comparison to Welker’s due to the sheer number of targets that Thomas received.
Why didn’t Welker get more than ten targets? I’m not sure, but I believe the Broncos did a poor job at the beginning of the game of not getting him involved enough. A prime tenant of the Broncos offense has been to get the ball to the wide receiver with the best matchup and let him go to work, since all four of the “Four Horsemen” are very talented. Since they were going up against probably the best pass defense in NFL history, though, those favorable matchups became severely restricted. However, I think Adam Gase and the coaching staff should have figured out before the game that Welker vs. Thurmond was their best chance at gaining yardage, especially since defending Welker is more of a “team” task rather than a one-on-one type of matchup (though a slot corner is obviously the one matched up on Welker before he makes his move).
The trick with slot receivers is that they aren’t truly shadowed by the slot CB on most plays, and that’s where the linebackers come in. The Seahawks linebackers are so fast and athletic that they totally snuffed out all of the Broncos screens, but they aren’t as quick as Welker and can’t stop crossing routes or quick slants against a smaller receiver in that manner. When the Broncos did get Welker involved, good things happened as a result of his quickness in his route-running and his innate ability to find the soft spots in coverage. He would beat Thurmond with a well-timed double-move at the beginning of his route before finding the soft spot in the zone coverage shown by the Seahawks LBs. Welker was open quite often yesterday, but Manning and the Broncos didn’t give him the ball until later on.
For the people dissing on Welker for being on the losing side of three Super Bowls, I think you totally missed the point of the game of football being a game of 22 starters and a host of sub-package backups. He led the Broncos with a 4.8 EPA yesterday, meaning that he added the most points to the team’s victory based on the plays he made (weighing down and distance accordingly). He didn’t have a perfect game, but those pointing to his drop need to realize that it would have taken a Herculean effort for a small receiver to extend out and hold onto a pass whilst being shelled by hard-hitting SS Kam Chancellor. Welker had himself a very nice game yesterday, and he was the brightest spot for this team on offense. Overall? That award probably goes to Terrance Knighton, but Danny Trevathan is also in the mix.