The Seattle Seahawks are perceived to be a team defined by two things, its collegiate ooh-rah! atmosphere installed by the exuberant Pete Carroll and the elephant graveyard in its secondary.
Conversely, the Mannings are NFL Kennedy’s; dignified accomplished, esteemed and patriarchal. The scion of Archie has had a little, better luck, but there have been stumbles. The latter one of Peyton Manning’s two Super Bowls was as grisly to The Sheriff’s resume as Chappaquiddick was for Ted Kennedy.
As he was driving the length of the field for the game-tying touchdown in the final 3:20 of Super Bowl XLIV, Manning made a fatal mistake that culminated with New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter undercutting Reggie Wayne’s comeback route and returning the interception 74 yards to the house for a touchdown that sealed the Super Bowl.
Yet, Manning is so respected as a football figure, it’s rarely mentioned in conversations about his legacy anymore. Manning is the Lion of the QB Society. However, in a strange twist he’ll be the hunted on Sunday and couldn’t have picked a worse opponent to face in his redemption.
The Seahawks are the second-youngest Super Bowl team in league history and features one of the most formidable defenses we’ve seen in the past 48 years. What makes this battle unique from previous skirmishes between the top offense and defense is that it pits a passing attack that will endure the test of time against a defense that could stamp its claim as one of the best in Super Bowl history.
Manning is preparing to face a unit renowned for its predatory secondary that led the NFL in interceptions and picked off 10 more passes than they did in 2012. The progenation of the Sherman legend commenced on October 14, 2012 when the Seahawks first ranked defense held the visiting New England Patriots’ first ranked offense to six second half points. Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman plucked a pair of Brady passes out of the air, but the resounding image of that game was Sherman getting testy with Tom Brady on their way off CenturyLink Field.
Peep this stat which puts Bizarro Keyshawn Johnson's league-leading eight interceptions in perspective. During the regular season, Sherman was targeted 58 times on 549 defensive snaps, which equates to a league-low 10.56 percent among qualifying cornerbacks.
The airspace over the right side of the field will essentially be a no-fly zone.
Richard Sherman lines up on offense’s right 98% of snaps. SEA opponents have rarely thrown that way in postseason pic.twitter.com/AY63DwudcF
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 28, 2014
If the mythical School of the Seven Bells allegedly hoisted atop the Andes Mountains on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia for South America's world class pickpockets actually existed and had a North American campus, Carroll would be the eccentric provost/dean of admissions. Peyton Manning is their final exam to garner entrance into the pantheon of legendary Super Bowl defenses.
This season is the mortarboard on Carroll’s Mensa application as a defensive genius. In the two years prior to his hiring, the Seahawks were 32nd and 30th in pass defense. Now, his secondary is Silicon Valley for the league’s copycats seeking to replicate their throwback to the heyday of Oakland’s physical bump-and-run Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes tandem.
For Carroll, this isn’t a scheme he recently became a fan of. It’s his football axiom. Carroll has preached the virtues of bump-and-run corners since he was NC State’s defensive coordinator in 1980. When Sherman was still attending Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., Carroll told Sherman he’d be a perfect cornerback. Sherman didn’t believe him and chose to attend Stanford to play wideout.
"This system is always really corner-oriented," Carroll explained to the Seattle Times in August of 2012. "In college, I always wanted to be 'Corner U' because when you can have the ability to do the things we do with those corners, it allows us to do a lot of other things defensively."
In the Super Bowl preamble, Carroll is Reuben Tishkoff, bankroller for the Ocean’s Eleven band of thieves tasked with robbing $150 million from the Bellagio, The Mirage, and the MGM Grand’s vault. The Broncos oppulent offense and airtight offensive line is the Bellagio vault equivalent and the Seahawks ensemble has a difficult task ahead that will require more precision and discipline than they’ve ever displayed in their entire careers.
“Taller corners are a dying breed,” Kris Richard, the Seahawks’ defensive backs coach and a former cornerback told the New York Times in 2012. “The rules changed. That made it harder to use press coverage. But that’s what we do. In this new-age game, we play with an old-school flavor.”
Richard was an ordinary-sized cornerback for Carroll at USC, who was actually drafted in the third round by Seattle in 2002, but he stresses that the duties of his corners extends beyond defending the pass.
"The No. 1 priority for us is to be able to stop the run," Richard told the New York Times "So in order to do so, you have to have corners that can stand up against the pass. You will not be able to stop the run if you have corners who just allow quarterbacks to stand up and throw the ball out there."
The transition from defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who took the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars head coaching job, to Dan Quinn has been inconspicuous because Carrollconstructed this scheme and personnel from the bottom-up. They're the NFL's Indiana Pacers. Homegrown with attitude and chips on their shoulders. After raising his profile at USC, Carroll had no plans on returning to the NFL until he could have a say in front office decisions. Seattle gave him that authority and Carroll handpicked the general manager to handle the minutiae and offer a second opinion.
One year before the Seahawks selected Sherman in the fifth round, Earl Thomas was the initial pillar propped up as the Legion of Boom's foundation.
Quiet as kept, Thomas has developed into the NFL’s best safety and is the heart of their defense, pumping blood to the remainder of the Seahawks unit. It's hard to spot him because No. 29 is usually a blur at the top of your screen closing in on the ball with bad intentions. Occasionally, he’ll approach the line of scrimmage in run coverage and in blitz situations. The 6-3, 231 pound Chancellor was Carroll's fifth round pick in his first draft as head coach despite his unorthodox size as the largest safety in the league.
"Kam, he's been the best player on our defense the whole season," said defensive lineman Michael Bennett. "He hits better than some of the linebackers in the NFL that are supposed to be ferocious. I think Kam is by far the most ferocious hitter in the NFL."
The recently de-cleated Vernon Davis, who was hit by a Mack truck during the NFC Championship, wouldn’t disagree.
Chancellor also flexed his coverage skills as well, by leaping on front of Anquan Boldin in the flat, stretching his body out to catch a Colin Kaepernick bullet with is bare hands.
Carroll’s No. 2 corner Brandon Browner, a CFL export was one of the NFL's tallest cornerback and formed a duo with Sherman that shaded nearly the entire field. In light of Browner's indefinite suspension, 6-2 Byron Maxwell has actually been an improvement. Jeremy Lane has taken a few snaps, but Maxwell has justified Carroll picking him a round after Sherman in 2011.
Browner allowed two touchdowns and picked off just one pass in 38 targets in 2013, allowing an opponent quarterback rating of 78.8, by far the highest among Seattle starting defenders this season. When Walter Thurmond found himself out for four games due to his own violation of the league’s drug policy, that left things up to Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round pick in 2011. Maxwell had already been getting snaps in Browner’s place, and he really showed up when asked to start — he intercepted four passes in 45 targets and allowed a quarterback rating of 47.8 — only Sherman’s 47.3 was lower on the team.
Michael Crabtree holds a special place in Maxwell’s career trajectory as well. Not only was he the inspiration for Sherman’s postgame diatribe, but he also was the intended receiver in the redzone for Maxwell’s first career interception.
However, crediting the Seattle defense’s propensity for commiting grand larceny entirely to the Legion of Boom is a shortsighted error. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker won’t be the only ones being affected by the Seahawks intimidating defense
While it’s bump-and-run corners are Seattle’s hallmark. This is complete team effort. The key to duping mark is by utilizing distraction. In their preparations for the Seahawks secondary, Manning shouldn’t laser in on the secondary while ignoring Seattle’s front four, which actually rotates seven players along the line including Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril..
In his first season with the Seahawks defensive Tony McDaniel was rated as the fourth-best defensive tackle versus the run. If Knowshon Moreno succumbs to the run-stuffing virtuosity of Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and the incredibly shrinking potential of Bruce Irvin, Manning may be forced to air it out.
The L.O.B.’s ancillary gift is its contributions to pressuring the quarterback into making throws under duress. They were first in NFL pressure rate this season led by defensive lineman Michael Bennett’s 8.5 sacks.
The Percy Harvin signing obscured a pair of free agency Walmart slash value pickups in Bennett and Avril. The Seahawks aren’t a team that blitzes very often, but their propensity for getting after the quarterback is underrated.
Before relocating from Detroit’s Ford Field to Seattle’s ear-splitting Stadium for the Deaf, Avril recorded 39.5 sacks in five seasons with the Lions. Bennett inked a one-year $2.5 million contract.
Sacks are cubic zirconium though, turnovers are diamonds. Yards lost from sacks can be overcome. Turnovers halt drives, robs scoring opportunities from rich offenses and hands offenses great field position.
Manning is the next mark for the Pacific Ocean's Eleven-man crew. The Broncos protect Manning better than the U.S. government secures missiles silos, but the chase makes the challenge that much more intriguing.
Not only did turnovers spike for the Seahawks defense this season, but the Seahawks improved from a 19th ranked sack producing team to the eight best and led the league with 201 quarterback pressures.
"We work hand in hand," Avril said. "The better they cover the guys, the longer we get to get to the quarterback and vice versa."
The Seahawks’ fumble return touchdown by Bennett after Avril’s strip sack of Drew Brees and the nearly identical Avril strip sack, Bennett recovery sequence is emblematic of a worst-case scenario for Manning if his receivers timing routes are routinely thrown off.
Bennett understands the challenges ahead with pursuing Manning, the least-sacked quarterback in the league.
"You just got to beat your man faster," Bennett said about negating Manning's quick release. "It's a big game for the D-line to go out there and get to him, whether it's sacking him, hitting him or making him hurry to throw the ball."
In two playoff games, the pair of Bennett and Avril has already forced four fumbles. As a unit, the Seahawks defense allowed the NFL’s lowest opponent passer rating at 63.4, 11 points lower than the Bengals’ second-lowest was 74.2 rating and the gap between Seattle and the next best pass defense, Cincinnati, is the same as the gap between Cincinnati and No. 19 Detroit.. The league average was 84.1. Manning posted a 107.0.
To bring this full circle, Manning has the league’s third-worst QBR under pressure. That’s where Avril, Bennett and Clemons come into play.
Behind the weather concerns, Richard Sherman’s coverage, the legion of Boom’s evil plans, an infinitesimal possibility that this is Peyton’s final game, his 0-4 record in sub-40 degree weather, winning a Super Bowl on Eli’s turf, Wes Welker taking advantage of rule changes to morph into the offensive Brandon Meriweather by taking out opposing defensive backs and how Bruno Mars’ hair weathers the cold, the Seahawks pass rush is probably the most underreported pre-Super Bowl storyline. Something's got to give.
Manning is as much a student of NFL history as he is a purveyor of some of its greatest moments—and advertisements, but if there’s one act he doesn’t want to be cast in, it’s a sequel to Tracy Porter’s Super Bowl XLIV heist.