Thursday, February 20, 2014

2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offseason Plan

Congratulations Seahawks!  I thought they were the better team going into the game (my breakdown showed them having the edge on both sides of the ball), but I certainly didn’t expect to see it get that out of hand.  Seattle gets their first NFL championship, joining their ’76 brethren Buccaneers as one-time winners of it all.  Interestingly, that Super Bowl saw the Bucs dominant defense destroy Oakland’s offensive machine.  Speaking of Seattle’s expansion companion, I thought I’d take an early look at some decisions the Bucs may need to make this offseason. 

The Bucs pick 7th in the first round, where they’ll look to add to a talented, albeit shallow roster.  That pick must be spent on an impact player, whether it is a QB, receiver, or pass rusher; all areas of need for the Bucs.  Here are the positions I believe they need to address in free agency and/or the draft:

QB – I’m not sold on Mike Glennon as a guy who is going to win a meaningful January or February game for this team.  I also don’t see how he fits new OC Jeff Tedford’s style of passers who can move in the pocket.  The free agent pool is empty, so do they ride with Glennon or pull the trigger on a passer in the first round or two? 

WR – Like a broken record, I keep begging year after year for speed and elusiveness at the receiver position.  It’s still lacking.  Vincent Jackson has been a fine #1 given the team’s QB play, but there are questions about Mike Williams’ commitment.  At a minimum, they need to difference-making slot guy to play with these two.  Worst case scenario has them looking for someone to start in place of Williams. 

TE – Tim Wright was a nice pass catcher, but he can’t block.  Tom Crabtree is a back up, and Luke Stocker has to be a huge afterthought at this point.  

OL – When the Bucs signed Carl Nicks, they thought they’d have quite a formidable line, but it just never materialized.  They have no idea what they’ll get from Nicks, if anything, and Joseph’s play has taken a nosedive.  Moving Jeremy Zuttah to guard and finding a new center could be a possibility.  Donald Penn has his detractors, but left tackle is far from the team’s biggest weakness.  Right tackle Demar Dotson had a fabulous year and may be the most certain thing they’ve got going up front.  . 

DL – Adrian Clayborn has been ok, but the Bucs need more pass rushers.  Da’Quan Bowers has been a waste, but on a positive note, William Gholston looks like a building block.  That’s only two, possibly, reliable rushers.  I expect this to be the Bucs priority in free agency.  Gerald McCoy should only excel under Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier, and Akeem Spence should benefit from the coaching change as well.  They’re shallow inside, so they’ll add a tackle or two.    

LB – Lavonte David is a stud, but I continue to believe they need to get better than Mason Foster in the middle.  I’m guessing the new regime will look to do that.  Every other Bucs linebacker with a name you’d recognize is a free agent.  Of that bunch, it would be best to bring back Dekoda Watson on the strong side.

CB – Darrelle Revis is back, but there’s a steep drop off in talent after him.  Johnthan Banks didn’t exactly shine as a rookie, and Leonard Johnson should be lower on the depth chart.  Ideally, they get new starters opposite Revis and in the slot, and Banks and Johnson develop as backups. 

I believe the Bucs currently sit at about $12mil under the ’14 cap after the round of releases that included Derek Landri.  Where can they find more cap space?  They can free up about $5mil by cutting both Connor Barth and Michael Koenen.  Aside from that, there’s not a ton of fat to trim from this cap aside from two obvious targets –

Davin Joseph - $6mil
As I mentioned above, Joseph’s play has fallen off significantly, and I don’t see any way he’s back for anything close to that amount.  It’s probably best for the team to move on from  him altogether and pay someone else less to do a better job. 

Donald Penn - $7.4mil
Yes, I know.  I just mentioned that Penn isn’t one of the team’s bigger problems.  I’m not advocating releasing Penn, but maybe he’d be open to extending his deal that currently is set to expire after the ’15 season at a lower annual rate.  It wouldn’t be a $7.4mil cap savings, but they could conceivably get a couple of million to go towards another position by restructuring Penn’s contract.

If they start over at kicker and punter, cut Joseph and either restructure Penn or make a couple of other small moves, they would be looking at more $25mil in cap space heading into the offseason. 

Here are the specific free agents I’d key on:

Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Willie Young (DE, Lions)
Corey Wootton (DE, Bears)
Here’s where I’m struggling.  They almost sure to add a free agent, but on what side will they put him?  Jared Allen plays the same side as Clayborn, and it doesn’t make sense to either bench our best pass rusher or weaken the run defense by playing Allen on the strong side.  He’d be the big name veteran I’d be interested in giving a short term deal.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving Julius Peppers or Just Tuck a lot of money, Greg Hardy isn’t coming here, and Michael Bennett isn’t coming back.  I’d prefer to see the Bucs go the younger route.  Young isn’t terribly likely given that he’d be on the same side as Clayborn, but I mention him because I’ve always been a fan of his talent.  I like the idea of pairing Griffen with Gholston on the left side.  He’s not going to cost a lot and is someone who has shown steady, albeit slow development as a pass rusher.  If he doesn’t perform up to expectations, the Bucs won’t be in the huge financial hole like they would if they went the Peppers or Tuck route.  Assuming I’m not completely underestimating his market, Griffen is a low risk high reward option. 

Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Henry Melton (DT, Bears)
I’ll be shocked if the Bucs commit much to DT this offseason.  Maybe Melton finds a soft market coming off his injury.  Walker continues to be a reliable rotational piece on the defensive line wherever he plays and would bolster the run defense.  

Alex Mack (C, Browns)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Anthony Collins (T, Bengals)
I don’t want to get rid of Zuttah, but it’s possible for them to upgrade two positions with one signing.  Early reports on Nicks are positive, so maybe he’ll be a factor after all.  There should still be one vacant guard position.  Zuttah has seen most of his time away from center at left guard, but he has played a handful of games at right guard.  Could he handle that switch and play next to Mack, an attractive free agent with new Tampa ties?  Mack is arguably the game’s best center and would go a long way in helping this new coaching staff implement their offense.  Ultimately, I think he’ll be out of the Bucs price range.  I don’t know if the Bucs will look to free agency to solve their guard situation, but Schwartz would be a steal and nice plug in on the right side.  He was a big factor in Kansas City’s success on offense and made just $700k last year.  Collins isn’t really an option as a back up, but he’s the only free agent tackle I’d consider. 

Sam Shields (CB, Packers)
Alterraun Verner (CB, Titans)
Corey Graham (CB, Ravens)
Corner play opposite Revis wasn’t pretty in ’13, and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t bring in a legit starter this offseason.  If we were playing with monopoly money and no salary cap, Brent Grimes would be my preferred target.  Since we aren’t, maybe Shields and Verner will be affordable.  They’re both young corners with a lot of experience and are sure to attract a bit of attention, but the corner market didn’t exactly go crazy last offseason.  Maybe they’ll be affordable after all.  I’d slot Graham behind Shields and Verner, but he would be a solid sneaky addition, in my opinion.  He could start in Tampa; something he won’t do next year in Baltimore.  Charles Tillman would be a fall-back and a shorter term option, but he may be the most likely of the names I’ve mentioned. 

Jeremy Maclin (WR, Eagles)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
Jacoby Jones (WR, Ravens)
Dexter McCluster (WR, Chiefs)
I’ve always been a Maclin fan, and he’ll probably be had on a cheap prove-it deal.  Jones is still big in the punt return game, and while he’s never reached his potential as a receiver, he’d instantly be #3 on the depth chart and give Glennon a deep threat.  McCluster would provide some of the increased quickness I’m seeking, but he’s not a solution to anything.  Of all available free agent receivers, Doug Baldwin would be my preference, but he’s a restricted free agent and isn’t getting out of Seattle.  Since I can’t get Baldwin, I’ll focus on a similar receiver in Roberts; a guy who can play both inside and out and make some plays for you in the middle and deep parts of the secondary.  Roberts has been a consistent, reliable target and was productive when called upon as a starter; something that’s not easy to do given the presence of Larry Fitzgerald and the sloppy pre-Palmer QB play.  There isn’t a TE I’m interested in, especially since Fred Davis was just handed an indefinite ban. 

I’m sure I won’t be close, but here’s my attempt to blend my wishes and expectations –
Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Charles Tillman (CB, Bears)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Dekoda Watson (LB, re-sign)
Eric Lorig (FB, re-sign)

I think that’s pretty doable with a guesstimated $25mil in cap space, even with $5mil allocated to the draft.  There should be plenty of cap room for the Bucs to pull off these moves considering the salary cap for ’14 was just increased from $123mil to $130mil.

Transitioning to the draft, here are my early thoughts on the first 7 selections.  The NFL Combine starts Saturday, so I’m sure a lot of this will change in the coming weeks. 

1) Houston Texans
Key Needs – QB, OL, LB, CB
The Texans won’t take an offensive lineman or cornerback with the first pick.  For me, this one is down to Jadeveon Clowney or a QB, and if we’re supposed to believe reports that the owner is pushing for a passer, I’m siding with the guy who writes the checks.  Which QB is still uncertain, but knowing what I know about Bill O’Brien and his connections to the UCF staff.  They’ll upset a lot of folks in Texas by passing on Johnny Manziel, but I’m going to go with…..Blake Bortles (QB, UCF)

2) Cleveland Browns (via STL)
Key Needs – QB, RB, LB, WR
This pick is an obvious trade spot, so I’ll go ahead and predict that one happens.  Right or wrong the Rams remain committed to Sam Bradford, so they won’t be taking a QB this year.  There isn’t a team that couldn’t use Clowney, but if I’m a Rams fan I’d rather they address a true area of weakness rather than allocating more assets to the one thing they do right.  I could see Cleveland’s new regime taking an aggressive approach to securing their (hopeful) franchise QB, and they have the draft picks to do pull it off…..Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville) 

3) Jacksonville Jaguars
Key Needs – QB, DE, RB, OL
Take a QB right?  Neither Blaine Gabbert nor Chad Henne belongs taking a regular season snap, but I don’t think the Jags are an absolute lock to take a passer with their first pick, even if Cleveland doesn’t trade ahead of them.  Everyone knows they need a QB, but more importantly, they need a sure thing.  To many, this guy is the surest thing in the draft, and he also fills a huge need for the Jags…..Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina)

4) St. Louis Rams (via CLE)
Key Needs – OT, WR, S, CB
This is where I think the Watkins watch could start.  Pairing him with Tavon Austin could lead to some highlights in St. Louis, but whether it’s Bradford or someone else handling the football, they’ve got to get him some protection.  Jake Long is coming off a torn ACL, and RT Rodger Saffold is a free agent.  Greg Robinson might have the higher ceiling, but I believe this guy will have a quicker assimilation period, has experience at both left and right tackle, and has a father with ties to the head coach…..Jake Matthews (T, Texas A&M)

5) Oakland Raiders
Key Needs – QB, DE, CB, RB
Oakland’s roster is a mess.  I know, what a surprise.  I can’t see a scenario that has Clowney still on the board, and it’s too early for a corner or running back.  Watkins is an option, but I’m going to think Oakland seizes the opportunity to take a true starting QB.  And come on.  What non-JFF/Texan fan wouldn’t want to see this guy in a Raider uniform?…..Johnny Manziel (QB, Texas A&M)

6) Atlanta Falcons
Key Needs – OT, DE, DT, TE
Will they take a tackle after shelling out a lot of money for Sam Baker last year?  I’m guessing no.  They must get better up front on defense, especially considering their best pass rusher is a fading Osi Umenyiora.  They have to draft or sign someone who can get after Brees and Newton.  I think this comes down to either Anthony Barr or…..Khalil Mack (DE/OLB, Buffalo)

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Needs – QB, DL, CB, WR
I’ve got the top QBs off the board at this point, but if the Bucs had a shot at either Bortles or Bridgewater, I’ve got to think they would give them a ton of consideration.  I don’t think Manziel is a Lovie or Tedford pick, and while Derek Carr has Tedford ties, I’m far from sold on him.  I’m intrigued by Mack, but I’m not sure where he’d fit in Lovie’s defense.  Right now, if I can’t get Bortles, Bridgewater, or Clowney I’ve got my eyes on three players:

Greg Robinson (T, Auburn)
If he’s not the first tackle taken, he’ll be the second.  Robinson would give the Bucs a replacement for Penn at LT and free up a lot of cap space.  If I can plead Penn’s case, I’d hate to dump a guy that is in the better half of players at his position in what could be a sink or swim year for Glennon.  Still, Robinson’s upside would be pretty hard to ignore.  He’s big, strong, and can move.  That’s still a rare combination of skills for a tackle.  It’s hard for some to get excited about taking a tackle with your first choice, but Robinson could be the smartest use of the pick; high ceiling and floor.  I listed Robinson because he hadn’t been picked yet in this instance, but Matthews would warrant similar consideration.   

Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Should the Bucs choose to go receiver here, they’ll likely have first pick at what looks to be a pretty deep class.  Watkins would give the Bucs something they don’t have – a multi-threat player with incredible vertical speed.  He isn’t just a speed guy though.  Watkins gets physical when needed, especially at the point of catch, and his strong build will help him hold up well to the hits he’ll take as a pro.  I see him being a huge red zone weapon for whoever drafts him; something the Bucs could use.  Watkins would be the explosive talent I’ve been pining for.  Just having him on the field and making the defense think about him will open things up for the rest of the offense. 

Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri)
I’ve pointed out the Bucs need for a pass rusher or two, and with Clowney off the board, I think Ealy might be the best remaining option for the Bucs.  You probably won’t find a mock that has him going this high, but I expect that to change the closer we get to May.  Ealy is an athletic pass rusher often lazily compared to former Missou Tiger, Aldon Smith.  He shows plus change of direction; impressive for his size and important for his position.  I like how Ealy uses his length and hands off the edge, but he needs to be more consistent in anchoring with his hips and legs to be more effective in both setting the edge against the run and getting to the passer.  He’s got great short area closing speed for a guy with his build, but I think he needs a bit of coaching and a lot of reps against grown men to see if he’s a really good football player or if he’s just a really good athlete.  As you see, Ealy has impressive positives but is still rather incomplete as a football player. 

Others I didn’t list –
·        Timmy Jernigan (DT, FSU) I love but don’t want to take GMC backup at #7.
·        Mike Evans (WR, Texas A&M) is duplicative with Vincent Jackson.
·        Anthony Barr (DE/OLB, UCLA) see Khalil Mack.
·        CJ Mosley (LB, Alabama) don’t see him as a 4-3 MLB; already have David at WLB.
·        Marquise Lee (WR, USC) worries me when it comes to staying healthy.

In making my decision, Ealy is the first one out.  I believe the Bucs will address this position prior to the draft and will roll with Clayborn, Gholston, Bowers, and a free agent.  If they do add a pass rusher, I’m guessing it’s with a later pick. 

Deciding between Robinson and Watkins, one of the first things I have to consider is how much better the Bucs would be with Robinson instead of Penn.  The veteran has been a target for Bucs fans, but he’s still among the better left tackles in the game.  How long would it take to say the same about Robinson?  Not hating, but potential and performance are two different things.  Could the Bucs’ next left tackle currently be playing on the right side of the line?  Lovie is already talking about giving Demar Dotson reps at LT in camp. 

Watkins is probably the most electrifying offensive talent in this draft, and the Bucs lack of said talent has had them behind the rest of the league for the last couple of years.  Adding Watkins makes the Bucs a better team than replacing Penn with Robinson or Matthews.  I did mention Roberts as a free agent target, but there is the Mike Williams factor.  He’s far from on firm footing with the new regime, and his contract takes a huge $4mil increase in ’15.  I can’t count on him to see anywhere close to the end of that deal.  After watching some of the “receivers” this team has run out there in recent years, I’d welcome the complaints of too many weapons and not enough footballs.

R1 pick – Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)

Buccaneer Surprise – Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina)
I wouldn’t do it, but I think the one pick that could surprise us is the Bucs taking UNC’s stud TE at #7.  There’s a big talent need at the position, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs be aggressive in addressing it. 

R2 – Lamarcus Joyner (CB, FSU)
Yeah, I know, a Nole.  Get over it.  I think Joyner is the perfect defender for what Lovie is likely to do in Tampa.  Let’s first talk about the elephant in the room – Joyner’s size.  He’s listed at 5-8, 180 which would obviously put him on the small side.  If you’ve watched more than a few minutes of FSU football you’ve noticed that Joyner plays far bigger in his size.  Joyner draws a lot of Ronde Barber comparisons, and they make sense.  He’s a dangerous blitzer, is fast and can change directions quickly, covers a ton of ground, has excellent ball anticipation, and isn’t afraid pop you.  He’s understandably a drag-down tackler, given his size, but he stays with his man to secure the tackle.  He’ll be a stud on special teams.  Lovie’s defenses have been predicated on fast guys making plays in space, and Joyner certainly fits that description and would be an immediate upgrade at the nickel corner and third safety spot. 

Other options –
Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame)
Kyle Fuller (CB, Virginia Tech)

R4 – CJ Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa)
Due to a dry free agent market, I think it’s pretty likely the Bucs will spend a pick on the tight end position.  Here I’m giving them a player with great size who could be their traditional in-line tight end to pair with the flexed out Tim Wright.  Fiedorowicz would be the team’s best blocking tight end as soon as he put on a jersey and has plenty of pass catching potential as well. 

R5 – Jon Halapio (G, Florida)
It’s a tad painful to do this, but I want to get a lineman in the draft and this is a good spot for Halapio.  He’s a guy who logged a ton of starts against impressive competition and could be in the mix for early playing time depending on the situation at right guard.

R7 – Connor Shaw (QB, S Carolina)
I don’t think the Bucs will have a shot at Bortles or Bridgewater, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on a passer.  I’d rather spend a 7th round pick on Shaw than sign a veteran back up.  Shaw is a winner.  I love the combination of his mobility and how he takes care of the football.  Simply put, he doesn’t make many mistakes.  If he gets an opportunity to play in the NFL, I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.  I like him as a passer now, but I think he’s got plenty of room for growth there still.

With this plan, I’ve got the Bucs addressing every position of need except MLB.  It’s rare that a team is able to address every need in one offseason, and I’ll be pleased if they fill most of the gaps I mentioned.

Combined offseason acquisitions:
Everson Griffen (DE, Vikings)
Vance Walker (DT, Raiders)
Dekoda Watson (LB, re-sign)
Charles Tillman (CB, Bears)
Lamarcus Joyner (CB, FSU)
Connor Shaw (QB, S Carolina)
Eric Lorig (FB, re-sign)
Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson)
Andre Roberts (WR, Cardinals)
CJ Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa)
Geoff Schwartz (G, Chiefs)
Jon Halapio (G, Florida)

Go Bucs!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Prediction

So here we are.  We’ve reached the big one, and the Broncos and Seahawks are the last two teams standing.  To get here Denver pulled off a fairly one-sided win against the always dangerous Patriots, and Seattle held off San Fran in what may have been the game of the year.  With both Denver and Seattle making it to MetLife, this is only the second time in the last two decades that both #1 seeds have squared off in the Super Bowl.  Earlier this month I predicted that we’d see these two in the final game, and I had Seattle earning the victory.  What’s changed since then? 

Peyton Peyton Peyton.  In case you haven’t turned on a television, radio, or computer or walked by a newsstand the last week, Peyton Manning is playing in another Super Bowl.  Arguably, the games greatest to ever toss it is on the verge of creating a ton of conversation, regardless of the outcome.  If the Broncos win, Peyton will have earned his second Super Bowl victory in three chances and will generate a lot of buzz (because ‘now’ always beats history in today’s hyper-attentive world) as the greatest of all time.  On the other hand, if Denver loses (and assuming 18 doesn’t gift wrap the game to Seattle) you’re going to hear about how Peyton can’t get it done when it counts and that there’s no way to put him in the same class as Montana and Brady.  Such is the world in which we live.

The last time the league’s best offense faced the league’s best defense in the season finale was the 1990 season where the defensively dominant Giants beat the Bills no-huddle attack 20-19 in Tampa.  Will Peyton add another chapter to his legacy, or will history repeat itself 13 years later and 1,128 miles north? 

When Denver has the Ball

  • Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Jacob Tamme against a talented and intimidating secondary made up of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Earl Thomas, and Kan Chancellor
  • Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball against a front seven run crew headlined by Red Bryant, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Tony McDaniel
  • Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, and Orlando Franklin acting as the wall between Peyton and Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Clinton McDonald
Mr. Manning will earn his fifth MVP award before this game kicks off.  There’s no arguing that he was the league’s best player this season.  What I found somewhat surprising is that in the previous four seasons he won the award, he only made it to the big dance in one of them – the ’09 game against New Orleans, which, as I referenced earlier, was the only other time in the last two decades that both top seeds won their halves of the bracket.  Peyton runs the offense from the line of scrimmage and usually knows what the defense is doing, sometimes more so than players on the other side of that line. 

This time he faces what I believe is the league’s most physical defense (sorry San Fran).  It’s a unit that likes to get in your face early and disrupt your timing; something Denver relies on to move the chains and make big plays with the football.  It will be a tremendous test for both teams. 

For Seattle, Richard Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, and when he does, it’s to the slot, not the other side of the field.  That means Demaryius won’t have a shadow throughout the game.  It’s not like he’ll get much of a break on the other side though, as Byron Maxwell is no slouch himself.  I think the key here with Thomas is that Seattle’s corners are incredibly physical, and Demaryius, despite his size, isn’t known for his physicality or dominance at the point of contact.  Neutralizing or just simply limiting Peyton’s greatest receiving threat would go a long way in getting Seattle to the celebration stage.  Decker will see Sherman about half the time, and having the game’s best cover man in his face won’t help improve his tendency to let the ball hit the ground. 

The guys I see doing the most damage in the passing game for Denver are Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.  Welker will line up in the slot against Thurmond, and I think he’s the guy Peyton will look to especially on third downs to pick up those key catches over the middle.  Julius has been one of the league’s best tight ends this season, but Seattle has handled that position better than anyone else in the game.  This year the Seahawks faced Vernon Davis three times and also faced Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.  All three were held far below their averages.  A big reason for that is the big punisher, Kam Chancellor.  Extremely underrated given the talent around him, the former Hokie is the most important player on Seattle’s defense in this game, in my opinion.  Seeing as he’ll have primary responsibility for tight end coverage, Chancellor’s ability to make Manning look away from Julius or to keep the athletic tight end in front of him will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.  I already mentioned that Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, but when he does it’s to the slot.  Carroll and company would be wise to send Sherman Julius’ way a time or ten. 

Peyton is no dummy.  I don’t think we’ll see him string a ton of consecutive pass attempts together against this defense.  That means we should see a good bit of both Moreno and Ball.  The latter was expected to be the main man this year, but he remained the clear #2 throughout the regular season.  All Knowshon did was finish in the league’s top five in total yards from scrimmage.  Not bad for a guy who didn’t figure to have a prominent role back in August.  While the rib injury he sustained against the Patriots won’t keep him from playing in this one, you’ve got to think Seattle is going to take a few shots at the impacted area.  Will it hamper his performance? 

Ball will be rotated in, and I think he’s the more dangerous player beyond the line of scrimmage.  Getting past that first line will be a tough task if the good Tony McDaniel shows up.  He, Brandon Mebane, and Red Bryant are the main reasons why Seattle ranks as one of the league’s toughest teams against which to run the football.  If the front line, specifically Bryant, can get to the backs and keep them from running clean to Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, Seattle can make Peyton throw it more than he probably wants to. 

Anyone who follows football knows that you’ve got to get Peyton off his mark if you want to be successful against Denver, and Seattle’s defense brings it from multiple spots.  Free agent additions Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril did the most damage this year at getting to the passer, and Clinton McDonald established himself as one of the game’s better interior pass rushers.  Their ability to push the pocket and force Peyton into making questionable throws against an opportunistic secondary is exactly what Pete Carroll is looking for.  That won’t be easy given how quickly Peyton consistently gets rid of the ball.  Denver’s line surrendered the fewest number of sacks in the league this season, but Peyton’s style is the biggest reason for that.  Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin don’t have their names called often, Manny Ramirez has been solid at center, and right guard Louis Vasquez is their best blocker.  The weakest link up front is Zane Beadles, and with the aforementioned McDonald expected to line up against him regularly, that could be the key matchup to watch up front.  I can’t take anything away from Peyton; don’t want to.  He’s one of the best, but his lack of zip on the ball could be a factor if Seattle is able to get him off his spot and throw to a late read. 

I don’t anticipate Denver having sustained success on the ground, which means we’ll see plenty of Peyton passes.  That also means Seattle’s corners must disrupt receivers’ routes.  They can’t allow Denver to get comfortable with their timing and pick action.  Two factors are working in Seattle’s favor.  First, there haven’t been a ton of flags thrown in these playoff games (hasn’t that been nice), especially in Seattle’s games.  Second, this officiating crew is headed up by Terry McAulay, an official known for keeping the flag in his pants.  Former NFL strong safety, Steve Freeman, will be the back judge, and he’s not one to take over a game either.  This bodes very well for Seattle’s chances defensively.  Peyton makes his living exposing mismatches, but I just don’t see any weak spots in Seattle’s secondary, including when Seattle has to go dime and bring in Jeremy Lane.  Peyton may be forced to move his feet more than he’d like, but he’s not going to get sacked often (if at all), even against these pass rushers.  Simply put, he will need to make the passes an MVP QB makes in big spots, and Seattle will need to stick to their roots – play physical football, support each other, and don’t over-think. 

When Seattle has the Ball

  • Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin, Jermaine Kearse, and Zach Miller against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Champ Bailey, Tony Carter, Quentin Jammer, Mike Adams, and Duke Ihenacho
  • Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson trying to run through Terrance Knighton, Wesley Woodyard, and Danny Trevathan
  • Russell Okung, Paul McQuistan, Max Unger, JR Sweezy, and Breno Giacomini attempting to hold back Malik Jackson, Shaun Phillips, and Robert Ayers. 

Most offenses pale in comparison to the Broncos, but I believe the Seahawks come into this one a bit under the radar.  Russell Wilson’s job isn’t to light up the scoreboard with a ton of passing TDs, but let’s not go extreme and call their offense limited or one-dimensional.  After shutting out the Giants on the Super Bowl’s turf, Seattle played their last four games against the 3rd (SF), 4th (NOR), and 7th (ARI) ranked scoring defenses and a Rams front that gets after the passer.  Denver’s defense will need to be peeking at the right time if they’re going to present as difficult a challenge as did Seattle’s recent opponents.

When you talk about Seattle’s offense, you’ve got to start with Beast Mode, SeƱor Skittles, Mister Media – Marshawn Lynch.  The man who doesn’t enjoy speaking into a microphone lets his bruising running style do all his talking for him.  Everyone knows he’s going to get the football, yet he continues to produce.  In two playoff games Lynch has 249 yards and 3 scores on the ground, including 109 yards and 6 points against the nasty Niners last week.  Denver has put up impressive run defense numbers this year, for two reasons primarily.  First, when Denver gets up two or more scores on a team, the opposition often abandons the run.  Second, Terrance Knighton’s ability to make the middle of the field a “no backs allowed” zone goes a long way in shutting down a team’s run game. 

Even with constant double teams from the threesome of McQuistan, Unger, and Sweezy, I don’t expect Seattle to do much damage at all running at Knighton.  If they can run at the big man, I think that means game set match Seattle.  Let’s play the safe hand and assume they can’t.  I don’t expect Darrell Bevell to be stubborn in this one.  That means we should see Marshawn doing most of his damage on outside runs, where he’ll look to demonstrate his tackle breaking, big gain ability against a defense that’s been known to miss a tackle or two.  Marshawn’s big games are highlighted by signature long runs.  He had a 31 yard score against the Saints in the divisional round and a 40 yarder for 6 in the conference championship against San Fran.  I’d be a fool to bet against him doing it again. 

Sticking with the run, the read option wasn’t a huge part of the playbook this season, but when you’re playing 60 minutes of football for the Lombardi trophy, you do whatever it takes to get the win.  Following that line of thinking, I would feature the zone read early in the game to keep Denver (specifically their defensive line) guessing and attempt to break big runs on defensive breakdowns.  Marshawn is the main weapon, but Wilson could be the difference-making ground factor.  The man doesn’t make mistakes with the football and has that moment-seizing personality.  Expect to see Denver chasing the back of Wilson’s jersey a bit come Sunday as the QB is used as a runner more than usual in an effort to keep Denver’s defense from keying on his best offensive weapon.  

Without the ultra-athletic Von Miller, the Broncos are going to have to be opportunistic yet assignment-sound against Wilson and Seattle’s offensive line.  Shaun Phillips had 10 regular season sacks, but he’s only totaled 3 in his last 8 games.  Malik Jackson has been a more than admirable replacement for the injured Derek Wolfe, but he’s not a consistent pass rushing threat.  Robert Ayers has gone from utter bust to decent defender, but he has just 3 sacks in his last 12 games.  The lack of a dominant pass rusher or steady rush threat will a big help to a Seattle offensive line that isn’t one of the more stout units in the league.  They’re a smaller, more mobile bunch that must move as does their QB. 

I’m not going to pretend Seattle’s receiving corps is as prolific as Denver’s machine (Seattle’s leading receiver would rank fifth in Denver), but at full strength they’re an extremely underrated unit.  I believe this is a matchup they can exploit.  Where Seattle can go four deep at corner in front of two All Pro safeties, Denver is shallow in the secondary after DRC.  The Broncos surrendered a middle-of-the-pack 7.1 yards per attempt through the air this year, while the Seahawks led the league at 5.8.  Denver’s defense also gave up nearly twice as many passing TDs as Seattle’s (29 to 16). 

The Broncos lost arguably their best corner (Chris Harris) a few weeks ago in that divisional round win over the Chargers.  The moment Quentin Jammer replaced Harris, San Diego’s passing game started clicking, and Denver was fortunate they didn’t have to play another 15 minutes.  Jammer found himself behind Carter on the depth chart after that game.  Future HOFer Champ Bailey has dropped retirement hints this week, but before starting the Canton clock, he’ll need to repeat his conference championship performance for the Broncos to keep Seattle’s receivers in check. 

DRC figures to see a lot of Seattle’s leading receiver, Golden Tate.  Tate does a lot of his damage on short passing patterns, but DRC hasn’t allowed receivers to break free for big gains.  Julian Edelman was able to get a little physical and be successful against DRC last week, and Tate is a similar smaller, strong receiver.  Will Tate break a few, or will this one end up a wash?  Given the balance in that matchup, I expect to see Wilson focus most of his attempts on besting Bailey and Carter, primarily with Baldwin and Harvin. 

Let’s start with Percy.  The always-dangerous ever-brittle weapon finally got onto the field this year against the Saints in the divisional round and was able to make a few plays before getting knocked out with a concussion.  He missed the Niner game but is apparently good-to-go for the Super Bowl.  We know what Harvin brings to the table.  The question is how long he’ll be able to do it before getting hurt again.  Because of that great unknown, I expect Bevell to get Harvin engaged early and often.  Throw him short passes.  Throw him deep balls.  Give him the ball on an end-around.  Use him as a decoy.  Seattle needs to maximize Harvin’s threat and make the Broncos worry about him every play he’s on the field.  I’m also expecting Seattle to have him return the kicks that Matt Prater can’t put through the back of the endzone.  The more attention he draws in the passing game, the better that bodes for Marshawn and the running game.   

A healthy Harvin (at least at kickoff) puts Baldwin in the slot where he’ll primarily face Bailey.  I love this matchup for Seattle, and it’s the key one on this side of the ball in my opinion.  Baldwin is exactly what Denver doesn’t want to see with a Harrisless (yeah I went there) secondary.  He’s dangerous deep, and he doesn’t drop the football.  Champ may have had a good overall game against the Patriots, but Baldwin is better than any receiver New England has besides Edelman.  I expect Baldwin to lead the Seahawks in receiving and score at least one TD.  He’s my dark horse Super Bowl MVP candidate. 

Who Wins?

Well it doesn’t look like weather is going to be a factor in this one after all.  Current projections call for temps in the mid 40s, maybe some rain, and little to no wind factor.  That plays in Denver’s favor.  If these officials stay true to form, they’ll hold onto their hankies.  That plays in Seattle’s favor.  If Denver’s line can give Peyton time to catch the snap and his receivers can run picks with impunity, advantage Denver.  If Harvin can stay on the field and contribute to keeping Denver’s defense on its heels, advantage Seattle.  The fact that Denver dominated the Chargers and Patriots in their two playoff games yet was unable to put either away is something that stands out to me as a reason to expect this one to remain close.  I’ve also got to think that the fact Seattle has already won on this field this year, in convincing fashion, will make them a bit more comfortable in a game that is always emotional. 

Again, to me these are the matchups on which to key –
  • Terrance Knighton against Seattle’s interior offensive line
  • Red Bryant containing Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball
  • Russell Wilson reading ends Shaun Phillips and Malik Jackson
  • Doug Baldwin mid to deep against Champ Bailey
  • Julius Thomas trying to hide from Kam Chancellor
  • Clinton McDonald pass rushing against Zane Beadles

In the history of the league, 7 times has the team that led the league in scoring made the Super Bowl.  All 7 times that team lost.  Does Peyton break the streak, or does Seattle make history?

Highlights –
  • Peyton Manning throws for over 300 yards but has as many INTs as TDs (2)
  • Byron Maxwell turns one of those INTs into a pick-6
  • Percy Harvin stays unharmed and on the field throughout, totaling over 100 all purpose yards
  • Montee Ball outrushes Knowshon Moreno 54 yards to 42
  • Denver records more sacks than Seattle (2 to 1)
  • Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch combine for 158 rushing yards
  • Wes Welker leads the Broncos in receiving yards and scores once
  • Neither kicker misses an attempt (FG or PAT)
  • Danny Trevathan and Bobby Wagner combine for 22 tackles
  • Seattle will lead at halftime, but Denver will lead going into the fourth quarter

The battle of #1s proves to be sports entertainment at its best.  In the end, it’s Russell Wilson’s offense that steals the show.  On a broken play late in the fourth quarter, Wilson finds Doug Baldwin running free for a 46 yard game-winning score.  Seattle wins its first Super Bowl title in team history, and Peyton Manning’s greatness (unfairly in my opinion) will continue to be questioned incessantly. 

Seattle 30
Broncos 24

MVP – Russell Wilson

Scoring breakdown –
  • 1Q – Russell Wilson 1 yd TD run (SEA 7-0)
  • 1Q – Byron Maxwell 26 yd INT return for TD (SEA 14-0)
  • 2Q – Julius Thomas 6 yd TD reception (SEA 14-7)
  • 2Q – Steven Hauschka 37 yd FG (SEA 17-7)
  • 3Q – Wes Welker 18 yd TD reception (SEA 17-14)
  • 3Q – Montee Ball 3 yd TD run (DEN 21-17)
  • 3Q – Steven Hauschka 44 yd FG (DEN 21-20)
  • 4Q – Steven Hauschka 28 yd FG (SEA 23-21)
  • 4Q – Matt Prater 51 yd FG (DEN 24-23)
  • 4Q – Doug Baldwin 46 yd TD reception (SEA 30-24)

Congratulations to both of these teams for making it this far, and thank you NFL for another exciting season. 

Until next time…