Much has been made of the Seattle Seahawks top-ranked defense heading into their Super Bowl XLVIII matchup against the Denver Broncos, and rightly so.
Led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, the Seahawks secondary was first against the pass and tops in interceptions with 28, and seventh overall versus the run, allowing a measly four rushing touchdowns and 3.9 yards per attempt. Both Sherman and Thomas were named first-team All-Pro, and strong safety Kam Chancellor made the second team.
In their two playoff victories, Seattle has generated four more turnovers and has allowed just 32 total points, and defense is the only reason they’re a mere three-point underdog to high-scoring Denver. The Broncos lowest spread of the season was their Week 12 loss to New England, when they were favored by a single point at Foxboro, and that had more to do with quarterback Peyton Manning’s troubles against the Patriots.
But the Denver defense also deserves its share of adulation for its play this season, especially with key injuries and suspensions to such top-tier performers, which include third-year linebacker Von Miller, veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, and defensive back Chris Harris.
Denver’s pass defense struggled for much of the season, ranking 27th by the end, but that had more to do with Peyton Manning lighting up opposing defenses for a record 37.9 points per game, forcing teams to throw on the majority of their snaps.
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Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the NFL’s drug policy, and tore the ACL in his right knee 10 weeks later after tallying six sacks and a team-high 28 QB hurries.
Still, the Broncos finished eighth overall against the run. In the three games since Miller’s injury, the regular-season finale and two playoff victories, the Broncos have only let up an average of 64.3 rushing yards per game.
Twelve-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro Bailey has been the heart of the Broncos defense for more than a decade, but he played in five total games this season due to a nagging foot injury.
Denver’s young corps made up of second-year linebacker Danny Trevathan, second-year safety Duke Ihenacho and rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster picked up where their vets left off. Top tackler Trevathan also dropped back in pass protection for 10 passes defended and was tied with Harris for the team lead with three interceptions, while Webster knocked down 10 pass plays. Ihenacho was third on the Broncos was 73 total tackles and swatted another seven pass attempts.
There was still a solid veteran presence able to right Denver’s ship. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was second on the team with 15 passes defended and three picks in his first season at Mile High, and sixth-year linebacker Wesley Woodyard was second on the team with 84 total tackles and three forced fumbles.
Help also came from even-less heralded players.
Harris’s ACL tear in the Divisional Round win over San Diego spelled trouble as Denver prepared to take on Tom Brady and New England in the AFC title game, but 5-foot-9 defensive back Tony Carter stepped up with two passes defensed and four total tackles.
The next step for Denver’s under-the-radar crew is to stunt Seattle’s power rushing attack headlined by running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. Together the duo forged the NFL’s fourth ranked rushing offense.
The Seahawks certainly have the edge when it comes to containing opposing offense with their superstar secondary. But the Broncos defense has proven it can step up at key moments, and none will be bigger than the Super Bowl.