Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Super Bowl 2014: Position preview

It's time to shy away from the big picture and take things small.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

The macro vision of this year's Super Bowl conjures images of Peyton Manning barking commands at the line, eyes darting to the secondary to check the alignment of the safeties while wide receivers stare down the line at their quarterback with fingers twitching at the promise of a pass; across from them are cornerbacks, the league's best who are poised to jam them at the line and win the snap.

This isn't a large-scale look at football's biggest game, but rather breaking down each position into its smaller parts. This is an opportunity to work through the matchup piece by piece, spreading it out like an incomplete IKEA bookshelf.

Quarterbacks

Let's get the big one out of the way first, and sorry that it's a bit of a copout. Both teams have extremely good quarterback play, but Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson are very different passers. It's the difference between musical styles, a matter of taste.

The former is the paragon of pre-snap technicians. Manning has a way of commanding his offense that few quarterbacks in the league match, and a truly rare quality to be an extension of a coaching staff on the field. This year he took his play to a new level with the most complete offensive team he's ever had, excelling at all facets of play.

Wilson is a post-snap master. In some ways he's a smaller Ben Roethlisberger, but moves around the pocket lighter on his feet than the Steelers quarterback and extends plays with mobility rather than brute force. Wilson has a knack for knowing when to give up on a play, fighting on the next down rather than making an ill-advised pass, and it's here where he can win on Sunday.

The verdict

Both passers are great, but Manning's ability to manipulate a defense pre-snap requires no reaction from the defense. He wins this head-to-head.

Running backs

This is where things get fascinating. On paper Marshawn Lynch has the distinct edge with his no-nonsense vertical running style and knack for working between the tackles, but Knowshon Moreno proved in 2013 that he's no slouch.

We're left with a matchup where one back is better at running in a traditional power scheme while the other is more of a jack of all trades. Both players perfectly complement their respective offenses, and it's unclear whether transporting them onto the opposition's offense would yield the same results.

The verdict

Lynch is the pick here for his physicality. Seattle's speed on defense has ways to account for edge rushing and backfield passing, but everything hinges on Denver's ability to win in the trenches -- a hard proposition against a strong Seahawks offensive line.

Receivers

Seattle's wide receivers are better than advertised, there's no question about that. Each player has the ability to wear a defense down with a series of long routes that find soft spots in zones, or to run man coverage into the ground. As each play extends into free space, Wilson normally finds an open receiver after extending the play.

The Broncos offense is on a different level. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker could each be the top receiver on any other team, but they find a home in perfect unity in Denver. Each player attacks a different level with physicality, speed or agility, based purely on his strengths.

Tight end play becomes the final factor in the matchup, and once again Denver has the edge with an all-purpose tight end who skews better as a receiver than an in-line blocker. Zach Miller is no slouch, but it's a case of better receivers giving more opportunities for Julius Thomas.

The verdict

Denver has the better group of receivers from top to bottom, and they could be the only group in the NFL with the ability to pressure Seattle's dominant secondary and frustrate them on Super Bowl Sunday.

Offensive line

There's a school of thought that teams reach this point because of their offensive lines, and it's hard to argue based on these two teams. Football Outsiders ranks the Seahawks and Broncos both in the top 10 in run blocking, but like most elements to this game, there's a slant between the pass and run.

Denver is the best pass blocking line in the league. Thanks in part to Peyton Manning, the team allowed just 20 sacks in 2013, or a starkly stunning 3.7 percent of passing downs ending in a sack. It ensured that the quarterback is clean, the pocket strong and helped shape the best offense in the league.

The Seahawks aren't as good as the Broncos statistically when it comes to run blocking, but the difference is razor-thin. Differences in the offensive line will be ironed out when it meets defense, and here is where the matchup changes.

The verdict

In a pure matchup, there are no bones about Denver being better. This will come down to defense, though, and that makes it nearly a wash.

Defensive line

The Broncos' interior defensive line is one of the most underrated units in the league. Largely overshadowed by the team's offense, it's unfortunately lumped in with average pass rushing to create a fallacy of weakness. Marshawn Lynch will not have an easy day against this unit.

Okay, enough effusive praise for Denver's running defense. The Broncos are not so good at getting after the quarterback. Sacks are finished, and the total itself is high, but it's a paper tiger created by so many teams forced to play catch-up.

Seattle generates pressure on almost every down and a sack on 7.6 percent of rush attempts. This is a large number from a unit that uses LEO linebackers as integrally as linemen.

The verdict

It's the Seahawks, top to bottom. Denver can stop the run, but the heart of killing an offense is generating pressure. Seattle simply does that better.

Linebackers

It's unfortunate that a matchup is influenced by injury, but Von Miller's ACL injury changes how the linebacker duel will operate in the Super Bowl.

Shaun Phillips has performed remarkably well while stepping in and helping mitigate the loss of arguably the league's most influential linebacker, but without Miller the Broncos defense lacks punch. It's overwrought to call him the defense's "heart" but here we are, feeling like this game will wind up missing something.

Across from Denver on the table is a Seahawks 4-3 linebacking corps with scalpel-like efficiency, each player with a very specific role and executing it flawlessly. Saying all this means unfairly taking something away from Bobby Wagner. Few linebackers around the league are better at decoding a play's direction and reacting accordingly. His ability is not dissimilar to that of highly touted Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly, but without the fanfare.

The verdict

Seattle wins this positional battle. Things could be very different if Von Miller were available, but looking at the table in front of us it would be unfair to not give the Seahawks the edge.

Secondary

This is going to be fun. Best receiving corps in the league, meet best secondary; you two play nice.

Away from the postgame interviews and chest-puffing, the Seahawks boast a secondary worth screaming about. It's not just the best unit in the league, it could be the best we've seen in the modern NFL. It's created by skill and luck, something that even the best GM couldn't have predicted. It's tempting to over-romantize how these players wound up on the same team, but they did. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in the fifth round, Byron Maxwell in the sixth and Earl Thomas being the lone vestige of highly touted rookies. It's chance, and it's beautiful.

There are things to appreciate about the Broncos secondary, like the play of an aging but effective Champ Bailey and the resurgence of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but let's not kid ourselves.

The verdict

Hand Seattle the prize here, no more talk needed.

Special teams

A third and largely overlooked factor to any game is special teams, and it's one of the rare areas where the Seahawks are ignored. Over the last two years, this rather humble unit has been one of the best in the league and could be a big difference-maker depending on the weather.

It's one of the rare areas where the narrative applies when it comes to poor weather. Football Outsiders has charted the Seahawks as being far better, ranking third in the league at just -1.8 special teams points in poor conditions, while the Broncos rank 13th.

The verdict

It might not determine who wins on Super Bowl Sunday, but in this special teams matchup, the Seahawks have the edge once again. They're better in fair and poor weather, which could play a role if Denver's offense isn't quite as high-powered against a strong defense.

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This article originally appeared on SBNation.

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