JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Sacks are the glamour statistic for defensive linemen.
But like a lot of numbers, they also don’t necessarily tell the whole tale. When Seattle blew out New Orleans 34-7 on Dec. 2, for instance, the Seahawks had just one sack. Yet they also had Drew Brees under pressure regularly — 28 percent his throws were hurried, according to ESPN.com — contributing to Brees passing for 147 yards, one of the worst passing games of his career.
As Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says, the Seahawks that night were able to “affect the quarterback’’ often, even if they didn’t rack up a lot of sacks.
“We don’t talk a lot about sacks,’’ Quinn said. “We do talk a lot about affecting the quarterback. Can we get him off his spot? Put pressure on him? The hits, the movements. Those are the things we talk to our club the most about. … Sacks are great. But let’s make sure he is not being comfortable throwing.’’
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And therein lies the key to what might be the most critical matchup in Super Bowl XLVIII — the Seattle defense against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning threw for 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards this season, each NFL records. Almost as eye-popping, though, is that he was sacked just 18 times while attempting 659 passes, taken down for a sack percentage of just 2.58, by far the lowest percentage in the NFL.
So the Seahawks know they aren’t likely to get a lot of sacks on Manning. Instead, they want to get enough pressure to disrupt the timing of the Denver passing game, as they did against Brees.
It’s also what they say they must do to beat the Broncos.
“It’s real critical,” said linebacker K.J. Wright. “If he just sits back there and you let him pick you apart and have a seven-on-seven (drill) then he will have a field day. If our line can just get him off the spot and make him move his feet, that would be tremendous for us, for the guys that are covering (the Denver receivers).”
If only it were that easy.
The low sack numbers this year for Manning are nothing new.
Manning has the lowest sack percentage of any active NFL quarterback at 3.1 (Brees is second at 3.8). One reason is that Denver’s passing attack favors shorter timing routes that call for Manning to get rid of the ball quickly. Manning is an expert at that. He held the ball for an average of just 2.34 seconds per pass this season, the lowest in the NFL.
And all that gesticulating he does at the line of scrimmage? Often, he is setting the protection after having read where he thinks the pressure is likely to come from, the kind of last-second adjusting for which he has become renown.
Denver’s offensive line also is regarded as a good one. Guard Louis Vasquez was named to the Pro Bowl.
But Seattle coaches and players say the key is Manning and how he operates an offense that often runs without a huddle.
“They have a good O-line,” said Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril. “But the majority of it comes from Peyton Manning, the timing of everything. If you get the ball out fast enough, there will never be pressure. So most of it is Peyton Manning.”
Denver’s base offense includes three wide receivers. That means Seattle is often likely to counter with its nickel defense, meaning an extra defensive back.
That also means Seattle will more often use its pass-rushing defensive line, which includes Avril and Michael Bennett.
Denver, though, can counter that by running more if it senses Seattle is playing solely for the pass.
Quinn says Seattle’s base and nickel defenses are pretty similar scheme-wise. “It’s just more, how do we utilize our personnel,” he said. “Do we want more rushers in or more stout, big guys? Are they in a nickel game where they are running it or a nickel game where they are throwing it?”
The pass, though, remains the key to it all. Denver threw on almost 60 percent of its plays this season (Seattle, by contrast, passed just 47.29 percent of the time in the regular season, the lowest ratio in the NFL).
Avril, who had eight of Seattle’s 44 sacks this season, says the Seahawks must understand they can do their job even if they aren’t taking Manning down often.
“The biggest thing for us is just not getting frustrated when he is getting the ball out fast,” Avril said. “But when he does drop back a little longer, we have to definitely make him feel our presence.”
Sacks or no sacks.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org