EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A fierce pass rush makes even the greatest quarterbacks look like turkeys. ¶ Peyton Manning got stuffed, roasted and carved to shreds in Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday night by a Seattle Seahawks defense that harassed him in the passing pocket all night long. ¶ The result was a stunning, 43-8 blowout victory for Seattle, which claimed its first-ever Super Bowl title. ¶ So much for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history and the legacy of Manning as the greatest quarterback ever. ¶ Denver’s attack, which set NFL records by averaging 37.9 points and 457 yards a game, was physically dominated by the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense. The score was 2-0 just 12 seconds into the game, 22-0 at halftime and 36-8 after three quarters. ¶ Manning, who Saturday night won a record fifth NFL Most Valuable Player award, fell to 1-2 in the Super Bowl and was held to his lowest point total in a full game since the finale of the 2004 season. ¶ The blowout was reminiscent of how the Dallas Cowboys tore apart the Buffalo Bills’ offense in the Super Bowl in January 1993.
Dallas that year had the deepest eight-man defensive line group in the history of the NFL and rotated a fleet of first-round talents on its four-man front. The Cowboys had fast linebackers who chased down everything in the stadium. They took the ball away. Dallas’ turnover margin was plus-7 that year. Buffalo’s was minus-3.
Sure enough, the Dallas pass rush knocked Jim Kelly out of the game early, the linebackers swarmed Thurman Thomas and Buffalo committed nine turnovers in a 52-17 defeat.
Fast forward 21 years. Seattle’s front four isn’t as great as Dallas’ was, but its defensive backs are better. Seattle forced the most takeaways in the league this year and had a plus-20 turnover margin. Denver was only even in turnovers.
Turnovers caused by the pass rush blew the game open.
“We knew we weren’t going to sack him much,” Seattle’s All-Pro free safety, Earl Thomas, said of Manning. “The biggest thing we wanted to do is at least put hands in his face and collapse the pocket, make it uncomfortable for him.”
Late in the first quarter, trailing by 8-0, Manning had to hold the ball when Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril bull-rushed tackle Orlando Franklin backward toward the quarterback. Manning’s hurried throw sailed well over the head of tight end Julius Thomas and into the arms of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. That led to a short touchdown drive that put Seattle ahead, 15-0.
Late in the second quarter, Avril bull-rushed Franklin back into Manning’s lap, and Avril batted Manning’s arm as he released a pass. The ball blooped into the arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith, who returned it 69 yards for a touchdown. Seattle 22, Denver 0.
How could the NFL’s most prolific offense be shut down so completely?
Besides the pass rush, Seattle proved perfectly suited to disrupt Denver’s short-passing offense.
Seattle’s defense didn’t change the scheme that held foes to a league-low 14.4 points and 273 yards a game. The Seahawks played a three-deep zone and pressed receivers at the line of scrimmage. Thomas is the best center fielder in the NFL. The Seahawks have the NFL’s most physical cornerback tandem in All-Pro Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell.
Manning was forced to hold the ball a tick longer than usual, and Seattle swarmed his receivers when he hit them with short throws.
Denver tried to counter Seattle’s aggressiveness with some quick, receiver screen passes. But Seattle’s pursuit was too fast. Five of those plays in the first half produced only 17 yards.
“We were who we were,” Chancellor said. “We didn’t change anything. We’re a simple defense, we run a simple scheme and we’re just going to try to execute.”
“All year long we’ve been fast and physical,” said Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “We have a real style about how we play, and I thought that came out tonight.”
Theoretically, Seattle’s three-deep zone is vulnerable to seam passes. Run three or four receivers on vertical routes, and Thomas will have too much ground to cover to make a play on a well-timed throw.
But those plays take time to develop. Manning didn’t have enough. He had one good chance to beat Seattle downfield, with the score 15-0. Earl Thomas was fooled on a fake. But the throw for Demaryius Thomas was too deep.
A seam route for Julius Thomas late in the half fell incomplete when Maxwell grabbed him downfield just enough to cause an incompletion. No flag was thrown. That’s another staple of the Seattle defenders. They push the envelope on contact downfield and dare officials to throw a flag.
It didn’t help Denver’s offense that Denver’s defense couldn’t keep Seattle from controlling the clock. Denver had the ball just 3:19 of the first quarter. Seattle’s offense was better than Denver’s defense, too.
But that was a trivial subplot to the game.
Seattle proved it is the best defense the NFL has seen since the Tampa Bay Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2003. Just like the Seahawks, those Bucs ranked No. 1 in both points and yards allowed.