3 Super Bowl XLVIII Sleepers
Super Bowl Sunday is a day for everybody.
The commercials, the food, the parties, the game - everything makes Super Sunday a quasi holiday throughout the country.
Whether you've watched every NFL snap this season or haven't seen one since before the power outage in last year's big game because you didn't care to stick around, odds are you're going to be watching the game.
The matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks will host a fair share of recognizable NFL names, but to enhance your viewing pleasure and allow you to show off your football knowledge wherever you watch the game, I'm going to discuss three lesser-known players who could be crucial in the outcome of the game and explain why they matter to their teams.
Terrance Knighton, Defensive Tackle, Denver Broncos
It's no surprise that the Seahawks will want to run the football with Marshawn Lynch. He ranked second in the NFL with 301 rushing attempts on the season, and scored 12 rushing touchdowns, tying him for the league lead with Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs. In Seattle's two postseason games, Lynch has tallied 50 carries for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
Preventing Lynch and Seattle from controlling the game will be crucial for Denver. Doing so starts on the inside of the defensive line with Knighton. Knighton, who has the monicker "Pot Roast", has recorded 31 combined tackles and three sacks on the season. Those numbers may not seem like much, but Knighton's presence on the interior of Denver's line doesn't translate into gaudy numbers. Rather, Pot Roast's presence did help the Broncos hold opponents to 1,626 rushing yards this regular season, tied for seventh best in the league (with, coincidentally, Seattle's defense).
More importantly, Knighton led the Broncos to -51.45 Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), the top mark in the league. (See more about NEP and other metrics here). Simply put, Denver's rush defense was the most effective in the league at shutting down opponents from extending drives, gaining field position, and scoring points.
Logic might suggest that, when facing Denver's dominating offense, opponents would have to abandon the run often and that this would mean rushing stats were not easily accumulated against the Broncos. Ostensibly, Denver's rush defense statistics may seem inflated because of this, but that is not the whole story.
A total of 420 rushing plays were run against the Broncos this year, the eight-fewest in the league. Denver's Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per rush, though, was still tops in the league at -0.12 NEP per rushing attempt faced. Denver was more effective at stopping the run on a per rush basis than was any other team in the league.
If Denver wants to avoid a shortened game due to long Seahawks possessions, Knighton will need to play as well as he did against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game when the Pats could only muster 64 rushing yards on 16 carries. Keeping New England one-dimensional allowed the Broncos to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes which is why Knighton could be an under-appreciated key to a Denver victory.
Walter Thurmond, Slot Cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
By now, everybody who doesn't even watch football is aware of the self-proclaimed best corner in the league, Richard Sherman. Sherman will be blanketing the entire right side of the field, but Seattle's second cornerback Byron Maxwell will be patrolling the left. The problem with avoiding throwing near Sherman and picking on Maxwell is that Maxwell is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, as well. Throwing the ball outside the numbers could prove problematic for Manning.
Manning, then, may have to look to the inside to move the ball through the air effectively by throwing to slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas. Seattle's linebackers are athletic enough to minimize the mismatch that Julius Thomas usually creates, and Thurmond will draw the assignment of the shifty Welker.
To go on a brief but meaningful tangent, while Manning was with the Indianapolis Colts, he faced the New York Jets twice in the AFC playoffs - meaning he faced shutdown corner Darrelle Revis twice. In the first matchup, a 30-17 Colts win, Manning's primary target, Reggie Wayne was limited by Revis. Wayne ended the game with three receptions for 55 yards while being thrown to only five times. The next season, the two teams met again, and Manning threw to Wayne only once, a one-yard reception on a third-and-eight. The Jets went on to win 17-16.
If fear of Sherman, Maxwell, or the weather forces Manning inside, Thurmond versus Welker might become the most crucial battle of the entire game.
Again looking back into Manning's playoff history, his interception against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV might be indicative of Thurmond's importance this Sunday. Though Tracy Porter lined up as the outside corner when he intercepted Manning and returned it for a game-clinching touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV, Thurmond could have a similar chance as the slot corner. On the Porter interception, Manning's three-wideout set faced a single-high safety formation before the snap.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks show a pre-snap set of single-high safety on 78% of their plays, a set that typically results in Cover 1 or Cover 3 coverage, and the Broncos run hook or curl routes to beat those coverages.
It was a mistimed curl route from Wayne that caused the backbreaking interception.
Jermaine Kearse, Wide Receiver, Seattle Seahawks
Most of Denver's skill players are essentially household names, and Manning has targeted only four wide receivers on the season, so I feel like Seattle's offense is the place to look for a sleeper pick.
Percy Harvin will be back on the field for the Super Bowl, and this gives Seattle a great advantage: Denver has essentially no film on Harvin. Seattle's other two wide receivers, Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, will have difficult matchups against Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With heightened attention on Harvin and stingy cornerbacks on the outside, Jermaine Kearse could break free for a momentum-swinging big play.
Kearse recorded only 22 receptions during the regular season. However, four of those receptions were for touchdowns, and Kearse averaged 15.7 yards per reception. Of the 106 receivers who caught at least 20 passes, Kearse's per target Reception NEP, 0.93, was tied for fifth-highest in the league. Kearse was only targeted 38 times all season, but a lot of good for Seattle's offense came when Russell Wilson threw to Kearse. Baldwin, though, has an even higher per target NEP than Kearse: 0.95. This mark was the fourth best in the NFL and came from 50 receptions on 73 targets.
Both players are prime big play candidates, but it's Kearse, who hauled in the game-winning touchdown pass in the NFC Championship, who might have an easier time breaking free when all of the attention is on the rest of the Seahawks offense.