Finding a way to disrupt Peyton Manning

Posted Jan 29, 2014

In only the second Super Bowl matchup between the No. 1-ranked defense and the No. 1-ranked offense during the regular season, Priority No. 1 for the Seahawks is finding a way to affect Peyton Manning.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Clinton McDonald was asked about the most important element in the art of the strip-sack.

After all, the Seahawks’ nose tackle in their nickel line used in passing situations registered not only a career-high 5.5 sacks this season, but the first sacks of his five-season NFL career. But McDonald wouldn’t go there. Instead, he nodded over there.

“Ah man, you’ve got to talk to ‘The Big Turnover’ – Cliff Avril,” McDonald said. “Me and Mike Bennett mess with him a little bit and call him ‘The Big Turnover.’ Cliff is ‘The Big Turnover,’ so he’ll get it for you.”

Avril, who was signed in free agency in March, got that nickname the old-fashioned way. He earned it. During the regular season, Avril led the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense with five forced fumbles and also was second in sacks (eight) behind Bennett (8.5). In the postseason, it’s been the second verse to the same pass-rush song, as Avril has two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks to share the team lead in both categories with Bennett.

So Cliff, what is the key to the strip-sack?

“I think a lot of times, I’ve been just lucky,” Avril said with a laugh. “But the key is working your pass-rush move. And once you to get to the quarterback, usually he’ll step up and try to get the ball out. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to swipe down at the ball once I get to the quarterback and get the ball out.”

Obviously, Avril has been relentless in the pursuit of creating his own luck and good fortune. 

Asked that same strip-sack question, Bennett cut not only to the chase, but to the end of it.

“Reaching your hand above your head and come down in a forward motion,” said Bennett, another free-agent addition this season who was signed to improve the pass rush.

NO. 1 VS. NO. 1

This is the first in a three-part series examining how the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense will matchup against the Broncos’ No. 1-ranked offense in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Today, the pass rush. 

Key stat

0: The number of times Broncos QB Peyton Manning has been sacked in two postseason games, despite putting the ball up 79 times.

Key matchup

Broncos LT Chris Clark vs. Seahawks DE Cliff Avril: The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Clark started six games in his first three seasons with the Broncos, all in 2011. But this season he stepped in as the starter in Week 3 after All-Pro Ryan Clady was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. Manning was sacked only 18 times during the regular season, the fewest for any QB with at least 320 pass attempts. But the Colts’ Robert Mathis got to Manning four times, including one stripe-sack, in the Broncos’ loss to Indianapolis in October when Mathis was working primarily against Clark. The speed and quickness of the 6-3, 260-pound Avril should give Clark problems. Avril forced five fumbles and had eight sacks during the regular season and has added two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks in two postseason games.

All of this is beyond relevant, of course, because in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium the Seahawks’ pass-rushers will be setting their sights on Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos’ quarterback who is rarely sacked.

In only the second Super Bowl matchup of the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense and No. 1-ranked offense during the regular season, being able to affect Manning is Priority No. 1 for a Seahawks defense that has done so many things so well.

“I think it’s just the opportunity to create a turnover,” Avril said. “I want to get the sack, obviously, but being able to get the turnover on top of it, it makes it that much sweeter. So I’m always slapping at the ball.” 

But will Avril, Bennett, McDonald and rush-end Chris Clemons get that opportunity Sunday? Manning was not been sacked in either of the Broncos’ postseason victories and his 18 sacks during the regular season were the fewest for any quarterback with at least 320 pass attempts – a category that Manning led with 659.

Part of it is that Manning gets the ball out so quickly. Part of it is the array of options he’s getting the ball out to – wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, slot receiver Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and even running back Knowshon Moreno. All had at least 60 receptions. Each also scored at least 10 touchdowns. But the biggest part might be Manning’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Broncos’ passing game and, in his 16thseason, a been-there/seen-that approach to what defenses are trying to do against him.

“I’m lucky to be in my generation and watch him play,” Bennett said. “There’s no better quarterback in this generation. The completions he’s made, the touchdowns he’s thrown. I’m a fan of him, just like anybody else in the NFL. And he’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.”

But that can’t stop the Seahawks from trying to disrupt everything that Manning can throw at them, and it won’t. It doesn’t have to be strip-sacks, or even non-fumbling forcing sacks. But there does need to be enough pressure to force him to move from his comfort spot on any given throw.

“It’s really about his timing,” coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday, when the Seahawks got back into their comfort zone by practicing at the Giants’ facility adjacent to MetLife Stadium. “He’s so quick with the football and his decision-making is so precise that the ball is just not in his hands long enough to get there for the most part.

“We can’t give in to that. So we have to rush the passer. We have to try and get him off his spot. We have to try to move him. And to get that done, we’re going to have to cover them very well. We’re going to have to get him to hold the ball some, or at least make him go to his second and third (option).”

Easier said than done, of course, but as former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox always said pass defense is rush plus coverage.

“If we can do that, it gives us a chance,” Carroll said. “Nobody’s done it very successfully, obviously. In the postseason, nobody has even gotten close to him. Hopefully we can. It’s all but impossible, based on the numbers.

“We’re going to see if we can do something about that.”

And Avril and his pass-rushing buddies can add a few more brush strokes to their art of the strip-sack, all the better.