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Sherman, 'Legion of Boom' figure to be stern test for Manning

7:29 PM, Jan 27, 2014   |    comments
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(SportsNetwork.com) - Forget David versus Goliath, Super Bowl XLVIII is shaping up a battle between two giants -- Peyton Manning and the record-setting Denver offense against "The Legion of Boom" and Seattle's No. 1 ranked defensive unit.

It's the first time since 1991's big game, Super Bowl XXV which pitted the Buffalo Bills against the New York Giants, in which the team that scored the most points in the NFL's regular season will do battle with the club that allowed the fewest.

The Seahawks' defense not only ranked No. 1 in scoring defense (14.4 point per game) and total defense (273.6 yards per game), the group topped the NFL in passing yards allowed (172.0 ypg), interceptions (28), takeaways (39) and turnover differential (plus-20).

"They're well coached and they've got good length, outstanding speed," Denver coach John Fox said when talking about the Seattle defense. "They are very aggressive. They're fun to watch, for sure. They're very talented."

At the heart of Dan Quinn's unit is the game's most talented defensive backfield led by All-Pros at both the cornerback, Richard Sherman, and safety positions, Earl Thomas.

"They're a big group," Broncos receiver Andre Caldwell said. "They are really physical. They like to hit. They make a lot of plays and they have a lot of speed out there. I tip my hat -- they've done a great job all year making plays. That's why they are the No. 1 defense. But we're ready for the challenge."

Sherman has been a football star for some time, a two-time All-Pro regarded as one of the best cover corners in the game. In the NFC Championship Game, however, he became a mainstream media sensation after sending the Seahawks to the big game with a brilliant game-saving play in the end zone against Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers.

It wasn't Sherman's play, though, which amped up his star-power, it was his antics afterward that sent the nation into a tizzy.

In the waning seconds of Seattle's 23-17 win Sherman tipped a pass intended for Crabtree in the back-right corner of the end zone, enabling linebacker Malcolm Smith to pick off the ball to halt a potential Niners' game-winning drive, sealing Seattle's second Super Bowl trip.

After celebrating his spectacular effort replays showed Sherman approaching Crabtree and taunting the receiver by slapping him on the butt and presumably telling the dejected Texas Tech product just how good he is, a gesture which resulted in Crabtree pie-facing Sherman.

Sherman was penalized but continued celebrating by making a choking gesture directed at Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick before finally setting Twitter afire with a WWE-like post-game interview which seemed to startle FOXSports sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

"I'm the best corner in the game," Sherman screamed. "When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me."

A stunned Andrews managed to stammer a follow-up question: "Who was talking about you?" she asked.

"Crabtree," Sherman replied. "Don't you open your mouth about the best, or I'm gonna settle it for you real quick."

At that point, probably fearing what an unhinged Sherman might do with a live microphone, Andrews turned it back over to the booth and Joe Buck.

Within seconds observers on social media threw the kitchen sink at the Stanford-educated Sherman, calling the potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year everything from classless to a thug.

He was neither?

Sherman was fired up and excited to reach the Super Bowl for the first time when Andrews queried him on live television. Within 20 minutes after looking like a wild man, he was on the set with FOX, speaking as eloquently as any NFL cornerback ever has, not a surprise because Sherman graduated second in his class in high school and made it through Stanford, one of the top academic institutions in this country.

By Monday after the game, Sherman was even contrite.

"It was loud, it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am," Sherman wrote Monday on TheMMQB.com, where he is a regular contributor.

He even gave credit to his supporting cast before finishing up by defending his own character.

"When I say I'm the best cornerback in football, it's with a caveat: There isn't a great defensive backfield in the NFL that doesn't have a great front seven," Sherman wrote. "Everything begins with pressure up front, and that's what we get from our pass rushers every Sunday.

"I don't want to be a villain, because I'm not a villainous person. To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field -- don't judge a person's character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family."

That die is already cast, though.

Sherman could be ordained before Feb. 2 and Manning will still be the one arriving in North Jersey with the white hat on.

Being liked and being a winner are two different things, however, and something Sherman and the Seahawks' defense hope to prove in the chilly atmosphere of MetLife Stadium.

"I think he's handled it really well," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said when asked about the controversy. "I think after an explosive moment, there was an opportunity for him to kind of collect himself and see what's going to happen next. I think he's done a magnificent job. I think he's shown the spectrum of the individual that he is, and he's been very open to talk and interact and all of that because he's a confident, very well-mannered thoughtful guy.

"He had a moment that came out. I think it was enlightening for a lot of people, and I think it opened up the eyes to the intensity, and the passion that goes into this game."

Below is a capsule look at the defense of the Seattle Seahawks:

DEFENSIVE LINE: Carroll was intent on improving the pass rush and he was able to do it with a committee approach on the line. Seven or eight players can get significant reps depending on the game plan with free agent defensive ends Michael Bennett (8 1/2 sacks) and Cliff Avril (8.0 sacks) spearheading the improved rush, along with interior rusher Clinton McDonald (5.5). Red Bryant, one of the better base left ends in the game and veteran Chris Clemons, who had 4 1/2 sacks, start things at end with the underrated Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel holding down the fort inside. Since 2011, Mebane ranks second in the NFC among interior lineman with 157 tackles.

"Michael has had a fantastic season," Carroll said when talking about Bennett, who was signed after breaking out in Tampa. "He's given us all kinds of versatility. We didn't realize how unique of a player he was. So we've really just tried to move him to the spots we thought we could take advantage of his savvy, awareness and all of that and complement the guys that he's playing with. He's been a great player for us. As I look at it now, I wish we had more plays early in the first of the season, we were really spinning our guys and he wasn't getting as many turns and he's played a lot more as the season went along."

LINEBACKERS: Second-year middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is the captain of the defense. He left Utah State as the university's all-time tackler with 446 during and hasn't missed a beat in the NFL, finishing second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 after amassing 140 tackles before following that up with a team-high 119 tackles this time around despite missing two games due to a high ankle sprain. A smart and instinctive player, Wagner really reads and diagnoses well against the run.

"Bobby has really played well since the second half of the season," said Carroll. "I think he has just jumped on board of all of the command of the defense and the calls and the adjustments that he has to make, and he's really playing fast. I think it's just a natural process with all of the guys feeling comfortable."

He's flanked by the athletic K.J. Wright and either pass-rusher Bruce Irvin or coverage guy Malcolm Smith.

"He's a fantastic coverage guy. He has great instincts, he's got great sense, he studies really hard, he's got tremendous range because he is so long, he runs really well, he's a fast guy too, and he's got a good attitude about challenging," Carroll said when queried about Wright before adding that Smith "has tremendous skills and he's really fast, like a defensive back or running back, and he's a natural athlete as well."

DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD: Seattle's defense is led by the best secondary in the NFL, with three of the four starters earning Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition over the past three seasons. Sherman matched his career-high with eight interceptions and became first Seahawks player to lead NFL in interceptions since 1993, while Thomas set a career-high with 100 tackles and tied his career-high with five interceptions. Thomas is the only safety in the past decade to record 100-plus tackles, 5-or-more INTs and 2-plus forced fumbled in a single season.

"They don't want our big corners to press, they don't want us mess up the timing," Thomas said when discussing the Broncos' high-powered offense. "So they're getting in condensed formations, hanger formations, bunch formations, but we know that. We understand how teams want to attack us and that's the beauty of it."

The other Pro Bowl-type in the defensive backfield is massive strong safety Kam Chancellor, who is regarded as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL, amassing 278 tackles since 2011.

"Kam is on it," Carroll said. "Kam is really on his game and like I said, the time that the guys have spent together has really paid off. He's really on it, his preparation is really dialed in, he's getting everything out of every rep in practice and all the meeting times and he's extremely confident right now."

The runt of the litter so to speak is CB Byron Maxwell, who took over for the suspended Brandon Browner, starting the last five games. If anything Maxwell has better coverage skills over Browner but he is not as physical and far more likely to bail out into coverage at the line of scrimmage.

"(He is) a natural football player, a real savvy, tough guy," Carroll said when talking about Maxwell. "He's been given a real package technically. The style that our guys play is one that you really have to work at it and kind of master what's going on and he's done that beautifully. He's really, really clean technique-wise. So he's just given himself to the program and with all of the background, he was always a really good player. We were just lucky to get him and we appreciate him a little bit more than some other teams I guess, because of what we saw in him."

CBs Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane also contribute to a Seattle secondary which allowed just 16 touchdown passes on the season and ranked first in opposing quarterback passer rating, harassing them to a 63.4 mark.

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